IMSA Rolex 24 Preview

In May 2017, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway counted more than two million unique viewers when it live-streamed 2005-06 Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso’s first test in an Indy car. Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 “adventure” created one of the year’s most compelling racing storylines, attracting fan and media interest from around the world.

Now one of the most revered F1 legends of all time is coming back for an American encore in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship. Alonso will take part in the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, set for January 27-28, sharing a P2 category prototype entered by United Autosport. The Rolex 24 has become well-known for featuring a star-studded lineup of guest drivers from the IndyCar Series and occasionally NASCAR, and Alonso’s presence will only add to the allure of the event.

Sports car racing in America has enjoyed several golden eras; the SCCA Can-Am championship that ran from 1967-74 is a popular favorite, as is the IMSA Camel GT era from the 1980s and ‘90s that featured iconic high-tech prototypes from Porsche, Nissan and Toyota. So, when longtime followers of the sport believe that today’s WeatherTech series is on the level of those legendary times for American sports car racing, it really means something. The lineup of manufacturers and drivers that IMSA has attracted for the second year of the Daytona Prototype International category compares well with any from those iconic eras of the past, with the added bonus of an equally stacked lineup in the production car-based GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes.

IMSA got a big boost in 2016 with the introduction of the DPi class, which allowed manufacturers to install their own engine and incorporate brand-specific styling cues onto existing P2 prototype chassis. The Cadillac DPi operated by Wayne Taylor Racing dominated the 2016 championship, but WTR will face stiff competition in 2017. Team Penske, America’s most successful racing organization will provide the foundation for a factory Acura effort featuring an all-star driver line-up that includes two former IndyCar stars (Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves) as well as the last two defending IMSA titlists (Dane Cameron and Ricky Taylor). In addition, 15-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winners Joest Racing have taken over management of Mazda’s DPi program, looking to replicate the kind of success the German team has achieved over the years in association with Porsche and Audi.

“There is so much momentum now that is the result of four years of hard work since the unification of the Grand Am championship and the American Le Mans Series,” said IMSA President Scott Atherton. “It’s accurate to call the Penske organization coming back in, along with Acura, a game changer.

“We couldn’t be more pleased, and the best part is we’re not done.”

The spotlight will be on the Penske/Acura effort at Daytona, where the crack regular driver lineup will be accentuated by the addition of IndyCar stars Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal for the endurance races. Team Penske has a long history of sports car success, including an overall win in the 1969 edition of the Rolex 24.

But the Penske Acuras will have plenty of competition, from four Cadillacs, two Nissans, and two Mazdas, as well as several P2-class contenders. And the on-track warfare in the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes is likely to be even more fierce. The full lineup for the Rolex 24 will be revealed January 5-7 at IMSA’s annual “Roar Before the 24” test and media days.