DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – IMSA Chairman Jim France took time after Saturday’s Rolex 24 drivers meeting to meet with the press prior to the green flag at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
With a 47-car field and a grid full of the world’s most accomplished drivers, this weekend’s 50th anniversary edition of the race is highly anticipated.
France, the longtime series executive – and son of IMSA co-founder Bill France Sr. – noted the significance of this season in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. NBC begins its six-year television partnership with the series, Michelin is starting a multi-year deal as the official tire of IMSA and this week track records were set and racing champions honored.
“I think my father would be very, very proud, and [co-founder] John [Bishop], with the growth of the sport and sports car racing and its significance in the U.S.,’’ France said. “It’s a global racing platform that in the U.S. probably hasn’t had quite the attention as open wheel or the NASCAR stock car racing has in the past, but I feel that’s changing, and this event was started by my father. He was a global motorsports guy, and he truly wanted this track here to be an international icon for motorsports when he built it.
“This sports car event is a cornerstone, a key part of that. When you see the drivers and the teams and the manufacturers, and most importantly the media that are in this room that come from all over the world to cover this event and be a part of it over its history, it’s really impressive.’’
France acknowledged the star-studded grid that this year will include past Formula One stars such as Fernando Alonso and Rubens Barrichello, past NASCAR stars like A.J. Allmendinger, and several Indianapolis 500 winners such as three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves, two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya and five-time and reigning IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, who earned the 2008 Indianapolis 500 win.
The field represents exactly the competitive spirit France’s father envisioned, even its earliest days as three-hour race prior to the twice around the clock existence.
“If you … look through the results on that thing, Dan Gurney won it,’’ France said. “I think AJ Foyt might have been last. Roger Penske ‑‑ just go through the names that are in there, Jim Clark, just the names from around the world, Roger Ward, Indy winner, there was that ‑‑ kind of where we’re back to today where you have really great drivers coming in.
France told a story of a recent discussion with 2007 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice.
“He was running here, and he made this great comment to me,’’ France recalled. “He said, it’s unbelievable out there, I’m running up in the corner at 3:00 in the morning, I’m looking at who I’m racing over here, and it’s all these great guys from all over the world that are Formula 1 drivers or sports car drivers or whatever.
“He said, from a driver’s standpoint, it’s just a great experience. It’s that kind of feeling that you get from people that tell you how special this event is to everyone.
“And I think we’re going to have another barn burner over the next two days here.”