As you probably read from IndyCar.com coverage over the weekend, two Indianapolis 500 veterans – Colombian Sebastian Saavedra and Spaniard Fernando Alonso – took home new timepieces with wins in the Rolex 24 At Daytona sports car race.
For Saavedra, a six-time Indy 500 starter who teamed to win the LMP2 class Sunday, it was a thrill – albeit perhaps unexpected, considering his late-race crash was offset only by the rainy conditions that red-flagged the event soon after with his No. 18 DragonSpeed ORECA still in the class lead.
“Crazy, crazy!” the veteran of 65 IndyCar events told me afterward. “Super happy!”
While the INDYCAR paddock undoubtedly was pleased for the likable Saavedra, it was Alonso’s overall event win that will only amplify the anticipation of one of racing’s most dynamic talents’ return to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in May.
Twelve drivers – Mark Donohue, Bobby Rahal, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Al Unser Jr., Arie Luyendyk, Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon, Juan Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Buddy Rice and Tony Kanaan – have claimed an overall win at the Rolex 24 as well as an Indianapolis 500. Mario Andretti also won the annual endurance race at Daytona, though in 1972 it was a six-hour event due to the energy crisis at that time.
Alonso could become the fifth man, joining Donohue, Rahal, Unser Jr. and Dixon, to take the famed swig of milk after winning the prized 24-hour sports car race first. The eight others conquered Indy before winning at Daytona.
The Rolex 24 has always been a signature event in the racing world, a gathering of world-class talent from multiple racing disciplines before they disperse to different series around the globe.
“It’s a great way to start the year. Frankly, it’s the opening of the racing season in this continent if not the world,” said Graham Rahal, who matched his father Bobby’s 1981 feat by claiming victory with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2011. “It’s always been one of my greatest achievements to win it overall.”
The younger Rahal sat out the 2019 event, but vowed to return, if for no other reason than the value of a racing precursor before the NTT IndyCar Series season kicks off in St. Petersburg some six weeks later.
“I love the fact it keeps you fresh and focused on the offseason,” Rahal said. “I missed it this year, but I’ll be back.”
While the event may allow drivers to continue honing skills before their respective racing seasons get underway, Kanaan, who won the Rolex 24 in 2015 with Chip Ganassi Racing, says it’s an altogether different skillset required to drive in the sports car event.
“It doesn’t relate to INDYCAR because it’s such a different format,” the 2004 NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indy 500 winner explained. “It’s such a long race, four drivers (sharing a car), you wait so long (between stints).”
While the format and skillset may be different, Kanaan felt common ground in the racing approach.
“The only thing I would say would relate to the (Indy) 500,” he said, “is you wait (at Indy) until the last pit stop and you go race (hard). Over there, you wait until the last two hours and you go race.”
Whichever way you look at it, it’s an event that stands toward the top of any driver’s wish list.
“It’s one of those events you want to have on your resume, like the Indy 500,” Kanaan said. “I’m glad I was able to win it.”
(Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.)