O Opinions & Commentary

Pit Notes: A Great Race in Need of a Greater Profile

Pit Notes: A Great Race in Need of a Greater Profile
I have to confess that the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Grand-Am’s annual race ‘round the clock held each January in Florida, hasn’t traditionally struck me as very appealing.

Frankly, prior to this year I really hadn’t paid much attention to it. At most I’d watch perhaps an hour or two at the beginning and then check back for the wild and woolly two-hour mad scramble finish at the end.

This year I watched much more of it than in previous years, and I’m glad I did because it proved to be exciting and filled with many great moments. True, I had to write a story about it for this issue (see p. XX) which meant I had to pay attention, but by the time the race was nearing the finish it wasn’t even a thought in my mind. By that point, I was just engrossed in some really great racing.

So if it’s such a great event, you ask, then why did it take me so long to notice?

Good question. Perhaps, it’s because I once worked for a track (the former Mosport International Raceway) that used to be owned by the parent company of Grand-Am’s arch rival – before they became best friends and decided to merge, that is.

Maybe, as an American Le Mans Series guy, I felt more captivated by the exotic (and blindingly fast) prototypes and sleek GT machines many of which were campaigned by shiny, manufacturer-backed teams that would roll into Mosport every summer, not long after many of them had returned from competing at Le Mans.

Ah yes, Le Mans. The 24 Hours of Le Mans, contested each June at Circuit de la Sarthe near Le Mans, France, IS the essence of sports car racing, with a history dating back to 1923. It’s contested on a long, magnificent and intensely challenging natural terrain road circuit lined with throngs of enthusiastic spectators, with a star-studded field of legendary sports car marques, teams and drivers. The town completely embraces (and basically shuts down for) the event, which now has a history that is not only the stuff of racing legend but is also a part of Hollywood lore.

The Rolex 24 has quite a bit of history behind it, too (this year’s running was the 51st annual) with a long list of big-name winners, and each year it features an international who’s-who of teams and drivers from different forms of motorsports. But with all of that going for it, it still lacks the sexiness and legendary status of Le Mans.

For example, last I checked no Hollywood movie stars have paid homage to the Rolex 24 by immortalizing it in film. Steve McQueen never made it to Daytona, apparently.

Look, the Rolex 24 is a big deal on the international sports car scene, and Daytona International Speedway is a pre-eminent motorsports venue (the ‘world centre of racing’ as I was told repeatedly during the SPEED broadcast), but it’s best known for stock cars, not sports cars. Could the same be said about Circuit de la Sarthe? I think we all know the answer to that one.

Sports car racing is clearly a B-level attraction at Daytona, and everybody knows it. The biggest race held there is in February and it’s not about to change anytime soon, ALMS-Grand-Am merger or not.

If it weren’t for the fact this year’s winning team (Ganassi Racing) has NASCAR affiliations (two-car Sprint Cup team) and a well-known NASCAR driver on its roster (Juan Pablo Montoya), they’d be almost completely unrecognizable once they left the track. Hey, I know Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas and Charlie Kimball are talented and accomplished drivers worthy of being celebrated, but I’m not sure if the casual race fan watching on television or the locals in Daytona Beach could say the same.

Just to be clear, this isn’t a critique of the fans, competitors, the SPEED broadcast crew, track officials or even Grand-Am and NASCAR (owner of the track and Grand-Am), all of whom clearly love the event and do their best to make the Rolex 24 the best it can be.

Rather, it’s an indictment of the appallingly low profile sports car racing has in North America, a reality I hope might start to change once the ALMS-Grand-Am merger is completed.

I know tradition is important, but I think some consideration should be given to moving the Rolex 24 (an unlikely prospect, I grant you) to a proper road-course circuit where it can be promoted and built into a true stand-alone event without being overshadowed by NASCAR. Frankly, the race deserves better than to be treated like a warm-up act on the Daytona Speedweeks calendar as it is now.

Both Grand-Am and ALMS race at Circuit of the Americas this year, and while I’m not sure what the future might hold for sports car racing at that facility, I do know that Texas weather is pretty nice in January.

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