24 into 500, Dale Earnhardt Jnr. winds up in the 2004 Rolex 24
Dale Earnhardt Jnr. is all set to drive the Freisinger Motorsport Porsche in the
Daytona 24 hours in February. There are a number of issues attached to this piece
of news, which hit the British press but has hardly been touched in the US.
Earnhardt is the latest in a long list of NASCAR drivers to start the Rolex 24 at
Daytona, and his participation in the event is a coup for race organisers, the team,
and any spectator who was hedging on whether or not to attend.
The 2004 Rolex will mark Earnhardt's return to the race in which he last drove with
his late father, Dale Snr, in 2001. The pair enjoyed their first foray into endurance
racing, and finished fourth overall behind their Corvette team mates, Ron Fellows,
Franck Freon, Chris Kneifel and Johnny O'Connell, who won the race outright.
The Price is right
The result offered David Price the opportunity to deliver the wise-crack of the year.
O'Connell had driven for Price in the Panoz, sharing with Rocky Katoh, but both
were dropped at the end of the 2000 season. O'Connell was quickly snapped up
by GM to drive the Corvette, won the Daytona 24-hours and next saw Price in
"Oi, Johnny," said the Briton as their eyes met across a crowded paddock. "I told
you I was doing you a favour when I fired you - you got a Rolex out of it!"
Dale Snr acclimatised to driving in the wet better than his son, but it was an eye-
opening experience for both and all credit to Dale Junior for returning to the place
and driving something else. It is always good to see a driver who has made his
mark, and in the case of Earnhardt his millions, in one discipline but be prepared
to drive in another.
In 2001, the prototype cars were unreliable at best and with the Corvettes, the
Earnhardts had the opportunity to win the race overall. This year, in the Porsche,
Dale Jnr has the chance to win the race outright once again, despite stepping back
Kevin Buckler's Porsche was more fuel efficient than the new Daytona Prototypes
this year, and more reliable too, factors which helped him and his team to secure
the first of Porsche's so far two famous 24-hour successes this season.
The Daytona Prototypes will be better this year, there will be more of them, and
Grand-Am organisers have taken measures against the Porsche's fuel economy,
too, by reducing the fuel tanks of the GT class cars to just 17 US gallons. That
measure alone speaks volumes for organisers struggling to make the new
Daytona Prototypes the best on the grid, but that is another story.
The Porsches may have to pit every ten minutes or so, but team boss Manfred
Freisinger is not overly concerned. As long as the car is running, says the man
whose team won at Spa in July, they have a chance.
The deal has come about due to a linked sponsor between Earnhardt and
Freisinger, but Grand-Am organisers must be rubbing their hands together with
glee. Here they are, with a championship which is at its weakest, a new concept
that has failed to take the world by storm, and NASCAR's finest agreeing to drive a
potentially winning car.
OK, it is not the prototype that they must have hoped for, but Earnhardt in their race
is a major piece of PR gold for them, provided they don't do what Corvette did and
threaten journalists if they try to speak to the sacred one.
On that occasion, I had attempted to get into the Corvette pit to speak with Andy
Pilgrim on Saturday night and was faced with an armed guard. Not really bothered
about the egos of drivers - they all do the same thing, just some better than others
- I wasn't fussed about speaking with the Earnhardts at that particular moment.
Sports car and endurance racing is a different world, I am sure, to NASCAR, but a
gun in the pit lane is never sensible, and denying working journalists access to
your drivers is not part of the endurance racing culture. Manfred Freisinger, having
heard the story, thought that it was all extremely funny, and has said he would do
his best. What I never established with him was whether that meant keeping
armed guards out of the pits, or having me shot.