DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Chevrolet Corvette is back in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. So are Audi and Ferrari.
The biggest sports car race in America continued to add sexy sports cars to the lineup, along with a new look for the premier Daytona Prototype class. The cars are sleek and fast and look a lot closer to something you can see on a showroom floor.
But can they take a punch?
“Everybody’s a little unsure what to expect,” pole-winner Ryan Dalziel said. “It will be interesting to see how the race pans out in the first half. “I don’t think the fastest car is the car to beat at Daytona. It’s the most-reliable.
“Everyone is going to have to a problem. The team with the fewest problems will win.”
The twice-around-the-clock starts at 3:30 p.m. on the 3.56-mile, 12-turn Daytona International Speedway road course that utilizes the infield and portions of the high-banked superspeedway.
The old Riley sports car had a seven-year winning streak in the 24-hour race. But it was shorter and boxier. Grand-Am added some length to the front to make it look sleek. That was the kind of changes that helped Chevrolet return to prototype class for the first time in 10 years.
The changes, however, came quick – and late.
Chevrolet teams got their new cars three months ago. The Riley teams got theirs last month. It was such a short turnaround Grand-Am will allow some team to use last year’s model.
“The cars are definitely different,” said defending race and series champion Scott Pruett. “The body work, the way they’re reacting, we’re having some troubles with ‘porpoising’ where the car is difficult to control – ‘porpoising’ being as you go down the straight the car kind of slams the ground, just kind of bang, bang, bang, bang. You definitely notice it more when you get around cars, more aerodynamic challenges with it.”
At the same time, Pruett understands why Grand-Am made changes.
“We’ve all kind of heard the stories that the DP cars are ugly, they’re too boxy, they’re too whatever. So NASCAR and Jim France and the whole Grand-Am association got together and said, ‘Hey, let’s make these cars look a bit sexier. Let’ see if we can style them up a little bit.’ That was a big motive in driving the change forward as well as opening up for manufacturers.”
Fans must like the change as well. The massive infield almost was filled by Thursday afternoon, two full days before the start.
Pruett will share the driving duties with Memo Rojas, Joey Hand and Graham Rahal in a BMW-powered Riley for car owner Chip Ganassi. The team will start a second car for Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. Since the second car won’t compete for the Grand-Am championship, it’s possible one car will be the newest generation racer, while the other relies on last year’s model.
Dalziel won the pole with a fast lap of 126.741 mph, although the new car had been on the track for less than one hour since the team took delivery of their Ford-powered Riley two weeks ago.
“We’ll be trying to figure out where to find speed between the two cars,” he said.
A new Corvette for Max Angelilli, Ryan Briscoe and Ricky Taylor will start second.
“Figuring out this new car, that’s going to be the key for everybody,” Angelilli said. “With the new cars, we have no idea what will happen. None of us have gone more than one hour in them; now we’re going to add 23 hours to that.
“We feel positive about our car, but nobody really knows. We know we’re going to be fast, but we also know we will have some issues. Everyone will.”
The Montoya-McMurray-Dixon-Franchitti prototype will start third, while a Corvette for Jon Fogarty, Memo Gidley and Alex Gurney is fourth.
The first 14 cars in the 60-car lineup are prototypes. The best-starting GT Series car is the Brumos Porsche GT3 for Andrew Davis, Leh Keen, five-time winner Hurley Haywood and Marc Lieb. Davis’ speed was 117.210 mph.
The next GT car is a new Ferrari 458 for Emil Assentato, Anthony Lazzaro, Nick Longhi and Jeff Segal.
Humaid Al Masaood, Saeed Al Mehairi and Steven Kane will start a new Audi R8 from the 29th spot on the grid.
Like the new Rileys and Corvettes from the prototype class, so much will have to be learned by the new manufacturers after the green flag waves.
“We’re all learning, and we’re all learning together,” Pruett said.