The Rolex 24 at Daytona gets harder to survive each year. My third trip down to the Daytona International Speedway should have been the easiest one yet because the weather was almost perfect. It wasn’t very cold as it has been the last two years and it didn’t rain during the race for more than a few minutes, a far cry from last year. Despite all the odds for surviving the full 24 hours being in my favor, I only saw 18 of those this year. Something about it just felt tougher.
I’d imagine the drivers and teams felt the same way because this year’s Rolex 24 was one for the record books. With one less class in the running to mix things up, we only had four full course yellows during the entire race. That led to the previous distance record being broken in hour 23 with a new record of 808 laps later set by the winning car. That many laps at the pace today’s IMSA drivers set? Yeah, this one felt tougher.
As is tradition, here’s a photo recap of the action as I saw it through my lens.
From the moment we rolled in with a five hour head start, I couldn’t help but notice how packed it was inside the track. They had sold every infield parking and camping spot. With how many people were walking around the garage area for the pre-race festivities, it almost looked more like a NASCAR race.
There are a few main reasons for the rise in attendance and one of them is the all star roster. Lots of big names started the Rolex 24 for the first time, like Juan Pablo Montoya with Team Penske and Lance Stroll with Jackie Chan DC Racing.
Perhaps the biggest name though was this Fernando Alonso kid who had a guest seat with United Autosports. The crowd around him at the autograph session was so large that people had to stand on tables just to catch a glimpse. I had to go on top of the fan deck that sat above the garages to get this shot. Oh, and that hat he was wearing was priced at $42 and still sold out from at least one vendor’s tent before the race even started.
The regular IMSA field is already packed with great talent but it’s still really cool to see the series attract new drivers from other disciplines.
While everyone else was fighting for a streak of squiggly sharpie on a piece of paper, I wandered the garage area some more as teams completed race prep. The clean and unbattered body panels sure wouldn’t stay that way for long.
Some race car noises drew me to the track. Turns out, they had a couple dozen historic cars putting down some laps. This Lancia LC2 was probably the coolest, even though it nearly understeered into the grass at maybe 30 mph. Other highlights included a Competition Viper, Ferrari Daytona Coupe, and a Porsche 962.
But there was one historic race car that stood out from the rest. Just before the IMSA field took to the track, there was a moment of silence for the American hero that was Dan Gurney. If you weren’t able to tell from the broadcast, the track got eerily quiet. The whole track might as well have been empty.
That silence was later broken by the command to start engines and run the parade laps, but first they sent out a Lola T70 that he drove in the 1966 Can-Am Championship. Seeing that car come back to life just moments after the whole track went silent for him was truly special.
With all the festivities over with, the real racing began and right away things got intense. I watched the start from the International Horseshoe this time and held my breath as 50 cars emerged from turn one and dove into my view. It doesn’t seem like a very long stretch between T1 and the first hairpin, but they still pick up a lot of speed in that time.
And as if there wasn’t a whole 24 hours ahead of them, the two and sometimes three-wide passing started early. A lot of ambitious moves were made in the opening laps but it was all clean. It didn’t take long though for everyone to settle down for the long haul. Gaps started to open up pretty quickly for some people *cough* Ford *cough*.
It became apparent right away that the Ford GTs were going to be the dominant cars in the GTLM field. They owned the top two spots for pretty much the entire time. The sand bagging claims from online and inside the track were abundant, but they were running very similar times compared to what they showed in earlier practice sessions.
Hey, this Fernando Alonso kid is pretty good! Keep an eye out for this guy, he’s going places.
But on a serious note, Alonso proved once again how talented he can be in anything with four wheels. He took the green flag and put down some impressive laps right away. He stayed out of trouble, negotiated traffic, and later dealt with nighttime stints as if he’d been doing it for years. Between Alonso and co-drivers Phil Hanson and Lando Norris, they were looking strong in the early stages.
Ultimately though, mechanical issues brought them out of contention for an overall win. They still finished but had lost 90 laps in the garage. I have a feeling Alonso is going to do well when he runs a full WEC season with Toyota. As for Hanson and Norris, they’ve got a bright future in motorsports but I can’t imagine anything will top sharing a car with Alonso.
The BMW fanboi in me was super excited to see the M8 GTLM in its first race. It looks stunning in person and is the first new BMW I’ve seen in a while that I’ve immediately fallen in love with. But then it started turning laps.
I don’t know why BMW keeps doing this to themselves, but every new car they bring to this series is completely underwhelming on paper. Then Team RLL works on it tirelessly until they figure it out and start winning with it. Then BMW gives them a totally new car so they can start over again. But whereas the M6 GTLM was dog shit slow and unreliable in both of its Rolex 24 starts, the M8 GTLM was just dog shit slow last weekend. They’re already off to a better start.
With the hours starting to tick away, I finally started moving around a bit. The lesson I learned from my first Rolex 24 is to minimize how much I move around during the race. I like to pick a spot and stay there for as long as I can manage before moving again. But in an effort to get as many shots as I could before losing light and getting caught out in the rain, I kinda sorta ignored that completely.
Another big story form this race was that it was the last career drive for a living legend in American sports car racing. Scott Pruett, who currently has the most wins of any sports car driver in America, announced his retirement just before the Rolex 24. The man who’s raced everything from IMSA GTO to NASCAR turned his final lap in a Lexus RC F GT3. You’ll be missed, Scott.
I guess you could say Ricky Taylor was driving the doors off his Acura ARX-05 (☞ﾟ∀ﾟ)☞
There are only two reasons why hearing protection is still required at IMSA races. That car^ is one of those reasons.
Turner Motorsports, our favorite BMW parts supplier, was known for running yellow and blue liveries on all their cars. This gorgeous Liqui Moly livery is one of a few exceptions, but I’m cool with that. Later on in the race though they suffered some damage and had to bring out a spare hood that hadn’t been switched over to the new look. So they didn’t totally give up the yellow and blue.
And speaking of bad luck, Mazda. Things were looking up with the highly experienced Team Joest taking over the reigns for Mazda’s DPi program and when they topped a practice session earlier in the week. But as modern Mazda prototypes do, bad things happened. This car retired overnight due to electrical issues and its sister car caught fire. But if anyone can fix this car and deliver results, it’s Team Joest.
Our first FCY occurred right as it started getting dark, so I packed up and retreated to the stadium shortly after taking this shot. The race in the GTD class quickly became the most interesting as everyone was pretty close to each other. The Land Motorsport Audi R8 LMS GT3 had a good lead built up.
Later on that evening though, IMSA made a bizarre call to penalize the #29 for refueling too fast for their BoP regulations. Their race was effectively over at that point. It was the first time I can think of that an in-race penalty was given over a BoP infraction. And the best part? The team did nothing wrong. It’s doubtful IMSA will learn their lesson, so expect more BoP enforcement like this in the future.
Most people dip out when the sun goes down, but it seems more people stay up overnight each year. The grand stands look empty from most angles, but there were plenty of people camped out at the start/finish line and down towards turn one and only the five minute downpour made everyone move. These are my kind of people.
After missing the fireworks for the last two years (because we kept forgetting about it), we finally caught it. It was nice, but there was just one small problem… wind. We were on level 2 of the stadium (as they call it) with the wind in our face. We had just gotten to the finale when I thought “huh… why are my eyes burning?”
All the smoke and some of the shrapnel from the fireworks blew all the way across the infield and straight into my face. I’m never watching the stupid fireworks again.
Most of this race is run in the darkness which is part of what makes it so awesome to watch. Daytona is pretty well lit, but you can still see glowing rotors and exhaust gases as the cars scream through the infield section. I can’t photograph it very well, so it’s the only time I can just sit back and enjoy the race… until someone lets me use their step stool to see over the fence. Thank you, stranger!
One thing Acura seems to do very well is launch new race cars. The NSX GT3 debuted last year and proved it can be quick right off the bat with only a few technical issues and some bad luck holding it back. It was the same story this year with Team Penske’s new Acura ARX-05 which only lost pole position by .007 seconds and ran near the top of its class for much of the first 12 hours. Both cars ultimately suffered mechanical issues overnight. Team Penske is going to kick ass this season.
Earlier I mentioned there were two reasons why you still need hearing protection at this race. This is that other reason.
It was around this time that my lack of sleep caught up with me. We had stayed up too late the night before and arrived at the track too early for there to be any hope of finishing the race. The handful of cautions we had meant that almost everyone was very spread out, so there wasn’t much racing going on. I don’t want to say it was boring… but it wasn’t as entertaining as it was last year.
I was dead at 4:00 AM and we still had ten hours left in the race. I decided enough was enough and made the long walk of shame back to the rental car.
I rejoined the action just after sunrise and noticed not much had changed. A few positions changed hands as more cars dropped out from mechanical issues, but we had run a good portion of the race before the first car dropped out.
The lack of cautions meant those in the lead stayed there and built up more of a gap over everyone else. Only 3 out of 19 DPi entries were on the lead lap by this point, probably because of all the tire issues plaguing most of the field. It seemed we couldn’t go more than half an hour without someone blowing up their Continentals. It got so bad that Wayne Taylor Racing (who dominated last year) withdrew for safety concerns. The only real drama up front was overheating issues with the leading #5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac.
Meanwhile, the two Fords were running away in GTLM. The closest car was a Corvette that was two laps down. Only GTD had some close racing, but it didn’t last up front as the leader eventually lapped second place as well.
The lack of caution periods was a double-edged sword. While it was great to see a mostly uninterrupted race, that’s the main reason why there wasn’t much in the way of close and exciting racing amongst the classes.
But regardless of how exciting it was, it must have felt incredible for all who finished. All the time we had under green flag conditions meant cars and drivers were subjected to more laps than they’ve ever seen in 24 hours. Those who finished should feel especially proud this year, but not as proud as our three winners.
Mirko Bortolotti, Franck Perera, Rolf Ineichen, and Rik Breukers brought the #11 GRT Grasser Lamborghini Huracan GT3 home first in class. It was the first time Lamborghini has ever won a 24 hour race. Their finishing driver also did a little burnout on his way to victory lane, so I’m a fan.
It became clear early on that a Ford would win in GTLM; the only thing we had to speculate on is which of the two would win. This year it was the #67’s time to shine as Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon, and Richard Westbrook finished in first with their sister car just eleven seconds behind. Even though Ford clearly had the better pace from the moment the Rolex started ticking, they still had to maintain that pace and survive for 783 laps. They didn’t miss a beat and both cars ran a perfect race.
In the top DPi class, the two Action Express Cadillacs were both the fastest and the most reliable. The #5 Mustang Sampling car with Christian Fittipaldi, Filipe Albuquerque, and Joao Barbosa brought it home in first overall with a record 808 laps run. Just when it looked as if Cadillac’s dominance from last season would come to an end, the Action Express team rose above the exploding tires and showed they were still a force to be reckoned with.
My Spirit of the Race Award
The awesome lads over at Radio Le Mans (or IMSA Radio) have an award they give out after every race called the “Spirit of the Race Award” which is a way to recognize an awesome team or driver for showing the endurance racing spirit regardless of their outcome. My personal winner, who are absolutely worth mentioning, is HART (Honda of America Race Team) who ran this #69(nice) Acura NSX-GT3 and finished 16th in class.
HART is made up of Honda employees who are running a GTD program in their spare time. Everyone behind the pit wall and in the driver’s seat has some sort of day job with Honda and had to report back to work the Monday after the race. In fact, some of those guys were the ones who literally built the car. Each of their four drivers – Ryan Eversley, Sean Rayhall, John Falb, and Chad Gilsinger – are affiliated with Honda/Acura in some way and put on a strong showing until an accidental infraction and some mechanical issues set them back.
They’re running the four major races of the IMSA season as they compete for the North American Endurance Cup. For their dedication and spirit alone, it’s hard to not root for these guys.
Until next year, Daytona… until next year.
[Images © 2018 Hooniverse/Greg Kachadurian – go here for full size versions]
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