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Rolex 24 Is Sports Car Traffic Jam

January 29, 1999

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Winning the Rolex 24 is the ultimate goal. Surviving is the first priority.

The premier 24-hour sports car race in the United States begins Saturday with about 80 cars taking the green flag for the twice-around-the-clock classic at Daytona International Speedway.

``Just getting through the early hours is so important,″ said Didier Theys, who was part of the winning MOMO Ferrari team last year and will start another Ferrari from the outside of the front row Saturday.

``Speed, of course, is important,″ the Belgian said. ``The pace of this race gets faster almost every year as the equipment gets better and more reliable. But, still, you must save something for the final hours _ if you are still running.″

Theys will co-drive the open-cockpit Ferrari 333SP with two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, Mauri Baldi of Italy and team-owner Fredy Lienhart of Switzerland. All but Lienhart were part of the winning team last year.

``We fit together very well,″ Theys said. ``We respect each other’s driving (ability) and there is not a lot of ego. This can be a very hard race, but we have a good time.″

Last January, their Ferrari won by eight laps on the 3.56-mile, 11-turn road circuit that uses about three-quarters of the 2.5-mile, high-banked NASCAR oval and a surpentine infield section.

Also among the contenders this weekend will be the team’s other Ferrari, co-piloted by CART stars Jimmy Vasser and Max Papis, former Indy-car and Formula One regular Stefan Johansson and Jim Matthews.

Should either or both of the Ferraris get to the final hours Sunday, their most likely competition will come from the two Dyson Racing Riley & Scott Fords.

James Weaver of England put one of those cars on the pole Thursday with a lap of 127.05 mph.

Weaver, who will share the car with team owner Rob Dyson, Dorsey Schroeder and Stuart Hayner, said, ``It’s going to be a very fast race and you have to be very aware of what’s going on every minute.

``This is the easiest race to lose of anyplace in the world because there’s so many cars in it. It’s very exciting and very easy to make a mistake with all that traffic.″

The race will feature cars from all four U.S. Road Racing Championship divisions, led by the Can-Am cars and including GT1, GT2 and GTT.

``The speed differential is amazing,″said former Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan, who will co-drive a Riley & Scott Ford with five-time Rolex winner Hurley Haywood and former Indy-car racers Don and Dale Whittington. ``It’s almost like playing a video racing game.″

Although the overall speed difference is only about 20 mph, the speed on the fastest portion of the course _ the high banks _ can differ by as much as 50 mph.

``The only thing that slows this race is because it’s so long and because of the traffic,″ Dyson said. ``The traffic separates the intelligent, reasonable and responsible drivers from the rest.

``You have to maintain a very steady, strong pace, but at the same time be safe in traffic. It’s a very fine line.″

Weaver said, ``Some of the guys out there aren’t using their heads so far. I hope that changes in the race.″

One thing that will be different about this season-opening Daytona event is the lights. In the past, only the area along the front straightaway grandstand was lighted, then only dimly.

A $10 million lighting system that was installed last year to illuminate the oval for the NASCAR Pepsi 400, will be used at 20 percent power, maintaining some of the ambiance of traditional night racing but allowing the spectators to identify car numbers and colors rather than just seeing moving lights for most of each lap.

Many of the veterans of this event would have preferred the dark.

``I would love to run dark with headlights,″ former race winner Elliott Forbes-Robinson said. ``That’s cool. But, if it makes it better for the fans, that’s more important.″

``It’s quite an improvement,″ Luyendyk said. ``But the (lack of) lights never bothered me. Besides, where you need more light, in the infield, it doesn’t shine much on that.″

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