Rolex 24 at Daytona: Bigger, better than ever? That's what they're saying | KEN WILLIS

DAYTONA BEACH — Same song, most recent verse.

It was the biggest and best Rolex 24 ever. 

Seems to be the annual refrain over the past decade or so, but this one really had that feel.

Yes, even if we said the same thing last year.

Early on, they took to calling it the biggest crowd ever for Daytona’s annual endurance festival (for competitors and visitors alike).

Official attendance figures aren’t released for these things, but the eyeballs told you there wasn’t room to fit a scooter in the infield, much less anything on four wheels. So, why not, yeah, biggest ever.

Flags were flying and crowds were thick on the starting grid before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Flags were flying and crowds were thick on the starting grid before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Race recap:A look back at the Rolex 24

24 more hours:NASCAR's Next Gen Le Mans driver lineup: Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller, Jenson Button

The Speedway campsites outside the west banking were wall to wall with campers on the north side, tents on the south end. To the east of the Speedway, across the street on county property north of the airport, it was more of the same. Even the grandstands, at least in the early hours, had a bigger crowd than memory recalls in previous years — 20,000, give or take, is a reasonable guess.

The winning driver lineup, from left: Simon Pagenaud, Colin Braun, Tom Blomqvist and Helio Castroneves, with Speedway president Frank Kelleher.
The winning driver lineup, from left: Simon Pagenaud, Colin Braun, Tom Blomqvist and Helio Castroneves, with Speedway president Frank Kelleher.

What we were all here for at the Rolex 24

Oh, guess what. There was a race, which means trophies — and at this one, a caseload of Rolex watches — were handed out. One went to Helio Castroneves, a man who now owns more Daytona Rolexes than he has wrists.

Castroneves’ three Rolex 24 wins have come in successive years, and man, as midlife crises go, big-game hunting beats a motorcycle or new wardrobe. Since early 2021, he’s won three consecutive Rolex 24s and, along the way, collected his fourth career Indianapolis 500.

"Incredible," was his understatement. “This team is amazing. This is absolutely a dream come true."

Two of Helio's fellow drivers, Simon Pagenaud and Colin Braun, have built very successful careers in their respective disciplines — Pagenaud in IndyCar, Braun in sports cars. But frankly, if the 2023 Rolex launched anyone into a rarer orbit, it’s Tom Blomqvist, a multinational racer who leaves town with the wind definitely at his back.

When Meyer Shank rolled its prototype off the truck before last weekend’s test session, Blomqvist was fastest. In qualifying, he was fastest. At the start of the Rolex, he was fastest. At the end, he took the final green after a caution and pulled away, bit by bit for the eventual 4-second win.

The fastest early, fastest middle and fastest late, and the platitudes were flying from the important folks.

Said David Salters, president of Honda Performance Development, the Acura team’s big boss: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he?”

Said team owner Michael Shank: “He’s a nugget. He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it.”

Shank’s partner, Jim Meyer: “We’re thrilled to be in the Tom Blomqvist business.”

Blomqvist (it’s blum-quist, by the way) leaned toward humility.

“My life was made easier with the car I had under me today. All week, really,” he said.

Tom Blomqvist.
Tom Blomqvist.

Next up: Sebring, with some overseas guests

The next time most of these Rolex 24 cars return, it’ll be springtime, deep in Florida’s midsection for the historic 12 Hours of Sebring, March 18. There, the IMSA folks will be joined by their European counterparts from the World Endurance Championship, which will open its season a day earlier with the 1,000 Miles of Sebring.

And that’s the theme these days within international sports-car racing — this new arm-in-arm march by IMSA and the WEC. It was put on display a couple of times this past weekend at Daytona, where Pierre Fillon, president of WEC sanctioning body ACO, was rather visible.

That’s not too unusual, but over Rolex weekend he took part in a press conference with NASCAR/IMSA chairman Jim France to talk about a new era focused on the new LMDh prototypes that debuted here.

Those cars meet the specs of both continents’ series, a collaboration that should pay off for both in the near and long-term future.

Also, Fillon was on hand when the new synergy was further demonstrated by both sides’ big interest in the formal introduction of Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller and Jenson Button, who will share a NASCAR Next Gen car in June’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Overall, time will tell if the 2023 Rolex was a launchpad toward truly bigger and better things in the sports-car world, or just a continuation of preceding momentum. You could hedge the bet and suggest it might just be a blast of false hope, but that seems like a longshot in the immediate afterglow.

— Reach Ken Willis at

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Daytona 24 Hours: Rolex delivers plenty of winners; meet Tom Blomqvist