As the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship moves into its next 50 years, there was no better way to start 2020 than with a thrilling Rolex 24 At Daytona last month.
When the race began, a prestigious list of 997 drivers had won at least once in what is now known as the WeatherTech Championship. Twenty-four hours later, five had earned a Rolex watch for the first time, pushing the total over 1,000 winners.
The 1,000th winner officially happened as the DragonSpeed USA’s No. 81 ORECA LMP2 07 captured the victory in the LMP2 class at Daytona. While Colin Braun owned multiple IMSA race wins prior to the Rolex 24 – 17 to be exact — all three of his teammates – Ben Hanley, Harrison Newey and Henrik Hedman – had never visited the top step of an IMSA podium.
That has changed. As the checkered flag waved, Hedman and Newey sat on pit road, and watched Hanley drive the No. 81 ORECA across the finish line to claim their first-ever class win in the WeatherTech Championship.
"Collecting the iconic watch and being a part of the IMSA history was a dream come true," said Hanley. "The whole DragonSpeed crew were faultless and went to show how strong the group is. We are on a high heading into the Twelve Hours of Sebring and just can’t wait to get back on track looking for another win."
It was only Hanley’s third-ever start in the premier series, and for our purposes, it made him IMSA race-winner No. 1,000.
Rookie driver Newey was even "newer," as this was his debut WeatherTech Championship race. His last name is a familiar one to race fans, as his father, Adrian Newey, is a renowned IndyCar and Formula 1 engineer who currently serves as chief technical officer for the Red Bull Racing Formula 1 team.
This Rolex 24 win, however, is a clear boost to Harrison Newey’s efforts to make his own name in the sport.
"When you look through the names that have won over the years, it’s pretty special," said 21-year-old Newey. "With the number 1,000, it’s just extra cool. It’s a nice number. It’s got a nice ring to it."
That brings us to the Swedish driver, Hedman, who will contest the full 2020 WeatherTech Championship season in the LMP2 class with Hanley. The win came in Hedman’s fourth WeatherTech Championship start.
"This is the highest achievement I’ve ever done in sports cars," said the 52-year-old racer. "It’s crazy. There’s a lot of people that tried to accomplish what we did. One thousand sounds like a lot, but when you think of how many years it’s been going on, it’s very special."
The No. 81 trio of first-time winners adds to an extensive list that sees its inception back to VIRginia International Raceway for the Danville 300 on April 18, 1971. It was the inaugural IMSA GT race and was won overall by a pair of IMSA legends, five-time Rolex 24 champion Hurley Haywood and six-time IMSA GT Champion Peter Gregg in the days of the iconic No. 59 Brumos Porsche 914/6 GT.
There were eight winners from six different classes that day – the first eight on a list of what is now 1,002.
The other first-time winners in the 2020 Rolex 24 included Australian Chaz Mostert as part of the No. 24 BMW Team RLL M8 GTE lineup in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class.
"It has been a long time since I have won a big race," said Mostert, who competed in the Bathurst 12 Hour in his native Australia just one week after the 24-hour classic. "I’m just so grateful to do it with some wicked teammates, and to do it with BMW Motorsport and RLL was awesome. It’s still got to sink in."
Andrea Caldarelli helped guide the No. 48 Lamborghini Huracán GT3 from Paul Miller Racing into victory lane to earn his first watch. The Italian celebrated with teammates – Bryan Sellers, Madison Snow, and Corey Lewis – after winning their team’s first Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytonas.
1,001. 1,002. And the beat goes on.
It took until the start of a sixth decade to reach 1,000 IMSA winners, a list that includes many legendary names. The road to 2,000 likely will be no different.
Even more drivers will be looking to add their names to the list of winners in the next WeatherTech Championship round, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts on Saturday, March 21.
The race starts at 10:30 a.m. on CNBC. It can also be streamed on the NBC App with authentication and TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. IMSA Radio will have coverage available at IMSARadio.com, RadioLeMans.com and SiriusXM Radio.
Tickets are available now at SebringRaceway.com.