Race fans, start your engines. This is one race you won’t want to miss.
By Marcia Biggs
A Tampa Bay team will be competing at the prestigious Rolex 24 endurance race January 28-29 at Daytona International Speedway. Largo-based Predator Performance will run the 50+ Racing/Predator Performance No. 50 BMW/Riley in what is considered to be a race of historic significance — the 50th Anniversary running of the Rolex 24.
“This no doubt will be the most significant sports car race to be held in North America,” says Herb Branham, managing director of communications for NASCAR’s Grand-Am Series. “This race validates the name of the speedway with international teams and drivers from Indy Car, Formula 1, NASCAR — names like Juan Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Christian Fittipaldi. It’s truly an ‘all-star’ race.”
As one of more than 50 cars expected to run on the 3.56-mile track, the 50+ Racing/Predator Performance No. 50 will compete with several superstars at the wheel: AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson and veteran race car driver and former Rolex 24 overall winner Elliott Forbes-Robinson. Other drivers are former Rolex 24 winners Jim Pace and Carlos de Quesada, and Chattanooga businessman Byron DeFoor.
Legends at the Wheel
Brian Johnson, a longtime vintage sports car racer, has been with Predator Performance, a leader in vintage racing, for many years. The Predator team is partnering with 2007 Rolex 24 GT winner Alegra Motorsports for this year’s race.
A Sarasota resident, Johnson and the team were testing the No. 50 car in early December at Daytona. The Rolex 24 will be his first major race and coming off the practice session, Johnson’s excitement seemed hard to contain.
“It’s quite a strange sensation,” he said of driving on the steeply banked track, which ranges from 31 degrees in the turns to 18 degrees on the front stretch and three degrees on the nearly level backstretch. “You look down and actually see a car beneath you. It’s kinda scary when you’re at the top — it’s very exciting!”
“I’m used to driving vintage cars with technology from the ‘60s and early ‘70s,” he added. “This is rocket ship science.”
Cars: Prototype and GT
The Rolex 24 features two classes of cars: the exotic Daytona Prototypes and production-based GT cars which all run simultaneously. The GT class sports some of the top models of sports cars in the world modified for the race track: Porsche GT3, Chevrolet Camaro, BMW M3 and M6, Pontiac GTO.R, Mazda RX-8, Nissan 350Z, Ferrari 430C, Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Mustang, Infiniti G35, Audi R8, Jaguar XK and Mercedes SLS. The GT class can reach speeds up to 180 mph.
The Daytona Prototype cars are built for competition. They are low to the ground and capable of speeds in excess of 185 mph. The 50+ Racing/Predator Performance No. 50 is a Daytona Prototype.
Five-time and reigning Grand-Am Rolex Sports Cars Series Champions Chip Ganassi Racing is considered the team to beat in the 2012 Rolex 24, says Branham.
Ready to Party
Fans can expect a weekend of racing, celebrities and racing legends. The infield area fills with RVs so fans can stay overnight and a festival-like atmosphere ensues. “This will be a weekend for racing aficionados,” says Branham. “We’re expecting up to 40,000 people and most of them will be in the infield. It should be a pretty wild weekend.”
An exhibit featuring nearly 40 of the 50 winning cars from past races will be on display, he adds. “And we have AJ Foyt as Grand Marshall. Not only is he a racing legend but he’s a former winner of the Rolex 24.”
A final note to star-gazers, keep an eye out for “Dr. McDreamy,” Patrick Dempsey, the star of the ABC hit show “Grey’s Anatomy.” He’ll be sharing the wheel of the No. 40 Visit Florida Mazda RX-8 GT. Dempsey finished third in last year’s Rolex 24.
The Rolex 24 is set to start at 3:30 pm Saturday, Jan. 29, and runs for 24 hours rain or shine. For more information on the Rolex 24, go to www.grand-am.com.
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