Jeff Olson

When Simon Pagenaud posted photos Sunday of his takeover of Juan Pablo Montoya’s motorcoach with Dane Cameron at Daytona International Speedway, Helio Castroneves warned about pirating JPM’s favorite dessert:

That noise coming from Florida last weekend? That was the sound of relief, reunion and enthusiasm mixed with speed and promise.

The “Roar Before the 24” was upon us, signaling the unofficial start of the 2019 racing season. The Roar, the annual warmup for the Rolex 24 at Daytona endurance sports car race later this month, didn’t fail to delight. The race’s most significant story, Alex Zanardi, explained it well:

“When I was racing in the United States, many of my colleagues and rivals were engaged in (the Rolex 24) as its dates never clashed with any of the Indy car championship races because it is very early in the season,” Zanardi, the two-time CART champion, said before practicing with BMW Team RLL. “I never had the opportunity for some reason to have a taste of it myself, but hearing my colleagues talking about the event – how great it is, their excitement, what they had to say about it – got me very curious about it, and it was a really long, long time ago when I said, ‘Down the road, sooner or later, I want to be at Daytona.’”

The affable Italian will soon get his chance. When the green flag waves Jan. 26, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener is expected to offer record-setting speed. During a brief qualifying session Sunday to determine garage and pit assignments for race weekend, Oliver Jarvis drove the No. 77 Mazda Team Joest Mazda RT24-P to a lap of 1 minute, 33.398 seconds (137.212 mph) in the DPi class.

That was more than half a second better than the 26-year-old record held by P.J. Jones. If it’s bettered during Rolex 24 qualifying Jan. 24, it officially will be the race’s fastest qualifying effort since 1993.

“The car was an absolute joy to drive,” Jarvis said afterward. “We ran it full qualy spec. I don’t think many of our competitors can say the same, but in that low-fuel configuration, it felt incredible. You could really push the car to the limits and it’s what us drivers live for, that feeling of getting everything out of the car.”

The allure of the Rolex 24 is in its variety, which has a direct connection to the IndyCar Series. At least eight teams and nearly two dozen drivers with INDYCAR connections – including seven Indy 500 and/or Indy car season champions – are scheduled to compete at Daytona this year. Among them are Zanardi, whose zest for life since losing both legs in a 2001 crash has been inspirational around the globe, five-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, four-time champ Sebastien Bourdais, three-time Indy 500 winner Castroneves and more. All are eager to get racing again in 2019.

The end of a long offseason is greeted by the promise of what’s next. The enthusiasm is irresistible, and it’s catching.

It certainly is.