By Jeff Olson IMSA Wire Service
If you happen to find an entry list for the 59th Rolex 24 At Daytona featuring the flags of each driver’s home country, you’re in for a colorful geography lesson.
You’ll also realize just how international in scope the race is.When the green flag flies Saturday shortly after 3:30 p.m. ET, you’ll be watching a race involving 49 cars driven by 195 drivers from 27 countries. While Americans make up the largest nationality, they are hardly the majority.
Almost two-thirds of the field hails from outside the U.S., including 18 drivers from Great Britain, 17 from France, 13 from Germany and 11 from Italy.
The international appeal isn’t limited to drivers. The race also has an international audience.
“Everywhere around the world, they are watching this race like they are watching Le Mans,” said Renger van der Zande, a two-time Rolex 24 winner from the Netherlands. “Daytona has a name, and it’s the only race in January. It’s something that the whole world watches because everybody is waiting for the first race of the season. All of that together makes it very appealing for fans and drivers around the world. To win this race is the highlight of my career, for sure.”
The international appeal of the race leads to some widely varied lineups. One of the cars favored to win, the No. 48 Action Express Ally Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R, is co-driven by seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson from El Cajon, California, Simon Pagenaud from France, Mike Rockenfeller from Germany and Kamui Kobayashi from Japan.
Circumstances and opportunities brought the four accomplished drivers together, and the result is an international all-star team with global appeal.
“I think Jimmie is still motivated by racing – maybe not by NASCAR, but just by racing different cars,” Kobayashi said. “I’m very happy to be part of his program with the Ally Cadillac. With Simon and Mike, it’s great because we have someone who won the IndyCar championship (Pagenaud) and someone who won the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, Rockenfeller). With people coming from all these categories, it shows what a big and competitive championship the IMSA WeatherTech (Championship) has become.”
Two reasons for the appeal to drivers around the globe: The race’s history and its place on the calendar. Sebastien Bourdais, who was born in Le Mans, France, and lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, has won both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Rolex 24.
“(The Rolex 24) has a huge appeal internationally because of history,” Bourdais said. “It’s a race that every race car driver wants to put on their résumé. Also, it’s so early in the season that there’s really no conflict with other series. There’s such a wide variety of cars and entries and one-offs.
“It allows people to come here just for this specific event. Deep in the season, when they’re all tangled in their own championships, they can’t do it. That’s why you see all nations and backgrounds coming together and kick-starting the season. That’s what’s so unique about Daytona. No other series starts racing at the end of January.”
And the weight of a win in the famous race carries itself around the world. When he makes appearances in the Netherlands, van der Zande is introduced with mention of his Rolex 24 victories.
“They always refer to me as a two-time Daytona winner,” van der Zande said. “On top of that, the biggest newspapers are always asking me for interviews around this time of the year about the Daytona 24 Hours. It’s an endurance classic, and it’s one of the biggest races in the world if you are in endurance racing. I feel it at home in Holland, for sure. People recognize this race.”
They also show up for it. Most of the spectators watch from the infield of the giant facility, which might mask the numbers, but drivers notice how many fans – and how many from around the world – show up for the race. That may not be the case quite as much this year, with travel and attendance limited by the global pandemic. But it’s still special for the foreign drivers to see the international fan representation.
“There are a ton of race fans that show up on site from all around the world,” Bourdais said. “It’s not a huge number, but it’s impressive. Even if it’s a decent number, because of the size of the venue, it doesn’t look crowded. But the racing community gathers together for a party that starts the season every year.”
Live U.S. coverage of the 24-hour race begins at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC. After the first hour, the flag-to-flag coverage moves to NBCSN, TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold and the NBC Sports App before returning to NBC at 2 p.m. Sunday for the conclusion. Complete IMSA Radio coverage may also be found at IMSA.com, RadioLeMans.com and SiriusXM Radio (Sirius channel 216, XM 202 and Internet 972).