In 1962, Bill France Sr. brought international sports car racing to Daytona International Speedway for a three-hour race called the Daytona Continental. Four years later in 1966, the World Center of Racing staged its first 24-hour race and created an instant classic.
The 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan. 28-29, marks a half-century of top-level sports car racing on the high banks and twisting infield of Daytona International Speedway and, in the coming weeks, we'll be counting down to that milestone with a series of stories looking at some of the drivers, marques and stories that have shaped those 50 years. This week, four-time winner Scott Pruett talks about what it takes to win a modern-day Rolex 24, in what is perhaps its most competitive era.
SCOTT PRUETT'S KEYS TO WINNING
The game has changed when it comes to winning a Rolex 24 at Daytona. Thanks to the closely matched competition in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and the incredible reliability of the Daytona Prototypes battling for the overall victory, the 'round-the-clock classic has turned into the world's longest, toughest sprint. The racing is flat-out until the checkers and the finishes are often nail-bitingly close – and the man who's mastered this style of no-holds-barred, 24-hour racing better perhaps than anyone is four-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett.
Pruett has driven Daytona Prototypes for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates since 2004, earning three of his four Rolex 24 wins in 2007, '08 and this year. His first came back in 1994, in a Nissan 300ZX.
His impressive efforts behind the wheel are a significant factor in Ganassi's successes, but the sports car ace knows that the sum is greater than the parts, and winning at Daytona only comes if the total package is firing on all cylinders.
We caught up with Pruett to get his take on the time, effort, preparation and teamwork that go into winning at the "World Center of Racing."
Describe the typical preparation for the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and what approach or mindset both you and the team have to get into.
“Before you head into any 24-hour event, people have to realize how much effort is put in by the team. So much goes into the car before hitting the track. We spend a year racing the car, and Daytona is our first race of the year. We look at every piece, part, nut, bolt, upright, bearing, or whatever else you can imagine.
“At the end of the year, the cars completely come apart and we go after anything we feel we need to change, upgrade and modify to make it 100 percent ready for what lies ahead. Any weak links have to be modified or changed as we feel necessary. The Rolex 24 is our biggest, toughest event. It's a 24-hour sprint race. We can, and we have to, drive the cars at 100 percent for the majority of the race.”
How different is racing the current generation of Daytona Prototypes in the Rolex 24, compared to your earlier races?
“We never ran the cars as hard as we do now. There was always something you had to be careful of – it could be the transmission, the brakes, or over-revving the engine. Now, everything is so robust in these cars and, because of the rules, you don't overdo them in design and production. It's pretty incredible how hard you can race these cars throughout 24 hours.
“The biggest thing is, you have to stay on the lead lap or, at the worst, only fall one lap down. You can't afford any problems. If you had a four- or five-lap length stay in the garage, you can't make it up. Anytime that you lose laps now, the chances of getting them back become pretty difficult.”
How does your training regimen change to prepare for Daytona?
“I start training a bit differently in November in preparation for the 24. Most of our events are two hours, 45 minutes, with two drivers. Come Daytona, you look at slightly modifying the training regimen. I train year-'round and it becomes a way of life. With that being said, I ramp up for more endurance. At the minimum, it's doing an hour or an hour-and-a half of cardio. For weights, instead of doing sets of 10 reps, I might do sets of 50 or 100 reps. I'll be really focused on my diet, too. Everything that goes in your body has to set you up for the long haul.”
What is the process of working with the other Ganassi car and determining strategy for the race?
“You work very closely with the other car before the race, looking at setup or anything that can benefit the team either way. The cars are prepped as best they can be before the race.
“Once we get into the race, we work together on pit stops to make sure we don't take each other out, or how we can best make it in and out. But otherwise, there's not a lot we do together. That said, if we're running together, say maybe 1-2 or 3-4, the other car will go ahead if it's faster. Each team has its own strategy and how it plays out.
“With your co-drivers, the car isn't the best setup for me, or for Memo (Rojas), but it is the best compromise for the group. Things such as how the seat best fits and finding comfort is done based on the group.”
Talk about Rojas' improvement from his first year alongside you, and how the guest third and fourth drivers enter into the team dynamic.
“Talking about Memo first, it's been quite fun working together with him and bringing him in. It's been incredible seeing his improvement from his first season until now.
“When we bring in a Graham Rahal or a Joey Hand, as we did this year, Memo and I spend as much time as possible teaching them to understand what the car's like, how it handles and things like that, because we run it for the whole season. We want them up to speed and as comfortable as possible going in. When we bring in the additional drivers, my focus and Memo's focus is, ‘What can we do to help them integrate into the 01 car?'”
How has the continuity of being at Ganassi helped, and how has the team grown and progressed since your debut with them in the 2004 Rolex 24?
“It's funny because, from our first year in 2004 until now, it's like a different team. I remember our first year trying to set everything up right. You have to prepare for if it rains, or for the darkness – you have to see where you're going, the headlights have to work. Let me tell you, we were pretty grossly underprepared leading up to our first race in 2004.
“Now, working with Ganassi, you've seen the success across the board. We've developed a very good, acute understanding of what we need to do leading up to the race. Besides just the race preparation, the area we've improved most is on the contingencies – say if we break a nose or tear something up. The Ganassi guys are continually practicing those changes back at the shop and are always prepared.”
What do you think the new 2012 DP chassis will do in affecting the race and how you approach it?
“It shouldn't do anything to affect reliability. But the aero characteristics, from what we heard – and we'll get (the new car) in November – are crucial in Daytona Beach. We have a lot to learn there, as do all teams. We're all in the same boat. Success in the Rolex 24 will depend to some extent on how we accommodate the new aero changes which come into play.”
You've won four of these so far. Which stands out the most?
“Interestingly enough, last year (2011 with Rojas, Rahal and Hand, LEFT)). Because, firstly, I was so happy to see Grand-Am going green before a bunch of screaming fans who, just like us, would have been really let down if the race finished under yellow. We had so many cars on the lead lap, fighting for the lead and the win after 24 hours! The intensity was incredible.”
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