A True All-Star Event
Every now and then the Super Bowl is played the weekend immediately following the conference championship games, which seems to usually result in a better game. But most of the time, as is the case this year, the NFL gods determine that there must be a two-week gap in order to inundate us with the type of senseless hype that only the NFL can provide. The result leaves us with what I consider the most boring weekend in sports – the weekend before the Super Bowl. Of course, now we get the added misfortune of the NFL Pro-Bowl to compound the misery of this past weekend.
Fortunately, the way the calendar has worked out for the past few years – what was previously the most boring weekend in sports, instead features the Rolex 24 at Daytona – the twenty-four hour endurance sports car race on the infield road course that also utilizes a good part of the oval at Daytona International Speedway. Suffice it to say, I don’t follow sports car racing very much. I am aware that I’m opening myself up to be corrected on many potential mistakes I may make in this post due to this lack of knowledge. That’s why I acknowledge that on the front-end, so if I say something incorrect – have at it.
My understanding is that there are two competing series in sports car racing – Grand Am and the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). I can’t really explain any differences between the two. My confusion is probably not unlike the general public’s view of CART and the IRL in the late nineties. The cars look basically the same to a novice and it’s hard to discern which series races where and why.
But for this weekend, it doesn’t really matter. I am usually so starved for racing at this time of year, I would watch a tricycle race so long as it had some names that I recognized. This winter has not been too cold here in Nashville. Last winter was a different story. As I recall, last year we had a good bit of snow on the ground while this race was running. Watching racing with snow outside my window is a surreal experience, since I’m usually wearing shorts and complaining about the hot weather while watching most races.
When I was growing up in the sixties, the Indianapolis 500 was becoming a melting pot of the top names from different motorsports disciplines. Not only were the USAC regulars competing for a spot on the grid, but the top stars from Formula One, NASCAR, sports cars and even motorcycles were there as well. For example, the 1969 Indianapolis featured USAC stars such as AJ Foyt, Bobby & Al Unser, Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford; but also drivers that had previously made their name elsewhere – such as Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney, Joe Leonard, Denis Hulme, Peter Revson and Mark Donohue. Although it is an overused cliché, it can be said that the Indianapolis 500 was truly an All-Star event in the mid-to-late sixties and early seventies.
In the mid-seventies, the International Race of Champions (IROC) was created. The first season featured top drivers from Formula One, USAC, NASCAR and SCCA in identically prepared cars run exclusively on road courses. Mark Donohue captured the first IROC crown. The second year, ovals were introduced to the equation. Two races were run at Riverside and the ovals at Daytona and Michigan rounded out the other two. It was a true test of versatility and was won by Bobby Unser. Over the years, IROC became more and more slanted towards NASCAR. The cars became more like stock cars and they ran exclusively on ovals that NASCAR visited. As racing became more specialized, it became mostly NASCAR drivers against a slim few outsiders. Gone were representatives from around the world on challenging tracks.
Eventually, IROC faded away after the 2006 season which was won by Tony Stewart. It featured seven stock car drivers, two Grand-Am drivers and Steven Kinser from World of Outlaws. There were only two open-wheel drivers represented in the 2006 field – Sam Hornish and Scott Sharp from IndyCar and no drivers from Champ Car – and no drivers from ALMS, Formula One or USAC; hardly a fair representation of champion drivers across the spectrum of motorsports. And they wonder why the popularity waned.
That is why I’ve come to really enjoy the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Not only is it the first racing we’ve seen in months, it’s also the only real star-studded event that combines stars from various series. I think the term All-Star is way overused in sports. Many times, the term is used simply for hype. In a weekend when the NFL and NHL both showcased their "All-Stars"; the Rolex 24 at Daytona was the only event where the term actually applied. Since racing has become so specialized, it’s rare to get drivers to cross over and race in any series other than their own. Le Mans and Sebring are interesting, but they are run when other series seasons are already in full swing or about to start.
This years Rolex 24 was full of drivers from the IZOD IndyCar Series. Paul Tracy, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Justin Wilson, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal were some of the drivers representing American Open Wheel Racing. Tony Kanaan and EJ Viso were originally scheduled for the car that Marco drove, but sponsorship issues forced a last minute change.
The racing was good and it’s fun to be able to have the channel on the same station. Do I sit there and intently watch the race? No, but it was always on – except when SPEED cut away during the late night-early morning hours. I can recall some years when they had twenty-four hour coverage. Those years, if I happened to wake up during the night, I would turn on the TV just to catch up on what had happened while I slept.
Another intriguing aspect is that unless they are regular drivers in the Grand-Am series; many of these drivers aren’t concerned with points. They are there to do one thing – win. A win at the Rolex 24 is an impressive feat for any driver. The impressive list of IndyCar drivers that have won the Rolex 24 includes AJ Foyt, Lloyd Ruby, Mark Donohue, Mario Andretti, Danny Ongais, Bobby Rahal, John Paul, Jr., Al Unser, Al Unser, Jr., Raul Boesel, John Andretti, Davy Jones, PJ Jones, Mark Dismore, Scott Pruett, Scott Sharp, Max Papis, Christian Fittipaldi, Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon, Juan Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Buddy Rice and Graham Rahal. That’s a partial, but very impressive array of IndyCar talent.
For the record, new IndyCar owner Michael Shank Racing won the race, with current IndyCar driver Justin Wilson and former Champ Car driver AJ Allmendinger, who is now driving for Roger Penske in NASCAR, Ozz Negri and John Pew rounded out the team of drivers that swapped off stints for the twenty-four hour race. So long as it’s an IndyCar driver, I don’t really care who wins – but this year’s winning team had multiple ties to the IZOD IndyCar Series. It is rumored that Michael Shank Racing will sign Paul Tracy for this season in IndyCar, for what Tracy says will be his final year. Hopefully, that will come to pass. We’ll see.
It’s just good to see such a diversity of drivers who are there mostly for the love of the sport and are trying their best to win. It is always an impressive field that is assembled from a world-wide talent pool, all there to race and not collect points. The Rolex 24 is always a refreshing reminder why we love this sport we follow. Plus, it’s a great way to spend the most boring weekend in sports.