Coolness factor, Daytona charm keep drivers interested in Rolex 24

Fernando Alonso, right, and teammate co-drivers Phil Hanson, left, and Lando Norris, center, are ready to compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. John Raoux/AP Photo

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Lando Norris and Fernando Alonso have a teammate relationship of sorts throughout the year.

But the relationship they will have this weekend at Daytona International Speedway goes well beyond how Norris, a test and reserve driver for McLaren, would normally interact with the two-time Formula One champion.

"Here, I'm directly working with him," said Norris, who will team with Alonso and Phil Hanson for McLaren boss Zak Brown's United Autosports. "He wants to help me because it's a team game. ... You still don't do that in F1.

"If I was in Formula One and there was a third driver, a reserve driver -- you would want them to leave you alone. Sometimes you like peace and quiet, and F1 weekends are quite busy so you still speak to them a bit, but you're not working directly with them. It doesn't compare to being in the same seat as him and him helping me and vice versa."

From the coolness factor to a learning factor, the 2018 Rolex 24 features two full-time F1 drivers and seven full-time IndyCar drivers. Four former Indy 500 winners are in the field -- Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Juan Pablo Montoya -- that includes 50 entries with about 220 drivers but just one full-time NASCAR Cup driver (AJ Allmendinger).

Dixon, who has four IndyCar titles and is a two-time Rolex winner, will compete in his 15th consecutive Rolex, and many of the mechanics on his car are the same ones who will work on his IndyCar at Chip Ganassi Racing.

"I enjoy it," Dixon said. "It's still with the same team; I'm working with a lot of people I have on the IndyCar front. ... It's a nice way to get up to speed.

"I love driving and the 24-hour race is no better place to drive."

The allure of competing at Daytona is enough to keep some of them coming back. Others just want track time to get back in the racing feel. And some want to gain experience to race the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

"Is there anything I can apply in Formula One that I learn here in Daytona? Not really," said Williams F1 driver Lance Stroll. "But experience in a car is experience in a car. ... At the end of the day, it's a car and you have to adapt.

"You always learn something. I just love to drive. I always think there is something that can be learned in whatever you're driving."

For some, it's just racing at Daytona. Hunter-Reay grew up in South Florida and remembers watching sports cars all his life. He is competing in his 12th consecutive Rolex.

"It was always a big part of what I wanted to do," said Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner. "It's become a regular part of my racing career and my routine."

It rarely becomes a regular part of NASCAR drivers' routines except for Allmendinger, who competed in 11 straight before not competing last year. He is back this year as the only Cup driver in the field. Among other recent NASCAR national series drivers in the field are Brendan Gaughan, Austin Cindric and Justin Marks.

"I always love being back here," Allmendinger said. "We have a lot of races [in NASCAR]. ... My background is road racing, and there's not a lot of guys in Cup who have a background in road racing who ultimately would want to come do this or enjoy it like I do.

"I did [miss it last year] until about 2 in the morning when I saw it downpouring and freezing and I was like, 'My bed seems pretty nice right now.' But in the end, I'd always miss it."

Chip Ganassi said NASCAR drivers typically don't ask him to see if he has seats available for the race, which is two weeks before qualifying for the Daytona 500, the first of 38 race weekends for NASCAR drivers.

"I'm not speaking for them, but [the view] from 10,000 feet, they have such little time off that they're racing so much that [competing here] it is just another weekend they don't have to themselves," Ganassi said.

Marks, a part-time NASCAR driver who will compete in the Daytona 500 in three weeks, said many of the big teams don't want an inexperienced driver with limited open-wheel experience, meaning that a NASCAR driver who wants to race might not get the chance. Last year, retired NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon was part of the winning Cadillac team.

"Sports-car racing is in a really good place right now and the cars are so good and there's a lot of really successful championships around the world that a lot of these manufacturers and team owners want sports-car guys," Marks said.

Ed Carpenter Racing's Spencer Pigot, a 24-year-old Orlando native who is in a prototype for the first time at the Rolex, said competing in the event brings him back to the place where he used to watch all 24 hours with his friends through the night.

"In terms of driving, not so much [I can take to IndyCar]," Pigot said.

"It's an opportunity to drive a fast car. You're always keeping your reflexes up at a very high level."

Castroneves, who is now competing for Penske's new Acura team and will start on the front row Saturday, last competed in the race 10 years ago.

Why has he not done it?

"Good question. ... It's focus, it's concentration," Castroneves said. "I didn't have much contact [with other owners], I guess. I didn't have the tickets to come in.

"And I guess being with Penske, I didn't want to jeopardize if I get hurt before the championship."

Also back after a long layoff from the race is Montoya, a teammate to Castroneves. Montoya never competed in the race during his early IndyCar and Formula One days but started running it when he made the switch to NASCAR in 2007.

After leaving Ganassi following the 2013 season, Montoya has not returned to the race until this year.

Montoya said one of the things that makes the race tough for drivers who come from other series is the number of drivers who take risks and want to show what they can do against some of the best in the world.

"It is interesting because there's a lot of guys that want to prove themselves, and that makes it tough in a 24-hour race when you're racing them because they don't understand how important it is to make it to the end," Montoya said.

He looks forward to racing Alonso. Montoya won three F1 races in the 2005 season where Alonso won seven and his first of his back-to-back titles.

"The racing deal he has now with McLaren and how everything is all linked together is fine," Montoya said. "He's a little bit like me. He just likes racing. When you get a good opportunity to go and do something else, you go and do it.

"In my time [in F1], we were testing from the 5th of January every week, so we never really had the time. And I never really got any offers. People ask me why I haven't done Le Mans. Nobody ever called me and said, 'Hey, do you want to do Le Mans?'"

Alonso is competing with an eye at Le Mans, one of three races he wants to win as part of a triple crown with the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. Plus, it's a cool factor.

"We play with little cars when we are young and in the box you see maybe the name of Daytona, the name of Indianapolis and one day eventually you're here as a professional racing driver and you're racing at these venues," Alonso said.

"The speedways are different, compared to Europe with the circuits we have. Everything we have here is bigger. The size of everything is huge. The paddock area, all the facilities here, the grandstand, everything is very impressive. It's a nice feeling to put the helmet on and go racing in these iconic circuits."

McLaren head Zak Brown wants his drivers at the Rolex.

"Most of the other Formula One drivers probably aren't in a race car this weekend," Brown said. "I am of the view this is great for Fernando and Lando. Experience helps you in all forms of auto racing.

"How can being in the race car, how can that be anything other than good for staying fit, staying focused? And Fernando, in particular ... I think he literally wants to live in a race car. And it puts him in a really good place."