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Flat Spot On: Rain, Cold, Hot Racing Dominate Rolex

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 29 2017

The celebration in Victory Lane at Daytona on Sunday was a happy one for members of the Wayne Taylor Racing team.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

DAYTONA Beach, Fla. –  The absence of sunshine and a stiff breeze did not prevent a heated finish to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. And a glorious one.

The pupil, Ricky Taylor, followed the teachings of a winner before him – in this case Professor Axe, also known as Max “the Axe” Angelelli.

But did the winning Cadillac driven by Taylor get the jump on the runner-up Cadillac of Filipe Albuquerque – or did he just dump him with six minutes remaining?

The catholic view is that Taylor didn’t pull far enough alongside in Turn 1 before contact ensued. The non-denominational viewpoint, which is always the case at Flat Spot On, is different. Taylor got his Cadillac’s front wheel even with the rear wheel of the Action Express team driver, who moved to prevent a pass too late.

If Albuquerque held his line, maybe he retains the lead and maybe not. But by moving to block too late, he spun himself. “If he knew I was committed,” said Taylor, “why would he try to close the door?”

Ultimately, the faster car at the finish won and quite frankly the better story won. Having finished the runner-up three times in the last four years, the team of Wayne Taylor was the sentimental favorite.

Even for those who might by roiled by the finish, there’s much to like about the Taylor team built by a father who twice raced to victory in the Rolex. The team is now crewed by sons Ricky and Jordan. They are a fine family, as dedicated to racing as anyone in the business – Wayne in particular. He’s a bundle of nerves and energy compared to his relatively laid-back kids, who are now seasoned professionals, although Ricky admitted to being scared about doing the closing stint.

His father was confidant. “I’m very proud that when they’re in the car I’m actually very relaxed,” said Taylor, “because I do believe they know what they’re doing. I had no question in my mind that Ricky was not going to come home second today.”

Ricky actually passed Albuquerque twice, the first time with a precarious braking maneuver at the bus stop chicane. “It’s like Rahal or Andretti,” he said referring to some of America’s other famous racing families. “We want to prove ourselves.”

Then there’s longtime Italian road warrior Angelelli and this guy named Gordon, who made a name for himself as NASCAR’s one and only Jeff.

The falling rain perhaps doubled as parting tears for Angelelli, who ran his final race by closing out his career with another victory at Daytona under mixed wet conditions. “It was very difficult to keep the car on the track with the rain tires,” he said, “especially late in a stint. Other drivers were in the same situation, if they can do it why not me? I made a slight mistake. I was able to recover and stay in (the lead). My career has been a roller coaster, from a complete disaster to a lot of success. How can I describe it – it has been long and difficult.”

The combination of the frenetic team owner/driver Taylor and the self-assured, professorial yet passionate Italian produced, said Angelelli, “a lot of stress” over the years. For his part, former driver Taylor said Angelelli, without irony, “was a terrible teammate.” On the other hand, he was clearly a pretty good professor when instructing the young Taylors.  

Retirement is supposedly a drag for race car drivers, who can’t possibly replicate the demands and satisfaction of motor racing triumph. One hopes Angelelli, now working as a liaison with Dallara, the Italian constructor, and Cadillac, continues to find enough grist and not too much grief in his daily routine.

Gordon, of course, is exhibit one when it comes to race drivers being addicted to, well, driving. He retired from the Sprint Cup at the end of 2015 and returned to substitute for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. last year. Now here he is driving a Cadillac in the rain at night while bumping into things – like another prototype. His lap times may have trailed those of the other three, but Gordon was consistent and fast enough to warrant his job as the fourth man.

Before getting into the No. 10 Caddie in the rain, Gordon listened to teammate Jordan Taylor describe his laps on the radio, giving him details of what to expect in the wet. “I don’t think I heard a single thing he said because he was doing this in these kinds of conditions,” said Gordon with a laugh.

It all came down to 21 cautions, which kept everybody on the lead lap. That included a train of GT LM entries. The Corvettes, Porsches and particularly the Risi Competizione Ferrari, did their best to keep one of the phalanx of Ford GTs out of Victory Lane. In the end, the Fords appeared to have learned a lot about reducing drag on the straights while retaining cornering ability in preparation for Le Mans. When it counted, Ford’s Dirk Mueller made the red-white-and-blue winning pass on Risi’s James Calado on the banking. (For his part, Sebastien Bourdais drove the winning Ford only in the wet due to the rain’s persistence.)

As luck would have it, the final two hours were run in the dry on a weekend when the only place in America where it was raining, according to online radar maps, was central Florida. Hence, a seventh victory for Chip Ganassi’s team in the Rolex 24, this time as Ford’s factory GT team. “I’ve done a lot of racing in my life and that was some of the toughest driving I’ve ever done,” said Joey Hand of his wet sessions in the winning GT, which left the final pit stop in third place in the hands of Mueller.

The German driver made the most of a dry track, leaving only a small scratch on the right-side mirror after his contest with Englishman Calado and the Risi Ferrari. Ultimately, it appeared the other GTLMs had to run at their maximum to have a shot at the Ford GTs and often relied on circumstances to gain an edge. The winning No. 66 led the most laps in the class by a large margin. “We could put the car wherever we wanted,” said Hand. “That was the best car I’ve had here since 2011.” That was the year Hand was part of Ganassi’s winning Riley-BMW team.

The debut of Porsche’s new mid-engined 911 went relatively well. Once again, the German cars seemed to work relatively better in the wet. But this year there were no “confidential” Michelins tuned to each of the different manufacturers’ chassis, which favored Porsche due to a rear engine. This change was at the behest of IMSA, which required one standard rain tire for all Michel runners. Meanwhile, Continental has done some due diligence on its rain tires, which enabled the DPi and LMP2 prototype entries to stay ahead of the GT runners during a long night of rain.

Given that the top four positions were occupied by DPi or LMP2 prototypes, the debut of the new era of IMSA and the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was the best introduction of a new category in the sport’s history. (Meanwhile, the final year of the PC category for open-cockpit cars was cold, in a word. The drivers of class winning Performance Tech Motorsports reported being chilled to the bone by rain on a night when temperatures dipped into the low 40s.)

Naturally, it’s not possible to write an IMSA story without a comment on Balance of Performance – a different kind of bopping than what went on in Turn 1 in the closing laps. The third-placed prototype of Visit Florida Racing, a Riley-Gibson LMP2, could not hang in the same neighborhood of the DPi-class Cadillacs when they were all on the banking. Only the 21 cautions enabled the car to stay on the lead lap after getting no closer than three seconds on lap times. “I didn’t know we were racing LMP1 cars,” said one VFR driver over the radio.

Porsche, which launched the current GT category that is IMSA’s rhythm guitar to the lead guitar of the more glamorous prototypes, got a victory in the GTD class after a valiant fight in GTLM ended up in second. Alegra Motorsports took a GT3 R to victory by a mere 0.239 seconds over an Audi R8 LMS and Mercedes came home third in the German company’s first appearance at America’s 24-hour.

And what can you say about the fans? There were more than ever before at the beginning and at the end, despite the weather.

(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.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 29 2017
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