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New era of Roar and Rolex 24 dawns at Daytona with major track time for teams

Nate Ryan, Townsend Bell and Calvin Fish look ahead to the IMSA season-opening Roar Before the Rolex 24 qualifying race and what Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson bring to the table, as well as keys to success.

The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s nearly two-week residence in Florida has begun, but there hardly will be time in the new schedule for soaking in the sand and sun as the Roar and Rolex 24 at Daytona contenders spend several days thrashing on sports cars at the World Center of Racing.

Beginning with a one-hour session at 11:30 a.m. Friday at Daytona International Speedway, IMSA teams will be on track for seven of the next 10 days, concluding with the 59th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. This weekend will serve as the annual Roar Before the Rolex 24 test, and it will be capped by the Motul 100, a 100-minute qualifying race that will set the starting grid in the IMSA season opener for the first time.

The Roar typically has been held during the first week of January, which allowed for teams to spend a few weeks optimizing their cars (while IMSA officials considered reigning them in via aerodynamic, horsepower and weight adjustments). Now they will have only three days before being back on track Thursday for the first Rolex 24 practice.

HOW AND WHEN TO WATCH THE ROLEX 24: Schedule, TV info, start times, entry lists, more

The much tighter turnaround already has impacted preparations for teams, which likely will keep their crews and drivers in the Daytona Beach, Florida, area in a quasi-sports car version of NASCAR Speedweeks (which traditionally has parked Cup Series teams in Daytona for nearly two weeks every February in the run-up to the Daytona 500).

Gary Nelson, team manager for Action Express, said the DPi team spent the first two weeks of January bulking up its inventory of spares and backup equipment. Action Express has added a Rolex 24 entry this year with the addition of Jimmie Johnson as part of an “all-star car” (along with Chase Elliott in its full-time championship entry).

“If you have any trouble in the Roar, you don’t have a lot of recovery time,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “I think it’s better to have the Roar later in the month. I always pride our team on being ready for anything. That’s an opportunity I like when others might not be as well prepared. It’s hard to find advantages in racing nowadays. So preparation is one you can sometimes use as an advantage if you’re more prepared than your competitors. That’s kind of the approach we’re taking.”

Nelson said the team would spend Monday through Wednesday swapping out engine, gearbox and brake parts to freshen up the cars for the 24-hour main event after the Motul 100.

“Your parts and equipment better be pretty close to new throughout the car because some things are mileaged-out after a 24-hour race,” Nelson said. “So you don’t want to start the race with a couple of hours on all your parts, and now at the end of the race you have 26- or 27-hour parts based on how much practice you did and the qualifying race, so we’re going to be starting the Roar with some parts that we probably wouldn’t be starting the 24-hour race.”

With virtually nonstop work to complete (especially those switching manufacturers such as two-time defending Rolex 24 champion Wayne Taylor Racing’s move to Acura from Cadillac), teams also will be able to stay preoccupied. That could be another side benefit of the new Roar, which was moved in part to help ease traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic for the many international team members in the IMSA paddock.

“The key is to stay disciplined, you’re going to be around that garage area for 10 days and staying within your own bubble, not letting your guard down literally and figuratively,” NBC Sports analyst Calvin Fish said in a preview of the Rolex 24 (video above). “Because you’ve got to stay safe and get to that Rolex 24 and be healthy and ready to start.

“For some of these teams are used to going back home, Wayne Taylor Racing or Meyer Shank Racing they no longer have two weeks to digest the data at Roar and put changes in place. Dealing with being back on track four days later, goodness forbid if you should have accident damage. These transporters are like rolling workshops, but being out in the field there, if you have to fix anything, it’s going to be a tough week for all these teams to get through.”

But it could be advantageous for drivers adjusting to Florida weather. NBC Sports analyst Townsend Bell, who will be driving for Vasser Sullivan in the GTD division, will be staying in the Daytona area instead of commuting from his Southern California home.

“I look forward to not having to get readjusted to the time zone,” Bell said. “I can train in the heat and get fully acclimated. You want to go into the 24 Hours with as much of a head start on body as you can get. That’s the key because it’s such a taxing exercise to do 24 hours.”

Drivers also will have plenty of reps behind the wheel with several hours spread over eight days before the Rolex 24 green flag.

For IndyCar drivers such as Alexander Rossi and Helio Castroneves (who both were testing with Wayne Taylor Racing in Sebring this week), the schedule lays out not unlike the May buildup to the Indianapolis 500.”

“That’s one way to look at it for sure,” Rossi said. “ I’m just excited to be driving race cars, and I’m excited to go try to win races. That’s really all that’s on my mind these days, and I’m doing whatever I can to contribute to this four-driver effort to give us the best chance of doing that is my main focus.”

Said Castroneves: “It’s the best way for us to come back from the holidays and time. We can only do so much in the gym and the bicycle and things like that. But the real deal is when you get behind the wheel. Nothing compares. There’s no other training you can do to be in the car you’re going to be racing. It’s great we have (the Roar and Rolex 24) back to back. This absolutely helps everyone to get the rhythm back and faster.”