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.