DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – The green flag will fall in Florida on the NTT IndyCar Series season again, just as it had for nine consecutive seasons until the pandemic disrupted the past two.
But even though the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is on the pole position of this year’s schedule (after openers at Texas in 2020 and Barber in ‘21), another race in the Sunshine State will offer a de-facto preseason race for IndyCar.
The Rolex 24 at Daytona will feature a whopping dozen full-time drivers from IndyCar, comprising nearly half of the starting grid that is expected at St. Pete next month.
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And the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener probably could have featured nearly the entire IndyCar field if supply had met demand.
Though the championship-contending outfits of Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing (with all four drivers) are well-represented, Team Penske will have no entries (aside from Austin Cindric, the lone full-time NASCAR Cup driver in the field) – and not for lack of trying.
IndyCar on NBC analyst Townsend Bell (who will be racing in his 10th Rolex 24) noted that Scott McLaughlin and Will Power (who has wanted to run the Rolex 24 for years) both had been disappointed they were unable to land rides for the endurance classic at Daytona International Speedway.
“Realizing how badly IndyCar drivers that aren’t part of that field want to be in this race was really interesting,” Bell told NBC Sports. “They were saying it’s almost harder to get into this race than it is an IndyCar ride.”
That’s despite a car count that has risen by 12 entries (meaning at least three dozen more seats) for the 2022 Rolex 24. With seven IndyCar drivers scattered across five of the seven DPi entries (as well as four more in LMP2), there’s a good chance another IndyCar driver will leave with a prized Rolex from a class victory – just as Alexander Rossi and Helio Castroneves did last year with Wayne Taylor Racing.
But the real value will be the experience, especially given IndyCar’s heavily restricted offseason testing policy. Many drivers will have only one test at Sebring in the five-month layoff between last year’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach finale and 2022’s kickoff at St. Pete.
“I think the great thing about being able to compete in the 24 Hours of Daytona as an IndyCar driver is you get to race in January going into the season opener in February,” Rossi, who returns with a WTR team hunting a record fourth consecutive Rolex 24 win, told NBC Sports. “The cars are pretty different. There’s not a whole lot of crossover in terms of driving technique and the way you go about it. But you’re race sharp, you’re race ready.
“So when we go into Turn 1 at St. Pete, other guys have been out of the car since September. There’s going to be an advantage to that.”
Andretti teammate Colton Herta said having consecutive weekends of practice, qualifying and racing on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course essentially serves as a de-facto warmup, especially for the 11 IndyCar drivers who will be in the high-downforce prototype cars that some have described as an Indy car with fenders.
“It knocks the rust off for us,” Herta told NBC Sports. “We can kind of get into the flow of things, and quite slowly if we need to, just because we have the Roar (test session) and a mock qualifying race and then another weekend of racing and practicing going into the race. It’s plenty of time to get back into the flow of things and feel the car.”
Said Sebastien Bourdais, who left IndyCar for a full-time IMSA ride this year with Ganassi: “I think we’re all racers, so that’s the first draw to doing this. There’s very, very limited testing prior to the season opener at St. Pete. Any miles you can log in the car and sharpen your skills, there’s no shortage of that obviously at Daytona. You’re running at night, sometimes in the rain with very difficult conditions, and that always tends to sharpen your skills. And I think for everybody that’s the benefit on top of obviously we’re just racing freaks and love racing cars and driving in general.”
Jimmie Johnson will be racing the No. 48 Ally Cadillac for Action Express in his second consecutive Rolex 24 before his first full season in IndyCar — and also will be driving the other three IMSA endurance races for the second consecutive year. Though the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion enjoys IMSA road racing, the extra laps have helped prepare him for driving a high-downforce vehicle with some of the same techniques as IndyCar.
“I asked Jimmie about what he does to prepare for his first full season in IndyCar, and he said, ‘The best thing I do is drive the prototype,’ ” Bell said. “I think for IndyCar drivers, getting in a prototype is most desired because the braking dynamics are very similar to IndyCar, and as limited as the IndyCar testing is now, any track time in any sort of real racing environment has got to help. The racecraft, working with the team, having the adrenal levels high, which you don’t get in any kind of training that you do. There’s nothing like what you get from pure competition, so given those testing restrictions, if I was a full-time IndyCar driver again, I’d want to be (in the Rolex 24) for that very reason.
“There’s no better way to prime yourself than this is like having an NFL preseason game for the IndyCar drivers is probably how they look at it.”
Ready to Roar pic.twitter.com/unYCroJnvz
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) January 23, 2022
Though he will be the only IndyCar driver racing in the more production-based GT class, Kyle Kirkwood still views his time in the Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 as a needed primer heading into his rookie IndyCar season with A.J. Foyt Racing.
“It is a good warmup because there’s a long off period where you’re not in race mode but test mode,” said the 2021 Indy Lights champion, who has been allowed offseason tests at Indianapolis, Sebring and Barber as an incoming freshman. “It’s nice to get back into the rhythm of racing and being in this environment. There’s a lot I can learn from this race. We’ve got three drivers; everything has to be consistent. There’s a lot of fuel and tire saving and pit stop strategies are super important to learn, because that’s something you don’t get in junior formulas.
“Just getting in the racing mindset. I feel like almost all drivers just build on top of just being in the environment as the year goes on, so starting it off earlier and trying to get a little bit of a head start is super important. I don’t think it matters going from the GT vs. the DPi. There’s maybe a physical aspect that might be better in DPi, but I personally like driving the GT car, because you have to be super precise, and the consequences are much bigger in a big, heavy GT car than they are in an Indy car.”
The LMP2 division will feature much of IndyCar’s 20something star brigade. Pato O’Ward will join Andretti drivers Herta and Devlin DeFrancesco in the No. 81 DragonSpeed USA ORECA. Rinus VeeKay will be in the No. 29 for Racing Team Nederland.
The Rolex 24 will be an opportunity to build camaraderie for other teams. Before their first season as full-time teammates at Meyer Shank Racing, Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud will share the No. 60 Acura at Daytona.
Ganassi has three IndyCar drivers in its two Cadillacs — defending IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou and six-time champion Scott Dixon in the No. 01 and Marcus Ericsson in the No. 02 lineup.
This car, track and team are pretty cool. Really enjoying and good vibes into the second day of the ROAR! pic.twitter.com/a8TSK7LgC2
— Rinus VeeKay (@rinusveekay) January 22, 2022
Daytona will mark the sports car endurance debuts for Palou and Ericsson, who again will lean on the wisdom of Dixon, who has started the past 18 Rolex 24s and has four victories (three overall).
“It’s always good if you can get seat time, and unfortunately with our offseasons and the way the testing rules on the IndyCar side have transpired, it’s really hard,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “I think for all of us, we’re drivers. What we want to do is drive. So to be able to do this and be able to keep it in house, which is always a favorite for us. Especially with such a successful team as well, you know you’ve got a great shot at trying to win the race.”
Ericsson has been targeting a Rolex 24 ride since leaving Formula One for IndyCar three years ago.
“It’s a prestigious race and perfect way to get the season started,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “It’s been tough because I last raced in Long Beach in September and haven’t been in the race car since then. So this Daytona experience is going to be very, very good for my season to get going after the holiday and the offseason.”