Winward Racing has been Cinderella before. Showing up as IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Rolex 24 at Daytona rookies in 2021, the team won GTD in one of America’s toughest endurance races in its first attempt. No longer rookies, its 2023 Rolex 24 was possibly more epic, and nearly had the same result.
This year’s Rolex 24 for the team started in the best way possible with Philip Ellis driving the No. 57 Mercedes-AMG to pole on Sunday of the Roar Before the 24. Granted, it seemed highly likely the way things had been so far that a Mercedes or Aston Martin was going to end up on the GT poles, and as it turns out, Mercedes took both GTD and GTD PRO. But it was Ellis who put the car he was sharing with Russell Ward, Lucas Auer and Indy Dontje into the top spot.
In the first official practice for the 24 Hour on Thursday, however, Auer put two wheels on the grass exiting Turn 1, spun across track and hit the wall on drivers’ left in Turn 2 head-on. Auer suffered broken vertebrae in the crash and the car was destroyed.
Winward sent crew back to the team’s shop in Houston, Texas, and grabbed the chassis the team had raced last season. Arriving at Daytona International Speedway with the car Friday morning, the crew set to work getting it into racing condition, including moving many of the parts from the crashed car to the other chassis. They wrapped up at 4 a.m. Saturday – about nine hours before the green flag – even getting help from other teams.
The other piece of the puzzle was another driver. Fortunately it had a Mercedes ace it could bring from their Michelin Pilot Challenge team, where Danial Morad was driving with team principal Bryce Ward. Morad’s last run in a Mercedes-AMG GT3 was at the Intercontinental GT Challenge Indianapolis 8 Hour, a winning effort. With no time in the car before the race, he was thrown into the car and got to work.
“I’m still riding that wave of adrenaline since yesterday. I was here for the GT4 race in Michelin Challenge but then got the call up for the Rolex 24,” said Morad after his first stint in the car.
“It’s unfortunate, I’d obviously rather not be driving if it meant Lucas was in better health, but thankfully he underwent surgery, it was successful, and he should make a full recovery. We’ve been in contact with him and he’s in good spirits.
“It’s nice to drive with Winward Racing, it’s my first weekend with the team and I was just in the right place at the right time under the wrong circumstances. But I’m glad they chose me and trust me to do the job with zero laps of practice coming into the race. There were so many question marks. We weren’t granted the hardship laps, so it was a new car assembled overnight. The guys spent a little extra time to make sure everything was buttoned up correctly. It’s a long race and anything can happen, but for now it seems like it’s OK. It’s driving well, the balance is good. It was fun out there.”
Russell Ward had to start at the back due to the chassis switch, but had a stellar first stint to get the car toward the front of the GTD field. By the third hour the car was in second. The team led nearly 200 laps and was well within shot of victory entering the final hour.
During a late-race restart, Ellis was doing his best to get the car up to leader Heart of Racing, but he had to get by a gaggle of GTD PRO cars first. In doing so, contact with the GTD PRO No. 3 Corvette damaged the suspension, and the dream run was over with minutes left in the 24 Hour.
“I’ve just got to give a hats off to all the crew,” Russell Ward told IMSA Radio. “I mean, it was either win it or this. Really those are the two options that we had. We came here and left everything on the table. It was probably the most incredible race I’ve ever done. It was it was a blast from start to finish. Phillip and Indy and Daniel and I, we drove the wheels off and the crew were just fantastic. I just gotta give a hats off to everybody. Just a really sad way to end, but it will definitely be one I’ll always remember.”