DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Think of the Rolex 24 At Daytona as a typical professional all-star game, much like the NFL’s Pro Bowl or NBA’s All-Star game. A sport’s best competitors face one another in a celebration of the game and its top talent.
But that’s where the similarities end. The Rolex does bring the best of motorsports together in one event, but, unlike other all-star games, the competitors at Daytona International Speedway are actually trying. Instead of the exhibitions of insincerity that most all-star contests have become, the Rolex 24 is a fierce battle among the world’s best racers.
That’s what draws most drivers to the race, which begins today at 2:40 p.m. ET. Drivers from various disciplines of motorsports gather for a 24-hour race to start the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season that carries a coveted price and the chance to compete against the very best.
That’s the primary attraction for Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion. This will be his 13th Rolex 24 – he has two podium finishes to his credit – and his team will start from the pole position today.
“You’re out there racing champions from INDYCAR, Formula 1, NASCAR and sports cars,” Hunter-Reay said. “There really is no other race like it in the world, in that way. And it’s certainly growing. I’ve been racing this race since ‘06. The popularity is growing, but also the driver lineups have grown every year.”
To wit: 191 drivers in 50 cars will compete in the race, including drivers from the Verizon IndyCar Series, Mazda Road to Indy development ladder, F1, NASCAR and sports cars. The field includes Indy 500 winners, 24 Hours of Le Mans winners and 12 Hours of Sebring winners. Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, who grabbed worldwide attention for racing in last year’s Indianapolis 500, is in the field for the first time. Scott Pruett, one of the best sports car drivers in history and a past Indy car race winner, is making his last run at the Rolex. Sebastien Bourdais, the four-time Indy car champion who has three runner-up finishes and a class victory at Le Mans on his resume, is here.
“If you take a look at the Prototype field, GTLM and even GTD, it is stacked throughout,” Hunter-Reay said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen over 20 Prototype cars like this. It’s definitely a very deep field and a very close field. There are champions from all over the world here, guys who can get the job done.”
For the uninitiated, the Rolex 24 is a 24-hour race of true endurance pitting cars in three classifications – Prototype, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona. The Prototype class is the fastest and most exotic, with manufacturers like Cadillac, Acura, Mazda, ORECA and Ligier. Teams of drivers – typically three or four – trade time in the cars to make it to the finish Sunday at 2:40 p.m.
Hunter-Reay will team with Renger van der Zande and Jordan Taylor in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R. Starting next to their car is the No. 7 Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05 DPi shared by Graham Rahal, Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves.
For Hunter-Reay, the Rolex is about the opportunity to momentarily step away from his Verizon IndyCar Series ride with Andretti Autosport and prove himself on an international stage against the best professionals in the business.
“I always feel like I’m representing,” he said. “It’s definitely a big stage. It’s one that, when you do step up, you feel like you’ve really represented not only INDYCAR, but also the U.S. and U.S. motorsports.”
From the INDYCAR perspective alone, the Rolex 24 lineup is impressive. Seven current Verizon IndyCar Series drivers are in the field – full-season competitors Hunter-Reay, Rahal, Bourdais, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Spencer Pigot, as well as Castroneves, destined to try for a record-tying fourth Indy 500 win in May. Fourteen drivers in the Rolex 24 have won an Indy car race. Twenty-five drivers have started at least one Indy car race.
“Motorsports in general is a very international sport,” Hunter-Reay said. “I do feel a sense of pride in representing the United States, especially being brought up in my career through open-wheel racing and road racing. It’s definitely a situation where you want to wave that American flag.”
Other big sports car races – namely Le Mans, Sebring and the season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta – draw international fields that include INDYCAR regulars, but Daytona, perhaps because of its place on the calendar, draws the most.
“I think it’s unique in that way, I really do,” said Hunter-Reay, who also will compete in the Race Of Champions international all-star race Feb. 2-3 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, along with Castroneves, reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden and two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya.
“There is no race that has this many drivers from different disciplines of the sport like Daytona, or even close to the depth you have here.”