An emotional day for the 2022 IMSA Prototype Challenge season opener ended with an emotional winner.
Veteran driver Tonis Kasemets rallied the No. 60 Wulver Racing Ligier JS P320 from a lap down to win the three-hour race in mixed conditions at Daytona International Speedway. Afterward, a tearful Kasemets dedicated the victory to Priit Pallo, a close friend whose funeral was also held Saturday. Pallo was longtime head of the auto federation in his and Kasemets’ native Estonia.
The comeback by Kasemets and co-driver Bruce Hamilton derailed a storybook finish for the No. 23 AL Autosport with JDC MotorSports Duqueine D08. Memo Gidley, who suffered serious injuries in a crash eight years ago during the Rolex 24 At Daytona, and teammate Alexander Koreiba, making his first start of any kind at the track, dominated most of the race before settling for a still-inspiring third-place finish.
“This race is for Priit Pallo. We had a legend in Estonia passed away, funeral was today,” Kasemets said. “This (win) is for him.”
Gidley started from the pole position he earned in Friday qualifying, but quickly surrendered the lead to Kasemets in wet conditions. The track began drying through the first hour, enough that Gidley radioed for his crew to change to dry-condition slick Michelin tires when Koreiba took the wheel with just under two hours remaining.
Despite his lack of LMP3 experience, Koreiba blew away the competition and put the entire field a lap down in the next hour. He made his final pit stop with 58 minutes remaining, the team opting to double-stint the same set of Michelins. Moments later, the second and final full-course caution was ordered for a car stopped off track. It allowed those cars that had not made their final stops – including Kasemets’ teammate Bruce Hamilton – to get back on the lead lap and pit under the yellow.
Kasemets replaced Hamilton for the last stint as light rain began to fall again. The 47-year-old’s vast experience in prototypes and slick conditions shone through. He quickly climbed from sixth place on the restart and made quick work passing the newbie Koreiba for the race lead heading into the Bus Stop chicane with 22 minutes to go.
Patrick Kujala, who shared the No. 77 US RaceTronics Ligier with Brian Thienes, overtook Koreiba for second place with 17 minutes left. Kasemets won by 3.928 seconds at the checkered flag.
“Bruce did a hell of a job in his stint like we asked,” Kasemets said. “It was phenomenal. The car was hooked up, the team was unbelievable. We never gave up, we did some bold strategy, completely outside of the box this week. We took care of our things; we didn’t care what anybody else did. It paid off.”
One element of the bold strategy was having Kasemets start the race, something Hamilton usually does.
“In that middle stint,” Hamilton said, “my job was to make sure I brought it home and gave him something to finish with. I did and it worked. I’m still in shock, I don’t know what to say. Daytona is a fantastic place!”
Koreiba was still elated with the third-place finish in his Prototype Challenge debut.
“I was thinking it was going to be smooth sailing and we were just going to ride off into the sunset,” the 24-year-old from Missouri said of his first stint. “But when we got that yellow and it bunched the field up, I knew it was going to be a difficult ride for us. I didn’t know it was going to be that difficult. Overall grip was definitely lacking in the second stint, especially with the mixed conditions coming. I was just hanging on to that thing at the end.”
For Gidley, nothing could dampen the joy of driving a prototype again on Daytona’s 3.56-mile road course. Not even watching a potential win slip away in slippery conditions.
“I feel great!” he said. “This was obviously a last-minute deal and I haven’t been back to Daytona for a long time. And I haven’t driven a prototype for a long time as well. To come back out with a limited amount of practice, it was just great to get back in the car.
“I felt comfortable and to stick it on pole was awesome. It just felt great, then to have such a strong car in the race. Super happy for AL Autosport and it’s cool to be with JDC. I’ve known those guys a long time but never raced with them as a team. It’s like a dream come true right now.”
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