Hello, race fans. Hope you enjoyed the off-season. It’s all over now. I know that after this weekend, there is a two week lull before the rest of Speedweeks gets underway, but we are ready.
This weekend, the Rolex Sports Car Series gets their 13th season of racing underway with the 50th Anniversary running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. For the second year in a row, I will be in Daytona representing Frontstretch at the track. Stay tuned to our Twitter feed, @TheFrontstretch, or my personal Twitter feed, @Critic84 for updates from the track, especially during the overnight hours, when there is no TV coverage. I only list both feeds because my experience at Watkins Glen last August goes to show that it is possible to tweet too much and get your feed parked.
Multiple personalities from the past will be in Daytona, including Grand Marshal (and 1985 winner) A.J. Foyt, in addition to a large contingent of classic former race cars. Granted, a good number of those cars would be there anyway, but even more of them will be in attendance than normal.
So, before everyone takes their shots at Chip Ganassi’s A-team of Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, Joey Hand and Graham Rahal this weekend, we should take a look back to a classic Rolex 24. Last year, we covered the infamous 1996 race, where American race fans were first introduced to Max Papis. This year, we’re going to be a little bit more recent.
The 2003 Rolex 24 at Daytona was the beginning of a new era in sports car racing. The previous year, Grand-Am announced that 2002 would be the final year for Prototype race cars (referred to as Sports Racer Prototypes, or SRP’s) in the series. Those cars would be replaced by a brand-new top class, known as the Daytona Prototypes. This class, which was designed to be a more cost-effective formula for race teams, was designed to utilize cheaper materials (metal tube frames, as opposed to carbon fiber). In addition, the series was in favor of less powerful engines. For example, the 3.6 liter Flat 6 engine out of the Porsche 911 GT3 RS was considered to be the baseline engine for the Daytona Prototypes. Teams running those engines were allowed to run them unrestricted. Turbocharged engines were, and still are, banned in the category. Also, a eight cylinder maximum was instituted.
Open-cockpit prototypes in the slower SRP-II class were still allowed to compete in the 2003 Grand-Am season, but were phased out at the end of the season.
Unfortunately, Grand-Am was effectively blazing their own path in regards to sports car racing. Previous to 2003, the Rolex 24 was an even more international affair than it is today with multiple international teams and teams from the American Le Mans Series coming over to try their luck. However, the new rules barred all the top prototype teams from even attempting the race. Additional rule changes in the GT-level classes designed to create a unique set of rules for the series dropped the number of entries from well over 80 in 2002 to only 55 for 2003, spread out among four different classes. By the time the start came around on Saturday afternoon, only 44 took the green flag.
Those classes were the brand-new Daytona Prototypes, along with the leftover SRP-II open-cockpit racers. The production-based classes were GTS, GT. Those GT cars could technically qualify for more than one class. For example, the Porsche 911 GT3 was entered in both the GTS and GT classes with minor modifications.
Unlike the Daytona Prototypes of today, the original DP’s were much slower than the prototypes that fans and teams were used to. In fact, the fastest of the GTS cars were actually a match for them. In qualifying, the No. 40 Chevrolet Corvette for Derhaag Racing shared by Derek and Justin Bell, Simon Gregg and Kenny Wilden turned in the fastest lap overall with a 1:49.394. They were followed up by the No. 48 Ford Mustang shared by Tommy Riggins, David Machavern, Kevin Lepage and Scott Lagasse with a 1:50.163. These cars were effectively older cars that would have been run in the SCCA Trans-Am Series (and in the case of the No. 40, very recently).
However, due to Grand-Am’s desire to show off their new division, the six Daytona Prototypes that were entered in the race were designated the first six starting spots, whether they deserved it or not. This ruling put the No. 88 Ford Multimatic driven by Scott Maxwell, David Empringham and former Simtek F1 driver David Brabham on pole with a lap of 1:50.512, over a second off the fastest lap in qualifying. This lap was over ten seconds slower than the Daytona Prototype pole speed for last year’s race.
Of the six DP’s that showed up for the Rolex 24, only five were even ready to go at all and only four of them even put up a time in qualifying. The No. 8 BMW Picchio and the No. 54 Chevrolet Doran did not put in a time at all.
The Multimatic No. 88 was a quarter of a second faster than the second quickest DP, the Red Bull-sponsored No. 58 for Brumos Racing shared by David Donohue, Mike Borkowski, Chris Bye and Randy Pobst. This team is the current No. 5 for Action Express Racing. The third-place starter was the No. 59 for Brumos Racing, sporting the classic red, white and blue colors. However, the Hurley Haywood, J.C. France, Scott Goodyear and Scott Sharp-shared second Fabcar chassis was a full two seconds slower than the team car was.
The only other Daytona Prototype to put up a time in qualifying was the No. 3 Motorola-sponsored Fabcar powered by a 4.3 liter Toyota engine. This car was over five seconds off the class pole and 22nd fastest overall.
In GTS, the No. 40 Corvette and No. 48 Mustang were the two fastest cars. Due to Grand-Am’s expository desires, these two cars started seventh and eighth. Third in class was the No. 05 Chevrolet Corvette for Re/Max Racing, driven by Truck Series veteran Rick Carelli, along with John Metcalf, Dave Liniger and Craig Conway. Another second back was the No. 24 Mosler MT900 R for Perspective Racing. This car, particularly with Joao Barbosa at the wheel, was very strong in the GT-class towards the end of 2002. The Morgan-Dollar Motorsports No. 46 Chevrolet Corvette driven by Truck Series veterans Lance Norick and Rob Morgan, Charles Morgan (Rob’s father) and Jim Pace rounded out the top-5 in class.
In GT, it was the Orbit Racing No. 43 Porsche 911 GT3RS shared by America Grand Prix at Port Imperial promoter Leo Hindery, Peter Baron, Marc Lieb and Kyle Petty that turned in the best time. Their lap of 1:53.386 was good enough to be tenth fastest overall, but earned them the 13th starting spot. They were followed by the No. 98 Porsche 911 GT3-RS for Schumacher-Champion Racing, the No. 66 Racers’ Group Porsche 911 GT3-RS, the No. 35 Ferrari 360 Modena GT for Risi Competizione and the No. 33 Ferrari for Scuderia Ferrari of Washington.
Finally, in the SRP-II category, only five cars officially entered the class. The fastest of those cars was the No. 5 Nissan-powered Lola B2K/40 for Team Seattle/Essex Racing. However, this car only turned in the 28th fastest time in qualifying with a lap of 1:56.898. They were followed by another Nissan Lola, the No. 21 for Archangel Racing. The No. 15, a team car to the No. 5, was third in class.
The relative closeness of the four classes involved, plus the unknown factor of how the new Daytona Prototypes would hold up over a 24 hour distance meant that this was the most wide open Rolex in years. Anyone in any of the classes could have legitimately won the race overall. All they had to do was stay out of trouble.
Some drivers, such as The Racer’s Group’s Kevin Buckler, were planning on going as hard as possible at the start.
“With all these [Porsche] factory drivers and fast cars in GT, we don’t want to be two laps down with a couple of hours to go because we were too conservative,” Buckler said. “We’re going to set a very fast race pace and run hard.”
Others, like Multimatic driver Scott Maxwell, had other ideas.
“Our concern is making it to the finish,” Maxwell said prior to the race. “If they want to pass me, fine, they’re welcome to. I’ll be happy running first or tenth. We know what we have to do to keep the car in one piece.”
44 cars took the start at 1:00pm Saturday afternoon with Maxwell in the No. 88 Ford Multimatic leading the field to green. However, their advantage was short-lived. Just after the completion of the first lap, the No. 58 Porsche Fabcar sponsored by Red Bull took over the advantage. For the first few hours of the race, the No. 58 appeared to be the fastest car on the track.
Meanwhile, the teammate of the Red Bull No. 58, the No. 59 running the classic Brumos Racing colors (white with red and blue stripes) was right up there in the hunt. The No. 59 took the lead on Lap 30 after the No. 58 made their first pit stop.
However, attrition was already starting to plague the field. The Chevrolet Doran combination for Bell Motorsports would prove later on in the season to be a quick one, winning multiple races and eventually claiming the Rolex 24 overall victory (after the engine was rebadged as a Pontiac) in 2004. However, the Doran drove around for only a couple of hours before packing it in due to engine problems, but not before setting the fastest lap of the race. The G&W Motorsports’ No. 8 BMW Picchio, also sponsored by Red Bull, had a long series of issues that resulted in the team being in and out of the garage for the majority of the race.
The lone Porsche 911 GT1 (albeit powered by a 3.6 liter Flat 6 out of a regular 911) in the race for Gunnar Racing lasted a mere nine laps before the engine failed, relegating the GTS-class runner to a 43rd place finish. The Heritage Motorsports No. 48 Ford Mustang that was second fastest overall in qualifying lasted less than two hours before blowing an engine and dropping out of the race. Lepage and Lagasse never even got in the car before it was all over.
Even though the Daytona Prototypes were faster than the other classes, the GT-class runners were not far behind. The No. 83 Rennwerks Porsche shared by Johannes van Overbeek, David Murry, Richard Steranka and Dave Standridge would actually take the overall lead during rounds of pit stops. This is quite notable since the No. 83 had turned in the 11th fastest time in qualifying, second in GT. However, they were forced to start in the back due to unapproved changes.
The Brumos Racing Fabcars continued to trade the lead throughout the first five hours of the race. However, on Lap 134, the No. 59 was forced into the grass on the right side of the kink in order to avoid a spinning GT car. While in the grass, the splitter dug into the sandy soil and basically made a mess of things inside and out. Multiple stops had to be made to fix the damage and get the dirt of the cockpit, costing the No. 59 multiple laps in the pits.
When the incident happened in Hour 6, this allowed the No. 58 to retake the lead. However, the normally indestructible Flat 6 engine blew in the Bus Stop Chicane, forcing Donohue to pull off the track and out of the race on Lap 161.
The retirement of the Red Bull No. 58 catapulted the No. 66 Racers’ Group Porsche 911 GT3-RS shared by Buckler, Timo Bernhard, Jörg Bergmeister and Michael Schrom into the overall lead with a shade over 18 hours remaining. However, the No. 59 Brumos Porsche Fabcar was still faster by multiple seconds a lap. The Nos. 59 and 66 would trade the lead back and forth for the next couple of hours until the Brumos No. 59 lost additional time on another pit stop in Hour 12. From that point on, the No. 66 was not caught for the overall lead, although the advantage did get down to as little as 10.8 seconds at one point.
The biggest crash of the race occurred at roughly 7:50am on Sunday when the No. 68 Racers’ Group Porsche shared by Jim Michaelian, R.J. Valentine, and the father-son duo of Tom Hessert, Jr. and then 16-year old (and current ARCA driver) Tom Hessert, III crashed hard. Michaelian, who was running 14th overall at the time, appeared to spin off-course at the Kink and fly rear-first into an Armco barrier. The hit spun the No. 68 around and deposited the car on its drivers’ side. The car was totaled, but Michaelian exited the car with some assistance from officials.
As the sun came back up, the No. 66 Racer’s Group Porsche continued to expand their lead, while the No. 59 continued to drop back with additional issues. The No. 83 Rennwerks Porsche moved up to second overall with the No. 35 Risi Competizione Ferrari close behind. The No. 83 was just about as fast as the leading No. 66, but the fast pace ended up breaking the Rennwerks No. 83. A long pit stop late allowed the Risi Competizione No. 35 to take the runner-up spot in the last couple of hours, but they could do nothing with the Racers’ Group No. 66. Picking names out of a hat resulted in Schrom getting the honor of driving the No. 66 under the checkered flag to claim the first overall victory for The Racers’ Group, the fourth Rolex 24 victory for a Porsche 911, and the 20th overall victory for a Porsche-powered car.
Afterwards, Buckler was overjoyed with his team’s success.
“The [crewmembers] did what they always do best,” Buckler said during his Victory Lane interview. We came here, we put our heads down and we went to work. We had a battle last night with one of the Daytona Prototypes, like 30 seconds apart for hours. We were biting…our fingernails. As the race stretched on, we just stayed consistent and didn’t make any mistakes. The little Porsche was perfect.”
Meanwhile, the ongoing reliability issues with the No. 59 Brumos Racing Fabcar allowed the pole sitting No. 88 Ford Multimatic to take the class lead with a couple of hours to go. In the end, the Multimatic’s approach of just trying to finish the race was the correct one for the Daytona Prototype class, as they did not have significant issues on their way to the DP-class victory. However, that victory was only good enough for fourth overall, 16 laps behind the winning No. 66.
In the SRP II class, the question entering the race was whether any of the five entries would actually finish. In 2002, Rand Racing and Risi Competizione combined to field two Nissan-powered Lolas in the Rolex 24 and won the SRP II class while finishing third overall. However, the cars were slowed down in an attempt to make the DP’s the dominant class and Rand Racing didn’t return.
In this race, three of the five SRP II entries were Nissan-powered Lolas. The exceptions to the rule were the No. 80 Picchio, powered by a BMW engine (this car was the open-cockpit Picchio run for the previous couple of years prior to this race), and the No. 97 Lucchini, which was also powered by a Nissan-engine. Lucchini was a European manufacturer of prototypes that was particularly strong in the P675 class of the FIA European Sportscar Championship at the time.
The two Team Seattle/Essex Racing Nissan Lolas were by far the fastest cars in the class and held the advantage for most of the race. Meanwhile, the rest of the competition was slowly eliminated. The No. 21 Nissan Lola for Archangel Racing, lost a significant amount of time when Larry Oberto spun the car out exiting Turn 1 on a restart in Hour 6. Oberto was then hit head-on by the No. 67 Racers’ Group Porsche 911 GT3-RS driven at the time by Andrew Davis. The No. 67 was out on the spot, but the Archangel team was able to make repairs to the Lola and return, albeit completely out of any contention for a top finish. Eventually, the Nissan gave up the ghost late in the race, relegating the team to 18th overall and third in class.
The No. 80 Picchio with the driving roster of Shawn Bayliff, Steve Marshall, Andy Lally and Robert Prilika, simply had issues all weekend. These problems resulted in the team failing to set a time in qualifying and starting from the rear of the field. The issues continued into the race and the team was forced to retire well before halfway due to a gearbox mount failure. The No. 97 Lucchini was just about the slowest car in the field in qualifying, but they were able to hold on almost as long as the Archangel No. 21 before falling victim to oiling issues and dropping out in the final hours.
In GTS, the cars that were considered most likely to vie for the overall win in the days leading up to the race were simply not up to task. In addition to Heritage Motorsports’ Hour 2 engine failure, the class pole-winning No. 40 Derhaag Racing Chevrolet Corvette also suffered a blown engine during the overnight hours. The No. 05 Re/Max Chevrolet was never really in the hunt for the class victory before steering issues put them out late at night.
In the end, it came down to a fight between the No. 24 Perspective Racing Mosler MT900R and the No. 46 Morgan-Dollar Motorsports Chevrolet Corvette. However, neither of these teams were anywhere near contention for the overall victory. Perspective Racing ended up winning the GTS-class, but finished ninth overall, 54 laps down at the finish. Their margin was two laps over the No. 46. The No. 31 Rollcentre Racing Mosler MT900R was third in class and 12th overall with the lineup of Rob Barff, Andy Britnell, Richard Stanton and Rick Sutherland, six laps behind the No. 24. The second Rollcentre Racing Mosler, No. 30, was fourth in class, but another 34 laps back. The No. 7 Konrad Racing Saleen S7R rounded out the top-5.
This years’ Rolex 24 at Daytona is not likely to be as much of a race of attrition in the top class as was this event. However, it is likely to still be a classic showdown between the different chassis in both classes.
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