The ride toward the 2011 Rolex 24 At Daytona begins this weekend for Bennett Racing as the team will make its Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series Presented by Crown Royal Cask No. 16 debut on Saturday afternoon in the Bosch Engineering 250 at Virginia International Raceway.
Co-driving the team's No. 56 South River Marina & Mercruiser Ferrari F430 Challenge in the GT class at VIR will be team owner Skip Bennett of Edgewater, Md., and Mike Skeen of Charlotte, N.C. The bright yellow No. 56 machine will be the only Ferrari in the field this weekend at VIR.
Other team drivers who will participate in upcoming rounds of the Rolex Series include Jonathan Allen of Upper Black Eddy, Pa., Mike Davidson of Chesapeake, Va., and Chris Cobetto of Richmond, Va. This weekend, Allen will serve as the team's fueler, while Davidson – Bennett Racing's co-founder – is an additional team engineer. All five drivers are also planning to compete in the 2011 Rolex 24 At Daytona next January.
“We are unbelievably excited,” said Bennett of the team's debut race. “This is just an opportunity that not very many people get in their lives. To talk about it is one thing, but the closer you get to the actual day, it's unbelievable. The number of things you have to accomplish to pull a team together is beyond comprehension. We're expecting to learn a lot. We're going to be tickled to death to finish and if nothing goes wrong, we feel we're going to finish quite well.”
The drivers on the team got to know each other racing in the Spec E30 series, which is a grass-roots racing series sanctioned by the National Auto Sport Association (NASA). Every car in that series is either a BMW 3-series coupe or sedan built between 1987 and 1991 and utilizes a series-specified 2.5-liter engine. Cobetto won the Spec E30 national championship in 2006, 2007, and 2009, while Skeen took the national title in 2008.
In addition to winning the Spec E30 title, Skeen earned national exposure in 2008 when he participated in the second season of the Setup reality television show on SPEED. The show's host, multi-time road racing champion Tommy Kendall, declared Skeen “the front runner” in the show and Skeen won the most races throughout the one-month series before being taken out in another driver's incident in the final race. Skeen also co-drove a Freedom Autosport Mazda MX-5 in the Street Tuner (ST) class of the six-hour Grand-Am KONI Challenge Series race at VIR in 2008.
Last year, Skeen finished second in the Grassroots Motorsports Ultimate Track Car Challenge at VIR and competed in selected rounds of the SCCA Pro Racing Trans-Am Series, including a run from last on the starting grid to second place at the finish of the season opener at Road Atlanta. Skeen is planning to compete in the full, 10-race 2010 Trans-Am Series in addition to this effort with Bennett Racing.
The 53-year-old Bennett owns Skip Bennett Marine in Edgewater, Md., and he has applied much of what he learned through decades in the boat business to his latest venture into auto racing, which began with a Skip Barber school 2005. The bulk of Bennett's experience has come through NASA and Spec E30 events, but he also co-drove a Porsche in a wet and wild Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge (then known simply as Grand-Am Cup) race at VIR in 2006. He moved to Ferrari Challenge in 2007, finishing fourth in the season standings, and the team is using that same (albeit somewhat modified) Ferrari in the Rolex Series.
The crew is made up of a group of volunteers who befriended each other in Spec E30. The story goes that the group was sitting around a campfire one night at a racetrack and decided they wanted to take the next step. They identified competing in the Rolex 24 At Daytona as their goal and are now well on their way.
“The people who are really coming to the table and really helping to get this thing off the ground, it's very impressive to me,” Bennett says. “And the amount of people. Other than the drivers, there are another 20 people who have been involved at different levels to make this happen. You've got to get the suits, you've got to get the uniforms, you've got to get the patches, you've got to get the fuel rig, the pit box, and they've figured all this out. They've helped me do it, because there's no way I have the time to build the car, run my business and figure all that stuff out.”
The team chose VIR as its jumping off point as it's very familiar territory for both Bennett and Skeen, who considers the 3.27-mile, 17-turn facility his home track.
“I couldn't even venture a guess at the number of laps I've done there, but I've got a lot of laps there, for sure,” Skeen said. “I've been to a lot of tracks in the U.S. and it's absolutely in my top three if not at the top. It doesn't have any one corner that's the same. There's very natural terrain and a flowing feel to it. It has slow, technical stuff; it has high speed. The uphill (Climbing) Esses (Turn 9) and South Bend (Turn 10) are some of the greatest corners in North America.”
After the Bosch Engineering 250 at VIR, the Bennett Racing team plans to compete in a few more Rolex Series events later in the season with different driver combinations in preparation for next year's Rolex 24. Events that have been targeted by the team in 2010 include the Sahlen's Six Hours of The Glen on June 4-5, the Brumos Porsche 250 at Daytona International Speedway on July 2-3 and the race at New Jersey Motorsports Park on July 16-18.