Story and photos by Tom Fielitz
The Rolex 24 at Daytona is always well anticipated since it kicks off the sports car racing season in the US in late January. The 52nd running promised even more excitement because it would be the first race since the Grand American series and American LeMans series merged into the Tudor United Sports Car Championship. The two race series had different specifications for their classes of cars. The combined series would have a top tier prototype class, a spec prototype class and two grand touring or GT classes. The spec prototype or Prototype Challenge class is all ORECA built chassis powered by Chevrolet 6.2 crate motors putting out 430 horsepower. The rules makers had quite a job on their hands to write new specifications for the combined classes of cars. The specifications try to balance the speed potential of cars that have different engine sizes and car weights. They had lots of team owners to please and to try to retain in the new championship.
The Grand Touring or GT classes would also see class rules changes to allow LeMans specification or GTLM class with more modified chassis and engine rules to be separate from the closer to production spec Daytona class or GTD. This allowed the big manufacturers to each showcase a pair of cars that could race both here and in Europe. The Porsche 911 RSR competes in this GTLM class against Viper, Corvette, BMW and Aston Martin. If you want to enter your own RSR be prepared to step up to the counter with a cool $1,099,052. The Viper GT3 R can be bought for $459,000. The BMW Z4 GT3 will can be purchased $431,133. The ultra cool Aston Martin Vantage V8 GT3 sells for an equally cool $482,995. But the Corvette C7R is unobtainable at any price.
The less expensive GTD class contained 28 entries of private teams using cars based on production car chassis. The racing 911 GT America sells for an almost reasonable $279,000 with a 4 liter motor producing 470 horsepower, the same horsepower produced by the street GT3 with its 3.8 motor. If you want to race the Audi R8 LMS with its 560 horsepower 5.2 liter V10 motor it will set you back $445,253. The Ferrari Italia 458 GT3 with its 562 horsepower 4.5 liter V8 lists for $365,000. The GTD class contained five Audi R8 LMS Cup cars, nine Ferrari 458 Italia and twelve teams fielding the new Porsche 911 GT America plus two Aston Martin Vantage V12s. It was fascinating to walk through the garage area and listen to the German and Italian being spoken by all of the factory mechanics and engineers sent to support not just the GTLM cars but also the GTD entries. Racing in this series is truly for the well funded teams.
With the typical sand bagging of racers in test sessions no one knew until race qualification laps what the true speeds would be. The pole winning speed for the Prototype class was 129 mph with the Gainsco Corvette topping the charts. The Prototype Challenge class was only slightly slower at 125 mph average. The GTLM class was next fastest at 120 mph for the big V10 motor Viper SRT team. Close behind was the GTD class Audi R8 at 118 mph.
This spread in average speed would seem to make for some distinctive racing within class. The actual effect was that all four classes could achieve nearly identical top speeds depending on traffic and drafting. This created very close racing throughout the entire field of 64 cars on this tight 3.56 mile track. Drivers complained that there was not a clear performance advantage between classes and the numerous collisions that occurred as cars entered corners seemed to confirm that. Some drivers stated that passing only occurred with the cooperation of the driver in the lead car, even between the prototype and GT classes. Watching the in car video of the GTLM class Porsche 911 RSR it was clear that the RSR did all of its passing under hard braking. Pointing out the dangers of close racing, the pole winning Gainsco Corvette prototype was taken out in the early hours of the race when it crashed at over 100 mph directly into the back of a coasting broken Ferrari on the infield. Both drivers survived but the race was stopped for over an hour of clean up.
The close race finishes did prove the performance equalizing class rules kept any specific car from dominating its class. The Prototype class was swept by four Corvette Daytona prototype cars with the very experienced Action Express team finishing first and third. There were 52 lead changes and the winning Action Express car led 18 times with a winning margin of victory over the Team Velocity Corvette of only 3.56 seconds after racing a total of 695 laps or 2,474 miles. The best Prototype from the LeMans entries was the Nissan powered ORECA chassis in 5th place. The best Prototype Challenge cars finished 9th and 10th overall. But the top two GTLM class cars finished ahead of them in 7th and 8th with Porsche barely winning over BMW. For the first time in Daytona history one team, CORE Motorsport fielded both the class winning Porsche RSR and Prototype Challenge ORECA. Another hard fought class was GTD with Ferrari taking the win over Audi but with heavy contact between them on the last lap. Initially the Ferrari was penalized for avoidable contact but hours after the race the decision was reversed. The best GTD class 911 GT America was in third place for the Snow Racing team with young Madison Snow whose story was recently chronicled in Pano.
All of these close finishes would indicate that this will be a memorable season for sports car racing. The Rolex 24 has set the stage and now all of the players know what they are up against for their class competition in the championship.