The 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona Was IMSA's Giant Leap Forward
The sound and the fury that is a Rolex 24-hour race conducted in the asphalt crucible known as Daytona disappears with surprising quickness.
Three hours after a triumphant introduction of IMSA’s new GTP class in front of the largest crowd to witness a sports car race here, one of the world’s most revered circuits was almost empty, save for the occasional seagull wafting in the late afternoon sun on a balmy breeze and a spare close-up crew.
That included a coterie of journalists inside the media center from around the world writing for the trade publications, hammering out the e-news about the first step touted to become a giant leap forward for sports car endurance racing.
As these occasions go, IMSA’s part of the convergence era designed to elevate what has sometimes been a fifth wheel in motor racing delivered as much as it promised. The prototypes class, long the calling card of endurance racing, had a compelling cast of manufacturers, cars, teams and drivers catapulting around the historic high banks. In a sport used to often being treated like a mistress by factories that come and go according to boardroom whims, this time being in the vanguard of electrification of the auto industry and the wisdom learned from years gone by means stability and more to come of what was seen on Saturday and Sunday.
What we saw qualified as spectacular due to the exhilarating speed and expertise of the WeatherTech Championship’s five classes. The new GTP hybrids with their remarkable closing rates at full chat had a ready tableau provided by the supporting cast of entry level prototypes and a full buffet of the highly evolved GT3 cars. It is this mix that is the calling card of sports car endurance racing, the contrast between the richness and power of the factory-driven machines and their close calls on the track with the lower classes, often funded by individuals who are merely rich by comparison with global manufacturers.
The luxury of huge prototype budgets spent by four manufacturers (with a fifth on the way next year) passionate about hybrid cars puts this form of racing into a new neighborhood, one that its organizers hope spills into greater recognition. It helps that there are the beginnings of in-house stars such as winning co-drivers Tom Blomqvist and Colin Braun to go along with the stellar cars that have so often been the drawing card over the course of endurance racing. These drivers’ clashes in the coming season with other duos capable of challenging them on any given race day is likely to be the stuff of champions, if not the kind of drama admired from afar that drives TV, sponsorship and ticket sales.
So, one big step and where does it go from here? Le Mans looms down the road in June with its plethora of hybrid prototypes from additional manufacturers. Indianapolis will start down the path of hosting a major endurance race. Sebring’s 12 hour remains a fixture in the fragrant orange groves of central Florida. Almost everyone in the garage at the Rolex is bound for the Petit Le Mans in pursuit of a championship at season’s end.
Either people get this formula of racing, falling into its quotidian rhythms of major endurance races, or they don’t. Given the remarkable number of fans who parked in satellite lots in order to walk into the France family’s Speedway by the Sea, in addition to the bumper-to-bumper full house in the infield, perhaps indicates a sea change.
Maybe, just maybe, a combination of the millennials who drive the current marketplace and those who see this new deal as reminiscent of their own youth when factory giants roamed endurance racing in the 1960s will hasten a new dawn.
The intoxication of the roaring scene of exotic cars disappearing down the straights faster than the fleeting (and exciting) days of youth brought forth plenty of fans from this demographic yin and yang. As a famed TV announcer hosting a media conference might say, let’s have a round of applause.
There’s plenty of room for cynicism, despite all the bright minds who have organized the long-sought convergence combined, very importantly, with stability. At the top of the heap are two of the world’s most powerful racing middlemen—the organizers of Daytona and Le Mans.
Where can it possibly go wrong? Well, after Sebring of this year, there’s no sanctioned race in the U.S. for the hybrids of the World Endurance Championship who seem to gravitate toward Le Mans. Like other sports have experienced, Middle Eastern money buys racing dates (see Qatar) just like it purchases the soul of golfers willing to overlook authoritarian values out of step with modernity.
Will convergence actually turn into a one-way street leading to the Circuit de la Sarthe without reciprocity at Daytona? If the crowd this weekend was the biggest ever, what would a Ferrari 499P draw?
While there’s a commitment by Cadillac to the new IMSA formula of three years, per the sanctioning body’s factory participation agreement, will the budget still be in place if the GM brand takes up Formula 1 with Andretti Autosport in four seasons’ time?
As in the past, will IMSA fumble the opportunity to give itself some star power by promoting its drivers as much as its cars and lifeblood manufacturers? Why not Blomqvist and Braun on Good Morning America on Monday morning—or Jimmy Kimmel Live! Nobody is headed for Disney World, just down the road, for goodness (and racing’s) sake.
The driver ratings system is broken, as usual, if not crooked. Can IMSA and Daytona survive without the one created by people who have their hands in organizing the WEC, Le Mans and second tier sports car racing? Here we speak of the FIA—which summarily took sports car racing out of the limelight in favor of Formula 1 to begin with. (Well, maybe there was a lot of blood on the floor from sports car racing’s self-inflicted wounds when it comes to this subject…)
But hey! This is just a big picture view, like wafting high in the air on a lovely, breezy sunny afternoon after a sports car racing weekend so damned good it almost makes you want to cry.