Through the night and into the morning the real contenders for the overall win at the 49th Grand Am Rolex 24 began to sort themselves out.
Leading the pack after a night of collisions and mechanical failures, and absolutely unblemished, was the 01 Telmex ganassi of Scott Pruett, memo Rojas, Graham Rahal, and Joey Hand. Pruett and Rojas have won the Grnad Am championship many times; they won nine of twelve races last season. They are considered to be bulletproof, almost unbeatable.
Not many people are pleased to see the #01 rolling strongly with six hours to go, but no one at all is surprised.
The #01’s sister car, the #02, with its all-star lineup, is also in contention for an overall win. With a crew of IndyCar and NASCAR stars piloting it— Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Jamie McMurray, and Juan Pablo Montoya—and the excellent Ganassi team supporting it, no one could be surprised to see this car in the top four either.
The #02 did lose laps early with rear tire trouble—a problem the engineers hope they have resolved with a camber adjustment. The Ganassi team did not participate in the winter tests of the new Continental tire the series uses; the new tire, coupled with the newly paved and much grippier Daytona track, led to unexpected wear. As the temperature rises during the day, will the tire troubles crop up again?
Both Ganassi cars also had to change their transmission ratios—a task the skilled mechanics managed to do in under five minutes during the heat of competition. Speed and reliability—and luck—allowed both cars to make up the lost laps, while many of their competitors lacked one of the three necessities, and dropped back.
The only team really challenging Ganassi now is last year’s winning team, Action Express, back with two cars this year. Both cars have rosters of regular Grand Am drivers—no all-stars here, just solid performers with years of experience in Daytona Prototypes.
Action Express was a new team last year, based in a large part on the venerable Brumos Porsche team, with Hurley Haywood’s decades of Daytona 24-hour experience—experience which includes six wins. Despite its potent roots, most people were surprised to see action express win the Rolex in 2010—thiough they did have a lot of luck, when the Ganassi crew called in their car to fix a problem which didn’t exist.
Action Express is back this year proving that last year’s win was no fluke. Regardless of where they end up finally, by surviving this far to be the only team racing head to head with Ganassi, they have proved a lot.
But, as both teams know, leading at 10 a.m. is meaningless. Leading at 3:30 p.m. is all that counts. The race so far has been unusually competitive; as Scott Pruett told SPEED TV early Saturday evening, “Just crazy people out there. It’s like you thought you were in the last ten minutes of trying to win this race—these guys are just going crazy.”
If that was how people fought with 22 hours to go, how will it be with two hours—or two laps?
Scott Pruett has a good idea what it might be like: “It’s going to be a cat fight to the checkered flag,” he said.
Some Other Contenders
Endurance racing isn’t just about being fast, it is—obviously—about enduring. Years ago it was nothing to spend hours in the pits—cars frequently came back and wion races after major repairs.
Nowadays, cars are so much more reliable, and repairs can be made so quickly, that a deficit of a dozen-and-a-half laps might be insurmountable. Ask the Fling Lizard team, which was the fastest car on the track for the first fifty laps, and is now 17 laps down. Crippled by accidents not of its own making, the #45 Flying Lizard Riley Porsche, with its roster of world-class drivers, still holds the record for the fastest race lap—but it has not been able to erase the deficit, no matter how fast it runs.
The same thing could happen to any of the leaders. The Action Express and Ganassi crews know that—and so do the teams running behind them.
Shank Racing always seems to have a car almost but not quite ever reaching the top step of the podium. This year, the team is fielding three cars, and all of them are running well. Michael Shank is well aware that he will need a combination of good luck for his cars and bad for the opposition; he is also fully aware that such luck could come his way—either way. Should the Ganssi and Action Express cars falter, Michael Shank hopes at least one of his cars will finally come through.
Another dark horse is the Krohn Racing Lola Ford. Long a chassis that could only win in the rain, the Lola seems to be working well this year. A number of offroad excursions and racing incidents have slowed it but somehow the team has managed to keep it on the lead lap.
While a hyper-competitive driver like Juan Pablo Montoya in the #02 Ganassi risk wrecking while sparring with teammate Memo Rojas, the Krohn car might sail through unscathed.
SunTrust and the remaining Level 5 car are both five laps down—well within striking distance if things go their ways.
And even now, at 10 a.m., the hand of fate stikes a fresh victim. The #5 Action Express car of David Donahue spun at the Bus Stop, stalled, and with its shaky clutch the car is stuck, The yellow flag is out, the safety truck is heading out to tow the beast back to the pits, and the #5 car has already started its downward slide through the rankings.
This is endurance racing. It is tiring, it is heartbreaking, it is grueling—it is a true test of men and machines—a test to destruction.
What a wonderful thing it is, indeed.