NBC Sports officially begins its broadcast tenure with the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship this week with the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona. And the broadcast team – including Leigh Diffey, Calvin Fish, Steve Letarte, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the group’s new addition, A.J. Allmendinger – met with reporters Friday morning before final practice for the weekend’s 24-hour season launch.
Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, competed twice in the Rolex 24, famously finishing on the podium in 2001 co-driving a Corvette with his late father, Dale Earnhardt. Although he is retired from full-time NASCAR competition, Earnhardt Jr. indicated Friday he’d still be open to competing in the Rolex 24 – under the right circumstances.
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He spoke admiringly of his previous experience competing in the race. He finished runner-up in in the GTO class co-driving a No. 3 Chevrolet Corvette with his father, Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins. He returned in 2004 and finished third overall co-driving a Pontiac Daytona Prototype with Tony Stewart and Andy Wallace.
“It’s a really incredible race and some great memories from running it two times,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s such a different discipline and I made some great friends when I got the chance to do that. I always wanted to come back. Never thought it would be in this capacity.
“This is such an amazing, amazing event. I said on the way over here, they better be careful because we may come out of retirement and run this thing one more time. I’ve always had that in the back of my mind, coming back. Even the last several years I’ve watched this race from home from start to finish because I’m such a fan of it.”
Pressed to recall a favorite moment from his Rolex driving experience, Earnhardt talked about sharing the car with his father – who would pass away only weeks later after being involved in a last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500.
“Watching dad get in the car here, that was awesome,’’ Earnhardt recalled of his first Rolex race, his face brightening with the memory. “… You go there 30 minutes to an hour early and dad was there [in the pits] and didn’t have to be. To see him getting ready, putting his helmet on. In NASCAR you really didn’t get the opportunity to see that side of him. So, I got to see a side of him a lot of people never do.”
And, Earnhardt added, “It was really cool for me and I was faster than him, even in testing. He wasn’t happy about it, but I was extremely proud.’’
IMSA’s 50th anniversary kicks off: The weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona marks the 50th anniversary season and the sports-car governing body will be celebrating the occasion throughout the year.
“I think it will be a fantastic year with a lot of great moments, tipping the hat back to the last 50 years of IMSA and hopefully looking forward to an exciting beginning to the next 50,’’ IMSA CEO Ed Bennett said.
Judging by the positive vibes in Daytona this weekend for the annual season start, good things are indeed ahead. There are a record 19 manufacturers between the WeatherTech Championship and IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge in 2019.
Track records were established in all four classes in Thursday’s qualifying – including the overall pole winner, Mazda Team Joest’s Oliver Jarvis, whose time of 1:33.65 (136.792 mph) in the No. 77 Mazda DPi broke a 26-year-old mark formally held by PJ Jones in the series’ former GTP era.
Michelin is beginning the first year of a multi-year deal as the “Official Tire of IMSA,” and NBC begins its telecast partnership with the series – all significant signs the sports-car series is thriving.
“It’s an exciting time, these programs, all these different specifications that are a part of the IMSA family that are being optimized further and further, but I think it’s really an opportunity, and appreciate everybody that’s helped to build ‑‑ to get things to where they are today,’’ Bennett said.
The Zanardi factor: Popular driver Alex Zanardi met with reporters Friday, looking and feeling every bit ready to wheel the No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M8 in the GTLM class this weekend. His team will start seventh in class on Saturday.
This is Zanardi’s first race in America since losing both his legs while racing at EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany in 2001. The two-time CART champion has been busy competing both in touring cars and winning the 2011 New York City Marathon in the hand-cycling class, while also collecting gold medals in the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London and the 2016 games in Brazil.
This will be the first time Zanardi has raced against some of his former IndyCar competitors since his accident, but the significance of that is not something he says he’s ever truly thought about.
“If you were to ask me, ‘Alex, would you like to go back in time and fix everything,’ I’d probably say, ‘yes,’ especially if I could live again the last 17 years because it would be a lot of fun trying to do different things had that not happened,” Zanardi said.
“But if you had just said, ‘Alex, would you like to change the outcome of that day and find yourself today with legs but without knowing how happy or sad you would be and live the last 17 years in a different condition in comparison to the one you have now?’ I frankly don’t know if I would take that change because I would also be taking the chance to wake up, not as happy, not as comfortable in my life as I am. I don’t know a better way to answer. I think everyone of us is different.
“But I can tell you that across my rehabilitation, I’ve met a lot of great people who have had to overcome particular problems in life without the headlines I normally get in magazines but they embrace the challenge with the same tenacity with the same enthusiasm because everyone of us has something, some energy that comes out when it is needed.
“The only difference is maybe, how rapidly you finally get on top of everything and gain that new mental condition where you say, ‘OK, now it’s time to do what I can, to take every day as a new opportunity, to make a small step in the right direction.’ ”
Acura trailblazers: The 47-car field entered for the Rolex 24 At Daytona includes one team comprised exclusively of female drivers. Katherine Legge, Simona De Silvestro, Ana Beatriz and Christina Nielsen will co-drive the No. 57 Heinricher Racing with Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3. Beatriz qualified the car 11th in the 23-car GTD class.
“I think we are all here to do really well and wanting to win the race and a podium is definitely realistic,’’ De Silvestro said. “For me it’s a bit different as I’ve never done a 24-hour race, but I think we are all capable race car drivers and if everything kind of goes our way I think everything will be OK.
“For me, it’s exciting. I’ve had the chance to drive in the Indy 500, and now having the Rolex is cool and I’m really looking forward to it.”
The driver lineup is certainly as accomplished as it is inspiring.
De Silvestro, of Switzerland, was runner-up in the 2013 Houston IndyCar race. The Brazilian Beatriz won two Indy Lights races (at Nashville in 2008 and at Iowa in 2009) and diverse British driver Legge made four NASCAR Xfinity race starts last year in addition to earning two WeatherTech Championship GTD class victories (at Detroit and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca) en route to second in the season championship. Danish driver Nielsen, who won the 2017 and 2018 WeatherTech Championship GTD titles, was part of the winning GTD class team at Road America in 2018.
“A lot of fans are coming up to us and wishing us luck,’’ De Silvestro said. “It’s definitely different. I’m sure a lot of people will keep an eye on where we are during the 24 hours, so that’s exciting and I think it’s cool to have that pressure a bit. It’s fun for us and we look forward to it.”
Corvettes, special edition: Chevrolet announced a one-of-a-kind honor for its four WeatherTech Championship GTLM title-winning Corvette drivers – Oliver Gavin, Jan Magnussen, Tommy Milner and Antonio Garcia. The carmaker has issued special edition models of the sports car called the “2019 Corvette Drivers Series.”
Four new Corvette Grand Sport models will have a specific design for consumers to choose from that will include an exterior color and graphics package “inspired” by one of the four Corvette IMSA racers.
“All the drivers have always wanted to have some sort of driver edition,’’ Gavin said. “If any manufacturer was to come up with a car and it’s a driver’s edition, that’s just spectacular. So, when we started talking about this with (Corvette Racing Program Manager) Doug Fehan and the guys back at Corvette, the road car guys, this opportunity to have a driver edition, we were all over it.
“It was a tick straight away, yes, absolutely, all in. Then they came with a number of renderings, a number of designs, a number of different options and ideas, and we went through all of that. And we’ve come up with our cars and I think we’re all exceptionally happy with them. They’ve gone very, very well. Thrilled, delighted. And I’m just wondering if I can get my hands on number one.”