SEBRING - What's different this year at the 12 Hours of Sebring?
Talk to Hal Watson. He's just a fan who has come to 20 of the past 22 races, but he's also crew chiefed for driver Tom Neel in the Mazda MX-5 series.
In the past, the American Le Mans Series raced at Sebring. Rolex drivers raced here, but under Le Mans rules.
But two years ago, Grand-Am merged the Rolex Sports Car Series with American Le Mans to form the unified Tudor United Sports Car Championship.
"Now they're going to race together, on the best track," said Watson, who was standing in a souvenir IMSA shop.
Paula Robson brought two semi-trailer sized storage containers full of IMSA merchandise - thousands of shirts, jackets, banners, decals, patches, tag holders, badge holders and lanyards. The International Motor Sports Association is a new partner this year, she said.
The DeltaWing will race this year, but as a coupe, said group spokeswoman Diane Swintal.
The DeltaWing debuted here in 2012 with an open cab; this year it's back as a coupe. "Same engine, same horsepower," Swintal said, but LeMans dictated that all racers will be enclosed, and DeltaWing wants to go to France, so driver Katherine Legge now has a roof over her head.
In 2008, American Le Mans Series announced the first Green Challenge competition during Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. Although it goes 195 mph, DeltaWing conforms to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Environment Canada and SAE International rules, Legge said.
And although it's built like an airplane with a narrow beak, skinny tires and virtually no downforce to grip the concrete race track. "We expect to qualify in the top 10," Legge said.
Legge, by the way, is the lone female driver in the 12 hour endurance race. "Only me," said the Guildford, England veteran. She'll share driving time in the fastest class with two other racers.
"It's the car of the future," Legge said, seeming confident of that prediction. The Green Challenge measures green on fuel type and other factors influencing emissions, overall speed and fuel economy. The DeltaWing does all that, and it's as speedy as other racers.
"It's half the weight, uses half the fuel, and uses half the tires," she said. But it's also experimental.
"It's a stage-by-state development," said Legge, who raced in several developmental open-wheel series in Britain, including Formula Three, Formula Renault and Formula Ford. In 2000 she was the first woman to take the pole in a Zetec race. In 2001, she beat Kimi Räikkönen's lap record and achieved another pole position.
She and other DeltaWing drivers dealt with mechanical issues all through the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona three weeks ago. Even so, the car ran at a pace close to the leaders for much of the race.
"Every time we go out, we work on it and we improve," said Legge, who in 2005 was RACER Magazine's Most Promising Road Racer of The Year. She won the series opener at Long Beach in her first career Atlantic start, becoming the first woman to win a developmental open-wheel race in North America.
Eventually, the DeltaWing will be seen on the street, said Legge, who signed with Dragon Racing in the IndyCar Series and finished 26th in points. She left IndyCar last year to join DeltaWing. As an exercise in packaging, there's an electric DeltaWing BladeGlider, a super-sexy version of the Nissan Leaf.
"TV doesn't do it justice," Watson said of the 12-hour race. Every year, the Jacksonville Beach man camps with friends in the infield from Wednesday to Saturday so he can shoot photos. He suggests watching from Turn 7 - the Hairpin.
"It's a heavy braking area," Watson said. At night, the drums get so hot, they glow.
"And braking doesn't always go right," he said. Lots of crashes happen at Turn 7.
Although patrons can get rowdy, Highlands County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Nell Hays said Wednesday opened without incident. There were no arrests.