Murto: Rolex 24 a nice debut for series

The 2014 running of the Rolex 24 endurance sports car race at Daytona proved to be a nice debut for the new TUDOR Sports Car Challenge Series.

The series is the combination of Grand Am and American Le Mans (ALMS), with the new sanctioning body keeping the name IMSA, though don’t doubt for a minute this is actually part of the Daytona Motorsports Group. In simpler terms, this is part of the France family empire, NASCAR.

This year’s race saw a solid field of cars in four divisions. The new Daytona Prototype division is a combination of the DP cars from Grand Am, as well as the P2 prototypes from ALMS. The second division is lifted directly from ALMS, and that’s the Prototype Challenge, basically spec racecars. There is also the Grand Am GT class from last year (now known as GT Daytona or GTD) and the GT class from ALMS (GT Le Mans or GTLM).

Joao Barbosa drove the final stint in the Action Express Racing Corvette DP, outracing Max Angilelli (behind the wheel of Wayne Taylors Corvette DP) for the win in the final nine-minute sprint to the finish after the last caution period. Christian Fittipaldi and Sebastien Bourdais also were on the winning team.

Just before sunset Memo Gidley, driving the Gainsco Corvette DP, was seriously injured in the most horrific accident the race has seen in years. As Gidley navigated a high-speed section of the infield road course and pulled out to pass another car as they raced into the setting sun, his DP slammed into the back of the crippled GTLM Ferrari driven by Matteo Malucelli.

The accident necessitated an extended red flag for driver extrication and cleanup. Both drivers were transported to Halifax Medical Center, where Gidley underwent surgery on his left arm and leg. As of Monday morning he was scheduled to have back surgery to stabilize a break before he could be released. Malucelli was held for observation.

Colin Braun drove to victory in the Prototype Challenge division, scoring the win for co-drivers Jon Bennett, James Gue and Mark Wilkins. Patrick Pilet drove his Porsche to victory in GTLM for co-drivers Richard Lietz and Nick Tandy.

Controversy clouded the finish in GTD, which was a real shame as it was the best race of the day.

Markus Winkelhock, in the Flying Lizard Audi, battled side-by-side with the Ferrari driven by Alessandro Pier Guidi in the final two laps. Heading through the Bust Stop Chicane in the last laps the Audi pinched the Ferrari and they made contact. Following that incident Winkelhock complained the car was damaged, and on TV it appeared the right rear tire may have been slightly askew.

After the white flag the possibly crippled Audi made up the ground it lost in the chicane a couple laps earlier and attempted a bold outside move on a left-hand, high-speed corner in the infield, running out of room on corner exit and going through the dirt to apparently settle for second.

But IMSA officials in their need to over-zealously officiate handed the Ferrari a 75-second penalty for “avoidable contact” in the last-lap incident, although TV replays showed no contact was made. Very few thought IMSA made the correct decision, and even Mario Andretti tweeted that the Ferrari team was essentially robbed.

Thankfully somebody came to their senses and later in the day the decision was reversed and the Ferrari of Guidi, Scott Tucker, Bill Sweedler, Townsend Bell and Jeff Segal was awarded the win they fought so hard to obtain. But all the drama was so unnecessary. This is a professional series, these aren’t club racers. Let them race, especially on the last lap. One of the things NASCAR does right is not penalize contact on the last lap in its top divisions. IMSA should follow suit.

Unfortunately a lot of people didn’t see the race, as much of it was broadcast on Fox Sports 2, which is not carried by all cable networks. It was fortunate, however, that SpeedTV.com streamed the race all night long, another example of the Internet as a source of live racing. Support net neutrality to ensure the Internet remains free and that you’ll have access to the racing available on-line. Otherwise racing on-line will become as restricted as Speed2.com, which is only available through limited Internet providers.

Next up for IMSA will be the 12-hour endurance race at Sebring, Fla. Hopefully it will be as exciting as the series’ debut, with less drama created by officials.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.