A new era in American sports-car racing began with the opening round of the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship (USCC). The race took place at the 3,560-mile Daytona International Speedway. This is the first race since Grand Am and American Le Mans Series (ALMS) merged. Four classes and 67 cars started the 52nd Rolex 24 at Daytona. This included Prototype (P), Prototype Challenge (PC), Grand Touring Le Mans (GTLM), and Grand Touring Daytona (GTD). Two categories are of particular interest to Corvette enthusiasts, P and GTLM.
Six Corvette Daytona Prototypes (DP) were in the starting field. They moved from Grand Am and into the USCC series with minor changes. These included a dual-element rear wing, more power (60 hp), and more freedom with suspension and brake choices. These cars are not eligible to race at Le Mans. Their ALMS equivalent is the LMP2 open prototype entries. They are lightweight, have a lot of aero downforce, and are fitted with non-turbo 5-liter or 3.2-liter turbo engines. They are eligible to race at Le Mans.
Eighteen P cars qualified and Corvettes were first through sixth, and 11th. The No. 99 Corvette driven by Alex Gurney, Dan Fogarty, Darren Law, and Memo Gidley was the fastest at 1:38.270/130.416 mph. The Visit Florida No. 90 entry driven by Richard Westbrook, Richard Valiante, and Mike Rockenfeller was a tick behind at 1:38.487/130.129 mph. The slowest of these Corvettes is a new entry from Whelen Motorsports, driven by Eric Currin, Boris Said, Bradley Smith, and Max Papis. Their time was 1:40.570/127.434 mph. "It's fantastic to have two Corvette Daytona Prototypes on the front row for the opening race of the Tudor United Sports Car Series," said Mark Kent, Chevrolet's director of racing. "This is a testament to the collective effort by Chevrolet Racing, Earnhardt Childress Racing, GM Powertrain, and our Chevrolet teams." The quickest LMP2 qualified 13th at 1:41.777/125.922 mph. These cars are expected to be quicker on shorter flat racetracks like Sebring, so time will tell how they fare.
In the GTLM class, two Corvette C7.R's were among the 11 entries. GTLM is a carryover from the ALMS series and these cars are eligible to race at Le Mans. Porsche, Viper, Ferrari, Aston Martin, and BMW all brought cars to compete in this category. The top qualifier was a SRT Viper GTS-R at 1:44.506/122.634 mph and 24th starting position. Behind the Viper was a factory Porsche 911, a Viper, and the No. 4 Corvette C7.R. The Corvette driven by Oliver Gavin, Tom Milner, and Robin Liddell qualified at 1:44.729/122.373.28 mph and started in 27th position. The top GTLM qualifiers set similar times and any one of them could win the class.
The green flag dropped at 2:10 pm on Saturday, January 24, 2014, under clear, dry conditions. Shortly after the start, the Visit Florida No. 90 Corvette pitted with a loss of engine power, but was able to quickly resume. At the end of the first hour the No. 5 Action Express was in the top five (first), but the top 23 race competitors were on the same lap, and it was very close racing. The No. 3 C7.R that started 62nd was now 21st and 7th in GTLM. The No. 4 Corvette was 19th overall and Fifth in class.
During the third hour the No. 99 Gainsco Corvette driver Memo Gidley had a serious incident. As he accelerated hard between Turns 3 and 4 around 145 mph the setting sun was probably blinding him. Matteo Malucelli was ahead struggling with his No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 458 and creeping along at a reported 15 mph. Memo struck the Ferrari with an extremely heavy impact. The race was red flagged for one hour while crews extracted and attended to both drivers. Both survived, and Memo was gravely injured, but fortunately he is expected to recover. This was a very scary incident and it was very sobering for race fans and teams.
When the race resumed, the No. 5 Action Express Corvette continued to find its way to the top of the field. Hour after hour, it was rarely out of the top-five positions. Likewise, the No. 10 Velocity Corvette continued to be shown in the top five throughout the night.
In GTLM the No. 3 Corvette worked its way up to 12th overall and third in GTLM. It was an amazing performance after starting down in 62nd position. Its sister car, No. 4, fell back to 20th position after driver Robin Liddell spun on the track and fell one lap behind the GTLM leader. At the end of the seventh hour the No. 3 Corvette took the GTLM lead and continued to battle until a water leak forced its retirement early in the morning. The second team Corvette No. 4 quickly moved into one of the top three class positions to defend the brand's honor. It battled two Porsches until its gearbox failed at 21h 24m. The repair took only 30 minutes, but it was enough to push it down the order and it finished Fifth in GTLM and 16th overall. Meanwhile up front, two Corvettes were battling for the victory with 20 minutes left in the race. The No. 5 Action Express Corvette was battling with the No. 10 Velocity Corvette and eventually took the checkered flag a mere 1.461 seconds ahead of its fierce ally turned competitor. The No. 9 Action Express and the No. 90 Visit Florida Corvettes followed in Third and Fourth position. The No. 31 Whelen Corvette, finished 41st after experiencing electrical problems.
It was a great day for Corvette, and even though the C7.R's did not win GTLM class, it's clear that they will get to the top of the podium soon. This season will be exciting for sports-car enthusiasts. The United Sports Car Series looks like a winner. For more information check out www.imsa.com.