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Unique Mix Of Drivers Hopes To Deliver Fifth Rolex 24 Title To Ganassi

The Rolex 24 at Daytona is important for many reasons.

It is a chance for the best sports car drivers in the world to compete in one of the greatest endurance races on the planet in exotic sports car. It’s not only a battle of man versus machine but also against the clock.

It is the first major auto race of the calendar year, signaling that the offseason is over and it’s time to go racing.

It also kicks off a series of races that will form the long road to the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard when GRAND-AM Road Racing returns Friday, July 26 to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard Grand Prix for the Rolex Sports Car Series and the Brickyard Sports Car Challenge for the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge.

And it’s also a chance for racing stars from various disciplines to test each other’s skills in a completely different machine than they are accustomed to driving.

That is most obvious in the two Rolex Sports Car Series Daytona Prototype machines that will be fielded by legendary team owner Chip Ganassi featuring GRAND-AM stars Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas and Joey Hand, IZOD IndyCar Series champions and Indianapolis 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, IZOD IndyCar Series driver Charlie Kimball and NASCAR Sprint Cup driver and 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya and NASCAR Sprint Cup driver and 2010 Brickyard 400 winner Jamie McMurray.

“You forget sometimes the accomplishments of our eight drivers – it’s quite amazing,” Ganassi said. “These guys are good with the amount of wins they have, and they are big wins, so that is nice.

“It’s a gem because that is an important race in the industry, and we all know why. It kicks off the racing season in Daytona with SpeedWeeks, so there are a lot of eyes on it. There are a lot of great drivers there from around the world that are looking at that race. That is why it is so much fun to win.

“You shake off the cobwebs early on in the year, and we have had success in that race over the years and we are looking for more.”

Ganassi has won the Rolex 24 at Daytona four times. His lead driver, Pruett, has also won it four times overall and in his class eight times. He has competed in the greatest races in the world, including the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400, and realizes how special this event is on the racing calendar.

“Without a doubt, in IndyCar you want to win the Indy 500 and the championship,” Pruett said. “In NASCAR, you want to win the Daytona 500 and the championship. In our series, you want to win the Rolex 24 and the championship. The level of commitment and the amount of preparation that goes into it is staggering to win that race.

“Although it’s the first race of the season, the feeling behind the wheel comes back amazingly fast. The buzz really gets going at the Roar Before the 24 because when you go back for the race it’s a short amount of time. You have a practice, you do qualifying, night practice for a little bit then the cars are prepped for the race and you have 24 hours. If the drivers are going to get some time in the car, it’s at the Roar for the 24 because when you go back for the race your time comes after the green flag drops.”

Pruett got off to an impressive start Thursday by winning the pole for the Rolex 24 with a top lap of 1:40.553. Dixon made it an all-Ganassi front row by qualifying second at 1:40.646.

Rojas is an impressive driver that competes full-time in GRAND-AM and knows that when Ganassi’s teams show up at Daytona, they are the focus of the other competitors. That means the pressure is on the team, but it’s a pressure that Rojas enjoys.

“I think the focus on us is a good thing because when people’s expectations are high, it means we have done something right in the past,” Rojas said. “It means we are there to win, and that is what we are going to try to do. We turn that into extra motivation and we have done that in the past.”

Franchitti and Dixon are not only two of the best drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series, they have reached a status that places them among the best of all time in this form of racing. Franchitti has won four IZOD IndyCar Series championships and three Indianapolis 500s. Dixon is a two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion and won the 2008 Indianapolis 500.

Dixon has competed in the Rolex 24 at Daytona every year since 2004 and, after the long offseason, can’t wait to get behind the wheel of the sports car at Daytona.

“It’s a lot of fun and the format when you have two cars with eight different drivers to take the load with the aim of winning the race,” Dixon said. “Finishing one-two would always be nice for us. It’s a great way to kick off the season. Obviously, everyone has been home with their families in the offseason, and it’s a great way to catch up with everyone. But more importantly, it’s to get back in the role of racing and racing hard and try to win some races.”

Dixon is a former Rolex 24 winner and believes the level of competition is so high in the race that there is little time to actually pace the car in the race.

“It’s always tough because each year you have a quick car and maintain a pace you need to, but the last couple of years it’s been a little more difficult because we haven’t had the speed of some of the other cars out there so you are having to push and almost qualify or drive at 100 percent every hour you are on the track,” Dixon said. “It’s always changing and evolving. It’s a moving target, but it’s a moving target for 24 hours so you have weather, reliability issues, trying to save fuel, trying to get the pit windows and driver rotation. That is what makes it so difficult to win. For Chip to win the race four times is quite a feat, and we are going for that fifth win this year.”

With eight drivers sharing the driving duties between two cars over 24 hours, it’s important to divide up the time behind the wheel to maximize the effort in the race.

“With us, we have been fairly lucky the driver lineup has stayed similar,” Dixon said. “We’ve had a bit of a change with Montoya going to the 01 and Joey Hand going to the 02. That is a switch with the lineup. Pruett is qualifying the 01, and I’m qualifying the 02.

“You start the race and run every two to three hours and then switch out. It depends on how you are running and the tires and the cars. For me, I’m excited because it’s me, Dario Franchitti, Jamie McMurray and Joey Hand, so we have an extremely strong lineup. Hopefully, it ticks along and we don’t have to make the decision of who gets in when so we can fall asleep, hear the bang on the bus door and then get ready to get back in the car again.

“It doesn’t take too long to feel comfortable in the car. Everybody gets to test for the three days at the Roar, and then you come to the race weekend and have a short practice and a short, 15-minute qualifying session. There is not a whole lot of time until you get into the race. But once you are in the race, it’s a lot of time in the car. It’s exciting to go back in. It’s different than what we normally do, but it’s a lot of fun. My first one was in 2004, so I’ve been doing the race for a little while now.”

Because the race includes two full trips around the clock, there are many moments in the race that are unique. Instead of a 2-1/2-hour IndyCar race or a four-hour NASCAR race, these drivers experience sights that are unique to racing.

“If you go in order, the best part is to be driving it across the finish line in the race,” Dixon said. “But I love starting the event. It’s an exciting start, and you are running close quarters with everybody. But the peaceful time is in the middle of the night when you get dragged out at 5 or 6 in the morning and see the sun come out. It’s different from what we ever do in IndyCar. So it’s nice to be in those moments and have those memories. It’s moments we don’t ever get to do in any other series in the world.

“The long-distance races, I love those events. It’s a different discipline, but one that is extremely challenging and tough to win. Every year I look forward to the Rolex 24.

“It’s the racing is so competitive now so you are constantly pushing the envelope. It’s not like 20 years ago with long-distance racing you would have a qualifying speed and a race speed, and you maintained. But now, you are pushing the whole time. The toughest part of the race is from 12 midnight to 7 in the morning. When you get in the car it takes a while to wind down and then try to get a couple hours of sleep. I’m getting older, so you sleep less. But having two little girls, I’ve had my sleep broken up, but they are growing up now so there are no more midnight feedings. I’m glad to see that gone for the minute, but we will all pull our weight throughout the Rolex 24.”

Rojas actually prefers the “Overnight Shift” – the dark, desolate time around 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. because it’s unusual.

“The night is cool because there is a point where it is quiet and pure driving,” Rojas said. “You don’t hear from the crew. It is almost serene. It’s a moment where you feel you are driving alone, but you are at the limit all the time. It’s a peaceful feeling, but in your mind you are also driving at the limit. A couple of years I was able to drive when the sun is rising, and that atmosphere is pretty cool. The way the track looks – everything starts to get awake again.”

Pruett said the first 21 hours of the race build up to a dramatic period that culminates in the final three hours of competition.

“There is nothing like the last three hours to me because that is when everything is coming together,” Pruett said. “If the strategy will work, if you are overcoming a problem, if you are the car in the lead, if you are trying to make up a lap – it’s all coming to a head in the last three hours, and I love being in the car getting it done.”

The Rolex 24 will be an all-new experience for IZOD IndyCar Series veteran Kimball. But he already feels comfortable behind the wheel after participating in the “Roar Before the 24” test earlier this month at Daytona International Speedway.

“The three-day Roar test went really well,” Kimball said. “We were quick in the car. Racing at night was no problem. Traffic is something I’m still getting used to. The difference in speed with all the different cars, it was an adjustment, for sure. In the prototype, it takes awhile to get the momentum going, and you have to factor that in when going through traffic. We’re all drivers who will drive anywhere, any time and do whatever it takes to win.

“The car itself is a very different perspective, especially with the roof and without the wind in your face. It’s completely different, but it’s still a racing car that is prepared extremely well, built by the same guys at Chip Ganassi that build the other cars, so it is well built. I have to go out and get the speed out of it, which is what racing drivers do.

“We have a great shot to win this race. The cars are fast, and the crew is great. I have no doubt we have all the tools we need to go out and get a fifth win for Chip.”

This race will kick off an outstanding Rolex Sports Car Series season that will include another trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July. Pruett relishes that trip.

“I love Indianapolis, and I want to win that race,” Pruett said. “I’ve been there with IndyCars and with stock cars. To finish second last year was incredible, but we still want to get to victory lane. I can’t think of anything more exciting than Memo and I getting to the top of that podium. There are so many great memories for me there, so getting to victory lane would be incredible.”

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