Grand-Am To Make Grand Matinee Debut
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Correspondent
Daytona Beach, Fla. – The summer sports car race at the Daytona International Speedway for many years ran at midnight on July 4, a road racing tradition that got pushed aside with the rising popularity of NASCAR. On Saturday, the sports car drivers of the Grand-Am Rolex Series are hoping to get some payback by racing as a preliminary to the 400-mile Sprint Cup race.
Since the Grand-Am was launched in 2000, its Daytona Prototypes and GT cars had been racing on the Thursday evenings prior to the Fourth of July race weekend.
“For the success of the series, it’s a good thing to be in front of a big crowd,” said Darren Law, who co-drove to victory in the 24-hour race at Daytona in January aboard the Brumos Racing Riley-Porsche. “The sports car purists might have liked it when we ran on Thursday night, because it was easier access for them. But it’s a positive if we can race in front of 100,000 people.”
David Donohue, who co-drove with Law to the 24-hour victory, said anything will help the sports car guys get some more recognition. “There are still a lot of people who still ask me what I do,” said Donohue. “I have to get a picture of the car and show it to them.”
How many NASCAR fans show up in 90-degree Florida heat at mid-afternoon to see the Rolex Series competitors may determine if a new tradition is born. It will help that Kyle Busch, NASCAR’s busiest driver, will co-drive with Sprint Cup rookie Scott Speed in a Lexus-powered Riley. They will be starting a second car for the team of Chip Ganassi Racing, whose regular drivers Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas have won the last two Grand-Am Rolex Series.
When the Sprint Cup ran its annual summer race originally known as the Firecracker 400, the event started in the morning. Radio ads promoting the event bragged that fans “could be on the beach at 2 p.m.”
Saturday’s 250-mile sports car race is a one-day event, where teams will practice in the morning, qualify and then race. They will get the green flag at 2 p.m., meaning the race will end at least four hours before the Sprint Cup race takes the green.
“It’s going to be hard to ask that of people, to show up in the grandstands at 2 p.m.,” said Mike Colucci, team manager for Brumos.
Colucci was directing race victories at Brumos for the famed road-racing duo of Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood in the 1970’s when the midnight race was known as Paul Revere 250. So he’ glad to see the niche of sports car racing getting any promotion.
“Whatever kind of exposure we can get will be good.”
The Grand-Am Series was launched by the owners of NASCAR in 2000, the late Bill France Jr. and his brother Jim France. Last year, the Rolex Series officially came under NASCAR ownership.
Having the Rolex Series race run on the road course that snakes through the Daytona infield on the same day as the Sprint Cup race presents some logistical problems, including the movement of tire walls and the reduction of infield parking. But being part of NASCAR’s empire facilitates the prospect of one series trying to build itself on the shoulders of another at the facility owned by the France family.
“Since NASCAR’s has taken over, they’ve done TV commercials and other promotions for the Grand-Am that have really made a difference,” said Law. “Jim (France) has a passion to make this (series) go.”
The sports car racers will practice and qualify on Saturday morning, then race. That may favor the teams of Ganassi and the Porsche-powered team of Penske Racing, known for arriving with cars that are well dialed in from the first practice.
Is Law worried about the lack of practice for the newcomers Busch and Speed, especially if they start up front in a well-prepped Ganassi machine? A participant in 28 Formula One events, Speed is a veteran road racer. But both drivers have only one practice day aboard a Daytona Prototype.
“New guys in a series can always be a problem,” said Law. “They’re going to have good equipment that gives them an advantage. But they haven’t run with us. I don’t know how it will be side-by-side.”
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.