DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Derek Johnston got his first taste of Daytona International Speedway during this week’s two-day Rolex 24 At Daytona test session.
Joined by more than 20 other GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series teams, Johnston, the inaugural winner of the Rolex 24 At Daytona Driver Challenge presented by Sunoco, tested the twist and turns of Daytona’s 3.56-mile road course with the No. 09 Spirit of Daytona Porsche Coyote as he prepares for the 48th anniversary of the Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 30-31.
In addition to winning the Radical Series championship in his native United Kingdom, Johnston turned in a higher average score (based on finishing position, pole positions and fastest race laps) than 97 other contestants in four British championships to capture the Rolex 24 At Daytona Driver Challenge presented by Sunoco.
Johnston’s prize is a funded seat in a Daytona Prototype in the 2010 Rolex 24 At Daytona as well as participation in this week’s test session and the Jan. 8-10 Roar Before The Rolex 24 test session.
The team that Johnston will race with in the Rolex 24 has not been determined. During this week’s test, he is turning laps in a Daytona Prototype with the Holly Hill-based Spirit of Daytona and getting plenty of instruction from sports car veteran Guy Cosmo.
“He’s been very helpful,” Johnston said after receiving the Rolex 24 At Daytona Driver Challenge presented by Sunoco plaque from DIS President Robin Braig during Tuesday’s lunch break. “He’s a very good instructor. He makes you feel calm. He doesn’t get excited. He makes you work on bits that give you big improvement quickly. It’s been pretty good.”
Last month, Johnston was able to take a few laps around Daytona’s road course in a passenger car with another sports car veteran Terry Borcheller -- the leading winner of Rolex Series history with 24 class victories -- and then tested a Daytona Prototype with Spirit of Daytona at Virginia International Raceway.
This week, he is at full speed on Daytona’s daunting 31-degree high banks and Johnston admits he is still awed by the entire experience of being the inaugural Rolex 24 At Daytona Driver Challenge winner.
“I still haven’t gotten over the shock of it to be honest,” Johnston said. “It’s still only my third season of racing cars. To come out here is massive. To be at Daytona for two days and have a car and team and everybody has been really helpful, it’s just overwhelming. It really is.”
Daytona International Speedway is a storied motorsports facility and the 47-year-old Johnston said that his fellow competitors in the Radical Series are very envious of his experience.
“I think everybody in the world knows this track,” said Johnston, who is also a successful businessman in the England and managing director of MSW UK Ltd. “It is a world famous race circuit without a doubt. I don’t think everybody knows what it looks like or appreciates the size of the place. I’ve known about Daytona all of my life.”
NASCAR presence: Bobby Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, was testing the No. 67 TRG Motorsports Porsche GT3 on the first day of testing. Labonte, who competes with TRG in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, has made three previous Rolex 24 starts all in the Daytona Prototype class with a best finish of ninth in 2005.
In the 2010 Rolex 24, Labonte will compete for the first time in the GT class. Labonte has a strong passion for the Rolex 24 and with TRG’s success in the Rolex Sports Car Series, it was a natural fit for him to sign up for the 2010 edition of the twice-around-the-clock challenge.
“I’ve enjoyed coming down to the (Rolex) 24 the three times that I have,” Labonte said. “I’ve always been a fan of it since I started racing. I actually raced a go-kart down here when I was 15 years old on the same track. So even though we don’t get to do a lot of road racing in the Sprint Cup Series, except twice of year, I’ve always been a fan of it.
“He (Kevin Buckler) didn’t have to twist my arm. I’m excited about that. He’s got these great Porsches that these guys at TRG that have been successful in and it’s always been fun watching them.”
Paul Menard, who wheels the No. 98 Ford for Yates Racing in the Sprint Cup Series and last raced in the Rolex 24 in 2004, was in attendance driving the No. 90 Spirit of Daytona Porsche Coyote.
A.J. Allmendinger, who drives for Richard Petty Motorsports in the Sprint Cup Series, is expected to participate in the second day of testing behind the wheel of the Michael Shank Racing Ford Riley No. 60. Allmendinger has four previous Rolex 24 starts with Michael Shank Racing with a best finish of second in 2006.
Tickets for the 48th anniversary of the Rolex 24 At Daytona are available online at www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP and fans can stay connected with Daytona International Speedway on Twitter (www.twitter.com/disupdates) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/DaytonaInternationalSpeedway).
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