Veteran driver Tonis Kasemets rallied the No. 60 Wulver Racing Ligier JS P320 Nissan from a lap down to win Saturday’s three-hour IMSA Prototype Challenge season-opener 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 Nissan.
Memo Gidley, who suffered serious injuries in a crash eight years ago during the Rolex 24 At Daytona, and co-driver 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.
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.