Jan 26, 2014, 5:10 PM EDT
IMSA officials were surely hoping this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway would be an awesome debut for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and a new era of North American sports car racing.
And outside of the horrific crash yesterday that sent drivers Memo Gidley and Matteo Malucelli to the hospital, it was looking like just that going into the final hour of the race today, with tight battles for victory ensuing in nearly all of the classes.
But instead of being hailed as an out-and-out classic, this year’s Rolex (won by Action Express Racing) will likely be remembered by some for its chaotic finish, which evolved over the final half-hour and transformed the race into something more akin to a NASCAR-style “green-white-checkered” rush.
With about 22 minutes to go, Leh Keen had just taken the No. 22 Alex Job Racing Porsche out of the pits but then slid off the track at Turn 2, and bounced into the nearby tire barriers.
The impact inflicted some front-end damage, but Keen was able to keep the car going out of that and almost immediately came back onto the track. However, that didn’t stop IMSA from throwing a full-course yellow in surprisingly quick fashion – bunching up the field for what would turn out to be a final, eight-minute dash when the green returned.
In hindsight, Keen’s incident meriting a full-course yellow was iffy at best, considering how fast he was able to get his wounded Porsche on course again. But while that may have caused an eye-roll or two, the conclusion to the GTD duel between Level 5 Motorsports’ Alessandro Pier Guidi and Flying Lizard Motorsports’ Markus Winkelhock would prove more stunning.
After the two had made contact in the bus stop chicane shortly following the green flag, Pier Guidi overshot the same corner on the penultimate lap but took the lead back from Winkelhock as the white flag came out. Then in the infield, Winkelhock and his Audi came up to battle side-by-side with Pier Guidi in his Ferrari.
The two gave no quarter to the other but didn’t appear to make contact before Winkelhock went off-course, allowing Pier Guidi to pull away for the win. Instead, IMSA chose to give Pier Guidi and the No. 555 team a time penalty for avoidable contact, which meant Winkelhock and his No. 45 squad were dubbed GTD class winners.
The decision was met with surprise and shock, and MotorSportsTalk’s man on the ground, Tony DiZinno, confirmed that IMSA officials were discussing the final outcome in GTD. Several hours after the finish, IMSA announced that they would reverse their original decision and declare the No. 555 team as GTD class winners after a review of the last-lap incident.
Article 48, Section 3 of IMSA’s TUDOR Series rulebook says that any driver who is found by the Race Director to have caused “avoidable contact with another competitor, whether or not such contact interrupts the other competitor’s lap times, track position or damages other competitor’s Cars, and whether or not such actions result in actual contact, may be warned or penalized.”
So, IMSA was within its right to issue the original penalty, even if you may think the rule is misguided because their was no contact on the final lap.
But it begs the question of why that penalty wasn’t issued right after the two had come together in the bus stop. So, even though IMSA officials have decided to overturn their call on Pier Guidi and give the No. 555 the class victory, they still appeared to have missed one.
It’s a shame we’ve had to focus on this, because outside of this and the Gidley-Malucelli crash, the 2014 Rolex was really fun to watch. And the fact that there was a very sizable crowd to attend the festivities bodes well for the new TUDOR Championship. They have several positives to build upon as they continue deeper into their inaugural season.
But one can’t help but wonder if today’s finish has put a damper on an otherwise great event.