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Rolex Notes: TV Doctor Now A Real Racer

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 30 2010
Memo Gidley took the lead early in the rain at the Rolex 24 in Daytona. (Photo courtesy of the Grand-Am Series)

Memo Gidley took the lead early in the rain at the Rolex 24 in Daytona. (Photo courtesy of the Grand-Am Series)

Editor’s Note: RacinToday has two reporters – Mike Harris and Jonathan Ingram, both veterans of the event – on site at the Rolex 24. They will periodically file updates, notes and features during the race and wrap the event up afterward.

Daytona Beach, Fla. – Notes from the 48th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway:

Actor Patrick Dempsey is no longer considered an oddity in the Grand-Am paddock.

The guy who stars in TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy” is now welcomed as a car owner and racer by the sports car crowd, which is just fine with Dempsey.

“Every year you race, you develop a lot more confidence,” Dempsey said after his first stint as co-driver of the No. 40 Dempsey Racing Mazda. “Sometimes you get a little swayed in your confidence, depending on how it goes in your stint. I feel a lot more confident and a lot more frustrated for not performing if I’m not going faster. But you have to really pace yourself and not be too hard.

“It’s fun,” he added. “At this point, we really want to win and we want to be in the top 10. That’s what you’re focused on. Anything else is really frustrating at this point.”

Late in the fifth hour, Dempsey’s car was 23rd overall and ninth in the GT class.

DARIO A VOLUNTEER: A reporter for the Daytona Beach newspaper asked two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti if he drives in the Rolex 24 because he wants to or because Chip Ganassi, who owns both his IndyCar and the Grand-Am car he drives, insists upon it?

That drew a good laugh from the packed media center, but Franchitti, who had just gotten out of the race-leading Ganassi BMW Riley Daytona Prototype after a two-hour stint, grinned and happily answered.

“You could say no, I guess,” Franchitti noted. “He asks if you want to do it and we all welcome coming here, so we say yes. I enjoy it.

“With Chip, taking away the 08 season in NASCAR, he’s given me equipment to win races every time I’ve driven one of those cars, the IndyCars and also Grand-Am,” the Scot continued. “So you want to get in one of those cars. Everybody wants to come and do this race and come in a car that you can compete with.

“Besides, I like Chip. He’s a good boss.”

Asked what he does between stints at the 24-hour event, Franchitti said, “It’s a Catch 22 situation because, on the one hand, I want to go watch the race because I’m a race fan and it’s exciting and I want to see what’s happening. On the other hand, you’ve got to distance yourself a bit and focus on your job.

“They just told me I have 6 1/2 hours off before I get back in the car, so I’ve got to eat, watch some Speed TV and sleep and get ready for another bout in the middle of the night.”

The car Franchitti is co-driving with IndyCar teammate Scott Dixon and Ganassi NASCAR drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray, had led most of the race through the fifth hour.

JIMMIE’S TURN: NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson was in the No. 99 GAINSCO Chevrolet Riley in the fourth hour of the grueling Rolex 24.

It’s the same car the four-time Sprint Cup champion crashed during practice on Thursday, forcing the team to change the entire rear end. Team spokesman Adam Saal said the work took until 4 a.m. Friday.

Alex Gurney, son of Dan Gurney, who won the inaugural sports car race here in 1962, drove the first 3 ½ hours in the 99 and said it felt “just like it did before (the accident).’’

“It was a major effort by our guys,’’ he added. “It’s like they’re doing two 24-hour stints in a row. ”

Before following Gurney into the car, Johnson looked relaxed and confident.

“Right now, we’re just trying to be smart,’’ he said. “I’ve already made my mistake.’’

Gurney started last among the 15 Daytona Prototypes, but racing cautiously on the slowly drying track, he had the car up to second before turning it over the Johnson.

“I was trying to be conservative,’’ Gurney said. “Some of these guys were acting like it isn’t a 24-hour race. But, any time it’s wet, it’s a big challenge, a mental game. You’re just trying to squeeze on more power and not spin.’’<

There were plenty of spins and collisions in the early going Saturday, with Scott Pruett, a three-time overall champion of the Rolex, bumped into the wet infield grass while trying to pass one of the slower GT entries. Pruett was able to continue and was running sixth with IndyCar driver Justin Wilson at the wheel in the fourth hour.

IF THE SHOE (LINER) FITS: Boris Said showed some ingenuity after determining that the floorboards of his Turner Motorsports BMW M6 were heating up all the drivers’ toes.

Said carved a pair of Styrofoam shoe liners out of a cooler before getting into the No. 94 for his first stint.

Shades of NASCAR’s Sterling Marlin, who may have patented the idea years ago.

WET START: There is a long history of rain in the Rolex 24, but this is the first time in anyone’s memory that the event has begun with precipitation falling.

The race began under both a green and yellow flag with the field trailing a pace car through the puddles in the infield portion of the circuit. But the rain stopped shortly after the race began and the green flag waved for the start of lap 7.

Despite the heavy spray that limited sight, the first green-flag lap was a barn-burner, with some very gutsy moves. The wet start featured a terrific Daytona Prototype duel between Oswaldo Negri Jr. in a Ford Riley and Scott Pruett in one of Chip Ganassi’s BMW Rileys.

Pole-winner Max Angelelli played it cool and slipped to seventh in the early going.

As team owner and co-driver Wayne Taylor said, “I told Max there’s still 23 hours and 40 minutes to go.”

FOYT’S FIRST: With the quieter-than-usual action, there was lots of time for stories about previous Daytona races in the rain.

There have been a lot of fun and interesting moments in the wet at the Rolex 24 during my 31 consecutive years covering the twice-around-the-clock sports car event, but none more compelling than A.J.Foyt’s first ride in a Porsche in 1983.

Foyt came to Daytona that year to co-drive a British-built Aston-Martin with NASCAR star Darrell Waltrip. When the engine on that entry quit five hours into the race, Foyt began to pack up his gear to head back for Houston, where his father, A.J. Foyt Sr., was dying.

But Preston Henn, owner of the pole-winning Porsche 935, found the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner before he left the track and asked if Foyt would like to join his team for the rest of the race. Foyt, whose last previous sports car race was the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans, which he won with Dan Gurney, told Henn he had never driven a Porsche and wasn’t sure if it was a good idea.

The enterprising Henn took Foyt out to the hulk of a crashed and burned out 935, sat him down in it and had Foyt try shifting the gears a bit. At that point, Foyt agreed to help out Henn, who had already driven one stint as co-driver with Frenchmen Bob Wollek and Claude Ballot-Lena, both sports cars specialists.

Wollek, winner of numerous endurance events in Europe, had won the pole for the Daytona race. But the car fell 12 laps off the pace early in the race because of a pair of blown turbos. Steadily, Wollek and Ballot-Lena drove the powerful Porsche back to the front, retaking the lead early on Sunday morning.

The first time Foyt tried to get into the car, an irate Wollek slammed the door in his face and drove off for an extra stint. But Foyt finally got into the car on the next pit stop, about 30 minutes after rain began falling steadily on the track.

Standing in the team pit, it was easy to see Wollek was incensed as Foyt drove onto the road course. He tossed his helmet angrily to the ground and sat down on the pit wall with a thump.

“He doesn’t know the car, he doesn’t know the rain, he doesn’t know anything,’’ Wollek said. “We have worked very hard from 12 laps behind … to work back to only a lap in the lead with a chance to win. And now Mr. A.J. Foyt is driving the car. I’m very upset about it.’’

By the beginning of the ’80s, Foyt’s legendary career was beginning to fade. But the 48-year-old Foyt that got into the Swap Shop Porsche that night was the A.J. of old, a talented, aggressive driver with something to prove.

Not only did he extend the lead to almost two full laps on the 3.56-mile circuit, Foyt drove the fast lap of the race.

Wollek was mollified, shaking Foyt’s hand when he got out of the car. The team went on to win the race by eight laps and Foyt and Wollek became close friends.

And, even better, Foyt was able to take the winner’s trophy back to share with his father.

FAST MAN: Apparently, NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is fast, no matter what he drives.

Johnson, driving the Rolex 24 for the GAINSCO team, spent some time on the iRacing.com simulator Friday night at the team party.

On his second lap “racing’’ around Daytona’s 3.56-mile road circuit, Johnson was quicker than his fastest lap on track.

“It usually takes people a lot longer than that to get used to the simulator,’’ said iRacing spokesman Kevin Bobbit.

PERSISTENT RACER: Davy Jones was considered an up and coming driver when his racing career was seemingly ended in a huge crash while testing an Indy car at Disney World Speedway in 1997.

It took Jones nearly two years to completely recover from his injuries, including a head trauma. But the winner of the 1990 Rolex 24, the 1996 Le Mans and the 1996 Indy 500 runner-up was back in a sports car in 1999 and has raced sporadically since.

Jones is racing this weekend with the Godstone Ranch Motorsports Team, making his first Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series start since the 2003 Rolex 24.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 30 2010