@IMSA •DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – The global nature of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has seldom been more evident than in looking at the driver lineup for the 54th running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona. One need look no further than the polesitter of the race — Russian IndyCar driver Mikhail Aleshin, who took the Prototype class TOTAL Pole Award in the Nissan-powered No. 37 BR01 fielded by Russia-based SMP Racing in extremely wet conditions – for evidence of that fact.
He shares the car with another Russian driver, Kirill Ladygin, Maurizio Mediani from Italy and Nicolas Minassian from France. The 13-car Prototype class alone also has drivers from Great Britain, Brazil, New Zealand, Canada, Austria, Belgium, Germany and Portugal.
In terms of drivers from other series it’s a virtual who’s who — NASCAR drivers include AJ Allmendinger, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson and Brendan Gaughan, while IndyCar drivers include polesitter Aleshin, current champ Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud, Jack Hawksworth, Sebastien Bourdais and series rookie Spencer Pigot. FIA World Endurance Championship regulars include Brendan Hartley and the recently retired Alex Wurz.
Other notables include Rubens Barrichello, the longtime Formula One racer, who is teamed with Wayne Taylor Racing drivers Ricky Taylor, brother Jordan Taylor and honorary brother Max Angelelli, as well as Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber, two of the drivers on the team that scored the 2015 overall victory for Porsche at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
CONTINENTAL TIRE RACE A NAIL BITER: The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race is the unofficial season opener for the Daytona Speedweeks, and once again, it didn’t disappoint. Multimatic stars Billy Johnson and veteran Scott Maxwell teamed for the overall win and the Grand Sport (GS) class victory in their No. 15 Ford Shelby GT350R-C, a scant 2.328 seconds ahead of another Shelby GT350R-C, the No. 76 car of Pierre Kleinubing and Paul Holton. Third was the No. 33 Porsche Cayman GT4 of Marc Miller and Daniel Burkett, driving for MLB pitcher C.J. Wilson’s team.
“It was great to see two Ford Performance Shelby GT350R-Cs on the podium after all the hard work everyone’s done getting the car to where it’s at,” Billy Johnson said. “It’s the first time the car’s competed at Daytona and we’re really happy to be in victory lane with the car and a 1-2 finish for the GT350R-C. Scott did a fantastic job on the first stint and I just can’t thank him and the team enough for all the hard work and good job they do.”
The Mustang of Johnson and Maxwell led twice, from lap 33 to 46, then again at lap 54 to the end. The No. 13 Rum Bum Racing Porsche 911 of brothers Hugh and Matt Plumb led three times for nearly half the race, but a fuel delivery issue dropped the car to fourth overall.
In the Street Tuner (ST) class, Jeff Mosing and Eric Foss triumphed in the No. 56 Porsche Cayman, just ahead from another Cayman, the No. 17 car of Spencer Pumpelly and Nick Galante. Third was the No. 4 Honda Civic Si of Juan Carlos Leroux and Jorge Leroux.
There were only three caution flags in the two-hour, 30-minute race, in which the top three finishers managed to log 68 laps on the 3.56-mile road course.
HALL OF FAMERS NAMED: The Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, which is in the process of moving from its Detroit-area home to the former Daytona USA building in front of Daytona International Speedway, named seven new racing figures to the hall in a Friday press conference, including Chip Ganassi, who has four cars racing in Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, and has also excelled as an owner in NASCAR and IndyCar.
“I’m extremely proud of this honor,” he said, “but I have to share it with the people in the trenches. Some of our people worked Christmas day to help get these cars here for this weekend, and they are the heroes.”
Also to be inducted in July, the weekend of the Coke Zero 400 NASCAR race at Daytona: NASCAR owner Richard Childress, AMA racer Everett Brashear, speed record setter Gary Gabelich, NHRA announcer Dave McClelland, racer and broadcaster Sam Posey, and Indianapolis 500 winner Bob Sweikert.
ACTION EXPRESS-ING CONFIDENCE: “Every driver in our (No. 5) Mustang Sampling Corvette DP has won this race before,” said Gary Nelson, former NASCAR crew chief who is now heading the Nos. 5 and 31 Corvettes. Nelson is speaking of drivers Christian Fittipaldi, Joao Barbosa, Filipe Albuquerque and newcomer Scott Pruett, who is looking for his sixth overall victory, a record.
“Having won the Rolex 24 before doesn’t make it easier to win,” Nelson said, “but it does mean these four drivers know how to prepare and know what to expect throughout the event.”
VISIT FLORIDA RACING’S NEW TALENT: Going into the last race of the 2015 season, the Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP was in contention for the overall championship, but a disappointing day deeded the championship over to the Action Express No. 5.
This year, with a new but seasoned driver lineup, “Our challenge and goal this year is to go win the championship,” said team owner Troy Flis, something he thinks is possible with his driver lineup of Ryan Dalziel and Marc Goossens for the whole season, plus IndyCar and Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay for the three long-distance races, staring with the Rolex 24 at Daytona. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to do that.”