It's only November, but preparations for America's most prestigious sports car race were well underway at Daytona International Speedway on Monday.
A star-studded lineup of drivers are roaming the garages at the "World Center of Racing" this week as 40 sports cars were lapping the 3.56-mile road course in preparation for the 45th anniversary of the Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 27-28.
Among those in attendance include two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever, who is entered alongside Christian Fittipaldi, 2004 Rolex Series Daytona Prototype co-champion Scott Pruett, Champ Car rookie standout Katherine Legge, 2005 Rolex Series Daytona Prototype co-champions and Rolex 24 At Daytona overall winners Max Angelelli and Wayne Taylor and five-time Rolex 24 At Daytona overall winner Hurley Haywood.
The star-studded driver lineup for the two-day test is a preview for the 2007 Rolex 24, which has turned into an impromptu All-Star race. Four-time NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon has already committed to competing while other major names being tossed around include Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya.
"I think Tony (Stewart) is going to be back and with Jeff (Gordon) here, to me this race has become more IROC than IROC because you have champions from all walks of racing," said three-time Rolex 24 champion Butch Leitzinger. "It's great to walk through the garage area because you got all these people in a good atmosphere having fun and being competitive. With these cars, you've got 20 or more that could get the overall win. I think this event in the last few years has attracted more name drivers than anytime I can remember."
Said five-time Rolex 24 champion Hurley Haywood: "I remember the poster that Grand Am did last year for the 24 hour race. It was like the who's who of motorsports that was coming to race. I think this year if they do that again, it's going to be even more impressive because you are going to have guys like Juan Montoya here and Jeff Gordon. Major names from
other disciplines of racing. They are coming over here to race because you've got major teams like Ganassi running here and they are able to bring that kind of quality of driver. It's good for everybody."
While the final Rolex 24 test session in January is typically the busiest, this week's test has had a strong turnout.
"It shows how many teams are here and how many are truly trying to be competitive," Leitzinger said. "Everyone in the garage area is very committed."
Wayne Taylor Shaking Down New Team: Wayne Taylor is not just shaking down race cars during the two-day test, he's getting to know his own team. Taylor, a two-time Rolex 24 champion, is fielding his own team in 2007 with SunTrust and Pontiac.
"I basically started yet again with a clean sheet of paper," Taylor said. "This week is the first time we as a team have come out and operated. It was important for us to be here just to make sure all the systems work. This is nothing more than making sure the team is operating and getting to know the car."
Taylor, who'll share the driving seat in the Rolex 24 with Max Angelelli and Jeff Gordon, plans to have the NASCAR star at a test session in December at Homestead-Miami Speedway and then again at DIS in the beginning of January.
"Jeff is looking forward to it," Taylor said. "I spent some time with him last weekend in Atlanta. He's very committed. He's very professional. I think it's exciting for the team and for the fans. To have Jeff Gordon come over to run the 24 hour I think says a lot for the series."
Quick Flashback For Colin Braun: When 18-year-old Colin Braun drove through the tunnels of Daytona International Speedway on Monday morning, he admitted to reminiscing about his Brumos Porsche 250 victory with Jorg Bergmeister during the 2006 Pepsi 400 Weekend.
"It's brought back some good memories for this whole Krohn Racing team," said Braun, who was only 17 at the time of the victory. "We obviously did a great job here in July and hopefully we can be able to repeat that in the Rolex 24. We just have to do it for a longer time.
"I thought about it when we drove in (today) but now it's done and back to business. Everybody here is working really hard on our team and I know everybody else is working really hard. We got to keep working and working and hopefully we can pull out a win. "
Braun is looking forward to his third Rolex 24 start and his second in a Daytona Prototype.
"For me, the biggest challenge is probably just running a consistent pace," Braun said. "It's hard to run a pace and not get too antsy. You want to go and be quick and pass guys and it's hard to hold yourself back."
Test Session Open To Fans: Rolex 24 ticket holders will be granted free access into the NEXTEL FANZONE on Tuesday as DAYTONA USA will provide trams to the infield for guests. Those who are not Rolex 24 At Daytona ticket holders may purchase a Rolex 24 ticket at the ticket office inside DAYTONA USA or a DAYTONA USA Tram Tour ($8.50) to watch the test session from inside the renowned NEXTEL FANZONE. Fans may also watch from the Oldfield Grandstand, available through the lobby of DAYTONA USA.
Advance ticket holders must check in at the DAYTONA USA guest services desk.
The Budweiser Bistro will be open from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. and will have a limited menu, beverages and ice for sale.
Tickets for the 2007 Rolex 24 At Daytona are available online at racetickets.com, at the Daytona ticket office inside DAYTONA USA or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.
Etc: NASCAR Craftman Truck Series driver Bill Lester was shaking down a Lexus Riley for Michael Shank Racing.
News conferences: Tuesday, 10:30 a.m., Michael Shank Racing will unveil its driver lineup in the No. 60 Flight Options/Net App Lexus Riley that
finished second in the 2006 Rolex 24 At Daytona. Just prior to that, Grand American Road Racing Association President Roger Edmondson will update the media on future regulations for the Daytona Prototype class.