Photo: John Raoux (AP)

The racing season is back, baby, and in a big way! And its first major event is the Rolex 24 hour race at Daytona International Speedway, which kicks off on Saturday, January 26. We want to make sure you’re all prepared for one of the bigger races of the year, so here’s everything you need to know.

What Is It?

The 24 Hours of Daytona—known as the Rolex 24 since the watch company started sponsoring the race in 1991—has been America’s premier sports car race since its first race back in 1962. It’s basically the stateside version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Photo: AP

The race is run on the 3.56-mile combined road course, which means it uses parts of the NASCAR tri-oval along with the infield road course. So, while it does involve the road course setup you’d expect from a traditional sports car race, you also get to watch some of the world’s most incredible cars on banking. If that doesn’t get you a little hot under the collar then you must be the kind of person who hates fun.

The Rolex 24 isn’t one of the legs of the Triple Crown of Racing, but that’s mostly because of its separation from other forms of international sports car racing. It’s a race that has developed separate from international sanctioning, content to play its own tune until recently, when folks realized they could run more races if they built a car that actually compete in ‘em. But winning the race comes with its own set of distinctions and can open plenty of doors for aspiring racers.

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This race is the first race of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Just like how many people who run Le Mans don’t run a full WEC season, many drivers who compete at the Rolex don’t contest stateside for a full year. But winning is always a great way to start the year.

Photo: AP

Take a look at the entry list for this year. It’s pretty stacked, with manufacturers like Acura, Cadillac, Mercedes, and BMW entering cars.

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Class Structure

You’ll be able to spot four different classes running the Rolex this year. Two of them are prototype classes, the other two GT classes. The prototypes are cars specifically designed for racing. These aren’t things that you’d ever see on the road. GT cars, on the other hand, are cars you’re familiar with that have been modified for racing. Every class is governed by its own specific sets of rules.

If you’re really interested in the nitty-gritty of the regulations, you can find them all on the IMSA website. Otherwise, here’s a quick rundown:

  • Daytona Prototype International (DPi) — This is the main class in IMSA. The IMSA website calls them “the fastest and most technologically advanced sports cars in North America.” These are cars purpose-built for racing. The DPi chassis is built to a similar set of specs, but the engines and bodywork are all up to the manufacturers—names like Acura, Cadillac, Mazda, and Nissan.
  • Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) — This class is new for 2019. These cars are actually able to compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship (including the 24 Hours of Le Mans) because they’re built to the Automobile Club l’Ouest’s specifications. Only four constructors have been approved to develop LMP2s.
  • GT Le Mans (GTLM) — These cars also comply with the ACO’s specs, making them eligible to compete in Le Mans (hence the name). They’re based on the production models of cars sold by BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Ford, and Porsche—but they’re modified for racing.
  • GT Daytona (GTD) — These cars don’t necessarily meet the ACO guidelines, but they do meet the global FIA-GT3 specs. They’re cars built by Acura, Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lexus, Mercedes-AMG, and Porsche that are enhanced by technology to make them more effective racers.

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Photo: AP

Storylines to Follow

If you’re just diving into this race for the first time, here are three big points that everyone is going to be talking about:

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Former F1 Stars Fernando Alonso and Kamui Kobayashi Teaming Up

Fernando Alonso is out here trying to race every car possible—and this guy has teamed up with former F1 (and FE, and current WEC) star Kamui Kobayashi at Wayne Taylor Racing in the Cadillac DPi. They’ll be joining up with Jordan Taylor and Renger van der Zande, two great drivers here in the US.

Alonso has had his name in the motorsport news more often than not, so expect this to be one of the biggest talking points over the weekend.

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Acura’s All-Women Racer Lineup

Photo: AP

Forget the boys for a minute. Acura’s GTD class car run by Michael Shank Racing is going to be composed of entirely women. Big international names like Katherine Legge, Simona de Silvestro, Ana Beatriz, and Christina Nielsen are here to kick ass and take names for the ladies.

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This team is also looking at contesting Le Mans together if they have a good run at Daytona. And they’ve already done pretty damn well—they set a class pole position at the Roar Before the 24. They’re definitely going to be a force to be reckoned with.

Alex Zanardi is Back in Action

Alex Zanardi is probably one of the world’s most resilient racers. A CART champion, F1 driver, sports car legend, and Paralympic gold medal champion, Zanardi lost both legs in a bad accident in 2001. But that hasn’t stopped him.

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BMW’s GTLM team has developed a steering wheel specifically for Zanardi, which we’ve talked about before. It’s pretty damn incredible to watch him in action.

How to Watch

Great news! NBC Sports is the place to be for all the Daytona action this weekend. That’s right—all 24 hours are going to be available to watch on their various channels, online and on the television. We’ve got the full breakdown here for you:

All times in EST.

Thursday Jan. 24

3 PM — qualifying on NBCSN

3:35 PM — qualifying on IMSA.tv

Saturday Jan. 26

2-5 PM —Rolex 24 on NBCSN

2:25-11:55 PM — Rolex 24 on IMSA.tv

5-9 PM — Rolex 24 on NBC Sports app

9 PM - 3 AM — Rolex 24 on NBCSN

Sunday Jan. 27

midnight - 2:35 PM — Rolex 24 on IMSA.tv

midnight - 3 AM — Rolex 24 on NBCSN

3 AM - 6 AM — Rolex 24 on NBC Sports app

6 AM - 3 PM — Rolex 24 on NBCSN