| The Daytona Beach News-Journal
Jimmie Johnson discusses NASCAR career and hints at 2021 Rolex 24 At Daytona run
Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson will make his last start as a full-time Cup Series driver at Phoenix. He talks about career and his future.
Godwin Kelly, The Daytona Beach News-Journal
It’s time to start the clock on the 2021 racing season at Daytona International Speedway.
The first green flag of the new year will drop at the track later this month, amid an ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has plagued sports leagues across the globe for the better part of 10 months.
“We’re absolutely ready,” said Speedway President Chip Wile. “Our team is truly all hands on deck and running on all cylinders right now.”
When is the Rolex 24?
The 59th running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona is set for Jan. 30-31 (3:40 p.m.) and will kick off a hectic seven weeks at the Speedway that will include the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s second venture on the track’s road course, and Daytona Supercross.
While the Rolex 24 is viewed as the official starter race to the track’s motorsports season, it won’t be the first time the green flag waves.
New this year, the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend has moved from the beginning of January to the weekend before the Rolex (Jan. 22-24), and will include a 100-minute qualifying race Jan. 24 that will set the Rolex 24 field.
International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) President John Doonan hopes the move, which was announced last summer, will create more continuity during Rolex week.
“It creates an exciting atmosphere … a ‘Speedweek,’ if you will,” Doonan told The News-Journal. “Obviously Daytona Speedweeks are reserved for the Daytona 500, but we do kick off the racing world every January here at the Rolex 24.”
Of course, like everything else, the decision to move the Roar was also made with the pandemic in mind. The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series resumed its season amid COVID-19 last July at Daytona, and finished the year Nov. 14 at Sebring.
All the race weekends in between, Doonan said, were a learning experience.
“We learned so much from July of 2020 to Sebring in November about how to operate these events,” he said. “One thing we learned, and there were many, was how to be more efficient in our scheduling and with our race teams.”
Reducing travel during the pandemic has been something all leagues have dealt with — the NBA went into the Orlando bubble, MLB realigned divisions, and the NHL had “hub” cities.
For IMSA, which has drivers and teams spread across the world, condensing events, like the Roar/Rolex week, was a vital step to racing during a pandemic.
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“We’ve been fortunate to establish a really positive relationship with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” Doonan said. “There’s a waiver that allows professional athletes to travel, and they’ve been really helpful in supporting our athletes.”
Once drivers and teams arrive in the country, they go through an IMSA screening process that includes a health questionnaire and temperature checks.
While IMSA doesn’t do COVID-19 testing, certain countries do require negative tests before getting on an airplane, so it’s not unusual that multiple teams go through testing ahead of a race week.
Rolex 24 entry list
While the entry list for this year’s Rolex 24 won’t be announced until later this week, Doonan expects an even bigger field than last year, when 39 cars made the trip to Daytona.
Officials from IMSA also told The News-Journal that every continent except Antarctica will be represented in this year’s field.
“It’s looking like 50% of the field will be prototypes and 50% will be GT cars, and that’s a significant increase given the circumstances,” Doonan said.
Last September, IMSA announced a fifth class — LMP3 — would join the Series this season, joining Daytona Prototype International, Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2), GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes.
While there isn’t an official entry list yet, there are official entries, including plenty of big names.
Last month, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson announced he would return to the Rolex for the first time since 2011, joining a star-studded Action Express team that includes Simon Pagenaud, Mike Rockenfeller and Kamui Kobayashi.
Pagenaud is a former IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 champion, Rockenfeller is a Le Mans champion, and Kobayashi is a two-time Rolex 24 champion with Wayne Taylor Racing.
Reigning NASCAR Cup champion Chase Elliott, who won on Daytona’s Road Course last August in a Cup car, will also be making his Rolex 24 debut, as will 2018 Daytona 500 champion Austin Dillon.
“It’s really encouraging that the greatest of the greatest are coming together here,” Doonan said. “Something that’s always stuck with me is what the original vision Bill France had for this event when it was the Daytona Continental, and that was to bring together the best drivers, the best cars and the best teams from all over the world from every discipline of motorsport.”
Will there be fans?
The field will be bigger, and the week will be more streamlined, but will fans be able to attend?
The short answer is yes, but it won’t quite look the same.
“The great thing about the Rolex is there’s so many little things that happen in pockets during that 24-hour period,” Wile said. “So we evaluated every event and asked, ‘Can we do this event safely? Can we do it effectively?’
“It’ll definitely look a little different, but there will also be a lot of things people are used to seeing.”
The Speedway announced last month that it would allow a “limited” number of fans into the Roar and Rolex weekends, with COVID-19 protocols (health screenings, temperature checks, masks required) in place at all times.
Last year’s Rolex 24 had an estimated crowd of 40,000, while the July 4 IMSA race had around 5,000.
While officials from the Speedway do not specify what “limited” capacity will look like at the venue, it won’t be business as usual.
Infield bleachers and frontstretch venue seating will continue to be general admission but with six feet of social distancing enforced between parties. Markers will be placed on the infield bleachers to identify where fans can sit and in standing-room-only areas along the road course fencelines.
While the UNOH FanZone will be open, the garages, paddock and pit-road areas will be closed to fans, along with the grid-walk and ballfield access.
Along with those experiences, infield tent camping, infield car camping, GEICO Park west tent camping and Café 24 breakfast area will also be closed to fans.
One thing that will look the same, however, is the Rolex 24 Ferris wheel, which will be operational during the week.
“It’s an iconic piece of the Rolex 24,” Wile said, adding that cars will be sanitized between each trip. “We can still do that, and it’s an important part of the event.”
RV camping will also be allowed (a maximum of six guests per spot), but there will be no tent or car camping due to the shower facilities being closed. All campers must have self-contained RVs with toilet facilities on board, as well as other amenities.
This will be the Speedway’s fourth major race weekend with fans present since the pandemic started. Last summer’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 had an estimated crowd of 25,000, and a similar crowd is expected at next month’s Daytona 500.
“Every time we opened the gates (last year), we took notes and made adjustments to our protocols,” Wile said. “For example, with the screening lines, we learned during the IMSA weekend that when we were screening our guests and then they would go through security, we needed to put a little more distance between those two areas.
“So every time we open those gates, we’re learning things that make us better.”
Rolex 24 tickets and passes
Despite capacity restrictions, ticket packages are still available online. Two-day event passes start at $45 and include free tickets to the Roar weekend. Single-day passes are available Thursday (Jan. 28), Friday (Jan. 29) and Sunday (Jan. 31), and start at $10.
Single-day, 6-hour tickets (6 p.m.-12 a.m.) on Saturday will be available at the gate for $25.
Taste of the 24
Attendance won’t just be limited in the grandstands and infield, but also in the Midway Suites.
The 12th annual Taste of the 24, the local food and beverage taste-testing event that takes place during the night of the Rolex 24, has been reduced to 50% capacity, or about 1,000 people.
“We want to smart about COVID and make sure we don’t have people on top of each other,” said Nichole Krieger, Executive Director of the NASCAR Foundation. “We’ve always had a sellout, so this year we just said we’re going to limit it to 50%. That’ll probably be the biggest difference.”
It won’t be the only one, though.
All the food this year will be pre-portioned, grab-and-go samples with strict COVID protocols in place. All guests will be screened before entering the facility and will be required to wear face coverings while maintaining six feet social distancing throughout their visit. Each suite will also be monitored to make sure it stays under capacity.
Tickets are still available and start at $110 for general admission, which includes a two-day pass to the Rolex 24 and fanzone access. A $160 VIP ticket includes general admission perks, plus early admission, drinks tickets, and VIP bar access.
The Foundation is also offering a $50 “virtual” ticket this year, which allows fans to virtually participate in the event while also being entered in the drawing for the Rolex watch.
Participating restaurants include: 4 Rivers Smokehouse, Arepita Beach, Ben & Jerry’s, Cantina Louie, Dave and Busters, DJs Deck, Duck Donuts, Giuseppe’s, Jeremiah’s Italian Ice, Kale Cafe, La Shawarma, P.F. Chang’s, Pictona, Rock Bottom, Sloppy Joe’s, Texas Roadhouse (Palm Coast), Tiano’s, Tijuana Flats and Two Jerks Seafood.