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Flat Spot On: A Surprise Follows Fine Finish at the Rolex 24

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 2 2021

Wayne Taylor Racing’s move to Acura was a winner over the weekend.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

After a fabulous 24-hour race on the high banks and infield of the France family’s Speedway by the Sea, amid glorious heavens of sunshine each day and a night sky jeweled with exploding fireworks, there was a fine finish. And then the post-race F-bomb by winning team owner Wayne Taylor in Victory Lane.

Minutes before, as the clock had wound down to the checkered flag, Taylor was pondering if his driver Felipe Albuquerque could hold off the oncoming Cadillac of Chip Ganassi Racing. Surely, Taylor must have been having flashbacks to losing his GM deal with Cadillac to Ganassi before scrambling to get set up with Acura, which had been ditched by Roger Penske.

To make matters worse, the driver Taylor had fired, Renger van der Zande, was the guy closing in on his leading driver Albuquerque, the Dutchman’s replacement. That’s a lot of tension for a team owner whose nerves are known to get as twangy as an out-of-tune violin. So, he could be forgiven if, perhaps, there was some vodka in his water bottle, which was later confirmed to be the case.

Twice in the closing stages, the better balance off the corners of the Taylor team’s Acura wore out a tire on a Cadillac DPi. In the end, it was the blown right rear on the Ganassi entry that allowed Albuquerque, who held off van der Zande despite once almost kissing fenders in the infield segment, to cruise to victory. Taylor then celebrated a sixth win in this great race at the podium ceremony. He wasn’t wearing a mask so his “f—ing awesome” rang through clearly, in some ways an appropriate ending to a race otherwise stage-managed to the nth degree by NBC Motorsports.

If he could be forgiven for letting down his hair along with the mask, it probably also flashed through Taylor’s mind that his first victory as a driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona had come 25 years earlier. And that one of his co-drivers, Jim Pace, had recently passed away due to COVID-19. That, too, is the kind of tension that floats to top of mind once the tension of the race has broken and the celebration begins.

What a big celebration for Taylor, whose son Ricky co-drove the Acura along with Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi and Albuquerque. Taylor’s youngest son Jordan, co-drove Corvette Racing to victory – the last for the LMGT class at Daytona. But that, too, may have been a little unsettling for father Taylor, since Jordan’s co-driver Antonio Garcia could not drive in the final six and a half hours after being removed once he received a positive test notification for COVID-19. 

Everybody in the dearly beloved GTLM class, of course, wanted to win the last Rolex 24 for the category. Especially the Corvette team, which lost its first gambit at Daytona’s 24-hour to a Dodge Viper, along with the over-all win, back in the Grand-Am days of 2000. The elimination of the IMSA class in favor of a GTD-Pro category next year, announced shortly before the race, was the last off-season bomb to drop.

Why did Cadillac switch from Taylor’s team to Ganassi? Just about anything can be written in the racing wind. But, on the other hand, it’s not rocket science. With Daytona flush with Cadillacs, it appears GM is committed to racing at both Daytona and Le Mans in the future. The tea leaves here say that the GM brand managers have decided to embrace the new opportunities for IMSA prototypes to race in France at the Circuit de la Sarthe under the new and universal LMDh class rules in 2023. It’s a matter of re-directing their Le Mans budget, in the absence of Corvettes no longer running GTLM rules, to the prototype class.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Cadillac entertained proposals from Taylor, Ganassi and Penske about returning to Le Mans for the first time in two decades with the new LMDh class. Under this proposed scenario–strictly mine—after conversations with IMSA’s top three teams, Ganassi came out ahead. What better way to go to France than with the Chip Ganassi Racing team that won its class at Le Mans with Ford in 2016 at the manufacturer’s 50th anniversary of its first victory at the world’s greatest 24-hour? 

Once the Cadillac deal was no longer on the table, I’d bet my last and only Penske Racing Marlboro cap that Roger Penske, if he hadn’t already, turned to Honda and queried the Japanese manufacturer about the new LMDh rules that are set to begin in two years’ time. I doubt Penske would have given up his three-year-old Acura deal if Honda planned to compete at Le Mans. 

Team owner Penske has been talking about returning to La Sarthe since the days of the Porsche LMP2 Spyder program over a decade ago. Heck, I bet Roger, often the artful dodger, might still be in the running to do something with Porsche once again. Perhaps “The Captain” will run the Porsche LMDh program stateside when the German king of endurance racing returns to the fold in 2023.

Taylor, a pure racer and not of the business tycoon ilk like Penske or Ganassi, thus fell into the deal with Penske Racing’s leftover Acuras – giving him a chance for the last word—at least in 2021 and perhaps beyond. 

If that’s not enough internecine IMSA maneuvering, Cadillac’s only other existing choice would have been Action Express. The team, run by longtime NASCAR expert turned sports car expert Gary Nelson, would have been a fish out of water at Le Mans. And, certainly GM did not want to replace that team with Ganassi. After all, IMSA series owner Jim France, also owner of the Daytona International Speedway, has been intimately involved with Action Express from the start. Talk about political incorrectness…

So, after years of loyal, winning GM service, the affiliation with Taylor’s team went to the chopping block and he transitioned to Acura, where his son Ricky had three years of experience with Penske Racing, thus bringing a lot of set-up knowledge about the Acura back to his father’s team. As it turned out, the Acura’s Michelin tires held up better than those on the Cadillacs pushing to beat it in a wire-to-wire 24-hour race.

All of this insider tension was on the table long before the Rolex 24 began under the TV eye of NBC Motorsports. Alas, such was the coverage by the network and its motorsports affiliate, there really wasn’t much reporting on what was happening in IMSA. Sure, there were a couple of pre-recorded features, including one on Bill Auberlen, now IMSA’s winningest driver. 

But for the first 16 hours or so, the Rolex 24 was an INDYCAR/NASCAR race while NBC reserved the majority of its interviews for guest drivers from those series. The COVID-19 interview bubble turned rancid. The questions posed to an endless parade of INDYCAR/NASCAR stars all incorporated the usual queries about transitioning to sports cars as well as softball questions about their upcoming seasons.

Veteran endurance shoe Albuquerque, after driving the winning stint under great pressure with magnificent results, finally got a brief TV interview at the podium ceremony. Then came Taylor. No sports telecast deserves to get an F-bomb, although it will long be remembered. Let’s hope there are no repeats in future Victory Lanes and that the drinking doesn’t start until the celebration begins. And, one hopes, there will be no repeats by a TV “partner” of shameless, endless hucksterism at the expense of regular IMSA participants and fans.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the new release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning in Reverse.”  Ingram’s current book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” includes a comprehensive account of Dale Earnhardt’s last-lap crash at Daytona in 2001. Published by RJP Books, signed copies of “CRASH!” are available at www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 2 2021
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