An emotional day for the season opener of the IMSA Prototype Challenge 2022 ended with an emotional winner.
Veteran driver Tonis Kasemets collected the No. 60 Wulver Racing Ligier JS P320 from a lap back to win the three-hour race in mixed conditions at Daytona International Speedway. After that, Kasemets tearfully dedicated the victory to Priit Pallo, a close friend whose funeral was also held on Saturday. Pallo was the head of the car federation in his native Estonia and Kasemets for a long time.
The comeback of Kasemets and co-driver Bruce Hamilton derailed a storybook finish for the No. 23 AL Autosport with JDC MotorSports Duqueine D08. Memo Gidley, who was seriously injured in a crash at the Rolex 24 At Daytona eight years ago, and teammate Alexander Koreiba, who made his first start of any kind at the track, dominated most of the race before settling for with a still inspiring third-place finish.
“This race is for Priit Pallo. We had a legend passed away in Estonia, the funeral was today,” said Kasemets. “This (victory) is for him.”
Gidley started from the pole position he earned in Friday’s qualifying but quickly handed over the lead to Kasemets in wet conditions. The track started to dry up for the first hour, enough that Gidley had his crew switch over to dry-condition Michelin slick tires by radio when Koreiba took over with just under two hours to go.
Despite his lack of LMP3 experience, Koreiba blew the competition away and lapped the entire field in the next hour. He made his final pit stop with 58 minutes to go, with the team opting to double the same set of Michelins. Moments later, the second and final full-track warning was ordered for a car that had stopped off the track. This allowed the cars that had not yet made their final stops – including Kasemets’ team-mate Bruce Hamilton – to regain the lead and pit under the yellow.
Kasemets replaced Hamilton for the final stint when light rain started to fall again. The 47-year-old’s vast experience in prototypes and slick conditions shone through. Climbing quickly from sixth on the restart, he made quick work past newbie Koreiba for race control going into the Bus Stop chicane with 22 minutes to go.
Patrick Kujala, who won the No. 77 US RaceTronics Ligier split with Brian Thienes, passed Koreiba for second with 17 minutes to go. Kasemets won by 3,928 seconds at the checkered flag.
“Bruce did a great job in his period, as we asked,” said Kasemets. “It was phenomenal. The car was hooked up, the team was incredible. We never gave up, we pursued a bold strategy this week, completely off the beaten track. We took care of our belongings; we didn’t care what anyone else did. It has paid off.”
One element of the bold strategy was to have Kasemets start the race, something Hamilton usually does.
“In that middle stint,” Hamilton said, “my job was to make sure I took it home and give him something to finish with. I did it and it worked. I’m still in shock, I don’t know what to say Daytona is an amazing place!”
Koreiba was still delighted with third place in his Prototype Challenge debut.
“I thought it would be smooth sailing and we would just drive into the sunset,” the 24-year-old from Missouri said of his first stint. “But when we got that yellow and the field got bigger I knew it was going to be a difficult ride for us. I didn’t know it would be that difficult. The overall grip was definitely lacking in the second stint, especially with the mixed conditions coming. At the end I just clung to that thing.”
For Gidley, nothing could spoil the joy of driving a prototype again on Daytona’s 3.56 mile road course. Not even watching a potential win slip in slippery conditions.
“I feel wonderful!” he said. “Obviously this was a last minute deal and I haven’t been to Daytona in a very long time. And I haven’t driven a prototype in a long time. To get back out with a limited amount of practice, it was just great to get back in the car.
“I felt comfortable and it was great to put him on pole. It just felt great to have such a strong car in the race. Super happy for AL Autosport and it’s cool to be at JDC. I’ve known those guys for a long time, but never raced with them as a team. It’s like a dream come true now.”