Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Rolex 24 - America's 24

I began my Rolex 24 preview on by trying to find a place for the race in the pantheon of endurance racing - alongside the races at Le Mans, Spa or the Nurburgring. You can read the preview here, or just take my word for it.

At the time it made sense. Le Mans is the 24 hour race, Daytona is just a 24 hour race.

However, somewhere during SPEED’s TV coverage of the event I realised that trying to put the Rolex 24 into the same bracket as Le Mans is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.

It was the first time I’d followed the race as much as I did. Spurred on the presence of ex-F1 drivers Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell, the fact the race is full of stories and British talent – Ross Kaiser, on both counts - and the fact that I have to sound like I know what I’m talking about occasionally.

The difference is this, and it sounds so simple. The Rolex 24 is America’s 24.

Strip away the international list of drivers and you get (eventually) American cars from American teams on an American track.

Everything at Daytona is so different from the European races I was trying to shoehorn it in with. And I’m not just referring to the fact that Reba McIntyre had her own press conference at the track.

Firstly, in the Daytona Prototype class you have cars that are not raced outside of North America. OK, so they’re not exactly automotive oil paintings, but I can give you worse, and it doesn’t matter that their not – in the overall scheme of things – that fast because they’re only racing against similar cars. There are the teams – what are the chances of Ganassi, to pick the obvious example, ever showing up at Le Mans.

Slim to none.

Secondly there is Daytona itself. The ‘roval’ track running on oval and road course could only really happen in America (yes, pedants I know about Rockingham, Lausitz and Calder Park). The stupefyingly high banking, and the images it produces, are almost the trademark of the race as the oval – so disparaged by Europe – is the trademark of American racing.

Of course bundled in with the fact the race it is so inherently American is that it is owned by NASCAR. And yes, the near endless parade of debris cautions got a little tiring, though it must be noted that the final one-lap shootout was exactly the right decision. Once the Spirit of Daytona Coyote had expelled it’s bodywork all over turn 6 with eight minutes to go there was little alternative than to throw a final caution flag.

The number of full course cautions is something that grates on some fans of European endurance, but Daytona doesn’t exactly lend itself to local yellow flags – who fancies running over the infield to pick up that piece of debris from the bottom of the banking? Secondly, the close racing it generates is something entirely different from what can be found in Europe.

When was the last time Le Mans finished with the top four cars on the lead lap?

When Joey Hand copped a 30 second stop-go penalty late on in the race it put the eventual winners 50 seconds behind, having been in the lead. In all but the closest battles at Le Mans or Spa such a penalty would only be a minor inconvenience before the car returned to pounding round the track in isolation.

I can appreciate the metronomic precision of car and driver needed to simply keep going for 24 hours, but throw in wheel to wheel racing for the lead right into the final minutes and you have me hooked.

The Rolex 24 is American endurance racing the way Sebring or Petit Le Mans never will be (at least under the ALMS banner). I’ll watching whatever I can of both races, but they will be different – more European – even the ALMS name concedes something to continent that gave the world croissant, bratwurst and Kraftwerk.

The Daytona 24, on the other hand is America’s endurance race.