If you traveled on International Speedway Boulevard at some point last weekend, you probably heard them.
The familiar hum of accelerating engines and popping of backfiring exhausts as they shifted gears reverberated through the catch fences of Daytona International Speedway and echoed across the city of Daytona Beach.
It’s that time of the year again. The Rolex 24 at Daytona will be upon us on the Jan. 25-26 weekend, and the prelude test weekend, the “Roar Before the Rolex 24,” not only hosted thousands of boy and girl scouts in the speedway’s “Scout Days” event, but also showed what race fans can expect in the 2020 chapter of the prestigious endurance sports car race.
The Rolex 24, a 24-hour race with four classes of competitors racing on Daytona International Speedway’s 3.56-mile road course, will be live on NBC and NBCSN. It is considered by many as a crown jewel event in the motor racing world, and, as one would expect, attracts competitors of many racing disciplines from across the globe, giving the endurance race a star-studded field almost every year.
Kyle Busch, who is fresh off his second career NASCAR Cup Series Championship and has only one sports car start under his belt, in July 2009, will be making his first appearance in the twice-around-the-clock challenge, driving the No. 14 Lexus RC-F GT3 for AIM Vasser Sullivan Racing, who was quickest in its class in the first practice session of the Roar weekend.
“I’ve been asked the last couple of years by Toyota-Lexus to come out and drive their car, and I politely declined both times,” said the Las Vegas native. “I thought if I didn’t say yes eventually, I’d never be asked again.”
The NASCAR Cup champion has earned a reputation for being passionate for his racing, which has given him a more aggressive driving style and personality, earning him the nickname “Rowdy.”
“I didn’t come here to completely have fun,” said Rowdy Busch. “I want to go out there and win one for Lexus-Toyota. A lot of guys have come out and gotten their taste of the Rolex 24, and this is my chance to do that.”
It wasn’t only NASCAR drivers in the spotlight during this year’s Roar festivities, however, as six past Indianapolis 500 champions also took to the high banks. Unlike Mr. Busch, all six of them are no stranger to endurance events at the World Center of Racing, and all of them will be competing for the overall race win in the Daytona Prototype (DPi) class.
Four of those six champions are driving for one of the most decorated car owners in racing history, Roger Penske, and while the man many call “The Captain” has won just about everything there is to win on four wheels in North America, the Rolex 24 still eludes him.
“The (Rolex) 24 is on the list for Team Penske,” said three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who will be making his third consecutive start with the Captain in the No. 6 Acura DPi. “We have some unfinished business from last year. We had a really fast car, but the rain cut us short.”
In 2019, Mr. Penske had two cars lead 198 of the 593 total laps run. However, with just two hours left before the end of the race, rain halted the event, and the winner was whoever was first at the time, which was the No. 10 Cadillac DPi, owned by Wayne Taylor. Mr. Penske’s No. 7 Acura DPi finished third.
“This year, the number one priority is to get (a Rolex 24 win),” said Juan Pablo Montoya, a two-time Indianapolis 500 and three-time Rolex 24 champion. “I think when you’re at Team Penske, it’s a must-win situation. That’s how I look at it.”
The weekend also included a mock-qualifying session that would determine the pit stall selection for the upcoming endurance race. The winner was neither Team Penske nor a past Indy 500 winner, but French driver Olivier Pla, who will be racing the No. 77 Mazda DPi for Mazda Team Joest.
Team Joest nearly dominated the Rolex 24 in 2019 and were the favorites after setting a new track lap time record and leading for most of the first half of the race, but lost that favoritism when both cars quite literally spontaneously combusted within mere minutes of each other during the night hours of the race.
While the main focus during the Roar weekend may be the upcoming Rolex 24, it isn’t the only racing event drivers are preparing for. Two of the International Motor Sports Association’s (IMSA) lower tier series also took to the track during the roar weekend.
On Saturday of the Roar weekend, it was the IMSA Prototype Challenge series that took the spotlight in their season opening three-hour race featuring 18 teams competing in LMP3 Prototype cars.
The winner, after winning the series’ championship in 2019, was Forty Seven Motorsports, who took the victory with three drivers sharing the No. 47 LMP3 car including young Florida native Kyle Kirkwood, an up-and-coming open-wheel driver that is only in his second year of competition.
“This is actually my first race here at Daytona,” said the 21-year-old who made a pass for the lead with only 17 minutes left. “It’s special because I came here in 2007 and came to my first ever NASCAR race, so it does have a special place in my heart. I always considered it a home track for me because I live down in Palm Beach.”
The three hour race began under caution as rain was pouring on the speedway, and even when it eventually began almost 10 minutes within, cars continued to slide and venture off-track. Among the field, the drivers of Forty Seven Motorsports, JJ Jorge and Joel Janco, experienced issues that pushed them as far back as one lap down on the 3.56-mile course, but they pushed on.
“Both J.J. and the team did a really good job of setting me up for victory,” said Mr. Kirkwood. “Even though we were a lap down, we were set up perfectly with fuel and tires. That was all because of their decision making.”
Within the Michelin Pilot Challenge series are two classes of GT-level cars that will be competing in a four hour race on the Friday before the Rolex 24. Known as the BMW Endurance Challenge, it will feature more NASCAR faces.
In the No. 22 Ford Mustang GT4 for Multimatic Motorsports is rising NASCAR star Hailie Deegan, who in 2018 became the first female driver to ever win a NASCAR event in a K&N Pro Series race in Idaho and has made the visit to victory lane two more times since. In late 2019, Ms. Deegan announced she has formed a partnership with Ford Performance as a development driver, and will be racing full-time in the ARCA Menards Series with DGR-Crosley Racing in 2020.
“The last two days driving the (Mustang) GT4 have been a lot of fun,” said the daughter of motocross legend Brian Deegan on her first outings in a sports car. “It’s been definitely a learning curve. I come from the dirt racing background, so I’m not a sports car racer. I still have a lot to learn.”
The 18-year-old will be teammates with fellow Ford NASCAR drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric in the four hour event on Jan. 24, and each have two NASCAR Xfinity wins under their belt and will both be racing full time in the series in 2020.
“I have a great relationship with Multimatic and this car,” said Austin Cindric, whose No. 15 Mustang GT4 topped the charts in the final practice for the Michelin Pilot Challenge and placed no lower than tenth in the 38-car field throughout the six practice sessions that took place during the weekend. “I love doing this race. It’s obviously a great weekend with all the fanfare leading up to the Rolex 24.”