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DAYTONA BEACH — Given the major splash delivered by so many companies diving in this year, more than ever the Rolex 24 seems more corporate carnival than automotive competition.

But at 2:30 Saturday afternoon, they start keeping score, which officially makes this a competition. With that in mind, eventually someone will lean over and ask, “Well, whaddaya think? Who you like?”

Good luck with that.

More than any other form of motorsports, this twice-around-the-clock marathon stomps on predictions faster than you can say brake failure. When former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously talked of unknown unknowns, the subject was much more important, but it could’ve been about endurance racing.

“We could spend a lot of time talking about what we don’t know. There’s a lot more that we don’t know than what we know,” said Joao Barbosa, who leads the 55-car field to the green flag in a known unknown: One of Cadillac’s three brand new Prototypes in IMSA’s marquee class.

Gary Nelson spent most of his adult life in NASCAR before sliding into the sports-car world and now serves as team manager for Action Express Racing, which prepares the car Barbosa will roll off the grid Saturday afternoon. The team’s two cars combined for about 5,000 miles of testing over the past few months, which seems about right since the Rolex winner generally logs a little more than 2,500 miles.

Granted, 5,000 miles seems as if it would provide ample opportunity to learn what a car will do. But this new Cadillac engineering, which replaced the team’s former Corvette-branded engineering, includes a better than 200-percent upgrade (in hard cash) in all of those fancy electronics that makes this truly a prototype racer. They went from about $30,000 worth of techno gadgetry to about $100,000, Nelson says.

And if you’ve ever fallen in love with modern electronics and its miracles, you’ve likely experienced the expensive flip side, which usually leaves you gaping at a mechanic’s estimate and asking yourself, “Why did I want all that crazy stuff in the first place?”

“A good analogy would be a new smartphone,” Nelson said Friday afternoon as he stood between his team’s two cars in the garage. “You gotta learn your new smartphone, right? The first few days you’re thinking, ‘Man, I wish I had my old phone back.’ But after a while, you don’t want to give that new one up.

“Our old car, we knew that car.”

This one? It’s a work in progress. And they have to learn quickly, as in 200 mph through the tri-oval.

It got Jeff Gordon’s attention very quickly during pre-season testing. Gordon, in the driver lineup for the third Cadillac entry, marveled at the mechanical engineering, which is obviously different than the stock-car fare he employed during his great career.

“Getting behind wheel of a car that turns the corners and brakes like that car brakes, that’s eye-opening,” said Gordon, who, by the way, has logged a lot of competitive miles in race cars.

But even the veteran sports-car racers are adapting.

“Sometimes, we’re just trying to guess what this does and what that does,” said Barbosa, a native of Portugal who relocated to Ormond Beach several years ago. “It’s very different from what we had. We had the other car down to the finer details. Now, we’re just experimenting. We’re just trying to get the basics going, and worry about other things later.”

But here’s the good news for the Cadillac group: There are 12 cars entered in the Prototype class for the Rolex 24. Each one is making its racing debut Saturday. Up and down the garage, others are dealing with their own anxieties, many a by-product of a racing and automotive industry that evolves weekly, it seems.

“You know, you used to roll up your window with a crank,” Nelson reminded us.

For the thousands on hand without a dog in the hunt, the Rolex 24 will, maybe more than ever, remind us why Daytona International Speedway’s middle name is so appropriate. In the hours leading up to the 2:30 start, a worldwide gathering of fans and competitors will pack the paddock in general, the garage and starting grid in particular.

A big-league sports-car race like the Rolex is a totally different animal than the Daytona 500, but the pre-race vibe for each is electric and there’s an unmistakable feeling that this is “the place to be.” But eventually the green flag flies and all that excitement gives way to all of the usual racing stuff, complete with excitement, disappointment, frustration and, since it’s endurance racing, fatigue.

We got a sneak preview of the grueling nature of this form of racing Friday, and the BMW Endurance Challenge was just four hours, practically a sprint compared to the Rolex 24. Friday’s race, which annually delivers the race season’s first checkered flag, was won by Trent Hindman and Cameron Cassels in a Porsche Cayman GT4. With Hindman in the seat at the end, they finished about a half-second ahead of another Porsche, shared by Mark Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer.

Matt Pombo and Derek Jones, in a Mini, finished 13th overall but first in the Street Tuner class. They were just as happy as the overall winners, just as three class winners from the Rolex will be just as happy as the overall champ.

That, too, is what makes Rolex weekend different from the higher-profile stock-car offerings that made Daytona so famous on this continent.

 


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