Endurance races have multiple layers and there are a multitude of plots and sub-plots, unseen stories and angles and facts that get filled in later. The Rolex 24 at Daytona had plenty of storylines that grabbed the headlines, but the days and weeks after the race provided an opportunity to have a closer look. The Prototype Challenge class had only eight entries and the most attrition within the class. The PC class doesn’t get as much attention as some other classes, but there is some good racing and compelling stories to be found. With that, some observations and nuggets through the Prototype Challenge field at the Rolex 24:
Who logged the most laps of any driver of any car in any class at the Rolex 24? Alex Popow in the Starworks #8 with 268. He was 18 laps clear of the next closest who was Pipo Derani in the race winning ESM prototype. Who logged the third most laps of any driver in any class at the Rolex 24? Renger van der Zande in the same Starworks #8 car with 243 laps. That’s 10 hours plus in the car for both Starworks pilots. Why? After co-driver Chris Cumming was unable to re-start in the car in Turn 1 and was rear-ended by Andy Meyrick in the Delta Wing, the team repaired the car but Cumming was not cleared to continue. Indycar driver Jack Hawksworth was on the entry and ready to go, but drive time regulations intended to ensure a minimum amount of seat time for amateurs meant that Jack didn’t drive. The team repaired the #8 car after the contact and rejoined 38 laps down. Running with right rear diffuser damage, the team finished the event 4th in class, 17 laps off the PC winner. They were 8 laps away from a PC class podium. Epic driving to finish the event with long drive times and fast laps even without podium hardware to take home.
The Starworks team #88 had a strong driver line up, including Mercedes standout Maro Engel who is better known for SLS GT racing than open-top prototype racing. Watching the team plan and practice driver changes on Friday was an interesting case study in minimizing motion and maximizing efficiency. Sean Johnston got caught on cold tires on a painted line leaving pit lane, but ended up with front left damage rather than the more common front right damage. The slow crawl around the remainder of the lap was painful to watch. The crew repaired the damage in a half an hour and returned the car to the fight. A crash in the bus stop for Mark Kvamme before the halfway mark damaged the mounting point for the nose cone and the tub, forcing an early retirement. Felix Rosenqvist never got to race. Engel went directly to Bathurst and had an epic run in a Mercedes SLS before a flat tire suffered while co-driver Austin Cindric was aboard ended their race.
The #54 CORE autosports team arguably should have been a favorite for the win but retired after only 116 laps run and 5.5 hours logged with an engine failure. Jon Bennett started the car and turned it over to Mark Wilkins who took the car to the class lead by the four and half hour mark. Colin Braun and Martin Plowman did not drive at all.
Signage from the movie “Zoolander 2” and light bars on top of the roll hoops made the #20 BAR1 entry easy to spot at night. Vastly experienced hot shoe Johnny Mowlem put the car on pole during a very wet qualifying session with the fastest time of all prototypes – not just the prototype challenge class. Due to IMSA rules, each class was gridded together regardless of times, so Mowlem started behind the prototype field at the green flag. Mowlem drove several races with the team in 2015 and claimed pole position in the 2015 edition of the Rolex 24 as well. He will be running the full season with youngster Matt McMurry. The team claimed the third spot on the PC podium for the 2016 running, mostly staying out of trouble and surviving the war of attrition. Driver Brendan Gaughan was a very late addition to the team for the race, but brought some experience and success – he visited the podium previously in 2011 with a GT car.
The #26 team BAR1 car finished fifth in class. After running close to the lead on Sunday morning, a gearbox put the car behind the wall for repairs and cost any chance of a podium. The car lost third gear which likely had some connection with a spin for John Falb in his first Rolex 24. The team struggled with a variety of issues throughout the race, including a right front brake caliper and radio communications between the driver and the team. Driver Ryan Eversley spun in the infield after the radio came detached and ended up in the pedal box and struggled with handling and no spotter. The team wasn’t the fastest, but should be proud to finish fifth despite such hurdles.
Among other challenges, gearbox/clutch troubles slowed the #38 Performance Tech motorsports car. A walk through the garage in the wee hours found the team along with the XTrac technician at 3:50am rolling the car back out of the garage and towards the track. Driver Josh Norman said later “The Daytona gods had no mercy upon us this year.” The car was shown as not running at the end and ranked 6th in the PC class.
The #52 PR1/Mathiasen finished a strong second place in the PC class. While Tom Kimber-Smith is well known to sportscar fans and is lightning fast, the other three drivers on the squad were all Daytona 24 Hour rookies. A faulty pump fuel relay after halfway put the car behind the wall for a 20 lap visit, but the end margin to first place in class was only four laps. Jose Gutierrez in particular deserves credit for his speed and time in the car. He was only slightly off the average fast lap times of TKS and did 139 laps (TKS did the most in the car at 185 laps).
Kenton Koch came up through the Mazda scholarship program and is trying to juggle being a race car driver and a college student. His start in the #85 JDC-Miller entry was his first drive in a prototype challenge car. Koch and co-driver Misha Goikhberg both won championships in the Mazda Prototype Cooper Lites junior series over the past two years. But for an off on cold tires just after sunrise as Koch exited pit lane which inflicted modest nose damage, the #85 ran a dominant race in the lead with laps of many margins to the next runners. The margin at the end was a four lap lead in PC and 18th While the youngsters deserve credit, the star of the show was South African Stephen Simpson. Simpson qualified the car second in the rain, started the car, ran 202 laps (60 laps more than the next closest in the car which was Koch with 142 laps), and had the fastest average lap times of the drivers on the winning car by over a second. Very quietly, Simpson had an epic race and the PC win was well earned.
Periodic PC driver Mike Hedlund noted that 6 of the 21 full course yellows in the Rolex 24 race were caused by stalled PC cars that couldn’t get restarted. He attributes the issue to updated valve train and compression for new motors which overwhelmed the older starters. Presumably, the issue can be remedied by an upgraded starter. The PC cars are due for a variety of technical updates at Sebring as well.
The Sebring 12 Hours is next up. Prototype Challenge cars are notoriously fragile class and Sebring is a notoriously rough track. Having said that, PC cars did well in 2015 with the winner placing 6th overall only 6 laps off the lead.