DAYTONA BEACH — For the car geek, the Rolex 24 remains a must-see event on each year’s calendar. A worldwide array of high-end automotive technology, along with the ultimate battle of man vs. machine vs. the clock — it’s a sports-car fan’s High Holy Days.
For everyone else?
“It’s a festival,” says Daytona International Speedway president Frank Kelleher.
And people love festivals. In this case, they love it so much, they don’t dare miss a year for fear of falling off the “invite list.” As a modern Rolex race week arrives, you have folks combing through their connections, looking for a chance to get inside the massive infield for the Thursday-through-Sunday event — the 61st Rolex 24 begins Saturday afternoon at 1:40.
Don’t bother, the infield long ago reached its reached its reservation capacity.
“I just know we never went on sale, because everything renewed 100% from last year — both camping and parking,” says Kelleher.
Grandstand seats are always available for the Rolex, and while the race’s early hours draw a decent bleacher gathering, this one largely remains an infield affair.
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Along with old-school campsites (tents, pop-ups, etc…) there are sections set aside for trailers and motor coaches. And in the heart of it all is the Speedway’s midway area, complete with carnival rides (yes, the Ferris Wheel is back) and more than a dozen pop-up showrooms where various international manufacturers (Acura, Cadillac, BMW, etc…) show off their latest “dream cars” while their competition-focused cohorts keep tabs on the actual racing across the way.
In the auto world, those car companies are generally called OEMs, as in Original Equipment Manufacturers. Over the years, the Rolex 24 and its sanctioning body — IMSA — has built up an impressive cache of OEM “partners,” to use the modern term.
This year, the number is 18. Four of them — Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche — have produced the nine prototype race cars making up this year’s marquee GTP class. Lamborghini, which fields several entries in the stock-like GTD class, will also join the GTP crowd beginning next year. GTP’s ownership roster includes two racing giants — Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi.
“They’re bad-ass cars,” driver Felipe Nasr says of the new prototypes, which will receive an abundance of attention this week. And not just here, but from far away.
Those GTPs are a collaborative effort between IMSA and its European compatriots who operate the World Endurance Championship — its big event is the 24 Hours of Le Mans. With overlapping specs, cars and teams from the top division can choose to compete on both continents.
“The OEMs have been asking for it for a while — ‘give us a place to race one car in North America as well as Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship,’ ” says IMSA president John Doonan. “And the fans have been asking for it, to see the best cars on both sides of the Atlantic.”
The new GTP class will only add to this weekend’s international intrigue. The Rolex 24 always draws visitors from all corners and, of course, upper-rung officials from all divisions of the automotive world. This year is obviously no different.
“The Rolex suites are all sold out for corporate hospitality,” Kelleher says. “Also, this year we have more global representation from leadership positions. The attention on this race, from a global standpoint, is big.
“I looked at the list of guests for the chairman’s breakfast and the Rolex dinner, and I don’t recall a year where there’s been this level of decision makers from global OEMs being here in Daytona Beach.”
And they’ll have plenty to watch over the four-day event. Like its NASCAR cousin, IMSA fills its weekend with a busy run-up to the main event.
Along with IMSA’s big-league circuit — the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship — two other IMSA divisions will compete this week. The Mazda MX-5 Series has a pair of 45-minute races — Thursday afternoon at 5:30, Friday morning at 10:15.
The Michelin Pilot Challenge series opens its season Friday afternoon, with a four-hour race beginning at 1:45 p.m.
Along with those preliminary races, most of Thursday and Friday will be filled with practice sessions and/or qualifying for all three IMSA series.
The Speedway sends the festivities across the street Wednesday to kick off the long weekend. The annual “Twenty-Four Premier,” at the One Daytona shopping and dining complex, begins at 6 p.m. and will include up-close views of race cars, as well as drivers and other entertainment activities.
— More info: DaytonaInternationalSpeedway.com