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Rolex 24 photos: More a sprint than an enduro

Gary Grant and John Larsen attended the Rolex 24 at Daytona for

Known to the masses as a Spring Break hot spot, Daytona Beach is as close as the motorsports world comes to hallowed ground.

Located on the Atlantic coast of Florida, a short jaunt south of historic St. Augustine, Daytona Beach was created with a long, wide, flat and firm beach. While the beach became a haven for sun worshipers, it was perfect for something else: auto racing.

As early as the 1903, those who sought speed made their way to Daytona, to race on the sand. By the late Twenties, they came looking for land speed records. Just up the street from the sand, the NASCAR organization was formed over lunch, the rules sketched out on a bar napkin.

In 1956, they started to build the Daytona International Speedway and road racing left the beach to move inland in 1958. The Daytona Continental was a three-hour endurance race for sports cars that was won by Dan Gurney. The race grew to 2,000 km in ’64 and then 24 hours in ’66. A tradition was born. 2013 marked the 51st running of the race, now called the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Having won the Rolex 24 four tmes over the past decade, Chip Ganassi Racing was by far the odds-on favourite to take the overall win again this year. The production car based GT class looked sure to be a battle between Ferrari and Porsche, although returning endurance racing super power, Audi, could not be discounted. The new GX class featured lesser-powered machines including three unproven new cars from Mazda.

January weather in Florida can be unpredictable, but the forecast looked promising for clear skies. Saturday morning came, sunny and warm with the expectations of 28-degree temperatures in the afternoon. A perfect day for racing.

The Daytona facility is absolutely massive, with acres and acres of camping and parking space in the infield, with more outside the circuit. By 2 p.m. on Saturday, the place was so packed that no more vehicles were allowed inside. The infield crowds are big and there were lots of people in the grandstand seats for the start, although nowhere near as many people as there would be for a NASCAR race.

The green flag fell at 3:30 and it was evident right away that the pace would be more like a sprint race than the steady pace usually expected in an endurance race. A ‘round-the-clock race is a test of durability as much as speed, and it wasn’t long before cars began falling out.

First a couple of Daytona Protytpe cars went to the garage, soon to be followed by the trio of brand new, untested Mazdas including the #70 of IndyCar star James Hinchcliffe from Oakville. Through the night, the attrition rate grew and included the likes of Scarborough-born Paul Tracy, whose Doran DP was damaged in an off-track excursion. Early on Sunday morning, the Michael Shank Racing DP of fellow Canuck Michael Valiente also left the track.

One of the brightest stars of the race was Toronto driver Mark Wilkins. Every time Wilkins got behind the wheel of the AIM Autosport FXDD Ferrari, the driver would carve his way through the competition to the lead position. Even more impressive was that Wilkins had not driven the car, which was prepared in Woodbridge, until earlier in the week.

An hour from the end, a caution period bunched up the pack. The restart saw action that looked more like a street fight than a 24-hour enduro. Late-race driver changes caused some juggling of the race order but when the checkered flag was waved, it was Juan Pablo Montoya in the Chip Ganassi 01 who took the overall win. In GT the battle continued right till the last lap, and the top two spots went to a pair of Audis. Wilkins had fought hard and took third place on the podium.

It was also a very exciting day for a team from Vancouver, B.C. Bullet Racing scored a fabulous second place in the new GX class with their super reliable Porsche Cayman.

Toronto’s David Empringham, Dave Lacey and John Farano finished 12th in GT driving an Audi. Montreal driver Kuno Wittmer, who is the lead development driver for the new SRT Viper, finished in 20th position in GT behind the wheel of a TRG Porsche. Paul Dalla Lana, from Toronto, finished one spot further up the list, in a Turner Motorsport BMW.