The calendar says January, which means most of the country is cold and gray, and sports fans are thinking more about football than motorsports. Thankfully, IMSA has a cure for that in the form of the “Roar Before the Rolex 24.” Followed a few weeks later by the Rolex 24 at Daytona, one of the world’s greatest endurance racing events.
In 2020, I was fortunate enough to attend this legendary 24-hour endurance race to write an article for the Porsche Club of America magazine, Panorama. I was “embedded” with the Canadian-based Pfaff Motorsport team to chronicle their experience as they raced their Porsche 911 GT3 R. I was with the team through the final practices before the event, qualifying, and then the 24-hour race itself. The Pfaff Porsche qualified on the pole, and the team was a favorite to win their class, but as often happens in racing, fate intervened. The team was knocked out of contention when a driveshaft shattered around 5 am. They rallied like the professionals they are and had the car back on the track in an hour, but they were relegated to finishing in the back of the pack.
The experience was a highlight for me personally and professionally. It was the first time I could attend the race, and I cannot think of a better way to experience the spectacle than being “part” of a team, and a fantastic one at that.
One of the critiques I heard from people in the paddock last year was that the field’s size was too small, and maybe IMSA was losing a little of its importance. With the ever-changing automotive landscape, the number of manufacturers participating in professional motorsports always ebbs and flows. But the car count was noticeably down last year in the prototype classes and the GTLM class (most notably due to the loss of the factory Ford GT program).
For many people, the big draw in lMSA and international racing is the top-class prototype cars. They represent the fastest and most technologically advanced cars, outside of Formula 1, and they are extremely impressive. But my taste leans toward the sports car classes. These “lesser” classes are, in my opinion, more fun to watch and more relatable.
The GTLM and GTD class cars look like tarted-up versions of what you see on the street. They are Corvettes, Porsches, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Audis, Acuras, Lexus’, BMWs, Aston Martins, and McLarens with big wings, diffusers, and aerodynamic aids. However, they still look like the street car on which they are based. Don’t get me wrong; they are ludicrously expensive, purpose-built race machines, but they look, and sometimes sound, like what you can buy at your local dealer (assuming you have the deep pockets required, of course).
These classes are where the attraction lies for me, it’s where the factory-backed teams mix it up for bragging rights, and the privately-owned teams battle each other for supremacy. The level of competition is amazing, the racing intense, and the margin of victory often razor-thin. These are the cars I rearrange my calendar for. The prototypes are interesting and certainly provide some tense moments, but they don’t “do it” for me.
IMSA did a fantastic job of delivering an entertaining race season last year as it battled changing rules and event and travel restrictions due to COVID-19. The calendar wasn’t what it was planned to be, and it lacked some marque events, but it was the best they could do under the circumstances. 2021 begins with a more traditional schedule for racing. Hopefully, it can stay that way.
One change this year has been to the annual testing session leading up to the Rolex 24 at Daytona called the “Roar Before the Rolex 24.” This event is typically run in early January, giving teams a chance to test their cars and setups at the track with a few weeks to make adjustments and changes before the actual race. Due to COVID, it is moved to the week before the event for 2021, starting on January 22nd and running through the 24th. The move should make it easier and more cost-effective for teams since they only have to travel once and stay on-site after the Roar to prepare for the race.
The flip side of this is that teams do not have the weeks they normally do to make changes should their car not be up to the level required for competition. The tight window for testing and changes before the race should make things interesting this year. But what I am most looking forward to is the size of the field itself.
There are 50 cars signed up for this year’s Roar Before the Rolex 24. That is 12 more cars than competed last year. Assuming everyone makes it through the testing session and starts the Rolex 24 at Daytona the following week, the large field should make for a fantastic race.
With 50 cars racing, the action on pit row will be more intense, and the passing on the track even tighter. The increase in competitors will also factor into the strategy teams employ for tire changes, pit stops, and how they deal with any time spent off the track for repairs or penalties. Overall, the larger field will make one of the most entertaining races of the year even better.
You can bet that on January 30th, I will be glued to my streaming services to watch as many minutes of the 59th Rolex 24 at Daytona as possible. I will certainly be warmer and more comfortable this year, but it won’t be the same. No matter how cold I was at 3 am, or how painful it was to stay awake for the 36 plus hours to cover the event, I would rather be in the thick of the action than be on my couch.