DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- With its late-January date making the Rolex 24 at Daytona the kickoff event of the international motorsports calendar, recent races have featured a bevy of star-name guest drivers filling the third, fourth and fifth driver roles alongside full-season Grand-Am Rolex Series competitors.
That makes it equally exciting and challenging for those NASCAR, IndyCar and other series participants who get thrown into the lion’s den and then have to do their part to help their respective squads in this prestigious, twice-around-the-clock test of speed and endurance.
Graham Rahal, whose day job is pilot of the Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar, took the 2011 overall win, sharing with Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas and Joey Hand, in the No. 01 Riley-BMW of Telmex Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
Far from it being a “win or bust” weekend of fun and no pressure for the “ringers,” Rahal explains a mindset the Daytona “outsiders” have to adopt going into the race weekend.
“Your main goal and the objective is to hand the car off to the next guy in the same condition that you jumped in it,” he says. “You want to make sure you’re taking care of the car while going as quickly as possible. You’re not the only guy, and any mistake you may make can affect everyone else.”
That, along with the obvious power, weight and design differences between running an open-wheeled IndyCar and a closed-cockpit Daytona Prototype or GT sports car, represents the major challenges going into the race.
“Really, the biggest thing is this [Daytona Prototype] drives a lot different, as it’s much bigger, but with less horsepower,” he explains. “You notice those things straight away. They handle fairly well, but it’s a lot different to an IndyCar.”
Rahal had driven three previous Rolex 24s (2006 through ’08), so he’s no stranger to ending the offseason by jumping into a very different car. In 2011, one of the most important aspects of the race was integrating into the CGR environment – it marked his debut for the multi-series organization before embarking on a full IndyCar Series season with them.
“It is a wakeup call for that to be your first event,” he says. “Knowing the success the team has had at Daytona, and being paired with three sports car aces, it wasn’t an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. But it was a great way to start a partnership that I hope will last for long time.
“Scott’s the expert,” he continues. “He’s the man when it comes to driving. You can learn a lot from him, and you need to. You always act as a sponge and soak up as much information as you can. That’s hugely beneficial. For me, coming into it, knowing the success they had had, I had to make sure I played a role in achieving more success rather than the opposite.”
As a professional, and with official test days in January and practice days in the lead-up to the event, Rahal says shaking the offseason cobwebs off should be fairly easy and fast to do. While the outsiders want to play a positive role, they also don’t want to do anything stupid that could compromise the full-season efforts of drivers and teams running for the championship.
Some teams, like Ganassi has done in years past, will put together an “all-star” roster of drivers comprised solely of drivers from different series in a DP or GT car, so as not to jeopardize the main championship entry. In 2011, the lineup in the No. 02 car comprised three Indy 500 winners and a Daytona 500 winner, in the shape of CGR-contracted drivers Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray. Serious juice.
But as the new kid on the CGR block, Rahal was given the added pressure of being put into CGR’s full-season car (coincidentally, a situation he’d also been in for his other three previous Daytona 24 appearances with other teams). Obviously, lining up alongside the guys going for a season-long championship – namely, Pruett and Rojas – means the guest drivers have a greater responsibility than a “go for broke” non-championship car. Not that the bigger picture meant they weren’t looking for a victory.
“I loved the approach on the 01 car; with Scott, we were there to win,” he says. “Everyone wants to go have fun, but having fun is winning races. Really, that’s what we were all focused on and why we had the success we did.
“Sure, you can say the other car is ‘all-stars’ with Scott, Dario, Juan and Jamie and they can just go all-out, all the time. But, really, the reason we won was not making any contact. That’s a big part of it. It’s a fun way for us as a team to start developing the relationship and having some fun. We were fortunate we did that this past year.”
The race, regardless of result, helps to set the tone for the year in building team chemistry from an operations standpoint. Rahal says what he took from Daytona this year, although the crewmembers for Ganassi’s Grand-Am effort focus on that, as opposed to IndyCar, helped him for the rest of 2011.
As for his Rolex? It’s been a nice display piece to this point, and has not yet been worn.
“It’s the best of gifts really, for winning an event like that after 24 hours,” he says. “I never wear mine and have never worn it. To me, it’s so beautiful to look at. I’d love to win a couple more so I could wear one, but the first one’s always going to mean the most. It’s a pretty special group to be a part of, and so special to open a watch drawer and see that.”
CGR has yet to announce its driver rosters for the defense of its 2011 Rolex 24 title, but it’s not out of the question that Rahal could once again play an integral role. Maybe that second Rolex watch isn’t too far away?