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Drivers fight rain, rivals

When Grand American Road Racing Association introduced its Daytona Prototype class in 2003, the hope was that it would usher in a new era in sports car racing, one that was accessible to big-money teams and fledgling privateers alike.

But above all, the sanctioning body's goal was that fans would find the racing more compelling.

The first half of this year's Rolex 24 at Daytona seemed to deliver.

The leaderboard at the 3.56-mile road course changed often Saturday as about a half dozen of the sleek Daytona Prototypes fought up front.

In the first 3{ hours alone there were more than a dozen lead changes, prompting veteran sports car driver and three-time Rolex 24 winner Andy Wallace to quip, "It's almost like a Saturday night sprint race. You lead a lap or two and the next time around the other guy gets a go of it. It's pretty thrilling racing, actually."

Indeed, the early hours brought a feisty race among many top teams, including Wallace's Howard-Boss Motorsports Chevrolet-Crawford, which he is co-driving with Nextel Cup drivers Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. With rules limiting horsepower and aerodynamic design, no car seemed to have much of a performance advantage.

"It's very much a driver's car," Wallace said. "You get behind the wheel and it all comes down to your talent on the track."

Fifty-three starters took the green flag under threatening skies. As has been the case often in 42 previous runnings, weather played a major part of the first day.

A steady rain arrived about two hours in and remained well into the night. Though lap times were slower few drivers found much to complain about.

"Rain isn't so bad if your car runs well in it," Daytona Prototype driver Max Papis said. "But if you're having problems, then the rain just seems to make them more frustrating. We've been in good shape most of the day."

Papis' CGR Grand Am Lexus-Riley was one of the top performers early. The team had relatively little testing time in its new car before bringing it to the track. Still, driver Scott Pruett put it on the pole Thursday.

"Of course, there are so many questions that only racing can answer," Papis said. "We hope not only to do well but to learn a lot about the car itself and what it's capable of."

In addition to several new Daytona Prototypes, the race also saw the introduction of the new Super Grand Sport class. Fourteen cars, mostly Porsche GT3Cs and Corvettes, have competed in the Grand-Am Cup Series over the past few years. The cars are also slated compete for class honors in the 12-race Rolex Sports Car Series in 2004.

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