Open-Wheel Stars Dominate Rolex 24 Entry List
Friday, January 06, 2012
Courtesy of Speed.com
If you can’t wait for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series to start, just turn your attention towards Daytona Beach during the weekend of Jan. 27-29.
With the heavy influx of current and former open-wheel drivers at the 50th anniversary of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, fans can get a glimpse of today’s best taking on some of the bigger Indy car stars who’ve moved on to different forms of racing, and others who stood out on the open-wheel ladder before switching to sports cars.
Most of IndyCar’s top teams will be represented, with Chip Ganassi Racing—the defending race winners, Team Penske, Andretti Autosport and KV Racing amongst those that will have drivers in the field.
NASCAR drivers have often headlined the event, with champions Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart serving as the most frequent participants, but this year, the heavy presence of Sprint Cup drivers has given way to an impressive list of open-wheelers.
“Obviously, [NASCAR drivers] have twice as many races as we do and their season starts in like a month, so it’s not maybe as easy a choice as it is for the open-wheel guys,” said Tony Kanaan.
“For me, I’ve always wanted to do the race with GRAND-AM, but it’s also a busy time for me. I’m trying to close all of my IndyCar deals right now, but I scheduled some of them around the testing and race weekends so I could make it.”
Kanaan’s off-season has also been busy with triathlons and constant travel, but the chance to drive with some familiar faces at the Starworks Motorsports outfit was too good to pass up.
“You get to an age where you don’t want to do it just to do it,” he said. “You want to do a race like this with a good team, and Starworks is a good team, no question. I get to race with two of my teammates—[Ryan] Hunter-Reay and [E.J.] Viso, who was at KV with me last year. It’s also going to be a challenge because I’ve never driven the Daytona Prototype before. I did some ALMS races and really loved those cars, but I’ve always wanted to try the Daytona Prototypes, so now I get to do it with a team that can win.”
Along with the three IndyCar regulars at Starworks, Ganassi’s effort will feature four-time series champion Dario Franchitti, two-time series champ Scott Dixon, 2011 Rolex 24 winner Graham Rahal, 1999 CART champion/current Cup driver Juan Montoya, CART winner Scott Pruett and former ladder participant Memo Rojas.
Ryan Briscoe returns to the SunTrust Racing team, Action Express Racing features a pair of CART winners in Christian Fittipaldi and Max Papis, and Michael Shank Racing, which will expand into the IndyCar Series this year, has a two-car lineup comprised almost entirely of open-wheel drivers.
Anchored by Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson, Champ Car-turned-Cup driver AJ Allmendinger and former Indy Lights driver Ozz Negri, Shank will run a trio of young guns alongside the veterans.
Gustavo Yacaman and Jorge Goncalvez, the fourth- and fifth-place finishers in the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights championship, will partner with 19-year-old Brazilian phenom Felipe Nasr, the reigning British F3 champion, who completes MSR’s lineup.
More IndyCar drivers could be confirmed for the Rolex 24 in the days ahead, with Marco Andretti a leading candidate for one particular DP team. Paul Tracy is also believed to be in the running for a GT seat.
The deals that get done between guest drivers and GRAND-AM teams each year for the Rolex 24 are rather impressive, but behind the scenes at the series’ headquarters, the deals that come close to happening and eventually fall apart are often far more interesting.
Rubens Barrichello and Kimi Raikkonen had DP rides sorted for this year’s race while they were free agents, but with the Finn now signed to drive for Lotus in F1 and the Brazilian trying hard to stay in the series, extracurricular activities like the Rolex 24 got the axe.
Ferrari’s Felipe Massa was also in contact with GRAND-AM about driving in the great endurance race this year, but has recently gone quiet.
Members of the Red Bull F1 collective nearly signed to race at Daytona this year, with former driver/brand ambassador David Coulthard and car designer Adrian Newey looking set to share a GT Audi before the opportunity disappeared.
Two years ago, the Red Bull’s most dynamic Rolex 24 lineup fell through after the energy drink’s management team initially approved then backed out from an F1-meets-NASCAR foursome of Sebastien Vettel, Mark Webber, Scott Speed and Brian Vickers.
A unique grandfather/grandson combo of Mario and Marco Andretti driving a GT Ferrari was also pitched for this year’s race, but the Indy car legend said he’d rather wait until Ferrari builds a Daytona Prototype—provided Maranello ever chooses to do so—to make it happen.
The 14-car DP field boasts other familiar names like Champ Car driver Ryan Dalziel (Starworks), Atlantic drivers Joey Hand (Ganassi), Joao Barbosa (Action Express) and Alex Gurney (Gainsco), two-time Atlantic champ Jon Fogarty (Gainsco), 1995 British F3 champion Oliver Gavin (Spirit of Daytona), former F1 driver Ricardo Zonta (Krohn), ex-Ganassi CART driver Memo Gidley (Gainsco) and a host of other drivers who made their mark in everything from F2000 to Italian F3.
The 44-car GT field is filled with drivers who once populated the open-wheel ranks, and also contains one major surprise.
1996 IRL co-champion Scott Sharp will take his Extreme Speed team to Daytona for the first time, Scott Rettich, the 2011 SCCA Formula Enterprise champion, will race a Porsche for Alliance, 2007 Star Mazda champion Dane Cameron is in a Team Sahlen Mazda, 2008 Star Mazda and 2009 Mazda Atlantic champion John Edwards is in a Stevenson Camaro, 2011 IndyCar driver Rafa Matos is a core member of the Risi Ferrari program, former IRL race winner Eliseo Salazar is in a TRG Porsche, former Champ Car driver Jan Heylen will pilot a Racers Edge Viper and occasional IRL driver Anthony Lazzaro is one four drivers in AIM’s new Ferrari.
Atlantic race winner Jonathan Bomarito is back at SpeedSource, and James Hinchcliffe, the 2011 IndyCar Rookie of the Year, joins him at Mazda’s factory effort.
So, with all but one of the current IndyCar drivers racing in the DP category, how exactly did Hinchcliffe manage to get stuck in the slower GT class?
“It’s great,” he said with a laugh. “I’m gonna see who bribes me the most to get out of their way. I expect to have a big influence on how the other IndyCar drivers get through the race…I have to milk this for all I can…
“All kidding aside, I’ve always wanted to do this race, and if I could pick any team to do it with, it would genuinely be this one. I have a long history with Mazda and I've driven for SpeedSource before (in the Continental Tire Series). Then you have the drivers I’ll work with, and it’s just a great environment for me to do my first 24-hour endurance race. Short of jumping in a Ganassi car, I think this is where I stand my best chance of winning a Rolex watch.”
The competition between open-wheel and sports car drivers will be fun for fans to follow, but as Hinchcliffe explains, most of his fellow IndyCar drivers are in awe of the endurance racing champions entered in the race.
“You look at guys like Allan McNish (Starworks) or Mike Rockenfeller (Flying Lizard) and some of the legends from Le Mans and other big events, and just to be on track with them is an honor,” he said. “It would be arrogant for any driver coming from outside sports cars to think you could show up and beat those guys at their own game. I was speaking with Marino [Franchitti, also a SpeedSource driver] yesterday and we both agreed that we’re very much the new kids on the block.
"We’re playing a supporting role. I think that’s the mindset a lot of us will have.”
After a few months away from the IndyCar scene, Kanaan says arriving in Daytona for this week’s “Roar Before The 24” test will be a nice homecoming for many of the drivers who’ve struggled to deal with the after effects of Las Vegas.
“I was happy to put 2011 behind me,” he said. “It got pretty rough towards the end. Yeah, all the IndyCar guys are competitors and want to beat each other, but I think we proved at the end of the year at how unified we are and how good friends we are. If you could spy on everybody’s text messages during Christmas and New Year’s, I think you’d be impressed with how many drivers went out of their way to support each other. I don’t think you’d get that in a lot of series today.
"If you look at the list of IndyCar guys racing at Daytona, we all really get along. It will be good for all of us to race again.”
Kanaan had a good chuckle at Hinchcliffe relegation to the GT category, but knows what it’s like: His first Rolex 24 experience was nearly identical.
“I raced there once before in ‘98 with [Mike] Borkowski and [Robbie] Buhl in a [Tom Gloy Racing] Mustang,” he said. “I was a young guy and had never driven a big GT like that before. I got the invitation after I won the Indy Lights championship, so maybe that’s the deal for young guys like Hinchcliffe. First you do a GT car, then, if you don’t screw up too badly, maybe you’re lucky and get called back for a prototype…”
Kanaan was also pleased to learn that Mark Hotchkis, an old rival from Indy Lights (TK finished second in the 1996 championship, while Hotchkis took fifth) will also be making his Rolex 24 debut.
“It will be great to see Mark,” he said. “It’s been too long.”
Hotchkis, whose family raced at Daytona for three decades under IMSA sanctioning, will challenge Hinchcliffe and the rest of the GT contingent in a Porsche run by Dick Greer Racing, another participant from IMSA’s golden years.
With Hinchcliffe and Hotchkis ready to embark on their first Rolex 24, Kanaan offered a bit of advice on how to make it to the finish.
“It’s a long race, and it’s not about who’s the fastest individual guy,” he said. “You have to be consistent. You have to put the team first. Yeah, there are similar things like how teams work in [open-wheel], but for a long race like this, you stick to the team’s plan. We’re used to attacking all the time and doing our thing, but if you go [to Daytona] trying to do that, they’ll send you right back to the airport…”
Kanaan’s trophy case contains a few items from previous sports car exploits, but readily admits that winning the Rolex 24 on its 50th anniversary would be one of his greatest achievements. Helping to score the informal win for the open-wheel drivers in the field, according to Kanaan, would also be rewarding.
“I got to do four or five races with Acura in the ALMS and won two of them, and everybody knows I love racings sports cars, so now I get to go back to the big endurance race and see how things go for me in GRAND-AM on this amazing anniversary. And it’s great there’s so many of us; IndyCar is heavily represented. There’s a good chance one of us will win it, and that’s what fun about it. I’m hoping our team can be the ones to do it.”
SPEED and SPEED.com will combine to broadcast the 24-hour race live, starting with a pre-race show at 2:30 p.m. ET on January 28th. In addition to daily web coverage of the event, look for exclusive vBlogs from Kanaan and Hinchcliffe on SPEED.com.
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