24 Hours could signal resurgence

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Every time Roger Edmondson is asked what he will say if another GT-class car wins the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona on Sunday, his tone instantly turns confident and powerful.

''I will congratulate them for a job well done,'' he said.

As president of the Grand American Road Racing Series, Edmondson knows a car from the slower, less-powered GT class is capable of winning the twice-around-the-clock race at Daytona International Speedway. After all, three GT cars have won the past four endurance races at Daytona, including a Porsche GT3 RS from the third-fastest division a year ago.

After struggling through years of dwindling car counts, the rivalry of another sports-car organization and the implied loss of credibility when the marquee prototypes can't win the biggest race of the year, Edmondson is certain this year's 24 Hours of Daytona and sports-car racing in general are on the road to recovery.

There are 55 cars in this weekend's endurance race at Daytona, including 17 high-powered prototypes. A year ago, there were 43 cars and six prototypes.

Unlike the feud between Indy Racing League and Championship Auto Racing Teams that carved Indy-car racing into two groups and eventually forced CART into bankruptcy, Grand American and the American LeMans Series feel there's enough room on the auto racing landscape to support two sports car organizations.

''Howard Johnson used to have 28 flavors of ice cream,'' Edmondson said. ''In a country of 300 million people, we can all succeed.''

Officials with ALMS said they don't consider Grand American its only rival. They consider every racing group, including CART, IRL and NASCAR, as competition for entertainment dollars.

''The philosophies are so different, it really is apples and oranges,'' said Andy Hall, director of communications for ALMS. ''We want high tech, we welcome factories. That's what makes us different. That's what sets us apart. Ours is not an entry-level series.''

Edmondson applauds that difference. The sleek prototypes entered in the 24 Hours of Daytona, which starts at 1 p.m. Saturday, cost about $400,000 to build. A car on the ALMS circuit can cost three times that much. Factory support is welcomed in both series, but costs are controlled in Grand American by limiting the purchase of many parts and pieces to specific vendors. Factory spending in ALMS is not harnessed; it's encouraged.

The anchor of the Grand American schedule is this weekend's race on the 3.56-mile course that utilizes portions of the Daytona International Speedway infield and the high banks of the super speedway. The biggest race on the ALMS circuit is the 12 Hours of Sebring, and many of the same teams that compete on the ALMS circuit also race at the 24 Hours of LeMans.

Of the 24 owners in Grand American, 21 are employees of either NASCAR or Daytona's parent company, International Speedway Corp.

''We emphasize the importance of the drivers, the importance of the pit crews, the importance of the crew chiefs,'' Edmondson said. ''We emphasize our people, not our technology. That's what worked in NASCAR and it would be completely irresponsible for us not to pay attention to that road map.''

Grand American will get a big boost this week by a car count that now includes 17 prototypes and an impressive list of driving talent from a variety of racing organizations. Not only are classic road racers like Hurley Haywood, Tommy Riggins, Andy Wallace, Didier Theys, Sascha Maassen, Lucas Luhr, Jack Baldwin, Jan Lammers and Scott Pruett in the race, but so are Indy-car drivers Scott Sharp and Arie Luyendyk and NASCAR drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Petty.

IRL and NASCAR car owner Chip Ganassi also will field a team.

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