Racing Warmth In The Dead Of Winter
The mercury – OK, it was really the Weather App on my phone – dipped down to 5º F this past Friday morning in Nashville. That is not the normal temperature that will get you thinking about the upcoming racing season. But what has become the annual rite of winter, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, was a very welcomed sight this past weekend. The mention of Florida in January conjures up images of bronze babes on the beach. Well, it wasn’t quite that. It was more sights of team-members bundled up in blankets trying to stay warm and catch some sleep as cars roared past all through the crisp night. Still, for eyes that have been yearning for some motorsports competition – the twenty-four hour endurance race from Daytona gave us a teasing glimpse of racing as most of the US only dreams of thawing out sometime soon.
This has always been an enjoyable event. I’ve never been there live. In fact, I’ve never been to Daytona International Speedway (although I flew over it once in 1996). But with the hours I’ve invested into the wee night hours each January watching it on television, I almost feel like a veteran. This year was different. Since FOX chose to shut down SPEED last August, the broadcast was moved to the FOX family of networks. It started out Saturday afternoon on the main FOX – the same channel that will carry this week’s Super Bowl. However, that window only lasted two hours.
The next five-hour segment was moved to Fox Sports 2. I wasn’t sure exactly where that was on my cable grid, but I figured I could find it easy enough. There was one problem – my cable provider (Comcast) doesn’t carry FS2, not in high-def, low-def or in any shape, form or fashion. I remembered Bob Varsha saying it was also available on Fox Sports Go, the mobile app. No problem, I figured. I’ll just watch it on Susan’s iPad. The problem was, FSGO wasn’t carrying it either. Finally with the help of some Twitter friends, I was able to find the race online through some obscure links that they sent me, where I watched it off and on until I went to bed.
Keeping up with a twenty-four hour race can be addicting, if you let it. I don’t glue myself to the television, or in this case – my computer. But I normally have it on continuously, while I do other things around the house.
Although the TV coverage was sparse until Sunday morning, when Fox Sports 1 resumed coverage for the remainder of the race – I was more interested in this year’s edition of the Rolex 24 than normal. Not only did it quench my thirst for racing in the dead of winter, there were some interesting storylines to follow. First, there were a slew of current, former and even future IndyCar drivers in this year’s race. Secondly, I was curious to see the first race of the newly unified sports car series under one banner.
The list of all drivers with connections to IndyCar was impressive. Some of the more notable names in the race included current IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan, four-time Champ Car champion Sébastien Bourdais, 2012 IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay along with Ryan Briscoe, Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, Justin Wilson, Alex Tagliani, Tristan Vautier, Conor Daly, Townsend Bell, Sebastian Saavedra, EJ Viso and 2014 IndyCar signee Mikhail Aleshin and 2013 Indy Lights champion Sage Karam. Former drivers included Christian Fittipaldi, Scott Pruett, Katherine Legge in the DeltaWing, Memo Gidley, Max Papis, Scott Sharp, AJ Allmendinger and Bruno Junqueira. I’m sure I’ve left someone out and I hope someone will point it out if I have.
As usual, there were some exciting times, some lulls with no action whatsoever and then some scary moments. The scariest moment came in the early stages when Memo Gidley, in the pole-winning Corvette came upon the nearly stopped Ferrari driven by Matteo Mallucelli. I did not see the crash happen, as this was during the time that Fox Sports 2 had the broadcast. I was following along on Twitter as best I could when it happened. Very little official information combined with a lot of speculation can be a scary mix.
Finally, we got official word several hours later that although both drivers were rushed to the hospital, rather than the usual trip to the infield care center – both drivers were conscious and awake. Later, we learned that Gidley underwent surgery for left arm and left leg injuries. Gidley also has an unstable fracture in his back which will require surgery before he can be released from the hospital. Mallucelli was being held overnight for observation. After viewing replays of the horrifying crash, I think both drivers should consider themselves extremely lucky. Based on the tweets of those that saw the crash live, I think most feared the worst.
The other item I found intriguing about this race was that it was the first since the merger of the Grand Am and ALMS series. I will get in trouble if I try to start explaining the differences in the two series, since I never followed either of them that closely. I do know that people whose opinions I tend to respect seemed to think that ALMS was the more interesting of the two, but I can’t really tell you why. The main difference I know is that with the Prototype cars of each series; Grand Am cars had an enclosed cockpit, while the ALMS Prototypes had an open cockpit. I know there were other significant differences, I just don’t know them off the top of my head.
Me not knowing the difference is probably the way most casual fans viewed the Champ Car/IndyCar split. I’m not trying to open up that can of worms, but it probably illustrates the confusion of the casual fan. I was interested to notice that on the surface to this casual fan, the merger seemed a lot more inclusive than the unification of the two open wheel series just before the 2008 season.
When Champ Car and IndyCar joined forces, it was basically all on IndyCar’s terms. When you hold the Indianapolis 500 as your trump card, you have that power. There was no sharing of equipment, sponsors or point structure. Although the Panoz DP01 was much newer and considered the better chassis (and much better looking), the DP01 and their turbocharged Ford engine was not allowed in competition. Former Champ Car teams were told they had to drive the much older Dallara or else go home. IndyCar plucked a few tracks off the Champ Car schedule, but for the most part it was simply a case of former Champ Car teams joining IndyCar rather than a merging of the two series.
From a distance, it appears the merger of these two series was much more equitable. The Daytona Prototypes remain as their own class, the old ALMS prototypes have their own class renamed the Prototype Challenge class. The GT classes remain separate as the GT Le Mans and the GT Daytona classes. Granted, it’s a lot easier to merge two series when there are already separate classes, but I always felt like some type of equivalency formula could have been devised to accommodate the Dallara and DP01. Perhaps IndyCar officials were afraid that the DP01 would race circles around the clunky Dallara, no matter how much they detuned the Panoz – but that’s another argument for another day.
The new series has been renamed the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. I’ll admit, I did not know what TUDOR was. As it turns out, it is a slightly less-expensive brand of watch made by Rolex, the previous title sponsor for Grand Am and still the title sponsor for the Rolex 24. I’m obviously not really up on my high-end watches. In my former marriage, my then-wife put a lot of stock in such things. As a result, I went the other way and was a continuous source of embarrassment to her by making sure my watch proudly said Timex. To this day, the watch I currently wear is a $29.95 Timex that I bought in 1999. It keeps perfect time, so why change? Remember – change is bad!
One of the biggest surprises for me was how distinctive and nimble the DeltaWing chassis looked in the Rolex 24. I was vehemently opposed to the DeltaWing becoming the exclusive chassis to the IndyCar Series, when the ICONIC committee was reviewing proposals for new equipment back in 2010. I thought the design was too radical, especially if only one chassis manufacturer was to be chosen – which turned out to be the case.
However, seeing the near-tricycle configured car in its chrome livery amongst the larger Prototype beasts – it really looked good, in a unique sort of way. Had two or three shown up for the Indianapolis 500, I would have welcomed it as an innovative idea. Had it been successful, more would have shown up the next year – just as rear-engine cars quickly took over in the sixties. However, to be told that all thirty-three would have to look like this just because that’s what a spec-series dictates – well, I don’t think most fans were ready for that.
After watching it make its way through the series of turns on the infield road course at Daytona, I was surprised how nimble it looked. I mentioned on Twitter how I wondered how the car drove, since it looks like it would not turn well at all. Our friend Pressdog saw my comment and sent me an article documenting an interview he did with Katherine Legge in April of 2012 on just that subject. Her comments on the drivability of the DeltaWing were quite interesting.
With four different classes and each car driven by three to four drivers, I am never that concerned about who wins the race. I always pull for a team that has one or more IndyCar drivers on it, like the Ganassi team that had both Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan driving the same car. On the Daytona Prototype level, this year’s race was won by the team that consisted of Sébastien Bourdais and Christian Fittipaldi. The DeltaWing driven by Katherine Legge went out with a broken gearbox. The Chip Ganassi team, which usually dominates in the Rolex 24, had both cars – one driven by Scott Pruett, the other driven by Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan – go out in the final ninety minutes.
IndyCar fans can also take comfort that our series is not the only one that has controversial finishes. The GT Daytona class was decided on a penalty for avoidable contact on the last lap, when video evidence showed that there was no contact made. It was a bad call and should never had been made. Fortunately, four hours later, race officials huddled and reversed the call. It’s better to get the call right a few hours later than to spend all week defending what was obviously a bad call. Not only was I glad to see the right call eventually made, but it also made another IndyCar driver a winner, as Townsend Bell was one of the drivers on the eventual GTD winning team.
This was an exceptionally exciting race, among all four classes. It confirmed to me why we all follow this sport. It was good to get some racing warmth still in the dead of winter. The Super Bowl is this weekend, then NASCAR takes the stage for a couple of weeks at Daytona. Formula One kicks off in early March, then finally IndyCar gets going the last weekend in late March at St. Petersburg. Our long offseason is almost over.