DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The Rolex 24 at Daytona is an annual display of the most gorgeous sports cars in a splashy opening to the North American motorsport season. The action-packed endurance race is a glittery manufacturer showcase that draws deep-pocketed car collectors to a party inside Daytona International Speedway.
But in this 50th anniversary season of IMSA, during a race that will feature 13 of the most respected manufacturers in motorsport, the star-studded field is one of the deepest in the history of the prestigious twice-round-the-clock endurance event.
Alex Zanardi is the headliner in his first race in North America since both of his legs were severed in a 2001 CART race in Germany. He has overshadowed two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso, who has returned to the race for a second consecutive year with one of the most prestigious teams in sports cars.
Alonso stole the attention last season but he has been pushed aside this year by Zanardi, who will race for the first time without his prosthetic legs. BMW designed a steering wheel with hand levers the Italian will use to compete. His spirit and ability have inspired the entire field, and the two-time CART champion and four-time Paralympic gold medalist is the most popular driver in the paddock.
“I really felt a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of sincere participation of people in this adventure of mine,” Zanardi said Thursday. “I’ve seen so many things in the press and on social and it sounds like I’ve been hitting a lot of headlines, but of course it rises the sense of responsibility to get the job done. I don’t want to make small mistakes or disappoint anyone with a poor performance.”
Zanardi was not chosen to qualify the BMW in the GT Le Mans class and ceded the seat to teammate John Edwards, who was seventh in class and 21st overall.
Alonso was also a spectator during qualifying and stood atop the Wayne Taylor Racing pit stand as Jordan Taylor wound up sixth overall in a Cadillac in the DPi class. The Wayne Taylor team is stacked with regular drivers Taylor and Renger Van der Zande but was boosted this year when Toyota lent the team Alonso and factory driver Kamui Kobayashi.
Asked about expectations for the event that begins Saturday, Kobayashi was thrilled to take the microphone.
“Fernando got most of the questions last time, so I am happy to finally talk,” he said.
The overall pole went to Oliver Jarvis, who broke a 26-year-old record Daytona International Speedway record by putting a Mazda DPi from Team Joest out front. Jarvis’ lap at 1 minute, 33.685 seconds broke the mark by two-tenths of a second set by P.J. Jones in 1993 in a GTP-class Toyota.
The Englishman spoiled a strong run by Team Penske, which has six Indianapolis 500 victories among its two-car lineup and qualified second and third overall. Ricky Taylor, who is teamed with three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi, winner of the 100th running of Indy, earned the second spot in Penske’s Acura ARX-05. Juan Pablo Montoya, a two-time Indy 500 winner, was third in his first time qualifying the sports car for the organization. Montoya’s teammates are Simon Pagenaud and Dane Cameron.
Felipe Nasr had the fastest Cadillac DPi-V.R in fifth for Action Express Racing, which will feature Christian Fittipaldi in his final race before retirement. Fittipaldi began in Formula One in 1992, has raced in CART and NASCAR and has been part of sports car racing since 2003.
“I’m at peace,” said Fittipaldi, 48. “I did this 38 years of my life. How can you not miss something that you did 38 years of your life? When one chapter closes, another one opens. So I’ve always known, not since beginning when I was 15 years old, but when I started understanding more about life, that I wouldn’t be a race car driver until I was 90 years old.”
The GTD class features an all-female lineup of four women racing for Heinricher Racing with Meyer Shank Racing. Ana Beatriz qualified the Acura NSX GT3 in 11th in class and 34th overall. Its partner car, which includes AJ Allmendinger in one of his final races before he transitions into a television career, qualified third in class.
The race is also the debut for the new AIM Vasser Sullivan team, which is headed by IndyCar team owners Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, and features NBC commentator Townsend Bell and Austin Cindric, a rising star in NASCAR.
Chip Ganassi once again brought a stout two-car lineup in the GT Le Mans class. Ryan Briscoe qualified Thursday third in class for the team that features five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon and last year gave the organization its 200th victory in this race.
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