DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Three hours before the start of the 57th annual Rolex 24 at Daytona on Saturday, Jimmy Vasser stood outside his team’s transporter and marveled at the crowd milling through the paddock at Daytona International Speedway.
“I haven’t been here since I drove in it in 2010,” Vasser said. “The excitement, the presentation, the activation and the engagement are way higher.”
Vasser, who competed in six Rolex 24s, returns as a co-owner of AIM Vasser Sullivan, which will field two cars in the GT Daytona class. It’s one of eight teams with connections to the NTT IndyCar Series that will take the green flag at 2:35 p.m. ET for what’s regarded as the annual kickoff to the North American motorsports season.
The similarities between INDYCAR and sports car racing outweigh the differences. Three of Vasser's eight drivers – Jack Hawksworth, Townsend Bell and Aaron Telitz – have connections to INDYCAR. Vasser and AIM co-owner James Sullivan also are partners with Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan in the NTT IndyCar Series.
In Vasser’s mind, the crossover between the two series comes down to one thing.
“It’s just a competitive spirit – racers are racers,” Vasser said. “They’re going to race as hard and as much as they can. The cream comes to the top. The personnel – from drivers, crew chiefs and engineers – can matriculate across both mediums.”
Five drivers in the Rolex 24 field – Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta – are full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers in 2019. Several others, including Alex Zanardi, Rubens Barrichello, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Briscoe – among others – have past and present winning connections to Indy car racing.
In its first race, AIM Vasser Sullivan has two Lexus RC F GT3s in the lineup: The No. 12 shared by Bell, Telitz, Frank Montecalvo and Jeff Segal, and the No. 14 shared by Hawksworth, Richard Heistand, Nick Cassidy and Austin Cindric, son of Team Penske President Tim Cindric.
Vasser’s longtime racing connection with Toyota Racing Development and his Toyota dealership in Napa, California, helped set the stage for the team’s partnership with Lexus.
“I’d been looking for an opportunity,” Vasser said. “For about five years or so, it seems like more and more INDYCAR teams have been expanding into other forms of motorsport. IMSA and sports car racing is the natural progression. Manufacturer involvement is on a huge upswing, with a great connection to the showroom floor."
His is not the only team with extensive connections to INDYCAR; Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian, Scuderia Corsa, Juncos Racing and DragonSpeed also have links.
The crossover makes perfect sense, Vasser said.
“It just goes to tell you that the level of people in both categories and both series are good enough to do that,” said Vasser, the 1996 CART champion as a driver for Ganassi. “It’s not amateur racing like some people may have thought of sports car racing in the past. There are synergies between the level of technical abilities and engineering and on the whole team side.”
Race coverage begins on NBCSN at 2 p.m. ET. The green flag is scheduled to fly at 2:35 p.m.