There are perhaps few races worldwide that have gone through the changes and phases of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Since racing under IMSA sanction with the glorious GTP and Group C prototypes of the late 80’s, the race has seen no fewer than five top classes as the face of the overall battle for victory with four separate sanctioning bodies. With all that change, eventually, some formula is bound to stick, and I firmly believe we’ve found that time.

Let’s cast our minds back to the year 2003, the Rolex 24 beginning the morning of February 1st. The race was in its fourth year of Grand-Am sanction after two years under SCCA Pro Racing and the US Road Racing Championship, itself having taken over from IMSA’s GT Championship. Twice in the three prior years, the race had been won overall by GTO/GTS cars on the basis of reliability after entering as underdogs against the vastly more powerful and aerodynamically advanced sports racers.

That 2003 Rolex 24 was no different. The brand new Daytona Prototypes were thin in numbers, never mind slow and unproven. Inevitably, none of those six DPs were able to secure a victory and The Racers Group Porsche won as a member of the slowest class in the field.

From that 2003 race onward, Daytona was never really the same. The evocative prototypes that so defined IMSA throughout the 1980’s had evolved into Le Mans Prototypes by this stage, and it was determined that they had no place on the Speedway’s hallowed high banks. Daytona Motorsports Group’s influence was quickly building in American motorsports, and they had bigger plans for the Daytona Prototypes.

That plan, as it turned out, was essentially to operate the Rolex 24 as the pinnacle of a vacuum. For the ten years between DP’s introduction and American sportscar racing’s unification in 2013, Daytona Prototypes were largely a gentleman driver’s game. The race was promoted almost exclusively on the presence of NASCAR Nextel Cup and IndyCar Series drivers, while sportscar factory drivers featured but were rarely promoted to the general public. The endurance racing boom both in the US and abroad from 2006 through 2008 certainly helped their case, but Grand-Am’s case for creating an internationally relevant and sought after highlight took a turn after the global economic recession.

With the long-term stability of Daytona Prototype regulations being a major selling point, the cars returned year after year in the same hands with much the same drivers with no upgrades or advancements. While the racing was often stellar, it was operated in direct opposition to the global formula around it which demanded technological innovation that pushed both the sport and the automotive industry forward.

As their novelty waned and sportsman drivers became less likely to spend their money on a less interesting product, the Rolex 24 again began to struggle. The racing was no less exciting, but there were no OEM factory efforts to speak of, nor massive grids to make up the difference. Arguably, the closest Grand-Am got to international relevance was its decision to accept modified FIA GT3 cars. It created a significant increase in numbers in 2012, yet the top of the grid remained largely stagnant.

Finally, the competing American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series made the decision to unite beginning with the 2014 season, and for the first time exhibited a real pathway towards growth. Numbers immediately increased and internationally relevant prototypes and GT cars took to Daytona’s banking for the first time in over a decade.

Most importantly, though, the Rolex 24 at Daytona was part of a vision. The “new” IMSA organization had charted a course to bring great manufacturer and driver names back to its series and to America’s longest professional motor race with significant or factory efforts from names like Honda, Chevrolet, Ford, and Mazda.

That vision found its realization just last year with the dawn of IMSA’s Daytona Prototype International formula. While new-spec global LMP2 chassis and engines formed the basis for the prototype class, manufacturers were encouraged to build engines to the same target power and design bodywork to drape over the base chassis. Speeds increased significantly as part of the new packages and Daytona got exciting again, in the way that speed has made the Indianapolis 500 into what it is.

But most significantly, it has created a platform on which the world’s best – be they drivers, manufacturers, engineers, or private teams, can compete. Last year’s Le Mans LMP2 winners, among others, have come to compete in their first Rolex 24 against the returning IMSA and Rolex champions (never mind the other three manufacturer teams) against the best teams in the United States, against a Formula One world champion. All this while touching speeds of 190 mph in front of jam-packed camping grounds.

Meanwhile, the same great manufacturers that use Le Mans as their promotional platform have put together a nine car grid in GT Le Mans that rivals the preparation and dedication of France’s 24 hour classic. The race now also serves as the race debut for nearly every new GTE car of the last half decade – Ferrari’s 488, Ford’s GT, Porsche’s mid-engined 911 RSR, and this year BMW’s M8 GTE. Those factories with both IMSA and WEC entries are even finding drivers requesting to be placed in full-time IMSA drives.

And in GT Daytona, the ubiquitous GT3 formula used so successfully worldwide has found a US endurance racing home in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. While the entry list changes year to year, it presents an opportunity for any GT3 brand to strut their stuff and promote and support their customer teams. It is an enforced pro-am category as well, providing gentleman drivers the opportunity to compete head to head with their supporting casts of professionals, each afforded the same chance at Rolex 24 glory.

What other event has all this? The Rolex 24 at Daytona and the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship boast thirteen OEMs, more than any other series worldwide. At a time when LMP1 finds itself in a crisis, shrinking to near-nothing, DPi and the global LMP2s that race alongside it are booming, with rumors of new manufacturer entries refusing to go away. Joest Racing, the driving force behind the most successful prototype racing brand of the last two decades, now finds itself on Mazda’s behalf competing for a Rolex watch up against the same stacked lineup just described.

I find it difficult to defend the idea that Le Mans will forever be the premier 24 hour race in the world. The Rolex 24 at Daytona finds itself hosting the best of the best, an all-star collection of teams and drivers from around the world who are the absolute best at their craft. This exact formula exists nowhere else in the world, yet nowhere else in the world has boasts this opportunity to prove your value as a driver, team, or manufacturer.

So many years over the last two decades, the international motorsports community has looked at this event as the unofficial kickoff to the motor racing season and in some ways even an afterthought. IMSA’s team and their vision have truly returned Daytona to something special, by all means a bucket list event. This 2018 running of the race represents perhaps the single greatest collection of teams and drivers throughout all three classes and has the opportunity to set young drivers up for the rest of their careers.

And for us, the fans, we have the opportunity to witness something truly special. FIA World Champions in prototypes, GT cars, and Formula One will have their only chance to compete head to head in a formula unique to endurance racing worldwide. The cars are visually and aurally stunning, especially under the lights around the stadium that Daytona has become. The speeds are immense and the on-track action relentless.

If you’ll pardon the parochial reference, the Southeastern Conference in American collegiate sports has promoted itself the last two years with a simple phrase: “It just means more.” For IMSA, their partner brands, the competing drivers and teams, us as fans and the motorsports community as a whole, the same must be said about this 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona. It just means more.

Happy race day, everyone.

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Voice of Endurance Radio and WRL Live. Sportscar and endurance racing nut.