By Jeff Olson IMSA Wire Service
Sebastien Bourdais calls endurance racing “my first love.”
Not a surprising declaration from a racer who was born in Le Mans – that Le Mans – has raced in the 24 Hour of Le Mans 14 times and will be adding a 12th Rolex 24 At Daytona start to his prolific career on Saturday.
But Bourdais also has an extensive résumé – and current full-time career – in IndyCar racing, and he’s not the only driver preparing for the 59th Rolex 24 whose day job lies in open-wheel competition.
At least 10 drivers in this year’s Rolex 24 will compete in the IndyCar Series this season, and all – Bourdais included – race at Daytona for the love of the event. Among many other, more practical reasons, of course.
“You have a toolbox of skills,” Bourdais explained. “The more complete a driver you are, the better you are – the faster, the more reliable, the quicker you get up to speed and the more able to adapt to conditions. There is always a crossover between different types of championships and races.”
He knows what he’s saying. Bourdais, 41, has won the Rolex 24 twice – in 2014 (Daytona Prototype and overall) and 2017 (GT Le Mans) – and finished second twice. In the past seven years, he has finished on the podium in his class five times.
At Le Mans, he helped Chip Ganassi Racing win the GTE Pro class in 2016 and has four other podium finishes.
In IndyCar racing, Bourdais won four Champ Car championships and has 37 victories in 15 years. In September, he announced that he’ll return to the IndyCar Series on a full-time basis with A.J. Foyt Racing.
But there’s something about endurance racing, with its constantly changing conditions, challenges and teamwork, that appeals to one of racing’s most diversely decorated drivers.
“There is a lot to be said about being able to drive as much as you do in a 24-hour race in very, very treacherous conditions,” Bourdais said. “Between the traffic and the cold and the rain and the night – it really heightens your senses and gets you going for the season. It really sharpens your skills. It’s always kind of helped me to step up my game. It’s also my first love, so I’ve always enjoyed doing it.”
He’ll be surrounded by drivers who share his other love. Current IndyCar regulars like six-time champion Scott Dixon, 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, two-time Indy 500 winner and 1999 season champion Juan Pablo Montoya, 2016 IndyCar champion and 2019 Indy winner Simon Pagenaud, Rinus VeeKay and Colton Herta will be competing in the Rolex 24.
You could even add in Jimmie Johnson, who’s transitioning to IndyCars after his NASCAR retirement, and Ed Jones, whose return to the sport was announced this week.
More than a dozen other drivers with IndyCar experience — including two-time Indy 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Briscoe, Spencer Pigot, Mike Conway, Katherine Legge, Tristan Vautier and AJ Allmendinger – also are ready to race in the Rolex 24.
The differences between the two forms of racing might appear subtle, Bourdais said, but they’re often starker than assumed.
“In IndyCar, the weekends are so quick, and it’s just you,” Bourdais said. “In endurance racing, you have to make compromises on setups. Sometimes you have to drive a car that is evolving quite dramatically through the race as conditions change. You get the wide spectrum and range of experiences in those long events. It definitely sharpens you.”
Of course, IndyCar drivers converging on the Rolex 24 is nothing new. No fewer than 11 Indianapolis 500 winners have also taken the overall victory at the Rolex 24. The list includes Dixon, Montoya, Foyt, Mark Donohue, Dario Franchitti, Arie Luyendyk, Bobby Rahal, Buddy Rice, Al Unser, Al Unser Jr. and Dan Wheldon.
Live 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, 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).