An epic edition of the Rolex 24 At Daytona us behind us. Here are a few observations and takeaways from IMSA’s grand season-opener.
IT’S HELIO TIME
The rub on Helio Castroneves was his career-long lack of championships.
On the heels of finishing second in the 1997 Indy Lights standings, he entered the CART IndyCar Series in 1998 and over the next 20 seasons, the Brazilian made his name at the Indianapolis 500, and the Indy 500 alone.
Sure, he earned four runner-up finishes in the Indy Racing League and NTT IndyCar Series standings over that span, and three third-place results, and he was fourth on six occasions… but he was a perennial bridesmaid when it came to winning titles.
And then at 45, after his full-time IndyCar career was gone, he went and won IMSA’s biggest prize after claiming the 2020 DPi championship in his farewell with Roger Penske and the Acura Team Penske WeatherTech SportsCar Championship program. True, it wasn’t the IndyCar title he coveted and chased for decades, but don’t believe for a moment that capturing the title in IMSA’s top category was any less of an achievement than taking home an IndyCar crown.
Left without a full-time opportunity in any form of the sport, Castroneves accepted an invitation to join Wayne Taylor Racing’s new Acura DPi effort at 2021 Rolex 24 At Daytona, and promptly won in his sixth attempt.
With his first championship in hand and a shiny new Rolex Daytona watch on his wrist, the next nagging question was whether the 46-year-old would ever break free from Indy’s three-time winner’s club. His last Indy win came in 2009 — a lifetime ago — and he answered with the best story of the year as the unheralded Meyer Shank Racing open-wheel team toppled the series’ best on the way to winning its first IndyCar race.
And if that wasn’t enough, on the weekend where 44-year-old Tom Brady’s retirement after 22 seasons and seven Super Bowls came to light, Castroneves seemingly took the torch from ‘TB12’ and starred in a showdown with his former ATP and WTR teammate Ricky Taylor to produce his second consecutive Daytona win and the first for MSR with the Acura ARX-05 DPi.
I’m not sure we’ve seen this kind of big-race output from a driver at the tail end of their career. Mario Andretti famously won the 1993 CART IndyCar race Phoenix oval at the age of 53, and there are other entries in the history books of old lions making their way to victory lane, but he’s been on an unparalleled bender over the last 12 months with winning the Rolex 24, Indy 500, and the Rolex 24 again.
The normal story arc sees a driver like Castroneves consumed and routinely failing to recapture the glories achieved in his youth. Instead, he’s rewritten the narrative on his career in its twilight in ways that are truly remarkable. In those early ATP DPi days, he looked like the most unfulfilled person in the IMSA paddock. Other than the annual visits to the Indy 500 in an extra Penske entry, IndyCar was taken away and he bristled at the idea of retiring without getting another shot at scoring his fourth win at the Speedway.
On the heels of joining that four-timers club, MSR elevated Castroneves to full-time IndyCar status in 2022 where he’ll turn 47 in May and enter the 500 as a pre-race favorite. And with Rolex watches on each arm. The ‘Drive for 5’ is next for Castroneves, who will try to form an Indy 500 club of his own as the only driver to win the great race five times. Considering all he’s done since winning that IMSA championship in 2020, there’s every reason to believe the ageless wonder has more massive victories to capture before he’s done.
CORNER WORKER UPDATE
The corner worker who was hit and injured in the unfortunate crash by ERA Motorsport’s Dwight Merriman was back at the circuit on Sunday to see his brothers and sisters flagging at Turn 6. No doubt one of the toughest people at the event, RACER understands he suffered multiple broken toes in the impact, but wanted to return to the circuit and be with his brethren. It’s believed the splitter on Merriman’s LMP2 car dug beneath the Armco barrier and struck the worker’s feet, which sent him tumbling backwards and onto the ground. Kudos to Merriman as well, who reached out to the SCCA volunteer to check on his wellbeing.
The factory BMW and Corvette GTD Pro teams sure took a whooping during the race as reliability woes struck both brand-new BMW Team RLL M4 GT3s and the modified Corvette C8.Rs. The problems for the BMWs weren’t a surprise due to the model’s lack of hardcore endurance racing mileage. The No. 3 Corvette was felled by an alternator issue and the sister No. 4 car was knocked out of contention from damage sustained while trying to avoid a spinning prototype.
In a note that’s possibly related, the No. 01 Cadillac Racing DPi-V.R surrendered the lead when its alternator — the same model and unit as found on the Corvettes — failed. Throw in the fuel pump issues that kept the No. 02 Cadillac in the garage for an extended period of time, and all four factory GM entries had a Rolex 24 to forget.
BECKY AND TOTO
The sports car racing community lost two if its family members in the weeks leading into the race. Becky Mishtawy, wife of IMSA official Jeff Mishtawy, bravely fought brain cancer until the end. In addition to her work for racing teams, she was widely known and cared for throughout the paddock. IMSA commissioned a commemorative sticker which many teams ran during the race, including MSR, which drove into victory lane with her name carried on the nose of the overall winner.
Veteran driver Toto Lassally was also taken from us in January, albeit unexpectedly. On top of racing at the Rolex 24 on multiple occasions, Lassally was a fixture with his business selling racing radios and other support items to Grand-Am, ALMS, and IMSA teams. A sticker for Lassally was also carried on a number of cars last weekend.