Craig Murto: Daytona 24 starts racing season

Craig Murto

With the running of the Daytona 24-hour endurance sports car race, major league racing season in the United States has officially begun.

Unlike other forms of racing, sports car endurance racing is actually a number of races simultaneously. Not only do racers compete for the overall victory, but each class of car entered is in its own race.

In 2016 the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Series features Prototypes, Prototype Challenge, GT Le Mans (GTLMS) and GT Daytona (GTD). The prototype class is a combination of the old Grand Am Daytona Prototypes and FIA LMP2 cars, and the Prototype Challenge class is a spec, open-cockpit racecar. GTLMS are the GT cars from the old American Le Mans Series, and the GTD cars are the old GT cars from Grand Am. American Le Mans Series and Grand Am combined a couple years ago to unify American sports car racing.

There were IndyCar drivers, NASCAR drivers and others on many of the teams. Spectators are attracted to sports car racing due to the variety of racing machinery, from high-dollar GT cars that appear similar to what you can buy for yourself to exotic prototype sports cars. All of these cars on the track at one time make for quite a spectacle.

But nothing is as exotic as the Deltawing, a one-off prototype that looks like the Batmobile on steroids. It’s shaped like a V, twice as wide in the rear as it is in the front. Made of composite materials, it’s not even 1,200 pounds. The Elon power plant provides less than half the horsepower of other Prototypes, but the lightweight design allows it to be fast and fuel efficient.

Designed originally by Ben Bowlby and built by Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, the DeltaWing now is fielded out of Georgia by Don Panoz DeltaWing Racing. Since its debut in 2012, it’s been plagued by problems. But since it may not be able to compete after the 2016 season as IMSA plans to standardize its prototype rules to make them closer to LMP2 worldwide specs, there was a lot of hope for the car entering this year’s Daytona 24.

In every practice the DeltaWing topped the speed charts. But when it came to qualify under rainy conditions, the team chose to skip qualifying and start at the rear of the 13-car Prototype class.

Within an hour, the DeltaWing, with British driver Katherine Legge behind the wheel, demonstrated that it came to race. It led 29 laps of the first 120. And even though it had a minor clutch problem that caused its tires to spin while on lifts during a pit stop, resulting in a drive-through penalty, the car continued to challenge for the top spot and led 29 of the first 120 laps.

As nightfall draped the track and Andy Meyrick controlled the wheel, DeltaWing’s fate changed when it slammed into the stalled PC car of Chris Cumming. The car was stalled in a blind spot and nearly run into by a dozen machines before Meyrick – who didn’t hear his spotter’s warnings – came along. IMSA should have displayed a full-course caution.

In the end the Ligier-Honda Tequila Patron Prototype drove across the line first with Pipo Derani securing the win for teammates Scott Sharp, Ed Brown and Johannes van Overbeek. Kenton Koch drove the JDC Motorsports Prototype Challenge car to victory and celebrated with Chris Miller, Stephen Simpson and Mikail Goikhberg. Rene Rast won the GTD class for Magnus Racing, Audi and teammates Andy Lally, John Potter and Marco Seefried.

The best race was in the GTLMS class, as the Corvette’s team cars battled each other hard the final 15 minutes of the race, and even swapped the lead once. In the end it was Oliver Gavin who drove the No. 4 car to win by four feet over the No. 3 of Antonio Garcia. Gavin celebrated with teammates Marcel Fassler and Tommy Milner. Milner is originally from Winchester and now lives in Leesburg.

The DeltaWing will challenge for the Prototype championship this season, but with the rules changes we may never see it in the Daytona 24 again. Like the Daytona Prototypes, it may become history.

The Corvettes are going to be hard to beat in GTLMS. There are plenty of cars in the PC and GTD classes. With the 2016 running of the Daytona 24, it promises to be a good year for sports car racing.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.