DAYTONA BEACH, Florida: In the FanZone, just outside the garage area at Daytona International Speedway, a pair of old Cadillacs sit side-by-side simply for display purposes. In their youth, the 1950 coupe and 2002 prototype were “race cars” in theory, but not exactly world-beaters. They’re serving a better purpose now.
If first impressions mean anything, things have changed for a General Motors brand generally known for luxury. Thursday (Friday in Manila) at Daytona, at the start of the Rolex 24 four-day show, Cadillac’s latest racing debut couldn’t have gone better.
Well, OK, maybe a little better. In qualifying for the marquee Prototype class in the Rolex, the three new Cadillacs qualified first, second and fourth. The two-car stable from Action Express Racing swept the top two spots, while the Caddy from Wayne Taylor Racing was fourth, just four-hundredths of a second from completing the trifecta. The No. 13 Oreca of Rebellion Racing was the interloper.
Surprised by the early returns?
“Of course not,” said Bob Johnson, the Daytona Beach businessman who owns the Charlotte-based Action Express team.
Johnson barely waited for his optimistic statement to sink in. He quickly smiled and countered with, “Well, a little bit.”
Also a marketing event
The Rolex 24 is, by definition, a competition. But the marketing end of the 55-year-old event is so prevalent, you wouldn’t be wrong to also define it as an international convention of auto makers, all of them counting on their well-paid help to build machines fast enough to thrill in qualifying, then fully satisfy on race day.
When a large contingent of Cadillac and General Motors VIPs gather on Friday (Saturday in Manila) night for a reception on Speedway property, they will be thrilled with the early results. But even though it’s been 17 years since Cadillac last raced here, and 15 years since its prototype-style effort raced anywhere, the suits are smart enough to know qualifying greatness can be fleeting.
“There’s a long time to go,” Johnson said, looking ahead to Saturday afternoon’s 2:30 start of the marathon. “This is only the first step.”
He smiled yet again: “But it’s a good place to start.”
Action Express took delivery of its first new race car last September, the other in October. Since then, it’s been an 80-to-90 hours-a-week effort to reach this point, said Iain Watt, the team’s lead engineer, who suspects he’s one of precious few native Scotsmen to have owned a 1967 Cadillac – which he sold last year, by the way.
Watt, in this country 20 years, admits to feeling a bit edgy about a possible pole jinx once the race starts, but since he’s never prepped a car that won a pole here, he said, “We ended up fastest and that’s a good thing.”
“It’s always good to be fastest, but our emphasis is more towards the race,” he added.
Wayne Taylor, the team owner and former Rolex 24 winner, stopped briefly while hustling to the garage stall that houses his own fourth-place qualifier. He expressed mild surprise that the competition wasn’t stiffer Thursday, then stated the obvious about what all of this means.
“It only counts on Sunday [Monday in Manila],” he said.
Meanwhile, Friday we see our first checkered flag of 2017. Between now and year’s end, a wide variety of motorized equipment – on two wheels and four, on asphalt and dirt – will visit Victory Lane at Daytona. In modern times, the ribbon has been cut by the winner of Friday’s season opener for the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, the secondary series for Rolex 24 sanctioning body International Motor Sports Association, which is NASCAR’s sports-car arm.
The four-hour BMW Endurance Challenge sees the green flag fly during the lunch hour, at 12:15. Most races on that series’ schedule are two-hour events; the Daytona opener is one of two four-hour races. Also, Friday is one more 60-minute shakedown for the 55 Rolex 24 entries, from 10-11 a.m.
After that it’s more than 27 hours of prepping – interrupted only by moments of worry and dread of the unknown – before a pair of Cadillacs lead the field for the start of, literally, a day of racing.