The Frontstretch: Time To Set Your Watches: Your 2012 Rolex 24 Preview, Part III by Phil Allaway -- Thursday January 26, 2012

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Time To Set Your Watches: Your 2012 Rolex 24 Preview, Part III

Phil Allaway · Thursday January 26, 2012

 

Tuesday, we brought you a look at the 13 (originally 14) teams set to battle it out in the Daytona Prototype class. Today, we continue with the Grand Touring (GT) class. However, there are currenty 46 cars entered. We cannot cover everybody in one day, lest we drive our readers insane. So, we’re splitting this up as well. This is the second of three parts, with the final teams to be covered tomorrow. Here we go…

Team: Dempsey Racing
Cars: No. 40 Mazda RX-8, No. 41 Mazda RX-8 (with Team Seattle)
Sponsors: No. 40- Visit Florida No. 41- Team Seattle, Bass2BillFish, Fishingcapital.com
Drivers: No. 40- Patrick Dempsey, Charles Espenlaub, Joe Foster, Tom Long No. 41- Ian James, Don Kitch, Jr., Scott Maxwell, Dan Rogers
Thoughts: Dempsey Racing returns the same driver lineup to the No. 40 that led a substantial portion of the GT race last year. However, Long spun the car while leading and stalled in Hour 19, costing the team the victory. The car doesn’t necessarily have the most speed (they were mid-pack in the Roar test), but the lineup is consistent on track (including Dempsey).

However, the much larger entry this year will likely hurt the No. 40. I don’t think they’ll contend for the class victory again, but a top-5 or top-10 is not out of the question. As for the No. 41, the team really did not put down very many laps at speed during the Roar test. Therefore, its a little hard to gauge where the team is. However, this car was relatively solid last year. I don’t see them contending, though.

Team: Team Sahlen
Cars: No. 42 Mazda RX-8, No. 43 Mazda RX-8, No. 49 Mazda RX-8
Sponsors: Sahlen’s (all cars), TheRaceSite.com (Nos. 42 and 43), Western New York Flash (No. 49)
Drivers: Dane Cameron, Joe, Will and Wayne Nonnamaker, Joe Sahlen
Thoughts: The team has only five drivers for three cars. All five are entered in the primary No. 42 entry, while the Nonnamakers are entered in the No. 43 and Sahlen alone in the No. 49. If this lineup stands, fatigue could very well be an issue come Sunday morning. Also, it is possible that one of these three cars might be withdrawn before the race starts on Saturday.

Having said that, this is not a horrible setup. Cameron drove the No. 41 Mazda RX-8 for Dempsey Racing/Team Seattle last season and finished on the podium (top-3 finish in class) three times. Team Sahlen typically races year-old RX-8’s previously fielded by SpeedSource, so that’s a feather in their cap as well. Finally, Team Sahlen’s cars were pretty fast during the Roar test. However, I believe that fatigue and bad luck will probably prevent this team from doing much better than 12th or so in class.

Team: Flying Lizard Motorsports with Wright Motorsports
Car: No. 45 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup
Drivers: Jörg Bergmeister, Patrick Long, Seth Neiman, Mike Rockenfeller
Thoughts: If any of the non-regular teams is most likely to win the GT class, this is the team right here. Last year, the No. 45 won the overall pole with a Porsche Riley and led early, only to be slowed by issues.

The driver lineup has plenty of experience in endurance races at all levels. Rockenfeller is a current factory driver for Audi and drove the R18 last season at Le Mans (before an unfortunate meeting with Rob Kauffman put him hard into the Armco and out of the race). Bergmeister is another strong driver, as is Long. Neiman, the team principal is solid in his own right. If the team can avoid trouble, look for them to be on the podium at the finish.

Team: Michael Baughman Racing
Car: No. 46 Chevrolet Corvette
Sponsors: Dynamat, Hub Garage, Columbus Truck and Equipment Company, Alliance Pole Supply
Drivers: Ivo Breukers, Armand Fumal, Jeff Nowicki
Thoughts: This team is returning to the Rolex Sports Car Series after a rather substantial hiatus. When they were full-time a few years earlier, they were a mid-pack at best team. During the Roar test, this team used three completely different drivers (including team principal Michael Baughman) that are not currently listed on the team’s entry. The times from the Roar test shows that the car is off the pace, so don’t expect too much out of this team, especially after such a long layoff from the series.

Team: Paul Miller Racing
Car: No. 48 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup
Sponsor: Chopard
Drivers: Rob Bell, Sascha Maassen, Bryce Miller, Mark Wilkins
Thoughts: The Paul Miller Racing team was a slight surprise last year, overcoming stronger outfits to finish second in class, one lap down to the winning TRG Porsche. Two of the four drivers from that car (Bell and Miller) return to the car for another go around.

The new draftees are accomplished veterans. Wilkins used to drive for AIM Autosport when the team still raced their Daytona Prototype and earned two victories in 2008, the first of which was an incredibly quirky victory by less than one-tenth of a second at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve (6:50 of clip) after the No. 58 Brumos Porsche Riley Mk XI ran out of fuel exiting the final chicane. The team followed that up with a victory six days later in the Crown Royal 200 at Watkins Glen.

Maassen is a former Porsche factory driver who was one of the best shoes in a 911 a few years back, winning multiple races before moving up to prototypes. This is a very strong foursome that should make some noise, if the car holds out.

Team: APR Motorsport
Car: No. 51 Audi R8 Grand-Am
Sponsors: PR Newswire, APR Tuned, Parathyroid.com, South African Airways, Motul
Drivers: Ian Baas, Nelson Canache, Jim Norman, Emmanuele Pirro, Dion von Möltke
Thoughts: Daytona will mark APR Motorsport’s debut in the Rolex Sports Car Series. Previously, the team had focused solely on the Street Tuner (ST) class of the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. Baas and von Möltke, both of whom drove the team’s Volkswagen GTI’s in the Continental Series, will run the car for the full season.

Team: Acumen Motorsport
Car: No. 55 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup
Sponsor: ALM Materials Handling
Drivers: Frank Del Vecchio, Doug Grunnet, Tony Kaster, Scott McKee, Randy Pobst
Thoughts: This team is a fairly new squad, but with a lot of experience behind the wheel. Acumen Motorsport’s website states that Del Vecchio has competed in over 500 races over the past 40 years. Grunnet raced back in the 1980’s in IMSA’s GTU class in a Dole-sponsored Pontiac Fiero with Clay Young, but only just recently got the racing bug again.

Randy Pobst was a late addition to the team’s lineup, but a good one. He has years of racing experience, but mostly in sprint races (he’s a former champion of World Challenge and the short-lived North American Touring Car Championship from the mid-1990’s). He should be the fastest of the five drivers.

Acumen’s Rolex 24 will likely be a very arduous one. The team’s Porsche 911 was not very fast in the test and the team is very green. Finishing the race will be a big accomplishment for them.

Team: AF-Waltrip
Car: No. 56 Ferrari 458 Italia
Sponsors: RK Motors, NAPA Auto Parts
Drivers: Rui Aguas, Rob Kauffman, Travis Pastrana, Michael Waltrip
Thoughts: The team is a joint-venture between Michael Waltrip Racing and AF Corse, one of the strongest GT teams in Europe. The Aguas/Kauffman/Waltrip trio has a fair amount of experience racing together, having done 24 hour races at Spa-Francochamps, Dubai and Le Mans together in the past. Aguas is the fastest of the three, followed by Waltrip and Kauffman.

Travis Pastrana is a big unknown here. If you count off-road racing, he has plenty of road racing experience from his rallying and motocross days. However, this is his sports car racing debut. Judging by Pastrana’s track record, he should be able to pick up racing the Ferrari fairly well.

If Le Mans is any indication, Kauffman is likely to hold the team back a little with his lack of pace. If the team can hold it together, a top-10 is not outside of the realm of possibility, but a top-15 is more likely.

Team: Stevenson Motorsports
Cars: No. 57 Chevrolet Camaro GT.R, No. 75 Chevrolet Camaro GT.R
Sponsor: Stevenson Auto Group (both cars)
Drivers: No. 57- Ronnie Bremer, John Edwards, Robin Liddell No. 75- Matt Bell, Al Carter, Eric Curran, Hugh Plumb
Thoughts: Stevenson Motorsports returns with another two car assault on the Rolex 24. The lead No. 57 returns their two full-time driver (Bremer and Liddell) to the seat, while John Edwards comes to the team to serve as the third driver. Last year, he drove the No. 70 Mazda for SpeedSource.

The No. 75 entry has a lot of experience behind the wheel with Eric Curran, on “loan” from Marsh Racing, who chose not to enter the event with their Whelen-sponsored Corvette. Hugh Plumb, a veteran of many endurance events, is also on the squad. Matt Bell is a driver for Stevenson’s Continental Series team, but he also has some good experience in a Daytona Prototype. The closest thing to a question mark on the team is Carter, who is a regular for Fall-Line Motorsports in the Continental Series and has only a couple of Rolex Sports Car Series starts.

More than likely, the No. 57 will be the stronger of the two cars, but the No. 75 will still be quite potent. If the team can avoid problems on track, then one or both cars could conceivably finish well.

Team: Brumos Racing
Car: No. 59 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup
Sponsor: The Brumos Companies
Drivers: Andrew Davis, Hurley Haywood, Leh Keen, Marc Lieb
Thoughts: Brumos Racing is the defending Rolex Sports Car Series GT class champions on the strength of class victories in the Sahlen’s Six Hours at the Glen and at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Champion drivers Davis and Keen return for a second year in the No. 59, while 63-year old Hurley Haywood, a five-time overall winner at Daytona, comes out of retirement for what seems like the umpteenth time to race once again.

Last year, the No. 59 team was quite strong at Daytona, battling for the class lead until a long pit stop at 1:30am dropped the team out of the hunt. Even with this setback, the team was still able to finish a respectable fifth in class.

The Davis and Keen combination is very strong and has years of experience driving Porsche 911’s, long considered to be the workhorses of endurance racing (even though the engines are no longer air-cooled). Haywood will be solid as always and Lieb should be strong as well. If the team does not suffer any issues on track, they should be in contention for a class victory.

Team: Risi Competizione
Cars: No. 62 Ferrari 458 Italia, No. 63 Ferrari 458 Italia
Drivers: No. 62- Gianmaria “Gimmi” Bruni, Giancarlo Fisichella, Raphael Matos No. 63- Olivier Beretta, Andrea Bertolini, Toni Vilander
Thoughts: Risi Competizione returns to the Rolex 24 after an eight year absence. Back in 2003, the team fielded two Ferrari 360 Modenas in the race. The No. 35 ended up finishing second overall to TRG’s No. 66 Porsche 911 GT3-RS. Prior to that, the team raced Ferrari 333sp’s, one of the best cars to have during the World Sports Car era (1994-roughly 1999).

These days, Risi Competizione is one of the strongest GT teams in the American Le Mans Series with their Ferrari 458 Italias. Like Extreme Speed Motorsports, these 458’s are different beasts all together, but the team should be strong. Risi has brought their full-time lineups from American Le Mans to Daytona, along with a couple of additions. Olivier Beretta, formerly of the Corvette factory team, is now with Risi and guaranteed to provide a spark.

Both Bruni and Fisichella have experience at the absolute pinnacle of motorsports (Formula One), however, only Fisichella found success at that level, winning races with Jordan and Renault.

More than likely, one of these cars will be the highest finishing Ferrari in the field. How high up in the order they will finish is a bit up in the air. A top-5 in class is a possibility for at least the No. 62, possibly the No. 63 as well.

Team: TRG (The Racer’s Group)
Cars: No. 64 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, No. 65 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, No. 66 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, No. 67 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, No. 68 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup
Sponsors: No. 66- Viper Exchange No. 67- Sargent & Lundy
Drivers: No. 64- Gaetano Ardagna, Eduardo Costabal, Emilio Di Guida, Eliseo Salazar No. 65- Joe Castellano, Spencer Cox, Mike Hedlund, Jack McCarthy, Jim Michaelian No. 66- Dominik Farnbacher, Ben Keating, Patrick Pilet, Allan Simonsen No. 67- Steven Bertheau, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Marc Goossens, Wolf Henzler, Spencer Pumpelly No. 68- Chris Cumming, Kevin Estre, Damien Faulkner, Carlos Gomez
Thoughts: Once again, TRG brings a veritable fleet of Porsches to the Rolex 24. However, there is typically only one or two entries out of the five that will be up in the hunt.

The No. 67 is the defending GT winner from last year’s Rolex 24 and returns three of the five drivers from that lineup (Lally and Brendan Gaughan are not back). Henzler is quite simply one of the best Porsche drivers that you could grab for such a seat and he is a multiple time class winner in Daytona (in addition to last year, he won the class in 2005 with Farnbacher Racing, the team that he was racing for in SPEED World Challenge at the time). Pumpelly is underrated, but very quick while Bertheau has done well behind the wheel. Bleekemolen is a very quick former Porsche Supercup champion who drove for a TRG-affiliated team here last season, while Goossens is decently quick, but most of his recent Grand-Am experience has been in Daytona Prototypes. This team should once again contend for a class victory.

The No. 66 is headed up by Farnbacher, who has been all over the map since the FarnbacherLoles team was shut down due to legal improprieties (long story short, operating capital for the team was fraudulently obtained). However, he is a very quick driver. So is Simonsen, who most recently drove in the V8 Supercar Endurance events in Australia for Kelly Racing. Pilet and Keating are veteran endurance racers and should do fine. A top-10 in class is all but guaranteed without issues.

The other three entries are not in any real contention. The No. 64 is notable for having former Formula One, CART and IRL driver Eliseo Salazar in the team, while No. 65 and No. 68 feature more solid and steady drivers.

Team: AIM Autosport Team FXDD Racing with Ferrari
Car: No. 69 Ferrari 458 Italia
Sponsor: FXDD
Drivers: Emil Assentato, Anthony Lazzaro, Nick Longhi, Jeff Segal
Thoughts: This is a proven group of drivers that has a winning pedigree. Assentato, Longhi and Segal won the GT class in 2008 at Watkins Glen when the No. 69 was still part of SpeedSource. The only question is the new 458 Italia, which will be making its Grand-An racing debut this weekend.

Last year, AIM Autosport skipped the Rolex 24, while Team FXDD’s driver lineup drove the No. 69 Mazda. The car was very fast in qualifying, but ran into mechanical problems about six hours into the race and were forced to retire.

If the Ferrari can hold together, this combined squad should be able to put up a decent finish.

Team: SpeedSource
Car: No. 70 Mazda RX-8
Sponsors: Mazdaspeed, Mazda
Drivers: Jonathan Bomarito, Marino Franchitti, James Hinchcliffe, Sylvain Tremblay
Thoughts: The now single-car SpeedSource team lost their sponsorship from Castrol in the off-season, but replaced it with factory backing from Mazda. Bomarito and Tremblay return to the seat for the race, joined by two newcomers. Marino Franchitti, the younger brother of three-time defending Izod IndyCar Series Champion Dario, is a veteran of sports car racing and has plenty of experience in endurance events. Meanwhile, Hinchcliffe just completed his rookie season in the Izod IndyCar Series last year with the now-shuttered Newman/Haas Racing and impressed. He should be quite fast, but doesn’t have all that much endurance experience.

SpeedSource’s No. 70 won the GT class in the Rolex 24 back in 2010, so they know how to get the job done. The testing times during the Roar were competitive, so the team simply needs to stay out of trouble, and a good finish should be at hand.

Contact Phil Allaway

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