Record crowds see Acura hybrid nip Porsche-Penske, Cadillac, BMW in 24 Hours of Daytona
Daytona Beach, Fla. — After an actioned-packed, 24 hours around Daytona International Speedway’s 3.8-mile road course, an Acura ASX-06 GTP prototype took the first win of the hybrid racing era at the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.
Acura beat legendary performance brands Porsche, Cadillac, and BMW to the flag and denied Bloomfield Hills-based Roger Penske a win in his return to Daytona with Porsche. Another Detroit favorite, Corvette, also came up short, finishing just seconds behind the GT class-winning, Mercedes AMG-GT.
But the biggest winner this weekend was sportscar racing.
From the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds packing the paddock to an infield jammed with motorhomes and car corrals to the 17 manufacturers represented on the capacity, 61-car grid, the buzz for auto-branded racing was everywhere. The historic presence of manufacturer-supported teams has provoked talk of a second Golden Era of motorsports after the 1960s when brands like Porsche and Ferrari first came to the fore as household names.
“This is a record crowd — 50,000 people — for the Daytona 24 Hour,” said General Motors President Mark Reuss, who was glued to the action in the pit lane with one of the three Cadillac teams GM was supporting.
Reuss wasn’t the only notable here. This new sports-car Golden Era has attracted a who’s who of race names. Ahead of the Saturday’s 1:40 p.m. start, team owners Roger Penske, Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti, Chip Ganassi, Wayne Taylor, Bob Johnson, and Michael Shank assembled for a press conference — a combined 82 championships, 17 Daytona wins, and 31 Indy 500 wins between them.
They were competing in the new GTP class featuring wicked-looking, winged, gas-electric race cars at Daytona that were the class of the field.
“I just take my hat off looking at the people here on the dais,” said Penske, who was fielding the red-and-white, Nos. 6 and 7 Porsche 963 cars. “Certainly Chip and Wayne and Cadillac have done a terrific job, and I think that with Michael Andretti coming — and Bobby — we all see this seems to be a real platform for us to take sports car racing to the next level here in the United States, and . . . at Le Mans.”
The IMSA Weathertech series has been a test bed for manufacturers for years with manufactures like, for example, GM using endurance racing to make the Corvette a world-class, mid-engine supercar on par with exotics like Porsche and Ferrari that cut their teeth in motorsports.
But an aggressive push by the racing’s governing bodies — IMSA in North America and the FIA internationally — to coordinate vehicle eligibility rules, has suddenly put sportscar racing on an international playing field allowing teams to compete with the same car for championship across the globe. That means Penske will compete this year at the world’s greatest endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans — one of the few trophies he has not won in his illustrious career — with Porsche, which also wants to add to its record 19 Le Mans victories.
It also has meant an explosion in interest from auto manufacturers who see racing as an opportunity to not only improve their product but to market their brands to a global audience at time when new technologies like electric motors are peaking customer interest.
Fans like Guy Arcuri, 62, and his son Vinny, 30, from Daytona Beach, who were part of the record crowd here.
“It’s really cool to see the new technology that is changing the industry in these race cars,” Vinny said. “We knew it was coming. The challenge will be to see if these prototypes can make it to the end.”
The complicated hybrid systems — pushed hard for 24 hours by superstar drivers like Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon — drew reliability concerns, but, in the end, eight of the nine GTP entries finished even as the Porsch and BMW teams made multiple trips to the garage for electric repairs.
Both father and son have doubts as to whether automobiles will go all-electric as governments are mandating across the globe, but they were intrigued by the combination of gas and electric.
“I like the unique sounds of each of the manufacturer engines,” Vinny said. “But I also like the performance of electric motors.”
They were treated to a barn-burner of a race as the world’s best teams and manufacturers battled just inches from one another at one of the world’s greatest race tracks for hegemony in the new era. After 24 hours at speeds often in excess of 200 mph, only about 11 seconds separated the first four finishers.
The Rolex 24 features five classes — GTP prototype, LMP2, LMP3, and GTD Pro and GTD — but the GTP and twin GTD classes are where manufacturers have the most presence. Corvette has been competitive in GTD racing for a quarter century, and announced an all-new car for 2024 this weekend, but the current car is still plenty competitive.
It was in the hunt to win the GTD Pro class from the start.
“It’s exciting that they build a production car and then race it,” said Doug Cason, 59, a firefighter from Boca Raton who bought a 2021 C8 and then outfitted it with a big rear wing and performance Z51 package. He tracks the car at Palm Beach Raceway.
“Corvette proves that they are meant to be tracked,” he said. “I’m out on track with Porsches, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris. And those cars cost three times as much as my ‘Vette.”
Echoing other fans inside the sprawling Daytona complex, he was thrilled to see the new hybrid cars General Motors is producing — whether the Cadillac GTP hybrid that finished third, fourth, and fifth at Daytona, or the all-wheel-drive, hybrid Corvette E-Ray production car that Chevy just introduced for the 2024 model year.
“You have to keep up with the times. Let’s do it,” he said. “And I like that they are separating the brands on track and racing Cadillac as a hybrid.”
Daytona residents Jim Lloyd, 60, and Andrew Chubb, 46, work at the local Lloyd Cadillac dealership and were cheering on the Ganassi and Whelan Cadillac teams as they raced into the night. The Lloyd family helped make the speedway a reality — when NASCAR founder Bill France moved from the beaches of Daytona to the race track’s high bankings.
“The visibility of racing certainly helps Cadillac as a performance brand,” Lloyd said. “We have beautiful V-series like the CT-4 and CT-5 sedans. And the hybrid class is proof of concept that racing translates to a world with electric power.”
For all the big names on pit row, it was the upstart Acura Meyer Shank team that pulled away from the field in the closing hour of the 24-hour marathon. Michael Shank has been building a powerhouse team in the mold of Penske and Ganassi.
“Me sitting on this stage is out of world, out of body,” Shank said at the owners press conference. “These are the folks that I grew up watching and idolizing and running the team how they run their teams. We're still earning our respect.”
He was aided by Honda Performance Development, the California-based race shop that produces Honda engines for IndyCar, and now Acura mills for IMSA. Acura seemed to have the perfect formula with standout sportscar driver Tom Blomqvist behind the wheel in the last stint and pulling away from some of the world’s most most storied brands.
“This is a landmark moment,” HPD President David Salters said after the race. “If this isn’t Precision Crafted Performance (Acura’s tagline) then I don’t know what is. It’s a new age. Acura is at the pinnacle of sportscar racing.”
Daytona is only beginning with the Sebring 12-Hour to follow in March and then June’s Le Mans in France. More manufacturers are on the way as well with Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Alpine all coming into the GTP class.
And for Ford fans looking in from the outside this weekend? The Ford Mustang joins the GTD field at Daytona next January.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.