DAYTONA BEACH: For a handful of drivers, the Rolex 24 At Daytona is more than just the start of the North American auto racing season.
It’s also their first appearance in the big time – the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) WeatherTech SportsCar Championship – that they’ve worked toward while competing in recent seasons in the Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires, an IMSA Development Series.
Kenton Koch, Robert Alon and Don Yount are Prototype Lites veterans who will make their Rolex 24 debuts in the Prototype Challenge (PC) class from Friday to Monday at Daytona International Speedway. All three drivers joined a host of competitors with Prototype Lites experience who tested during the Roar Before the 24 early this month at Daytona.
Koch, the 2015 Lites 1 champion from Glendora, California, is driving the No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports car along with Stephen Simpson, Chris Miller and 2014 Lites 1 champion Mikhail Goikhberg.
Alon, from Encino, California, is climbing to the Rolex 24 in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports car with Tom Kimber-Smith, Jose Gutierrez and Nicholas Boulle. Alon was a Lites 1 title contender in 2014 and 2015.
Longtime Lites 1 Masters competitor Yount, from Dallas, is driving the No. 26 BAR1 Motorsports car with Ryan Eversley and Adam Merzon. Three-time reigning Lites 2 champion Brian Alder owns the car and is part of the driver lineup for the team’s No. 20 sister car at the Rolex 24.
A step up in power, precision
A PC car is a definite step up in power and precision from a Prototype Lites car. But Koch, Alon and Yount all agreed lessons learned in the Mazda-powered Élan DP02 chassis used in Prototype Lites translated well to their first experience in WeatherTech Championship machinery at Daytona during the Roar Before the 24.
“The PC car is much less physical but more mental,” Yount said. Said Alon, “The Lites car was very high-downforce and was good on the brakes. These two factors helped me adapt to the PC car.”
But there still were adjustments needed while turning laps on the 3.56-mile (5.67-kilometer) circuit, which includes an infield road section and parts of the famous oval. All three drivers focused on navigating traffic of varying speeds from the other three classes on track, Prototype, GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD).
“Well, it’s tricky sometimes because the GTD cars have a faster top speed, so it can make it challenging sometimes,” Koch said. “But I think Ryan Eversley put driving the PC car experience perfect. He said it’s an odd experience: It’s fun driving the PC car, but everyone doesn’t like you.”
There’s also a new mindset to learn for the Rolex 24. Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires event weekends feature two sprint races – lasting 30 and 45 minutes – with no co-drivers. The Rolex 24 lasts two trips around the clock in a machine shared with other drivers.
“The mindset is very different to sprint racing,” Alon said. “In a 24-hour race, the No. 1 focus is keeping the car on track and keeping the pace up through traffic. However, in a sprint race, it’s all about who can drive the fastest.”
Said Koch, “The mindset is to finish the race. But since this race is longer and you’ll be driving more, it’s all about making smart decisions and keeping the car clean. You win this race by staying out of the pits and out of the garage.”
Matt McMurry will join fellow 2015 Prototype Lites competitors Koch, Alon, Yount and Alder in the Rolex 24 field. This will be McMurry’s third 24-hour race, as he drove in the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans, becoming the youngest starter in the history of Le Mans, at age 16.
But McMurry from Phoenix is adapting to an even more challenging transition than Koch, Alon and Yount this month at Daytona. Unlike the more seamless climb from Prototype Lites to Prototype Challenge, McMurry is jumping to the GT Daytona class, co-driving with Patrick Lindsey and Jorg Bergmeister in the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche GT3 R.
McMurry was pleasantly surprised at the performance of the GTD car, even though he needed to make small tweaks to his driving style.
“Coming from the high-downforce, high-speed world of prototype racing, I expected the much slower GTD car to be less fun – I was wrong!” McMurry said. “The Porsche GTD car is a blast even though it is very different from prototypes. While prototypes like the PC and Ligier P2 generally prefer smooth inputs to the wheel and pedals, the Porsche needs to be thrown around a bit more.”
And McMurry’s experience in Lites, Prototype Challenge and Prototype still carried over to the GTD car despite being vastly different machines.
“There is always a translation between any two cars,” McMurry said. “Building up your general driving skills in one car will make you better in another car. The high downforce of the Lites car taught me to be confident using the downforce on any car.
“On top of that, the Lites car was a unique mix of feelings between prototype and GT — sometimes you needed to be smooth, other times you needed to use hard inputs to get the car to work the way you want. That combination has helped me adapt to all kinds of new cars quickly.”