Checkered Flag
Checkered Flag. Photo by Lynne Huntting

The Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series Night Practice went relatively smoothly at Daytona International Speedway. It was the end of Day Two of the Daytona Test Days – The Roar Before The 24.

The weather was a balmy 57 degrees F, and there were spectators and fans everywhere. Those who paid for the garage access were in the majority as opposed to those who got in free for grandstand seating. I was stumbling over fans everywhere as they sought photos with and autographs from the drivers, who obliged.

A.J. ALLMENDINGER/No.6 Michael Shank Racing with Curb/Agajanian Ford Dallara Daytona Prototype was the fastest overall and DP driver – in Night Practice and for the weekend so far. His best time came in Saturday morning’s practice – 1:40.661/127.318 mph.

Allmendinger has been upbeat all weekend, smiles all around. This is his sixth year with MSR, but the first time the team is running a Dallara chassis. Obviously the acclimation wasn’t that difficult for Allmendinger, after running a Riley for the previous five years.

MSR driver, Oswaldo Negri interviewed by JJ O'Malley, Grand-Am PR
MSR driver, Oswaldo Negri interviewed by JJ O'Malley, Grand-Am PR. Photo by Lynne Huntting

Team owner, MICHAEL SHANK, who has come close but no cigar in Daytona, said it’s an almost unbearable pressure to win the Rolex 24. “I don’t want to hear any excuses. We are sticking with Ford, despite two failed engines.” MSR is bringing six full-time engineers and 42 team members, including masseurs. “By the time we win, it will be the most expensive Rolex ever.”

MICHAEL CURB, who is the team principal for No.6, along with CARY AGAJANIAN, got his last victory in 1984 with RICHARD PETTY, which turned out to be the last win for The King. Two years ago they celebrated the 25th anniversary of that victory. Coincidently, Allmendinger now races a NASCAR Sprint Cup Ford with Petty.

The fastest GT driver for Night Practice is also the fastest GT racer for the two days, WOLF HENZLER/No.67 TRG Porsche GT3. His fastest overall time in the six sessions so far was Friday afternoon – 1:50170/126.848 mph.

I’ll never tell, but in Night Practice, at least one team had one of its monitors on the New Orleans Saints/Seattle Seahawks football playoff game. Sorry New Orleans.

The majority of the 46 Rolex Series entries ran all six sessions. A few missed one here and there, sometimes two. The only team which just ran the first day was No.11 TNP Racing Blackforest Mustang GT. The listed drivers were TOM NASTASI and DAVID EMPRINGHAM. They were twenty-fifth overall of the 31 GTs. They are also running the Continental Tire Challenge Series race.

The fiery Ferrari, No.00 Aten Motorsports F430 GT, finished eleventh in class and twenty-eighth overall, despite missing the last session. It should be back for the Rolex 24.

Magnus Racing/Nadeau Motorsports No.53 Porsche GT wasn’t present, but a crew member of the sister car, No.44 Porsche GT said the missing car “should be here for the race.”

The DP’s had the best on-track record. All 17 ran every session, save the one Doran Racing missed due to mechanical problems. The No.77 Doran Racing Ford Dallara still ended up thirteenth overall and in class.

The ever-changing Entry List doesn’t lend itself at this point to noting certain stats, such as how many drivers, countries represented, different makes and manufacturers, youngest and oldest drivers, etc.

One thing is evident so far – no female racers this year. There is one female lead engineer, CATHERINE CRAWFORD WALLACE, who is again with Team Sahlen. She has an impressive resume including a degree in aerospace engineering and working with a Formula One team. Team Sahlen is a two-car Mazda RX-8 GT team. Crawford Wallace will also be the race strategist on No.43 with drivers MEMO GIDLEY and WAYNE NONNAMAKER. For the Rolex 24, the other co-drivers will be JOE SAHLEN, and two more NONNAMAKERS, WILL and JOE. All those drivers are also listed on the sister car, No.42.

A driver who is not racing will be missed, not just for his driving ability, but his charmingly dry wit and humor. That would be ANDY WALLACE, husband of Catherine.

There is one female racer in the CTCS – SARAH CATTANEO of Arizona, in No.195 RSR Motorsports Mini Cooper S in the ST class, with OWEN TRINKLER. Her best time was eighth in class Saturday afternoon.

Chip Ganassi, happy to see the team's masseuse, Alyson Kimball
Chip Ganassi, happy to see the team's masseuse, Alyson Kimball. Photo by Lynne Huntting

From the balmy Florida weather, which is said to drop more than ten degrees on Sunday, I head toward Indianapolis and it’s chilly weather, forecast to be well below freezing. Brrr. AARWBA (American Auto Race Writers & Broadcasters Association) is holding its annual Awards Banquet Sunday night at CHIP GANASSI’s Indianapolis race shop. Ganassi offered his shop as venue before the Rolex Series test days were announced. He asked that the banquet be moved to Sunday so he and his seven full-time drivers in three series could attend. Three of his six drivers are on the All-American Drivers First Team, as voted on by the AARWBA members: DARIO FRANCHITTI, 2010 IndyCar Champion and Indy 500 winner; SCOTT PRUETT & MEMO ROJAS, 2010 Grand-Am Rolex Series DP and OA Champions. The other four Ganassi drivers flying up Sunday afternoon in his two planes are SCOTT DIXON, JAMIE McMURRAY, JUAN PABLO MONTOYA, and GRAHAM RAHAL, Ganassi’s newest IndyCar driver – who will be with Ganassi’s third team, pairing with another American, CHARLES KIMBALL.

Oliver Gavin and Graham Rahal
Oliver Gavin and Graham Rahal. Photo by Lynne Huntting

Rahal said it was part of is contract that he run the Rolex. Rahal said – Aw Shucks. He was grinning from ear to ear, getting to run the 24-hour endurance race again.

Joey Hand
Joey Hand. Photo by Lynne Huntting

The other driver for Ganassi this weekend with Rahal, in No.01 is JOEY HAND. Ganassi told me chose Hand because he was a good, underrated driver who was consistent. Ganassi credited Hand’s earlier training with DEDE ROGERS at DSTP Motorsports in the Atlantic Series for three years. “She taught him well” said Ganassi.

Hand is also racing in the Continental Tire Challenge Series race, GS class, as are at least ten other drivers.

Other AARWBA First Team drivers testing at Daytona are JORG BERGMEISTER and PATRICK LONG, who together won the 2010 ALMS GT2 Championship; and JIMMIE JOHNSON, NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion again, for the fifth time. Long is attending the Banquet, and will be presenting The Gorsline Scholarship award to CONOR DALY. Long was the winner in 2001. Seven of the eighteen Gorsline Scholarship winners are testing this weekend at Daytona: JOEL MILLER, DANE CAMERON, COLIN BRAUN, RYAN LEWIS, Long, BRYAN SELLERS, and BUDDY RICE.

The weekend was relatively sane and despite several bingles and mechanical problems, no one was hurt.

There were lots of laudatory comments about the new smooth track surface, especially noting the transitions. Several veteran drivers, one calling himself ‘an old war horse’ miss the character (the word they all used) of the bumps; but they’ll get over it.