DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Four Indianapolis 500 winners are here. Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon is here. The most talented and decorated drivers in international sports car competition are here. The guy who should’ve won “Dancing with the Stars” is here.
The Rolex 24 At Daytona – like the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring, the two other annual premier endurance sports car races – draws an eclectic field of racers. But in one well-heeled racer’s opinion, the alluring net that the Rolex casts is more widespread for reeling in talent.
“It draws the widest range of talent because of scheduling,” said Sebastien Bourdais, the Indy car veteran who has seven Rolex 24 appearances – including the overall victory in 2014 – and 11 24 Hours of Le Mans to his credit. “For us to make Le Mans in the middle of our season, it’s a stretch. It’s really not that easy to integrate it into your program. But this race gathers more drivers from different backgrounds than any other because of where it is on the schedule.”
The Rolex 24 is the traditional kickoff for the motorsports season and Bourdais is among 25 competitors here this weekend with Indy car experience. Four Indy 500 winners – Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Buddy Rice and Ryan Hunter-Reay – are in the field. Five drivers – Bourdais, Kanaan, Dixon, Hunter-Reay and Scott Sharp – have claimed a total of 11 Indy car season championships. The level of international talent occasionally surprises even the most talented.
“Several times during the race, they’ll tell you over the radio who’s next to you or who’s behind you on a restart, and it’s somebody you want to go wheel-to-wheel with,” said Hunter-Reay, the 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner who will team with Tom Dyer, Jeff Segal and Oswaldo Negri Jr. in the No. 86 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3. “You get to check off some boxes in this race.”
There’s an old adage that a good racer is one who wins in one discipline, but a great racer wins in any type of car. Bourdais – with 35 Indy car wins (tied with Bobby Unser for sixth all-time), four consecutive championships (2004-07), two seasons in Formula One and two overall runner-up finishes at Le Mans before he was part of the class-winning Ford GT trio for Chip Ganassi Racing last year at the iconic race in his French hometown – thinks it’s more complicated than that.
“Everybody is different,” said Bourdais, who’s driving a Honda for Dale Coyne Racing this year in the Verizon IndyCar Series and returns to the GT Le Mans class in the Ford GT at Daytona. “There’s not one recipe. Everybody has an operating window. Sometimes it’s very narrow, and sometimes it’s very wide. For the most part, I don’t believe that a really good driver can only be good in one type of car. If you’re good in any type of car, it’s because you can feel things. If you’re a good driver, you can adapt.”
Last weekend, Hunter-Reay took part in the Race Of Champions, an international all-star event using an array of vehicles at Marlins Park in Miami. Among his competitors were six other Verizon IndyCar Series drivers including Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe, runner-up in ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” competition last fall and co-driver this weekend of the No. 70 Mazda Motorsports Prototype that will roll off 10th when the Rolex 24 starts at 2:30 p.m. ET today.
Unlike the ROC, the Rolex 24 brings an all-star cast together in a specific genre – endurance sports car racing – with four classes.
“This is kind of like the industry’s Race Of Champions,” Hunter-Reay said. “Everybody comes out to it. You get to race F1 guys, Le Mans winners, NASCAR winners, Indy car champions and all the greats of sports car racing. It is a unique opportunity to go head-to-head with somebody.”