Alex Gurney steers his GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Corvette Daytona Prototype down pit lane during Rolex Sports Car Series practice Friday at Watkins Glen International. / RON LEVANDUSKI / STAFF PHOTO
WATKINS GLEN — Grand-Am’s sleek new Daytona Prototype cars not only look more racy than the previous iteration, the close-knit racing the class normally produces has been more competitive in 2012.
The third generation prototypes, the series’ premier division, are making their Watkins Glen International debut this weekend with the Rolex Sports Car Series, which opens the season with the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen.
Alex Gurney, in the No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Corvette Daytona Prototype, led a group of cars after three rounds of practice on the 3.4-mile Glen long course on Friday. Qualifying for the Rolex Series Daytona Prototypes and GT class cars takes place today with the race beginning at 11 a.m. on Sunday.
Gurney’s best lap of 1 minute 42.532 seconds (119.377 mph) was achieved in the final practice in the late afternoon. His time nosed out Ricky Taylor, in the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Corvette, by .042 of a second. The top seven Daytona Prototype cars were separated by one second.
“It’s obviously super close with the top cars,” Gurney said. “We got the balance quite good, so we’re pretty happy.”
Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates teammates Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, who had their three-race winning streak here snapped last year, could only muster the sixth-best time in their No. 01 Telmex BMW/Riley.
“We’ve struggled,” Rojas said. “We didn’t go as quick as we expected. We are working on the car, trying to pick up speed.”
The Daytona Prototype cars in the 10-year-old class received a minor revision in 2008 but took a significant departure from the past for 2012 with new bodywork designed by Chevrolet and Riley. The new cars are lower and have a smaller and more aerodynamic cockpit surround than the previous model, which is being grandfathered in this season.
“They look great,” Gurney said, whose co-driver Jon Fogarty will qualify their Corvette prototype today. “All of the fans that come by just say that this is so much better looking. So, we love it.”
Two of the 11 prototypes this weekend are the older cars. One of which, the No. 77 Doran Racing Ford/Dallara, is being co-driven by former Champ Car star Paul Tracy. The Corvette Daytona Prototype is the first of the stylized prototypes that can resemble manufacturer vehicles. The Corvette has won five times with four different teams this year and look like they could be dominant here also; Corvette prototypes posted the top four fastest lap times in practice.
“I think it (new car) has tightened things up a little bit,” said Taylor, the defending champion with co-driver Max Angelelli. “It’s really brought a couple of other teams right into the mix. It’s been really, really exciting and I think it has leveled it out quite a bit.”
The new era of Daytona Prototypes has already produced five different winners in the first seven races.
“The car feels good, and the biggest thing is they look great, and that’s a plus,” Taylor said. “Our car looks a lot like the Corvette.”
Four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais was a last-minute addition to the three-car Starworks Motorsport team. The Frenchman received an email invite to drive the No. 8 Ford/Riley on Monday night.
Bourdais made his Glen debut in the morning practice and quickly got down to competitive lap times.
“I’m glad to be here,” Bourdais said. “It’s a great track. It’s fast and very flowy. It feels like a super fast street course with all of the guardrails right next to the corners.”
“To discover the track with a car I don’t really know so well is always kind of a challenge but this morning went pretty well.”
The Rolex Series GT class also has two new additions with high profile sports cars from Ferrari, with the 458 Italia and Audi, with the R8.