Drivers, fans navigate new COVID-altered Rolex 24 At Daytona International Speedway
DAYTONA BEACH — The pomp and pageantry will be missing.
That's a shame, Belgian driver Laurens Vanthoor said ahead of the start of Saturday's Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced Speedway officials to close off the garage, enforce social-distancing protocols throughout the premises and reduce the capacity significantly in the name of safety.
How to watch:Find the Rolex 24 at Daytona on TV, live stream
"We're a bit used to it," said Vanthoor, 29, one of four drivers for Pfaff Motorsports' No. 9 GT Daytona team. "It’s a shame because it always makes these big races a bit special and cool to be here, to see all the fans and the cars outside the paddock.
"You don’t get the nice dressing on the cake, but the cake is still the same.”
As seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson put it, "They still give out that watch at the end."
The prize and prestige remain the same, though the surrounding circumstances and logistics of the Rolex 24 are drastically different.
For starters, international drivers face ever-evolving travel restrictions. Vanthoor, who is from the Belgian city of Hasselt, said he underwent COVID testing before departing for Daytona Beach and will remain stateside if required as a result of competing.
Pfaff Motorsports — based in Concord, Ontario — did not enter the IMSA WeatherTech 240 in Daytona back in July due to a closure of the border separating the United States and Canada.
The Canadian federal government similarly denied Major League Baseball's Blue Jays and the National Basketball Association's Raptors from playing their home games in Toronto, resulting in temporary relocations to Buffalo and Tampa Bay, respectively.
When fellow Pfaff driver Zacharie Robichon returns to Canada, he expects a period of self-isolation for 14 days.
"There are some gray areas as far as what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, but most of the time it requires a two-week quarantine," Robichon said. "Going home, no work can be done on the car. For myself, for my other job, I’m very limited as to what I can and can’t do. It doesn’t look like that is going to change, but we’ve taken the steps necessary to be able to accommodate it.
"We’ll adapt as required and, if there’s anything anybody has learned from this last year, it’s don’t try to predict what’s going to happen because you’re going to get it wrong. There’s no point in trying to figure it out."
Pfaff's other drivers are also from abroad. Matt Campbell is from Australia and Lars Kern is from Germany.
As far as the race atmosphere is concerned, Johnson found comfort in seeing handfuls of fans lining the infield fences earlier this week.
Daytona International Speedway President Chip Wile declined to disclose maximum attendance figures, but an estimated crowd of 25,000 were able to attend the Coke Zero Sugar 400 last August — Johnson's 38th, and almost certainly final, Cup Series start at Daytona.
"What’s wild is how we’re becoming used to this environment, the world we’re living in, the precautions we need to take and all that stuff," said Johnson, who will turn his attention to IndyCar this year as a part-time driver for Chip Ganassi Racing. "In the competitive spirit of it all, nothing’s changed there.
"But in such a marquee event, and the pageantry that’s typically here, it is different. More than anything, I feel bad for the sport and certainly feel for the fans that usually show up and support this great event as they do."
Fans generally share Johnson's gratitude that the event will happen at all, even with the more interactive elements of the experience canceled.
Access to several areas is restricted — including the garages, paddock and pit road. The grid walk and ballfield access will also be closed to fans during pre-race activities.
Additionally, fans must adhere to temperature checks upon arrival and wear face masks for the full duration of their visit.
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Josh Taylor admitted to having some reservations before returning to the Rolex for a second straight year.
The 31-year-old finance manager, from Durham, North Carolina, misses being able to inspect the garages and watch the race from the pits.
Even so, Taylor says the access available is as good as it can be given the circumstances.
"I've been to IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula One (races), and each brings something different. But it seems like this series (IMSA) in particular allows you the access to the technology and engineering up close," Taylor said after peeling away from the FanZone's garage windows.
"This is probably the best track to go to a race to because there's been so much money (spent) making the garage accessible. There's literally only a glass wall in between us and them."
Chris Foote does not mind the sacrifices either. Set to return Sunday for the race's conclusion, he toured the infield and enjoyed viewing practice sessions earlier in this week with a trio of UCF classmates.
"I'm happy to be out here and grateful for it," Foote said. "Whatever it takes, I'm just glad to be here and watch the cars go by."