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Flat Spot On: Blue Skies for Rolex and IMSA

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 27 2017

Joao Barbosa of Action Express will start on the pole on Saturday in Daytona. (Photo by Richard Prince for Cadillac Racing)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram has been covering the Rolex 24 at Daytona since 1982. His current book is The Art of Race Car Design — Bob Riley’s biography, memoir and muse on the challenges of being a race car constructor and designer . The book is available at www.jingrambooks.com.)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It could come to tears on Sunday, because the skies might be crying with precipitation. Short term, there was nothing but blue skies metaphorically and physically on Friday afternoon above the garages at the Daytona International Speedway.

Friday is customarily the most optimistic day in world circuit racing, because a wheel has yet to be turned in anger under the green. Hope springs eternal among all the racing types, who are constitutionally confident by nature, and the garage is a celebration of the new year among those not making unexpected engine changes or dealing with a tub bent in practice.

This year marks the dawn of global racing platforms in sports car racing, hence a very high tide of good spirits in IMSA, which has been the home of America’s professional sports car racing since the merger of Grand-Am and the ALMS. The merger is old news and it’s not unusual to see the paddock crawling with IndyCar drivers or luminaries from NASCAR such as Jeff Gordon, entering his second 24-hour this year – this time with Cadillac.

The difference behind the optimism unbound of this year is the presence of so many manufacturers who have literally bought into the global platform now afforded, (ahem), by universal rules. So many major new programs from the likes of the aforementioned GM brand, Mazda and Nissan in prototypes plus AMG, Acura and Lexus in GT all adds up to one thing. Money. With these nameplates added to the already long list of participating manufacturers, there’s seemingly no end to moolah. (This in turn has set off a real estate bubble. The manufacturer midways now dominate the Daytona infield. If you’re not factory-backed you likely got pounded by the rates for rooms on the beach, reserved by those who cannot resist the far more pleasant pounding of the sea.)

If you were around in the era of John Bishop, the founder of IMSA in 1969, there is the memory of the redoubtable Porsche 956s not showing up in America (alas Canada only) due to the great schism of 1982. The rules for safety, said Bishop, dictated a change in the position of the driver in Porsche’s Group C wunderkind. The vaunted successor, the Porsche 962, showed up at Daytona in 1984 – driven by Mario Andretti no less. But the divided world of Le Mans, Europe (read the FIA) and America has existed ever since.

This will mostly end with the drop of the green on the 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona. (Alas, the DPi  cars may have universal and very safe chassis but are still not eligible to run at Le Mans due to their factory bodywork.)

Ironically, the tide turned for sports car racing when Porsche abandoned its prototype program at Le Mans in 1999 in favor of an emphasis on racing its 911 road cars in GT form. Porsche demonstrated the viability of making (ahem) money hand over fist by taking cars off its assembly line and turning them into race cars, using the stages of Daytona and Le Mans to showcase these cars lest anyone question the prices.

Porsche was quickly followed by Dodge with the Viper and Corvette and BMW. Soon enough, Ferrari got involved once the handwriting was on the wall that production cars and racing jazzed up awareness of companies’ commitment to performance. Alas, the Ferrari 458 debut at Daytona in 2012 took an extraordinary amount of work in order to homologate a Le Mans car into the rules for the Grand-Am.

These days, everybody’s on the same program due to the FIA being whipped into cooperative shape by the European Union’s penchant for frowning about monopolies. Audi may have dropped its prototype program, but Audi is fully loaded with customer programs for the GT Daytona category in IMSA. You’ve probably heard of AMG and Mercedes, but never previously in a starting field at America’s 24-hour. (You can look it up… Engine or car – nada.)

The GT LM class created at Le Mans has become the GT juggernaut thanks in no small part to Don Panoz’s American Le Mans Series, also launched in 1999. The new arrivals in GT Daytona reflect the fact the FIA GT3 cars now fit this IMSA class. And now the prototype chassis built to a tight Le Mans specification have become the basis for the DPi, which will take on their LMP2 counterparts starting Saturday afternoon.

None of these cars drive themselves; there are crewmen required to sustain the drivers as viable elements; and lots of PR people and sponsors and advertising are helping to tell the story. (Have you driven a Ford GT lately vicariously through the TV ads?)  The party line at IMSA is that manufacturers cannot afford to ignore the opportunities presented by its niche series, one where performance and design are really linked to the road cars people aspire to and actually drive. Whatever the formula, endurance sports car racing is making a comeback.

Well, let’s get back to the competition. The smart money says the new prototypes will require garage time to make it to the finish and that the mechanics will be the heroes. My money (metaphorically speaking, of course, considering this line of work) is on Rebellion, the Anglo-Swiss squad that has so much World Endurance Championship experience and will be racing an ORECA LMP2 chassis. Given ORECA’s depth of experience and the fact it concentrated on its LMP2 business and not any DPi entries, the endurance of the ORECA 07 ought to be pretty reliable. Rather than a design for America’s revolution in prototype design, the ORECA is a French evolution, which Neil Jani qualified third behind the Cadillacs of Action Express.

There are those participating in the GT LM category who were looking a bit like the Big Bad Wolf licking its lips as the sun set on Friday, when the sky was marked by streaking white cirrus clouds crossing a massive rumble strip of gray. The GT LM teams are hoping that rumble strip of gray indicates the rain forecast for Sunday, which could enable their Michelin-shod cars to overtake the prototypes. (This assumes at least some prototypes are still running.)

It would somehow be fitting if the checkers on Sunday fell on a GT car – reminiscent of the Nissan 300 ZX Twin Turbo win in 1994 or The Racer Group’s over-all win in 2003 with a Porsche 911 RS. Each of those overall GT wins occurred when the new prototype eras of World Sports Cars and the Daytona Prototypes were being introduced. History could repeat itself and unwind simultaneously.

Whatever the outcome, it’s the welcome dawn for a new prototype era, one that for so many years was a pipe dream due to contentiousness, competition, ego, status and money. You know, the usual stuff of motor racing. (And don’t forget the asterisk on DPi cars not being eligible at Le Mans.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 27 2017
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