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Indy 500 Winners Prepare For Rolex 24 At Daytona

As the biggest sports car endurance race in North America and one of the biggest motorsports events in the world, the Rolex 24 at Daytona has long attracted the greatest names in international motorsports, including the true “Legends of the Indianapolis 500.”

Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner, competed in the Rolex 24 for the first time in 1966, including a victory in 1972 with co-driver Jacky Ickx. And A.J. Foyt, the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, drove to victory at the Rolex 24 in 1983 and 1985. Mark Donohue, the 1969 winner of the Indianapolis 500, was behind the wheel of the winning car at Daytona in 1969 with Chuck Parsons.

Bobby Rahal was already a Rolex 24 winner in 1981, and would later win the 1986 Indianapolis 500. And Al Unser, Jr. is not only a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, but he also won the Rolex 24 in 1986 and 1987.

Contemporary Indy 500 winners have also driven to victory at the Rolex 24 including 2008 Indy winner Scott Dixon in 2006, and 2000 500-Mile Race champion Juan Pablo Montoya in 2007, 2008 and 2013.

Many IndyCar drivers have competed in the season-opening Sports Car race, but only a few have driven to victory, which makes it special to the drivers that have been able to win at both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.

“Indeed. 1972 was a good year for us on many fronts with that particular car,” Andretti recalled. “It's amazing that we were on pole, and right at the start I dropped a cylinder. We were on 11 cylinders, but we just hung in there flat out, and our sister car was leading. I think it was the last hour or so, and we were running second, and they lost fourth gear, so we ran--both of us were limping somewhere, but we were able to overcome that and win. So it was a very satisfying win.

“Whenever you have something that you have to overcome like that, it's always a little extra special.

“I love Daytona, quite honestly. I did--I was involved in a lot of the testing, which was really good for me with Ford when they were developing the Mark IIs and Mark IVs that were so successful. I mean, we had run a simulated 24 hours, and we were there like weeks and weeks, testing and testing. You know, I didn't do a lot of races. Obviously I was busy in IndyCars and Formula One, but whenever I had the opportunity to race there with IROC or NASCAR a few times, I felt pretty confident. You know, I certainly knew those banks and the road course, as well. So I always felt good there.

“My events there, I consider that a real privilege to have had the opportunity. Quite honestly it's a fabulous venue, and of course you could see that the popularity of it now, I think it makes it all that much more important for me to have had some good experiences there.”

There are two former Indianapolis 500 winners that lead an impressive group of IndyCar Series drivers into this weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona – the first-ever race for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship series.

Consider that three-time IndyCar Series champion and defending title winner Dixon, and defending Indianapolis 500 winner and 2004 IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan, are driving the No. 02 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford EcoBoost Riley for multi-Rolex 24 at Daytona winning team owner Chip Ganassi. They are leading the way of the 10 full-time IndyCar drivers that will compete in the series in 2014.

Dixon will be making his 11th Rolex 24 start and Kanaan is making his third.

With so many IndyCar Series drivers competing at Daytona, this year’s Rolex 24 should award points toward the 2014 IndyCar Series Championship.

Simon Pagenaud finished third in the 2013 IndyCar Series and will be driving the No. 2 Extreme Speed Motorsports, HPD ARX-03b in his second Rolex 24 start. Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IndyCar Series champion at Andretti Autosport, is a featured driver in the No. 91 SRT Motorsports SRT Viper GTS-R, GRLM for his eighth start in the Rolex 24.

Sebastien Bourdais will compete at Daytona for the fifth time as one of the drivers of the No. 5 Action Express Racing, Corvette DP, and Justin Wilson will drive the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing, Ford EcoBoost Riley in his seventh Rolex 24.

James Hinchcliffe makes his third Daytona 24-hour start and will be in the No. 70 SpeedSource Mazda SKYACTIV-D Coupe. Ryan Briscoe is ready for Rolex 24 for the seventh time in the No. 3 Corvette Racing, Corvette C7.R, GTLM. Graham Rahal will be driving for his father’s sports car effort in the No. 56 BMW Team RLL, BMW Z4 GTLM. It will be young Rahal’s sixth Rolex 24 start.

And Russia’s Mikhail Aleshin – an IndyCar Series rookie in 2014 – will be making his first Rolex start in the No. 72 SMP/ESM Racing, Ferrari 458 Italia GT3, GTD.

One of the great things about the Rolex 24 is getting great drivers from various forms of racing with IndyCar leading the way.

“It’s a big race,” said Dixon, who was part of the 2006 winning team and is driving in his 11th-straight Rolex 24. “The history alone and the people who drove it in the early years up until today, it’s a very big race. For me it’s a fun race. You get to drive the car a lot and on the social side you catch up with a lot of the drivers you maybe haven’t seen in a little while that you raced with in other series, as well as teammates and people you work with that you haven’t seen since Christmas and New Year’s.

“It’s a hell of a race, very competitive and grueling. It’s a 24 hour race.”

These drivers are very good at adapting to a completely different type of race car than what they drive throughout the year in the IndyCar Series.

“That’s the fun part of racing is driving different kinds of cars,” Dixon said. “I made my first Rolex 24 back in 2004 and have been doing it ever since. We’ve done different races throughout the year as well. Once you have driven a car and understand it, the next time you get into it you pick it up pretty quickly.”

This will be the first Rolex 24 since the former GRAND-Am and ALMS Series merged to become United Sports Car Racing, and Dixon is proud to be part of that series’ first-ever race.

“I think the series itself is only going to get better,” Dixon said. “The first year or two with the transitions and trying to merge them is difficult with the two different kinds of cars, and trying to make them equal. In the testing that we’ve done, I think they have done a very good job of doing that for the first year, but there are a lot of teams and people still trying to understand it that want to see where the series is going.

“I think it’s exciting. It’s going to get bigger and better.”

Dixon’s team will include 2004 IndyCar and 2013 Indy 500 winner Kanaan, as well as Marino Franchitti and Kyle Larson, a NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie this season.

“It’s a very different lineup than what I’ve had the past few years with Dario Franchitti, and Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya a time or two,” Dixon said. “I don’t think anybody in the car this year has done a 24-hour race before. Lots of big changes, but I’m excited for them. TK has done Sebring before, so there aren’t a lot of changes there for him, but he’s a very accomplished driver with a lot of experience. It will be fun to work with him in this year’s Rolex 24.

“I remember when I first did the 24 hours it was fantastic and I loved it, and that is why I want to keep coming back every year. I hope we can keep it on the track. The car is reliable and hopefully we can win another Rolex watch. When you drive for Chip Ganassi, nothing short of victory is the goal. Chip is always fun to drive for. He is extremely competitive and we want to go there and win.”

A lot of great things have happened for Kanaan after he won the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in his career last May. Since that time he was hired by Chip Ganassi and gets a chance to drive one of Chip Ganassi Racing’s premier sports cars in the Rolex 24.

“A guy that won that five out of the last eight times he has been there, it is an honor to drive for Chip in the Rolex 24,” Kanaan said. “It’s a race every driver likes to have on his resume. The 24 Hours is a big race, and to have the opportunity to do that with my teammates with Target on board is awesome. It’s a good start of the season for me to get to know my mechanics because they are working on the Prototype as well.

“It’s an honor to be part of that race and the competition is impressive. I’m pretty excited. I ran the Brickyard Grand Prix last year for Chip, but I don’t have much sports car experience, but we did win the 12 Hours of Sebring with the Acura car a few years back with Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta. This is a completely new car than the one I drove back in July at Indianapolis. But I’m learning this as fast as I can.

“Scott Dixon and I have been talking a lot already. I’m using him as much as I can. Scott is a good driver. I will follow his leads and we’ll be OK. I’m prepared to drive at any time. In fact, I can’t wait to drive it in the early hours of the morning when it’s dark out. That will be new. I told Scott if he doesn’t want to run much there, I’ll run all of it. I can’t wait.”

Kanaan also believes there are some great things that will come with a unified sports car series.

“When IndyCar unified in 2008, it really helped us with more fans and we improved our series,” Kanaan said. “For that to happen in sports car racing is a step in the right direction.”

Considering that Pagenaud was born in Le Mans, France – site of the world’s most famous sports car endurance race, it’s almost a natural for him to be competitive in the Rolex 24.

“The Le Mans 24 Hours to me is one of the biggest races in the world because of what it represents to me, and I was born there,” Pagenaud said. “Daytona is also a big, big race. Everybody knows what Daytona is all about. I love long races. I love to share my car with teammates. I love long races. It’s difficult to manage to get everything together on long races. You need physical strength and you have to be smart.”

But this will be just his second time in the longest sports car race in the United States.

“It’s a big race,” Pagenaud said. “That Rolex watch is a big trophy that you want to get. I’ve done many 24 hours such as Le Mans, but this is only my second time at Daytona. It’s an interesting track. It’s small with some high banking, and quite difficult to pass in traffic. It’s very narrow and the opposite of Le Mans. It’s very tricky and you have to be focused for 24 hours. There is no time to rest and the car has to be reliable. The banking has a different force on the race car that it is not used to. Avoid those curbs – they are very nasty. It’s going to be good fun.

“This season will be pretty active for me driving for both Sam Schmidt in IndyCar and for Patron in several sports car races. There will be 150 drivers from all around the world in this race. The cool thing is it’s like the first day at school again and we all get to see everybody. It’s a good party.”

IndyCar’s diversity will be on display at this year’s Rolex 24 as it stands as perhaps the most diverse racing series in the world.

“IndyCar is all about diversity, and letting us race at the Rolex 24 shows what an IndyCar driver is all about,” Pagenaud said. “An IndyCar driver can drive sports car, can drive IndyCar and can do that all in one season. The schedule allows us to do many different races.”

While 10 drivers are full-time IndyCar competitors in 2014, there are seven more that competed in one or more IndyCar Series races in 2013 including Katherine Legge (No. 0 DeltaWing Racing Cars, DeltaWing DWC13, P, her second Rolex start), Tristan Vautier (No. 07 SpeedSource Mazda SKYACTIV-D Coupe Riley, ninth Rolex 24), Conor Daly (No. 08 RSR Racing, ORECA FLM09, PC, 1st Rolex 24), James Davison (No. 007 TRG-AMR, Aston Martin Vantage GT3, GTD, 1st Rolex 24), A.J. Allmendinger (No. 60 Michael Shank Racing, Ford EcoBoost Riley, P, ninth Rolex 24), Alex Tagliani (No. 08 RSR Racing, ORECA FLM09, PC, 2nd Rolex 24) and Townsend Bell (No. 555 Level 5 Motorsports, Ferrari 458 Italia GT3, GTD, 1st Rolex 24).

There are also two drivers from Indy Lights on this year’s Rolex 24 entry list including 2013 champion Sage Karam (No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford EcoBoost Riley, P) and Gabby Chaves (No. 0 DeltaWing Racing Cars, DeltaWing DWC13, P). Both of those drivers are in the Rolex 24 for the first time.

Four of the above drivers, Dixon (2006), Rahal (2011), Wilson and Allmendinger (2012) have overall wins at the Rolex 24. Dixon will be making his 11th straight Rolex 24 start with CGR.

Another highlight on the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship schedule will be the Brickyard Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 25.

But it all starts at Daytona, where at the end of a long, grueling 24-hour race, an Indianapolis 500 winner may be celebrating in victory lane.

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