- Auto Racing - Eyes focused on Newman, Earnhardts

Thursday, February 1
Eyes focused on Newman, Earnhardts

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Although it isn't polite to stare, several Grand American Road Racers were doing just that during practice Thursday for the Rolex 24-Hour endurance race.

Movement stopped momentarily in the pit boxes as heads craned to catch a glimpse of Dale Earnhardt wheeling past, not in his famed black No. 3 Chevy stock car, but in a sleek black No. 3 GTS Corvette.

This time, instead of traveling at high speed onto the first-turn banking of the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway oval, Earnhardt braked hard and swung the car left, entering the snaking infield portion of the 3.56-mile road circuit.

Moments later, it was actor-driver Paul Newman, still racy at 76 years old, zipping by in a Porsche GT1 and following in Earnhardt's tire tracks.

Neither Earnhardt, the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion, nor Newman, a former Rolex 24 class winner, was involved in the battle for the top two qualifying positions in this weekend's race. Those went to a Ford-powered Riley & Scott prototype driven by Englishman James Weaver and a Judd-powered Riley & Scott driven by Jack Baldwin.

The rest of the about-70 car starting field will be set Friday following another round of time trials.

Although he doesn't have high profile of a celebrity in the class of fan favorite Earnhardt or Oscar-winner Newman, Weaver overcame a wet track to turn a fast lap averaging 119.351 mph to take his fourth consecutive Rolex 24 pole.

"The track was coming in very quickly at the end and the fast lap could have been any of my last three," the stylish Brit said. "It's the fourth year in a row that (team owner) Rob Dyson has had a car on the pole but, sadly, it's got absolutely nothing to do with what happens in the race. Once the race starts, the pole means nothing at all."

Weaver will share the cockpit with countryman Andy Wallace, Butch Leitzinger and Dyson -- the same lineup that took the overall win here in 1999- - in the twice-around-the-clock race that begins Saturday at 1 p.m. EST.

Baldwin, who will co-drive the Robinson Racing prototype with team owner George Robinson, Irv Hoerr and Indy Racing League champion Buddy Lazier, took the outside pole for the race with a lap of 117.362.

"It's an honor starting next to James," Baldwin said. "The last time I was on the pole at Daytona, I drew it in an IROC race and I started next to Earnhardt. By the end of the front straightaway, I was second."

Baldwin, grinning broadly, added, "To be honest, I have never driven at speed in the race with one of these things until today. James is a rainmaster. He sees the rain and starts smiling. I just kept telling myself to stay calm.

"I knew I just need one halfway clear lap and I kept looking for it and looking for it. I know I could have gone quicker, but the last lap, which would have been the fast one, the motor lost a valve."

Even with the rain falling and qualifying on their minds, the presence of Earnhardt and son Dale Earnhardt Jr. had people excited a lot of the sports car drivers.

"On the pit lane, Dale Sr. drive by in the Corvette and you can see the black open-faced helmet," said Leitzinger, a three-time winner of the 24-hour race. "Everyone watched him go by and were saying, `That's Dale. That Dale,' Because those two are here, it's added a lot not only for the fans, but to the people who are racing."

Newman, who was part of the winning team here at the age of 70, isn't daunted by his age or the competition.

"I don't want to feel comfortable in this car," he said. "I want to feel fast."

Although none of the speeds except those of the top two locked in starting spots, Earnhardt's team was fourth overall at 115.403, with Andy Pilgrim at the wheel. Newman's team chose to wait out the rain and make a serious run on Friday.


Thursday's Rolex 24 qualifying