The Rolex 24 at Daytona, January 2012

Last year, 2012, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the most important twenty-four-hour race in the United States, the Rolex 24 at Daytona. I was there, walking through the pits and garages and seeing old friends, including Scott Pruett, whom I’ve known since the early 1980s. He was racing on the two-car Target Chip Ganassi Racing team in the Daytona Prototype (DP) class, among the favorites to win the overall race.

Before the race started, Pruett offered me a ride on the track in a BMW M3 (a BMW engine powered his race car). The twelve-turn stadium road course used for the Rolex 24 is a combination of the famed Daytona 500 oval and a snaky road course inside the oval. In total, it’s 3.56 miles in length, and it takes a DP car less than two minutes to get around it.

Pruett’s car was at or near the head of the field for much of the twenty-four hours, but transmission problems at the very end cost him first place.

The Rolex 24 at Daytona, January 2013

What a difference a year makes. This year, I came to Daytona to see Mazda’s fledgling effort in the brand-new GTX class, meant for manufacturers to showcase four-door sedans and new technology. Mazda’s racing boss John Doonan brought three Mazda 6 race cars to Daytona to shake out race-prepared Skyactiv diesel engines, the first diesel engine to race at Daytona. Mazda expected the diesels to use fourteen gallons of diesel fuel in a fifty-minute stint, versus last year’s twenty-two gallons of gasoline in the same time frame.

Doonan’s strategy: "Our first goal was to get three cars qualified. Our second goal is to start three cars." This would be a good point to note that Mazda went to Le Mans twenty-two times before a win. Doonan’s goals were understandably modest.

Drivers ranged from a young seventeen-year-old to the old hand from Le Mans, Yojiro Terada, 65, and Dario Franchitti’s brother Marino. They all qualified, they all started, and before seven hours had passed, all three Mazdas had succumbed to teething problems and were out of the race. That left three Porsche Caymans as the sole competition. All three finished.

Pruett, on the other hand, won his redemption. At the end of twenty-four hours and 709 laps (!), Pruett, his teammates (Memo Rojas, Juan Pablo Montoya, Charlie Kimball, and Scott Dixon), and the car were flawless and won the overall title, Pruett’s fifth. He now ties Hurley Haywood for the most overall Daytona wins.

In this video, watch a lap from 2012 from my catbird’s seat of a BMW M3, with Scott Pruett at the wheel. Then check out my photos from the 2013 event here.