Canadian open wheel star James Hinchcliffe temporarily trades in his IndyCar this weekend to drive twice around the clock in a car with a roof.
The Andretti Autosport driver will have a tune-up for his 2013 IndyCar season this weekend in the 51st running of the Rolex 24 at the Daytona International Speedway.
A start in the Rolex 24 is welcomed by Hinchcliffe, who has been waiting somewhat impatiently for the 2013 IndyCar season to begin.
"I participated in a go-kart race in Florida last week just to keep myself sharp and to sort of get into some competition a little bit," he said.
"Still having two months to go makes it worse and we had ten times as much testing last year, so that adds to it as well."
The 2012 IndyCar finale was in mid-September, leaving drivers with more than six months to wait before this year's schedule gets underway in St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 24.
The Rolex 24 at Daytona starts at 3:30 p.m. ET (Speed TV) on Saturday, with the chequered flag flying on Sunday afternoon. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates driver Scott Pruett put his No. 01 BMW Riley on pole for the Rolex 24 in Thursday's qualifying.
Hinchcliffe, of Oakville, Ont., returns this year in the GX Class with the MazdaSpeed team driving a diesel Mazda6. Last year, he raced a rotary engine powered Mazda RX-8 with the team, taking sixth in the GT class.
"The diesel is a lot quieter and that's certainly something you have to get used to especially coming from the rotary last year, which is probably the loudest engine ever created by man," said Hinchcliffe, who ended last season eighth overall in IndyCar points.
"It's so quiet you have to rely on more on shift lights more than engine noise. It is very weird."
Hinchcliffe's Mazadaspeed outfit was fifth in the GX class in qualifying on Thursday. Another Canadian in IndyCar, Alex Tagliani, was also supposed to race this weekend with the No. 8 Ford-Riley team, but was not listed in the outfit's final lineup. Meanwhile, Barracuda Racing announced Thursday that the Lachenaie, Que., driver would be back behind the wheel of the team's No. 98 IndyCar for a second season.
And while it might be reasonable to assume that big name drivers like Hinchcliffe are there just to have some fun and get seat time, that's not the way he's approaching his one-off Grand-American Series race.
"Certainly, my IndyCar season is the priority and the team and the sponsor and everything there is at the top of the list, but you have to remember that for everybody in Grand-Am this is their Indianapolis 500," said Hinchcliffe, who drives the No. 27 Go Daddy car in IndyCar.
"For all these teams, this race takes more of their time and energy and resources than probably the next half of the season and you have to be respectful and mindful of that – we are not coming down here for a laugh."
The 26-year-old will see several familiar faces over the weekend, as seven IndyCar drivers are entered in the prototype class. The field also includes regulars from NASCAR Sprint Cup and the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters Series, as well as a couple of former Formula One drivers.
Although his more well-known countryman might get more press, Grand-Am regular Michael Valiante, of New Westminster, B.C., may be the Canadian to watch after putting up the fastest time in the "Roar Before the Rolex 24" test earlier this month. The Michael Shank Racing driver will be in a brand new No. 6 Ford-Riley for the race, driving the sister car to the defending champions. His No. 6 car starts fourth.
Former open wheel star Paul Tracy is also back, with the 2003 Champ Car champion co-driving the No. 77 Dallara Ford Daytona Prototype with Jon Bennett, Colin Braun and Jim Lowe.
Despite some impressive one-off appearances including a fourth in Edmonton in 2008 in the first time he ever drove an IndyCar, Tracy struggled to find a full-time ride in that series after it swallowed Champ Car before the 2008 season. In all, he's had 18 IndyCar starts in the past five years, taking five top-10 finishes. Tracy's 31 career wins in Champ Car and the former Championship Auto Racing Teams Series puts him seventh overall in career victories in U.S. open wheel racing.
He moved to the Grand-American Series part-time last year, making seven starts and taking one top-3 finish. The 44-year-old from Scarborough, Ont., will make his fifth start in the Rolex 24 on the weekend, trying to better a career high seventh last year driving for Dornan Racing. His team starts 14th overall on Saturday.
Hinchcliffe would consider following Tracy to sports cars in the future, but he sees that move happening well in the future.
"I have always had the mindset of wanting to drive as many kinds of cars as possible in my career and try and prove myself in as many categories and formulas as possible, so to gain this kind of experience in sports cars is huge and I do hope it opens some opportunities down the road post-open wheel," he said.
"My focus right now is IndyCar and having a long and hopefully successful career in that. But I would love to try and win this race, and do Le Mans, the Petit Le Mans, the six-hour at The Glen – there are a bunch of races still on my bucket list."
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