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Pedley: ‘Gentlemen’ Put The Pros On Edge At 24

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 19 2012

The difference in experience levels between drivers entered in the Rolex 24-Hour race can be as divergent as night and day. (Photos courtesy of the Rolex GRAND-AM Sports Car Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Forty years of experience or no 40 years of experience at Daytona, Hurley Haywood sounded a bit, well, if not nervous, then concerned about next weekend’s Rolex 24-Hour race. Lot’s of cars, he said. Especially in the GT class.

Haywood, a five-time winner of the event, managed to issue forth some wry humor as he thought about the big field of GT cars entered in the 24. “It gives you a challenge and something to kind of take the boredom away,” he said.

Asked if there would be too many cars on the Daytona road course next Saturday and Sunday, Haywood said no, absolutely not. And then he quickly explained that it’s not the quantity of cars which has him concerned, but the quality of some of the drivers.

Almost 60 cars are entered in this year’s Rolex 24. Partially because of the growing interest in the sport, and partially because this year’s race is the 50th edition of the most important sports car race in America.

Well over two-thirds of those cars will be in the GT class – the class which features production-based Porsches, BMWs, Camaros, Mazdas, Ferraris, Mustangs, Audi and others.

Many of the GT cars will be driven by world-class drivers – drivers who have massive experience in

Hurley Haywood will be on guard for Gentlemen at the Rolex.

everything from high-level road racing series to Formula 1. They will be driving cars field by highly respected, veteran race teams like TGR, Stevenson and The Flying Lizards.

But mixed in, will be a significant number of amateurs. Amateurs who are romantically called Gentleman Drivers by their admirers. But amateurs who are derisively called trouble by the pros.

Some are club racers. Some are musicians, actors, monied folk who will be on the track because they love racing – or thrills or ego – and because they can afford to be.

These are the ones who worry Haywood. They have little experience of being on race tracks, less experience with being on the tracks with much-faster Daytona Prototype cars and, for some, no experience driving in a twice-around-the-clock endurance race which always features night driving and sometimes features pouring rain.

Haywood, who again this year will be driving stints in the famed Brumos Porsche 911 in the GT class, said that in a race like this year’s 24, the concerns will be numerous. He said yes, he thinks a lot about the situation when he approaches cars who are driven by people who he knows nothing about.

“I can understand from the financial side why GRAND-AM wants to get as many drivers as they possibly can,” Haywood said. “But from a safety side and for really the betterment of the racing overall, I think you really have to make a strong case of driver – of the experience that a driver has. Just because you have a license from whoever doesn’t mean that you’re qualified to race at the Daytona – or in GRAND-AM racing.”

Scott Pruett is the defending champion of the Rolex 24 and the defending GRAND-AM Series champion.

At GRAND-AM races, world class drivers mingle with the 'Gentleman' drivers.

He is a Daytona Prototype driver for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and a four-time Rolex winner.

He will spend many hours next weekend trying to weave his way through the much-slower GT cars. He, too, is concerned.

“I know some of these guys personally out there,” Pruett said. “I don’t think that’s the place for them to be. They’re on the edge of being scared, they’re not quite sure what’s going on.”

Sports car racing has always had Gentleman Racers. They are a part of the lore. Many fans like watching rock stars and movie stars compete in the races, so, promoters and series officials tend to cautiously welcome them.

Some pros, however, think that even more caution should be exercised when it comes to putting amateurs on the track for races like the Rolex 24.

“I absolutely believe there needs to be a higher set of standards put in place to make sure the guys going racing…have some amount of depth and experience,” Pruett said. “From my point of view, I certainly

Scott Pruett thinks drivers should be vetted before being allowed in the 24.

would like to see where there certainly is a better review of the drivers that are going out there, every driver that’s going out there and racing.”

Haywood, arguably America’s best-ever sports car driver, agreed that closer looks need to be paid to driver credentials in big-time series like GRAND-AM.

“I think really,” Haywood said, “you need to set up a panel that looks at these guys, and Mark Raffauf (GRAND-AM’s managing director of competition) does a pretty good job of monitoring and really sort of quickly weeding out the guys that are really dangerous on the racetrack, and he sets them down, and if they make the same mistake twice in a row, then they’re out, they’re grounded. They have pretty good eyes up in the tower, but still, I think it would make a lot simpler for everybody if they had a little higher standard of accepting drivers to drive there.”

The cars themselves can add to the problems.

In GRAND-AM, the GT cars – like their cousins in the showrooms – are getting more powerful and faster. The DPs, meanwhile, have stayed at about the same speeds. This year, series officials have actually slowed some of the DPs down.

The effect has been lesser closing speeds.

But, rather than that being a good thing, Pruett says it can be a bad thing.

“We talked to Mark Raffauf about that after the preseason test and felt that … from a DP side of it when you’re trying to make a move on a GT car, because they can brake so deep because they have virtually the

AC/DC singer Brian Johnson is entered in this year's Rolex 24.

same engines and less drag than we do, they have great straightaway speeds, it could potentially make for some pretty hairy moves during the race,” Pruett said. “I really feel that could be a recipe for disaster, that when you have cars that are too … a bit too close, it would be tempting for some of the prototype drivers to try to make a move, where instead of being able to make the move and complete it cleanly, now you actually have to take a chance on being a bit more bold and doing it with the chance of some contact.

“What we’ve seen in the past seems like it’s worked pretty well. I think that differential was about 10 to 12 seconds a lap different between the two, now I think it’s down if I’m not mistaken to about seven or eight. There is a real nice sweet spot in there, and I think historically Grand-Am could go back and look at that where we’ve had probably the best amount of success with blending those two different divisions together and having it where it puts on a really good show without too much contact.”

Next Sunday, the teams and drivers who will be handed the coveted Rolex watches on the post-race podium may not be the most deserving, but the ones who best navigated the awkward advances of the large crop of Gentleman.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 19 2012
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Terry says:

    Jim,
    The DP vs. GT ….drill has been an on going roller coaster.
    Depending on where on the Bell Curve R & D is for either class…
    The GT’s are little turtles clogging the track…..OR….
    they are ZOOMING up the KEISTER of the big boys.
    Have fun and remember to….CUE THE PA ANNOUNSER….
    ” please patronize our concession stands ”
    Terry