Big Names Elsewhere but Rookies at Rolex 24

By Holly Cain
IMSA Wire Service
Austin Dillon showed up at Daytona International Speedway eager to join an elite club of drivers to score two premier race victories at the historic track. In Dillon’s case, a Rolex 24 At Daytona class win on the road course this weekend to partner with his NASCAR 2018 Daytona 500 triumph.
Dillon will make his Rolex 24 debut driving the Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) class No. 51 RWR-Eurasia Ligier with co-drivers Cody Ware, Salih Yoluc and Sven Muller. It’s been a learning experience for Dillon, who will be making his first Daytona road course start after missing last year’s NASCAR Cup Series race while recovering from the coronavirus.
Even with the simulator work he’s done back home in North Carolina, it’s been a fast-paced quest to get up to speed in his IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship debut; navigating a dark (and new) course and understanding a different car. It’s been a real learning process, but one readily accepted.
“Last year, unfortunately, I missed this road course race at Daytona with COVID, so I figured any laps on the track would be helpful, and it turns out there was an opportunity with (team owner) Rick Ware and Eurasia and it all came together fast,’’ said Dillon, driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet in the Cup Series. “It’s been a blast to try and figure out something new. It’s the first time I’ve been nervous getting into a race car. The speed difference from a Cup car even – just going at that pace with that big grip level these cars have – has been really good for me to experience, and I think it’s going to help me a ton getting back in a Cup car, hopefully.’’
Dillon has wanted to pursue a Rolex 24 opportunity for a while. NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, NASCAR Xfinity Series driver AJ Allmendinger and recently retired seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson are all in the Rolex 24 this year, too. Dillon said he definitely asked his stock car compatriots about the event over the course of the week.
Just being a part of this international racing kickoff – rubbing shoulders in the paddock with participants representing a wide variety of motorsports series – has been a positive start to the new year.
“It’s a great experience,’’ Dillon said with a smile. “I was able to take it all in, take a golf cart ride around and see different things. It’s been nice and everyone in IMSA has been great to talk to and very welcoming. As far as the drivers, they are very cool to work with. I’ve got guys from the Philippines, New Zealand and England on my team, not just the drivers but the guys working on the cars.
“The 24-hour race is kind of like the world coming together. It’s really cool to see and get to work with different people and see different cultures come together for one common goal to try and win one of the biggest races of the year.’’
Convinced to Compete This Year, Kubica Glad He Did
By Jeff Olson
Technically, he’s a rookie in the Rolex 24. Practically, he’s anything but.
Robert Kubica, whose career bonafides include six seasons in Formula 1, four in the World Rally Championship and a season in Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM), will race in the famed 24-hour endurance race this weekend for the first time.
The will to compete at Daytona has always been there. The opportunities, until now, hadn’t panned out. Once they did, he almost passed on the chance. A lengthy 2020 season and busy offseason left Kubica feeling like he needed a break, but when Anders Fjordbach asked him to join, Kubica couldn’t resist.
“To be honest, I wasn’t thinking I would come because I felt like I needed to rest,” Kubica said. “But then I had a phone call from Anders. We knew each other from four or five years ago. He offered for me to come here and help out. At the beginning, I was not so convinced (because) I was exhausted, but I think it’s a great opportunity for me, and I’m happy I’m here.”
Kubica will team with Fjordbach, Dennis Andersen and Ferdinand Habsburg-Lothringen in the No. 20 High Class Racing ORECA LMP2 07. In a career defined by different cars and different experiences, Kubica is equipped to experience more differences.
“Driving every car is a bit different,” he said. “It’s a question of getting to know the car. Within a few laps or a few sessions, more or less you know exactly what the car’s characteristics are and what it’s capable of doing and how things are feeling. There will be a lot of things I will have to discover and learn this weekend.”
Kubica’s story is nothing short of exceptional. He signed with the BMW Sauber F1 Team in 2006 as the first driver from Poland in F1 history. Likewise, his victory at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2008 was the first F1 win by a Polish driver.
He had seven podium finishes and finished fourth in the F1 World Championship that year. But three years later, disaster struck. Kubica was severely injured in a crash at a rally race in Italy; seven hours of surgery were needed to repair his right forearm, which was partially severed by a guardrail that pierced the car’s cockpit.
Recovering from the surgery and other injuries – including compound fractures of his right elbow, shoulder and leg – cost Kubica the remainder of the 2011 season and most of 2012. He eventually recovered and resumed full-time rally competition in 2013, winning the WRC-2 championship.
He returned to F1 with Williams Racing in 2019, then joined BMW in DTM for the 2020 season. The offer from High Class Racing to compete in the Rolex 24 emerged. Kubica debated, but in the end, racing won out.
“I did have an offer the last two years to race here, but I had different priorities,” Kubica said. “I had things to focus on in Europe. I wanted to come here, but with Covid-19, it has been quite difficult and quite busy.”
The intricacies of endurance racing – sharing a car with other drivers, multiple stints over a long period of time – are new to Kubica, but he’s eager to learn. 
“I’ve been driving a long time. Once you have done your job in a race, it is over,” he said. “You are not jumping back into the car again. In a 24-hour race, this is happening. You have to learn how to recover and be ready for your next stint. You can’t waste energy.”
Live coverage of the Rolex 24 kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC. Throughout the 24 hours, coverage shifts to NBCSN, TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold and the NBC Sports App before returning to NBC at 2 p.m. Sunday for the concluding hours.
IMSA Radio also offers flag-to-flag coverage on IMSA, and SiriusXM Radio (Sirius channel 216, XM 202 and Internet 972).
Adam Sinclair