By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Here we go again.
Hope springs eternal in the paddock at Daytona as the start of the Rolex 24 approaches and everybody thus far remains a winner until the green drops Saturday afternoon.
On Thursday, lightning bolts and thunder came through in the morning, a hyper-breeze assaulted the afternoon before the evening brought a high ceiling of pearly, pale blue and undulating flags. The kinder, gentler Florida weather graced the post-qualifying hubba-hubba of activity in the paddock in preparation for night practice. Meanwhile, Mazda Team Joest celebrated a record pole time thanks to Oliver Jarvis, the RT24-P prototype, and Michelin, which celebrated its new status as the tire supplier to the entire Rolex field.
It’s the racing that brings everybody back, on this occasion the 50th anniversary season of IMSA. It’s come a long way since the initial fierce cluster of Formula Ford drivers christened IMSA in 1969 on the oval and road course at Pocono, the 2.5-mile triangle better known for Indy cars and NASCAR. The new sanctioning body branded itself as “Racing With a Difference” by greeting entrants at registration with smiles and fresh apples. More importantly, each driver left the track with a check for his earnings, a nod to professionalism that got a lot of sports car drivers’ attention. It also aggravated the hell out of the Sports Car Club of America that a new rival was willing to pay drivers.
Motorsports sanctioning groups are often fond of the attitude “We’re in charge and you’re not.” A friendlier, more practical approach was launched by IMSA founder John Bishop, a former president of the SCCA whose partner was “Big Bill” France of NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway fame. The atmosphere fostered by Bishop from the beginning has kept bringing people back – fans, participants, manufacturers – just as much as the fiery and often unforgiving crucible of motorsports.
There is an excellent new book just released by Octane Press titled IMSA 1969-1989 that tells the inside story of how Bishop built IMSA. Written by John’s son Mitch and longtime IMSA technical guru Mark Raffauf, it’s a treasure trove of car and driver photos plus many insights from the IMSA founder himself. Full disclosure: I happen to be biased about this book, in no small part because I worked as the copy editor.
Bishop had a certain genius when it came to working the personal side with racers as well as on the technical side. With people, Bishop and his IMSA organization had a live and let live approach, which at one point led to a lot of drug smugglers laundering their cash in the series by buying and racing cars – which proved, as much as anything, that IMSA had no aspirations to be the FBI.
On the technical side, the man who created the legendary Can-Am and Trans-Am series while at the SCCA continued to demonstrate his knack for creating series. He found a way to include the prevailing GT equipment from manufacturers with a sharp eye on what people wanted to race – and watch race. This eventually led to the Grand Touring Prototypes in the 1980s, arguably the greatest sports cars of all time. No doubt, the GTPs put sports car racing on the same footing as Indy cars and Formula 1 in the go-go years of professional racing’s growth around the world.
One can now look back at the prototypes from Lola, Jaguar, March, Ford, Porsche, Nissan and Toyota – to name a few that readily come to mind – and wonder why Bishop didn’t turn IMSA into a major league on a par with Indy cars or Formula 1. Well, IMSA’s brand of sports car racing was destined to be a niche motorsport, because it walked the line between professional and amateur when it came to participants, and because the rise-and-fall of manufacturer interest, which promoted professionalism, couldn’t be predicted with a compass, gyroscope, Ouija Board or any other instrument known to man.
The calling card of sports car racing since the first Le Mans 24-hour in 1923 has been a multiclass format, another major reason for niche status. Too many notes, as the saying goes, worked OK for Mozart. But serious racing is one car, or horse, finishing first.
These days, the roles are reversed when it comes to comparisons. Formula 1, Indy car and NASCAR are all facing uphill battles to sustain themselves in the manner to which they have been accustomed. The niche of sports car racing, in general, and IMSA, in particular, is thriving due to the platform of multiple classes and drivers. Manufacturers at long last have figured out this format helps sell cars – but only if they don’t drive each other away by trying to out-spend one another. Meanwhile, many of them have borrowed the Porsche model and created profit centers by selling customer GT cars.
As for drivers, it’s unofficial, but this year’s Rolex probably has the largest entry of drivers with Formula 1 experience and/or Indy car experience. There are 11 drivers with Formula 1 experience, some quite familiar such as longtime Corvette Racing driver and former Panoz Motorsports driver Jan Magnussen. An additional 11 drivers have Indy car experience.
There’s also an all-female team featuring three drivers with Indy car experience plus IMSA veteran Christina Nielsen. They are likely to gain a lot of attention – by being competitive in an Acura.
The “live and let live” approach by IMSA, survives in the form of a special car for Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion and F1 driver who will use hand controls in his BMW M8 fielded by Bobby Rahal’s factory team. Having lost his legs in the horrendous accident at the CART race in Germany in 2001, Zanardi went on to become the world’s No. 1 hand cyclist. Using prosthetic devices, he returned to racing and won four World Touring Car races in a BMW. The recent video of Zanardi using his special hand controls on board his BMW at Daytona during testing have gone viral, enabling him to eclipse the “other” world famous driver with Formula 1 and Indy car experience, Fernando Alonso.
Not a surprise to friends and fans of Alex. What an amazing human being.
There are enough major story lines to live up to the golden aura over IMSA’s marquee event this year. TV coverage of these story lines will be brought to you by a story line of its own – starting with the Rolex, NBC Sports is launching its first full season of IMSA coverage. This will be a long way from hither and yon coverage sports car fans grudgingly became accustomed to after SPEED was swallowed by Fox Sports.
Can Mazda, which has been one of IMSA’s building blocks since the days of the RX-3 in the 1970s, finally score an overall victory after its record pole? Or, will its customer-built engine expire in the long run? The RT24-P itself has been completely re-built since midway in the 2017 season after Reinhold Joest of Le Mans fame was hired to run the team launched under the new DPi formula two years ago.
Alonso has a chance to complete a unique double by winning with Wayne Taylor Racing in a Cadillac DPi after his success with Toyota at Le Mans last year. The Taylor team is coming off a brilliant win in the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta last fall and has previously won the Rolex when NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon was a newcomer to the team. Alas, it’s Daytona – where the night is long, the traffic unpredictable due to the inexperienced drivers, and demands on the equipment are exaggerated by the banking.
Will Corvette Racing claim its 100th official IMSA win versus the usual runway show of the latest technology from Ford, Porsche, BMW and Ferrari? Technically, the answer is already in: Corvette Racing collected its 100th win two years ago – but that includes eight victories at Le Mans.
Of course, one could argue that technically the years from 2000 through 2014 counted double when it comes to the history of professional sports car racing in the U.S. Unification brought the Grand-Am owned by NASCAR together with the IMSA-sanctioned American Le Mans Series in 2014 after 14 seasons of trying to rip each other’s throats out, metaphorically speaking, as rivals.
Thanks to the racing gods, NASCAR’s Jim France and ALMS founder Don Panoz, who owned the IMSA sanction, finally reached an accord and U.S. sports car racing took a great leap forward as a single entity under the France banner. It wasn’t quite the same when the Rolex 24 belonged only to the Grand-Am and the link to Le Mans was not much in evidence.
All’s well that ends well – no matter how this version of the Rolex 24 turns out.