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Preview: Rolex 24 Race at Daytona International Speedway

When the games end and the race starts.

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida -- For 2016, America's premier endurance road-racing series gets a new name, long-awaited new technical regulations, a bunch of slick new cars, a controversial new TV package and -- race fans can only hope -- some much-needed new mojo.

Fifty-three cars practiced this weekend at Daytona International Speedway during the final official test -- the Roar Before the Rolex 24 -- before the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season begins. And it begins, of course, later this month with the Rolex 24, which will mark the first race under the banner of the recently retitled (from Tudor United SportsCar Championship) organization.

With new prototype regulations arriving next year, there wasn't much buzz in the prototype classes other than Mazda's decision to jettison the uncompetitive diesel that hamstrung its cars for the past two seasons in favor of a conventional gasoline-powered engine. But there was enough news in the GT classes to keep sports car geeks hopping from garage to garage.

The top story of the weekend -- and of the year, probably -- was the official racetrack debut of the bad-ass Ford GT. Although the car will compete in the GTLM class, it was so low, sleek, and sweetly styled that it looked more like a prototype than a production-based sports car. To many eyes, in fact, it looked better than the current crop of prototypes, not only the ones here at Daytona but also the blunt Porsches and Audis that race at Le Mans.

But Ford wasn't the only manufacturer flexing its muscle in the GTLM class, where manufacturers spend millions of dollars to burnish brand image, push the technical envelope, and stroke corporate ego. The first of the all-new Ferrari 488s, with fighter jet-style inlets feeding their twin turbos, also debuted at Daytona. Ditto for BMW M6s, which were so fresh that they ran in unliveried carbon fiber.

Meanwhile, Corvette and Porsche returned with updated versions of their already stout C7.R and 911 RSR, respectively. That makes five seriously motivated factory teams scrapping for GTLM honors, and there's a real chance five different manufacturers could win races this year, which would probably thrill IMSA officials as much as most race fans.

Based on the turnout at Daytona, the action promises to be even more frenetic in GTD, the slowest but best subscribed IMSA class. This year, for the first time, the series has adopted the GT3 regulations used internationally. So the Roar featured a bunch of new-spec cars -- the Porsche 911, Audi R8 LMS, and no fewer than five Lamborghini Huracans (which share most of their mechanical components with the Audi).

The Lambos unexpectedly ran quickest in several practice sessions. But that wasn't the biggest surprise of the test. Amazing, the much-maligned DeltaWing coupe -- looking even more homely than before, though that hardly seems possible, with a new red-white-and-blue paint scheme -- topped the time chart in a session shortened by fog. And the Mazda prototypes, powered by a new 2.0-liter turbo instead of the diesel boat anchor, also ran at the pointy end of the prototype field for the first time in the car's history.

Of course, nobody wanted to run too fast at the Roar for fear IMSA would impose balance-of-performance penalties to slow down the cars before the Rolex 24. So sandbagging was the order of the day, and all lap times have to be taken with a grain of salt. "I'll tell you who's fast after the race," said team owner Chip Ganassi, who is running EcoBoost-powered Fords in both the prototype and GTLM classes.

Tune in January 30 for the Rolex 24, when the games end and the race starts.

Photos courtesy IMSA photo by LAT USA.