CHAMPCAR/CART: IRL: Single seat stars brave elements at Daytona 24

The open wheel set competing in the 43rd annual Rolex 24 at Daytona experienced a Dickensian half-day as they traversed the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway combination road/oval circuit. As the field took the green flags to commence the ...

CHAMPCAR/CART: IRL: Single seat stars brave elements at Daytona 24

The open wheel set competing in the 43rd annual Rolex 24 at Daytona experienced a Dickensian half-day as they traversed the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway combination road/oval circuit.

As the field took the green flags to commence the twice-around-the-clock winter classic, the #54 Kodak-Bell Motorsports Pontiac Doran co-driven by 2003 Champ Car champion Paul Tracy stopped at its appointed stall at the far end of pit road for a lengthy stop, due to a loose brake bias cable.

Terry Borcheller, the 2003 Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series titleholder was driving at the time and remarked, "It's just not our way to start the 24-hour coming into the pit lane." His co-driver Tracy admitted, "It put us down six laps which felt almost like Las Vegas. I'm having a lot of fun though," Tracy said as the night wore on, "getting into the groove, but there sure is a lot of traffic out there."

Down the pit road housing crew for the 62 starters, Andretti Green Racing's IRL IndyCar Series pilot Dario Franchitti was first to drive the #2 CITGO Howard-Boss Motorsports Pontiac/Crawford and the Scot completed a double stint before handing over to Milka Duno.

Franchitti, in his first 24-hour race was "having a lot of fun. I caught some idiots in traffic but I am having a lot of fun. The car is quick." He did get squeezed by some other drivers and he duly remarked, "Some guys, they should do something else apart from driving out there."

AGR teammate Bryan Herta was second to drive the #44 Doran Racing Pontiac/Doran in the race and ran as high as second during his initial stint. Herta was paired with the Labonte brothers and Jan Magnussen. "The car has been really good," he explained, "and I'm really happy with the way it went. I was trying not to push too hard. As long as we stay with the front-runners, which we're doing, we should be there at the end."

Even before the first hour was completed, current Champ Car titleholder Sebastien Bourdais was in trouble with the #79 Newman Racing/Silverstone Racing Ford/Crawford. "The car went loose after five laps," he explained after spinning into the grass and impacting the Turn 1 tire wall just 28 minutes in, bringing out the first caution.

After effecting repairs, the team elected to swap drivers, placing 2002 CART champ Cristiano da Matta behind the wheel. No dice. The car would not fire so they had to roll it to pit road for repairs before finally sending da Matta on his way.

The former F1 pilot caused another full course caution just after the two- hour mark when he spun and stopped at the exit of Turn 6. Safety crews returned his car to pit road where the crew began to work on it again, returning the Crawford to the track 3/4 of an hour later. Da Matta wasn't terribly pleased with prep work on the car, but, he said, "We're getting better" as the hours wound toward the halfway mark.

IndyCar Series rookie Ryan Briscoe was still dressed in his civvies when co- driver Luis Diaz had a big incident in the #01 CompUSA Lexus/Riley the duo are also sharing with current Grand Am co-champ Scott Pruett. Prior to the start, the Australian said he was looking forward to his first night stint stating, "It's got to be a lot safer out there when the slower cars can see you coming."

When the mechanical failure occurred that caused the car to lose its rear bodywork and suffer a flat tire, smoking heavily, Briscoe was still standing by. He did some short stints as the sun fell but was standing by for his first full graveyard shift shortly after midnight.

And then there was the Target Team. The #03 Lexus/Riley of Scott Dixon, Darren Manning and Casey Mears - the latter a fair single-seat pilot in his own right - who just kept ticking off the laps. At near half-distance the trio had led ten laps, putting down tours in the 1:48-1:49 range on a regular basis.

Trading top slot with the #4 Howard-Boss Pontiac-Crawford of sports car veterans Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Butch Leitzinger and NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson, Manning got some high praise from Leitzinger who was chasing him down and finding the Briton a worthy contender.

At 11:35PM yet another full course caution came out for Sebastien Bourdais in the #79 car once again, which landed in the tire wall at turn 1 and had to be removed. It has been a tough, tough event for the Bourdais, da Matta, Michael Brockman and Paul Newman entry.

While the two Champ Car drivers thought the car wasn't too bad as the laps went along through the evening, it was enough of a handful to pitch them off the Daytona International Speedway track once again. The team continued to experience difficulties getting the car re-started as well.

And that was they wrote for the #79 as there were no spares available to put it back on the track after the latest difficulty, giving da Matta an opportunity to fully test his new PKV Racing Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone Champ Car at Sebring on Sunday.

As the Rolex 24 at Daytona wound into its second 12 hours, Dan Wheldon prepared for his next dual stint in the #2 CITGO Pontiac/Crawford. The AGR pilot was about to replace Marino Franchitti, Dario's brother and remarked as he waited for the pit stop and seat exchange, "I'm surprised how competitive it is out there. I'm having a ball. The only difficulty we're really having is getting through traffic."

Down pit road apiece, former Toyota Atlantic standout Michael Valiante was waiting for his next opportunity to take over the #19 Ten Motorsports BMW/Riley he's sharing with Memo Gidley, Jonathan Bomarito and Michael McDowell. Their car broke a half-shaft earlier in the going and, when we spoke was a good 35 laps in arrears to the leaders.

"The traffic is really something out there," Valiante said. "We're passing at least five cars per lap. I've never done this kind of race before but I'd surely do it again."

At half distance, the #03 Target car was in second place, one of only four cars on the lead lap; the #44 that Herta was sharing lay eighth, the #2 piloted by the Franchitti brothers, Wheldon and Duno held ninth.

The #67 shared by 2004 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner Buddy Rice held sixteenth position, 26 laps back but climbing, after a puncture when Rice was driving, less than three hours into the contest.

The nose of the Pontiac/Riley had to be repaired back in the garage. "When I got to the King going to Turn 5," Rice noted, "the right front started going down. It dropped the outside wheels and grabbed the nose and it came off."

The Rahal Letterman Racing IRL standout had an uneventful second stint shortly after 9PM that saw him moving toward the front but then teammate Tracy Krohn hit a tire barrier and had to pit for right front bodywork repair.

As the hours of February 6th began, the field of this 43rd Rolex 24 at Daytona is waning but most of the open wheelers are still in the mix. Will they make it to the end?

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