The North American professional racing season kicked off on Sunday when the green flag dropped on the 54th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the twice-around-the-clock endurance race featuring four classes of cars in the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.
Six hours in, and the race was startlingly dramatic, with massive problems for the highest-profile entries, the two Ford GTs. This was the first outing for the factory-backed cars, which were built to honor the Ford GT’s victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans 50 years ago, something Ford hoped to duplicate at the race in mid-June. The Rolex 24 At Daytona was intended to be a shakedown for the two Ford GTs, which have been remarkably reliable in testing, but, as motor sports veterans say, testing isn’t racing.
The No. 67 Ford GT suffered an electrical problem that locked it into sixth gear less than 30 minutes into the race, while a similar electrical gremlin locked the No. 66 into first gear later in the afternoon. There also was a problem with flat tires that was similarly difficult to explain.
“We did log a lot of miles in testing, and we didn’t have a lot of problems,” said Joey Hand, co-driver of the No. 66. The good news: Hand took his Ford GT to the class lead before problems occurred, so when the car was running properly, it was fast. The team’s plan was to log as many miles as possible, and learn what they could before the next race, the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring in Central Florida.
The other big surprise was the arrow-shaped DeltaWing, which – with its ultra-narrow front end – looked unlike any other car out there: Driver Katherine Legge drove the DeltaWing to the overall lead, and it looked as though the star-crossed design might finally score a solid finish, and maybe a win.
But as night began to fall, one of the Prototype Challenge cars spun in a corner, and DeltaWing driver Andy Meyrick – who took over for Legge – ran into it, tearing the nose off the car. Repair work continued, but the fairy tale that would have been a DeltaWing win was over for now.
All that aside, it was a reasonably typical Rolex 24, run under clear skies after a wet few days of pre-race practice. At the six-hour mark, NASCAR racer AJ Allmedinger, a past Rolex 24 winner in the Michael Shank Racing No. 60 Honda Ligier, made the most of his guest driver role by taking the lead over the No. 31 Action Express Racing Corvette Daytona Prototype driven by rookie Jonny Adam, who had never seen the 3.56-mile (5.7-kilometer) Daytona road course until the Roar Before the 24 practice earlier this month.
In the Prototype Challenge class, Jose Gutierrez led in his No. 52 Chevrolet-powered Oreca, while 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Nick Tandy was leading the GT Le Mans class in a Porsche 911 RSR. In the GT Daytona class, the largest of the four with 22 entries, Alessandro Balzan in the No. 63 Ferrari 458 GT3 was leading at the six-hour mark.
Fifty-four cars started, and the only thing that’s certain is that 54 cars won’t finish when the checkered flag flies on Monday.