Sports Cars: A Brand Of Auto Racing That Isn’t Spinning Its Wheels

The Mazda Prototype of Tom Long, Joel Miller and James Hinchcliffe races on the track during the 2017 24 Hours of Daytona at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

This weekend’s pre-Super Bowl sports-viewing choices include the usual megaton of college basketball games, the NFL Pro Bowl (an all-star game that is not exactly played at full speed) and the gimmicky NHL All-Star-Game (which is played three a side and includes zero thuggery).

But this weekend is also the start of the racing calendar, with 13½ hours of the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona scheduled to be carried live on the Fox TV networks. The Rolex 24 is a long-time endurance sports-car race on a winding track that includes part of the tri-oval at Daytona International Speedway — and will include several famous international drivers this year.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and Indy 500 champions Helio Castroneves (you may know him as the “Dancing with the Stars” winner) and Juan Pablo Montoya are to drive in the 55-car field, adding buzz to a high-tech race that was already exotic and charming. These cars are sleek and fast, and they race in rain and through the night, challenges for any driver.

The race, which starts at 2:40 p.m. Saturday, is a one-off for Alonso, but Castroneves and Montoya are to drive full-time for racing mogul Roger Penske this year in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship run by the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), which saw a 33 percent jump in TV viewership last year.

Scott Atherton, the IMSA president, will tell you that sports-car racing will never knock down a titan like NASCAR. (IMSA was, in fact, started with help from NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. in 1969, and Jim France, Big Bill’s son, is the chairman of IMSA, whose offices are in Daytona Beach).

But Atherton says live crowds at IMSA events are growing — especially among the much-sought-after 18-34 demographic — because these cars are just so cool, and because infields offer experiences like “car corrals,” where fans can check out cars up close. It seems as if sports-car racing is accomplishing something that stock-car racing can’t, or isn’t.

“There is always something going on,” he told me recently. “It’s not a three-ring circus — it’s a 23-ring circus. Automotive displays, lifestyle displays, concerts.”

He said, “We have taken bold steps to address that: How do you keep someone’s attention. How do you allow them to drift away and drift back in and be up to date?”

IMSA cars have panels with digital readouts of their places in the competition. Fans can look through in-car cameras into the cockpits of their favorite drivers for hours, if they want. During overnight racing at Daytona, streaming action will be carried on the Fox Sports GO site.

“You can leave, go out and have lunch or dinner, and come back and within minutes, seconds even, you can know exactly what’s going on in the race,” Atherton said.

The Rolex 24 Hours is one of three of 12 events on the IMSA schedule that run for at least six hours, and Atherton won’t pretend that viewers will be glued to their sets. Attention spans are shorter than ever, so IMSA offers fans a chance to pick and choose.

Castroneves and Montoya were big draws for IMSA, but Alonso’s participation is seen as enormous. Alonso, a Spaniard who drove in the Indianapolis 500 last year, brings substantially more interest from Europe, not to mention from countries that hold Formula One races.

“While still trying to be determined to its full potential, the immediate impact was obvious, because it rang the media bell around the world,” Atherton said.

“Europe has always known the significance of the Rolex, because there’s no other form of motorsports like it,” Atheron said. “You’re kind of tired of winter. You’re ready for spring. Here’s the first inkling of spring, when the cars are racing around Daytona.

“But when you add a Fernando Alonso, when you add a Penske, a Helio Castroneves, a Montoya, suddenly it starts to layer: What’s going on? What attracted all of this? We have to be very respectful of those who got us here — dance with the ones who brung you. But I describe it as the last piece of the puzzle.”

The winning team last year included Jeff Gordon, the former NASCAR champion. The Rolex 24 will always have the potential to draw stars from other racing disciplines. But the list of those wanting to race sports cars is growing.

Add the 23-ring circus, as Atherton puts it, and IMSA just turns into a hotter ticket. Any trend upward is a good trend for racing.