The top performers of 2008 were honored Monday night at the Bellagio Resort before a record crowd in the annual Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal Cask No. 16 Champions Banquet.
Champions Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, Kelly Collins, Paul Edwards, Pontiac and Riley won major accolades at the gala fete.
"This is the biggest banquet we've had yet," said Grand-Am President Roger Edmondson. "This is our fourth year in Las Vegas, and every year it gets bigger and better. We had 14 races this year, with eight different winners - four of them first-time winners. This is the best road racing in the planet."
Pruett became the first driver to win a second Daytona Prototype championship, He joined first-time champion Memo Rojas in bringing TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates its third Daytona Prototype title. While it was Pruett's eighth major championship, Rojas became the first Mexican to win a major international championship.
"You can win races with good drivers, but to win championships you need a good team," said team owner Chip Ganassi . "My guys did an amazing job, led by Tim Keene and Mike Hull. Along any season, every team has its share of highs and lows. We had good results, and we had good luck when we needed it. I'm the luckiest guy on the planet to have these guys working for me."
The team's accolades also included the inaugural $100,000 Martelli Memorial Award as the top Pirelli Pacesetter in the series. The award is in memory of Gianfranco Martelli, who developed the Pirelli tires used in the Grand-Am Rolex Series for the first time in 2008. The team also won the $10,000 championship award from Bosch, and a Grand-Am contingency bonus pool check for $55,000.
The team opened the season with a record third-consecutive victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, where Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti joined Pruett and Rojas. The Ganassi regulars then won races at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Virginia International Raceway, the Sahlen's Six Hours at Watkins Glen International, the Brumos Porsche 250 at Daytona International Speedway, and Barber Motorsports Park.
"Wow, what a season," Pruett said. "We never missed a beat all season. Chip gives us what we need, and we go out and get it done. You're as good as your competition, and it doesn't get any better than it is in Grand-Am. It's the best road racing series in the world."
"Everyone in this organization has a drive to win, and it all comes down to Chip. I noticed it from day one," Rojas said. "It's great to win the championship. We've went through the pressure of the last few weeks and we can call ourselves champions now. It's really amazing. I'm real happy to be here with this team and to win the championship. My country has been waiting for a championship for a long time, and I am very happy to be carrying the flag."
Pontiac won the Daytona Prototype Manufacturer Championship Award for the fourth time in five years, scoring podium finishes in 12 of the 14 races. Mark Kent, director of motorsports for General Motors, accepted the award. Riley repeated as winners of the Daytona Prototype Constructor Championship Award, winning 13 of the 14 races with Bill Riley accepting the trophy for the fifth straight year.
The GAINSCO Bob Stallings Pontiac Riley team, led by 2008 champions Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty, finished second in the championship despite leading 12 of the 14 races. Taking third in the final race of the season was the No. 59 Brumos Racing Porsche Riley team of JC France and Joao Barbosa. France also received the Jim Trueman Award as the top sportsman driver in the Daytona Prototypes, while the team received the $10,000 SunTrust Improve Your Position Award.
The GT championship came down to the final race of the season, with Banner Racing Pontiac GXP.R teammates Collins and Edwards earning accolades in the division. The pair finished the campaign with their fourth victory of the year in Saturday's season-ending SunRichGourmet 1000 at Miller Motorsports Park. Leighton Reese won his first championship as a car owner, collecting a $55,000 Grand-Am contingency award check. Pontiac won the GT Class Manufacturer Award, with Steve Wesoloski accepting on behalf of General Motors.
"It's a dream come true to see this all come together," Edwards said. "Everyone here knows how hard it is to win a championship, and I am glad to finally be able to win one."
"Paul and I decided Saturday morning that the only way to win the championship was to win the race," said Collins, who finished third in the class in 2006 and second last year. "When they were playing the theme song from Grand Prix I knew it was going to be a good day."
Finishing second, nine points behind, were Andrew Davis and Robin Liddell, co-drivers of the No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports Pontiac GXP.R. They won three races in 2008. Taking third was the No. 70 SpeedSource Castrol Syntec Mazda RX-8 of Sylvain Tremblay and Nick Ham, who won the Rolex 24 At Daytona among their three victories.
The driving champions in both the Daytona Prototype and GT classes received Rolex Daytona Chronograph watches, presented by Doug Meine, Executive Vice President of Rolex Watch USA.
Tim George Jr. received a pair of major awards. The TRG Porsche GT3 driver scored six podium finishes this year, including a victory at New Jersey Motorsports Park, en route to capturing the MESCO Building Solutions Rookie of the Year Award. He also was presented the Bob Akin Award by Bobby Akin as the top Sportsman Driver in the GT class. TRG took a third major accolade, as the No. 65 TRG/Riegel Autosport Porsche GT3 earned the $10,000 SunTrust Improve Your Position Award, accepted by TRG owner Kevin Buckler.
The AIM Autosport team was voted winner on online balloting of the Rolex Moment of the Year for Greg Wilkins's last-lap victory at Le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve - the closest finish in Rolex Series history. Wilkins took the white flag in fourth position, and passed Darren Law and Antonio Garcia in the final yards before the checkered flag.
A highlight of the banquet was an auction for "Red Line Rolex 24 At Daytona," an original piece of artwork by Steve Maloney, using pieces of race cars that competed in the season-opening event. The auction raised $78,000 - enough money to send 30 youngsters to attend Camp Boggy Creek, a camp in Eustis, Florida dedicated to enriching the lives of children with serious illnesses.
While the 2009 Rolex Series schedule will be announced in the near future, Grand-Am President Roger Edmondson said that the series will race 13 times in 2009. The schedule will include all of the present venues with the exception of Infineon Raceway, and will be arranged to allow for more travel time between events. A major change will be the Rolex Series headlining the 2009 event at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, with the race distance increased to 1,000 kilometers or six hours.
The next activity for the Rolex Series will be testing at Daytona International Speedway. The 2009 season officially gets underway with Jan. 2-4 Test Days at Daytona, leading up to the January 24-25 47th Running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona.