Wed. Feb 21st, 2024

Marshall Pruett, Racing columnistJan 25, 2024, 09:02 AM ET

IMSA’s introduction of the GTP class last season has seen interest in the sports-car racing series rise ahead of its 2024 campaign. Nigel Cook/News-Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Raging into the darkness, brake discs aglow in red, exhausts firing blue flames rearward as the hands of the clock spin past midnight and keep rotating through another 12 hours until 24 hours of endurance racing cruelty is complete.

Weeks before NASCAR fans flock to Daytona Beach for its storied 500-mile oval contest, the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), holds its annual celebration of heartbreak and glory for two straight days at the Rolex 24 At Daytona. It’s one of one, a major event unlike anything else on the U.S. sporting landscape — held this weekend, to be precise — and it’s on the rise.

IMSA’s festival of fatigue is run on the speedway’s “roval” configuration, which utilizes some of the big oval’s stock car corners and a road course built into the infield that combines for an seemingly unending lap that spans 3.56 miles. Carefully crafted teams of drivers fight to take the lead — and to remain lucid from the waving of the green flag on Saturday at 1:40 p.m. ET to the checkered at 1:40 p.m. on Sunday — using exotic sports cars that are punished without pause, all for our entertainment.

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The series debuted its high-tech hybrid Grand Touring Prototypes (GTP) last year, and thanks to the newfound interest surrounding GTP, IMSA received an appreciable increase in attendance and its television audience. Possibly the greatest co-sign for IMSA’s surging popularity has been within the auto industry as 18 car manufacturers have aligned themselves with the series to race and promote themselves in front of those who tend to know the cylinder counts and cubic capacities of each motor in action.

The unabashed positivity continues in that area with Ford’s return to IMSA, with its new factory-run Mustang GT3s, where it has age-old in-state rival General Motors bringing its new Corvette Z06 GT3 to wage a head-to-head battle in the series’ GTD Pro class. Splitting the auto titans is the boutique British manufacturer McLaren, the car-making arm of the legendary Formula One team, which has entered the scrum with its 720S GT3 supercar.

If 2023 was the year of IMSA GTP, 2024 is presenting its fans with an unheralded array of GT machinery to love as the scrap among Chevrolet, Ford and McLaren also includes Acura, Aston Martin BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lexus, Mercedes-AMG and Porsche.

“Timing is everything, right?” Ford Performance Motorsport global director Mark Rushbrook tells ESPN. “As GTs are coming back together, that means even more strength and focus for GT3, which is good for everybody. Everybody’s going to benefit from this. And then the timing is really good with our all-new seventh-generation Mustang for the road. So as we saw that developing on the road car side and the opportunity on the race car side to have Mustangs racing everywhere in GT3, it was clearly the right decision to make.”

With 59 entries and squads of three to four drivers per entry, the Rolex 24 has the feel of an Iron Man marathon held at 200 mph. It also ranks as IMSA’s version of the Super Bowl, but in reverse. The two-day race at Daytona is the first on its calendar, kicking off a season featuring 11 total events, crowning its champions in October at the 10-hour Petit Le Mans round. As such, Daytona attracts some of racing’s biggest names from all factions of the sport; more than half of the 27 full-time IndyCar drivers, including its most popular names like Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward and 2023 Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden, are in the field.

A Formula One reunion of sorts from the 2000s and 2010 is also happening this weekend in IMSA with 2009 world champion Jenson Button, 2008 runner-up Felipe Massa and F1 veterans Romain Grosjean, Paul Di Resta and Marcus Ericsson spread among the throngs of drivers who’ll chase the prized award for winning each of the GTP, LMP2, GTD Pro and GTD classes: new Rolex Daytona watches.

“It attracts star power, for sure,” says Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Acura GTP driver Jordan Taylor, who will share a car with Button, IndyCar ace Colton Herta and Switzerland’s Louis Deletraz. “In the past we’ve had [four-time NASCAR champion] Jeff Gordon, [Indy 500 winner Ryan] Hunter-Reay, [F1 legend Rubens] Barrichello, [two-time F1 title winner Fernando] Alonso. It’s crazy to have these kinds of drivers in the team. For us as sports car drivers, it’s cool to have them come in.”

For Button, the sea of driving talent contained within the Daytona event took a moment to process.

“It’s 220 drivers or something that’s racing,” he says. “It’s a lot! I come from F1, which has got 20 drivers and you feel very special, and suddenly, you’re one of 220 drivers …”

The No. 40 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Acura will feature Jordan Taylor, Jenson Button, Colton Herta and Louis Deletraz at this weekend’s Rolex 24 At Daytona. David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Like Button, whose talents are also found on ESPN’s F1 broadcasts, Canadian IndyCar and sports car ace James Hinchcliffe has also been busy in recent years as a driver analyst for F1. Signed to race for Pfaff Motorsports in a GTD Pro McLaren, Hinchcliffe has been up close to witness F1’s leap in international popularity and sees a few parallels to where IMSA is headed on the home front.

“A lot of momentum, a lot of positivity here right now,” he says. “I think last year was a really big turning point for IMSA with the attention and the fandom that was gained with hybrid GTP cars coming out and bringing with them the electrification that’s a big deal with the automotive industry right now.”

Similar to the overnight portion of the race where darkness dominates the contest, American sports car racing spent far too long in the shadows, a niche player among the more heralded series. Thankfully, that’s also changing.

“It seems to be a big deal with the fans as well,” Hinchcliffe adds. “We just had the Roar Before The 24, which is a glorified test day, and the weather was not ideal, and there were almost as many fans here as there will be this Friday for race week. It’s incredible. I think IMSA’s on a huge trajectory and upswing right now and it’s great to see.”

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