B/R Exclusive: SPEED's Bob Varsha on the 24 Hours of Daytona

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B/R Exclusive: SPEED's Bob Varsha on the 24 Hours of Daytona

Joining me is SPEED TV’s Bob Varsha. Bob’s duties include calling Formula 1 races, hosting Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction coverage, and is frequently on the SPEED Report. This weekend though he’s in Daytona for the Rolex 24 Hours.

Bob, welcome and thanks for your time.

BV: My pleasure, Adam. Good to be with you.

AA: Alright let’s start with the 24 Hours of Daytona. This is the premier event in American sports car racing. How long have you been covering this race?

BV: Well Adam this was actually one of the first major international events I came to. The first time was 1984 I believe and it’s been pretty much every year since. Not every year consecutively, but it’s always a thrill to come down here to Daytona and get out of the winter weather and just get back to racing.

Everyone has a little cabin fever after the off season no matter how long or short it might have been. So to get back down here and smell the brakes, and the oil, and the tires, and the engine exhaust – it’s a real rite of Spring and I’m sure a lot of people that come down here will agree with that.

AA: How has the 24 Hours changed over the time you’ve covered it?

BV: Well, you know if you ask any driver in the field who has experience the first thing they tell you (it) is so much faster. You know back in the day old hands like Hurley Haywood – who’s going for a sixth victory here in the 24 Hours – back then the idea was just to preserve the car. Stay out of trouble, run to a pace that’s maybe a couple of seconds off your qualifying speed – be there when the race finishes.

That’s still the case but it has become so competitive, and the cars here in the Grand Am Rolex Series are so evenly matched that’s it’s basically a sprint now for the entire 24 hours. The key thing is to maintain your speed, again stay out of trouble, and stay out of the pit lane.

I believe last years’ winner with Ganassi Racing spent just an astonishingly small amount of time to do 25 or so pit stops. I mean they were barely in the pits for thirty minutes of the entire 24 hours. It really was a charmed run for them, and that’s why they’re going for an unprecedented fourth in a row here – something nobody has ever done. In fact nobody had ever won three until Ganassi did last year. I think their secret is go fast and stay out of the pit lane.

AA: Your perspective – the difference between the 24 Hours at Daytona and the 24 Hours at Le Mans?

BV: Well the first thing that strikes you about the two aside from the fact that there’s a lot of French spoken over at Le Mans is the fact that Daytona runs in January when there’s very little daylight in the winter time. Whereas Le Mans in June where there is lots and lots of daylight.

We spend very little time racing in the dark in France, whereas here in Daytona the sun goes down around six o’clock Eastern time and probably doesn’t come up until six o’clock the next morning. So the drivers have to spend a lot of time – and just a few years ago they raced entirely in the dark.

Now of course there are lights here at Daytona International Speedway. And though I think they only use about half of their available candlepower the track is much better illuminated than it has been in the past. But still in the night time you have the plunging temperatures, the drivers have to be very careful with their tire selection and the way they drive the cars.

In fact we’ve had a couple of very cold days here in the run-up to this years’ race and there’s been a lot of guys exceeding the bounds of traction, getting off into the run-off area – whether it was grass or pavement. Only one hard impact that I’m aware of thus far, and that’s a good thing obviously.

So it’s a very, very different sort of challenge despite the fact that the two races are equal in length.

AA: It seems to me over the past couple of years of actively monitoring both Grand Am and ALMS (American Le Mans Series), that sports car racing is really making a comeback in its popularity. What are your thoughts on that?

BV: Well I think it’s fair to say obviously right now nobody needs to be told what’s happening with the economy and that has had an impact on all forms of racing. They’re down a little bit on car count here at Daytona but really all the top cars from the top teams are here. And sports car racing I’d like to think is making a comeback.

AA: Where do you see sports car racing going? I mean, we’ve seen new tracks in just the past couple, three years in out in Toole, UT; Barber Motorsports Park – that wonderful track down in Birmingham, Alabama; and the new – I think it’s Thunderbird Raceway in New Jersey?

BV: That’s right. Yeah, it’s New Jersey Motorsports Park has two tracks: “Thunder” and “Lightning” they call them. But yeah, you’re right. There are tracks going up around the country either public or private and certainly the private motor sports country clubs have become very popular – although once again the economy is having an impact on that.

Racing, you know, is being embraced once again, particularly by television. Networks that would have never looked at motorsports in the past like Versus – which will have the majority of the IndyCar season this year. And Discovery and Outdoor Channel which has done a lot of dirt-track programs. And of course SPEED and ESPN and the major networks – and in that regard we’re going to do the first ninety minutes here in Daytona on FOX before switching over to SPEED for the other 14 and a half hours of our coverage so…

Racing is getting popular again, it’s being embraced by television again, and you know that’s a good thing. Hopefully the economy gets turned around soon. Sports car more so than stock cars and open-wheel racing depends on the pocket book of the enthusiast – a lot of gentlemen racers, a lot of weekend warriors that come to a race like the Rolex 24 if they can afford it.

As the economy gets better hopefully that upward trend in the popularity of motorsports will continue.

AA: We were talking a little while ago about Scott Pruett and the strength that Chip Ganassi Racing has shown in the 24 in the past three years. And he’s been so strong, he won the championship last year with his co-driver Memo Rojas. Now Roger Penske “The Captain” has moved over to Grand Am from the American Le Mans Series where his Penske Porsche Spyder RS’s dominated the P2 class the past couple of seasons and were just phenomenal challenging the Audis which were the P1 class cars.

What do you see – I think that Penske and Ganassi just can’t get enough of racing each other. What are your thoughts on that?

BV: Well I’m sure both men would tell you there’s nothing sweeter than beating the other guy. Obviously Roger has a long and highly-distinguished career, both as a driver, which is probably underestimated by the average racing fan, and of course as a car owner – with his 14 Indy 500 wins and his Daytona 500 victory and all the other things he has done, including victories here at Rolex 24.

You know, Chip is of more recent vintage he’s had spectacular success in partnership mainly with the Target stores. He’s won his Indy 500, he’s brought guys like Juan Pablo Montoya (JPM) to the sport, broadened the appeal of open-wheel racing and now of NASCAR. He’s still trying to get over that hump in NASCAR it would appear but terrific success in IndyCar and in sports cars and there’s really very few car owners out there, aside from Roger Penske, who can claim the breadth of competency that Ganassi Racing with Felix Sebates has.

It really is amazing to watch, they’re a terrific group.

AA: There are a number of (Sprint) Cup drivers in this race. Have you spoken with Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears…Why do these guys like to drive in the 24 Hours so much?

BV: Well I think there are several reasons, Adam. One of course is the reputation of the event. It takes place right here at Daytona, a place they know intimately – although it’s a very different kind of racetrack. They’re running on the 3.56-mile combined oval and road course rather than just the big 2.5-mile NASCAR tri-oval.

And, you know, they’re racers to their core. If they can get in a race car they love to do it. Jeff Gordon has raced here, he’d love to come back. Probably the real watershed came back in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt joined the factory Corvette team for the Rolex 24. Before he died, I spoke with Earnhardt who said that one thing he would like to do in racing, other than win another NASCAR championship, of course, was to drive in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

And I think that is what he was building up to in taking part with the factory Corvette team here at the Rolex 24. Their sister car won the race but Earnhardt…I think they finished fourth in class and were up there on the podium with their teammates spraying the champagne as happily as all the other guys, so…

Great driver, great teammate, and I think that opened the eyes to a lot of the NASCAR guys to say, you know, “This is pretty cool. This could be a lot of fun.” Although I should point out that guys like Fireball Roberts and Tiny Lund and Marvin Panch and fellows like that were driving in sports car races here at Daytona back in the 1960s.

So it’s not a new phenomenon, but the NASCAR guys are now seeing that it’s a lot of fun. You can get that very coveted Rolex watch that goes only to the winners of this race.

And then there’s the practical side of things, Adam, with all the testing being cut back or even cancelled not only by NASCAR but IndyCar and so on. A lot of these drivers haven’t had the opportunity to knock the rust off and to do what it is that they love to do in life which is drive race cars. So that makes this race even more attractive because they can come out here and prepare for their day jobs that come up in a couple of weeks.

AA: You’ve got, I would think, the best driver talent pool in the world, arguably, in this race. What are your thoughts on that?

BV: I think that’s fair to say. I think the driver pool here, you know, it can go up and down from year to year. And back in the day when I first started coming here in the eighties, you’d see guys like Al Unser, Sr. and A.J. Foyt, and some of the Formula 1 stars from Europe, and the stock car guys like Bill Elliott and Mark Martin and so on… And the off-track celebrities like Paul Newman and Gene Hackman and the Hollywood types. Of course Patrick Dempsey is driving in the race this year and he is a car guy to his very core.

It’s a tremendous cross-section, and in addition to all those great champions -  70 championships in I don’t know how many different series – and drivers from more than two dozen different countries entered in this race. Aside from the glittering professionalism is you have guys who have been driving in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events or Ferrari Challenge – whatever it might happen to be – who have dreamed of coming to this event. So they, you know, work hard on a budget to do this one event and race alongside the pro stars, and that’s one of the other great stories of this event: Is the guys you’ve never heard of who are out here living the dream and just going through that 24-hour odyssey.

But up front I’d have to say there isn’t any other field in the world, even at Le Mans, with the credentials you see at this one when it comes to variety and accomplishments.

AA: Well it’s going to be a lot of fun. The race rolls off about 2:30 Central, 3:30 Eastern tomorrow afternoon, that’ll be Saturday. Who should we watch for in the 24 Hours?

BV: Well, starting with the Daytona Prototype Class you gotta go with the guys who have pretty much dominated the dance the last few years. I think either the 01 or the 02 from Ganassi Racing – the Target cars – not terribly quick in qualifying but this is a 24-hour race so being on the front row is…Polesitter David Donahue said it’s bragging rights for a couple of days whereas if you win the race it lasts all year long. So I would look to the Ganassi guys.

There are some very quick cars: David Donahue leading the Brumos Porsche two-car Porsche Riley attack. Hurley Haywood will be with them trying to get that sixth Rolex watch. The cars from Michael Shank Racing the 6 and the number 60 cars have another terrific lineup. A.J. Allmendinger is in there with the series regulars, so they have been very, very quick.

Over on the GT (Grand Touring) side it gets even more crazy. Twelve cars – the top 12 qualifiers in this race – all broke last years’ qualifying record. So you can see the kind of competition we’re going to have.

And once again you gotta go with the guys who have done so well of late, and that’s the number 70 Speedsource Mazda – a Canadian entry – from Sylvian Tremblay and Nick Ham and that entire crew. They are the defending champions in class, in fact, they have won the last three races in the Grand Am Series held here at the Daytona

International Speedway. That is the two midsummer 250-mile sprint races, and last year’s Rolex 24.

But that GT class is always close…It’s very competitive the timesheets are telling us. You’ve got Porsche, Mazda, Ferrari, and the list goes on and on. Corvette is out there. You know the great makes are out there to do battle once again. The 47th running of this twice-around-the-clock classic and I for one can’t wait.

AA: It’s going to be a real fun ride. I’m torn because I like Scott Pruett but I sure do like Jimmie Johnson and he’s co-driving with Alex Gurney in the Bob Stallings car from here in Lewisville, TX. And so that’s going to be a fun race there – Jimmy Vasser is on board with them in the 99 Gainsco car.

A lot of fun this weekend, we sure do look forward to your coverage. You guys come on at 3 Eastern, 2 Central tomorrow on FOX, is that correct?

BV: On FOX that’s right. Three o’clock Eastern on FOX – We’ll do 90 minutes including the first hour of the race and then we’ll switch over to SPEED and take you up to 10:00 Eastern time. And then be back at 7:00 in the morning on Sunday to go right through to the finish at 3:30 in the afternoon and beyond – to meet all of the winners.

And I apologize for not giving a shout-out to all of the Gainsco boys since you are in Texas after all…Gurney, Fogarty, Vasser and Jimmie Johnson. He’s been second in this race twice in the four previous times he’s done it and so he’s probably owed something too.

AA: He pulls off a win in that and he’s going to have two things to hang over his boss Jeff Gordon’s head at that point – three Cup title wins in a row and a Rolex watch, “Hey Jeff look what I’ve got here!” So that’s fantastic.

Well we look forward to seeing you this weekend, Bob, and then a whole new era of Formula 1 starts up in two months. We sure do appreciate you spending time with us today.

BV: My pleasure, Adam, thank you.

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