Last weekend’s Rolex 24 at the Daytona became an instant classic the moment the green flag dropped. This year’s twice round the clock spectacle saw new, highly anticipated cars in their first race and it was the first event held at the newly renovated Daytona International Speedway, which is now being billed as “the world’s first motorsports stadium”. Expectations for this race were about as high as they could possibly be. They were especially high for me because it would be my first Rolex 24 adventure and more importantly my first 24 hour race. The plan was to stay up for the entire race and experience as much of it as I could. I wasn’t totally sure what to expect from the whole thing other than some great racing and dangerous amounts of caffeine. After staying up for more or less the whole thing, I can say it was an exhausting, painful, and grueling experience that ruined my perception of endurance almost as much as it ruined my sleep pattern. But from start to finish, the 2016 Rolex 24 was amazing and spectacular on levels that exceeded all expectations. I’ll show you what I mean…
All of these images and more are available in full resolution on my Flickr.
My adventure started in Atlanta, GA at 12:10 AM on Friday morning. A friend crazier than I am pulled up to my apartment in a rented SUV with cases of beer and the route to Daytona memorized. We drove through the night (after working full days) and got to see the new Daytona International Speedway for the first time at first light. The sheer size and beauty of the new grandstands was enough to wake us both right up and allow us to carry on with a day of practice sessions and support races as if we’d woken up at a normal time. We even ran to the first-floor patio area for our first glimpse of the battlefield that would host the big race.
“Our Ferrari runs, we promise. We’re just… saving gas.”
We arrived just in time to see a one hour practice session for the WeatherTech United Sports Car Championship. It would be the last time the cars took to the track before the race and it was also our first chance to see this year’s field. With all eyes anxiously fixated on the entrance to the pits, we waited to finally see the cars we had been reading about for months, like Ferrari’s new 488, BMW’s M6, and… … these. Both of Ford’s jaw-dropping GTs rolled out and immediately became the center of everyone’s attention. The all-new Ford GT was set to race for the first time at the Rolex and it already showed promise during testing. Everyone knew it was there and everyone couldn’t help but stare towards the Ganasi pits. Compared to the rest of the GTLM field, the Fords seemed otherworldly. They had a profile that looked more like a Daytona Prototype car and they were lower, longer, and had more aggressive aero work than the other cars in its class. I got the feeling that everyone secretly wanted the GT to do well, even if they were dressed head-to-toe in support of another team. The practice session went by all too quick but it was a fitting teaser for what was yet to come. For the rest of the day, the supporting races would entertain us. There was even a Ferrari Challenge race later in the day. It was hilarious. The day was better spent wandering around the garages instead. Daytona has a unique spectator area in the infield right behind the pits which includes easy viewing access to the garages. Windows with sliding partitions allow anyone with a generic infield pass to walk up and see their favorite team working away on a car, analyzing telemetry, practicing driver changes, or just prepping for the race any way they can. But now the real fun begins…
Race day. The weather is going to be perfect up all weekend and the stadium is filling up nicely. 54 cars and their drivers are lined up in the pits waiting to be unleashed on the challenging three-and-a-half-mile road course. A.J. Foyt sends the drivers on their way from the flag stand and the shiny Rolex clock starts counting down from 24:00:00 the instant the first car crosses the start line. Then all hell breaks loose. In an instant, the track is overcome by a huge wall of sound that assaults the senses. Anyone that wasn’t wearing ear plugs for the green flag will be by lap two. No matter where the cars were on track, the sound carries across the flat infield and resonates off the metal grandstands, creating a continuous drone that we’re subject to for the next 24 hours. There would be occasional breaks in the noise which allowed us to briefly hear the soothing voice of John Hindhaugh over the speakers, but not for long. The sounds were fabulous so 24 hours of it seemed easy, but it wasn’t. I could have been in the men’s room or across the street and I still could have told you when a Corvette was going by. There’s no escaping it once it’s started. With the tone set for the rest of the race, it was time to enact our strategy to stay up for the whole thing. Daytona is a huge track and there are plenty of viewing opportunities around, but the key for survival here is to pace yourself. We started the race at the start/finish line and slowly moved our way towards turn one, getting higher up in the stands as we went. The plan was to find a good spot to watch the race and just chill, have a beer or three, fumble with the camera for a while, and move on. Baby steps, basically. The strategy worked very well for us. Before we knew it, the sun was starting to go down and we were on top of our game. There had already been plenty of drama on track, including a gearbox issue for the Ford GT and some close battles in all classes. Both of BMW Team RLL’s M6 GTLM cars were running special liveries. The #25 celebrated four of BMW’s most famous race cars and the #100 above had a unique livery celebrating the company’s centennial. The lattice work was supposed to glow at night under the lights, but even as the sun went down I really couldn’t see much of it. It was possible to see it but I may have just been looking at it from the wrong angle. This car unfortunately didn’t last long into the night as a catastrophic brake failure (or explosion) sent it into the wall. The Deltawing was perhaps the biggest shock of them all in the first hours of the race. It was fast and it was looking incredibly strong. It was bouncing back and forth from the lead and cutting through traffic without any issues. Finally, it was untouchable. Until it got touched. I was sitting above turn one and saw the Prototype Challenge car spin and stall in the middle of the track. It was a black car with its lights off sitting in the middle of a decreasing radius hairpin at night. You’d think that was worthy of a full-course yellow, but not according to IMSA – at least not until the Deltawing slams into it. Instant heartbreak. They’re going to bounce back from this though and I’m confident they’ll be a real contender this season if their performance at Daytona was anything to go by. Speaking of night, the top of the grandstands is the place to be when the sun is going down. We could see everything from up there. The entire tri-oval and everything inside it, from the International Horseshoe to the Bus Stop Chicane, was visible from up there. The lights flickered on and made a perfect outline of the track over an infield that almost resembled a starry night. The entire place just glows at night and suddenly our little part of the world takes on a completely different character. Nighttime racing at Daytona is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. At this point it’s more than just a race; it’s a light show. Most of the cars had some sort of decorative LED light strip on the exterior. Many of them had strips on the roof and some had them along the side or elsewhere and it made each car stand out amidst a glowing track. Soon enough, we were able to follow certain cars all the way around the track using only their lights for identification. But it was impossible to follow just one car. I couldn’t help but just stare at a corner and watch all the lights come flying by as if it was some sort of holiday light show. The term we coined amidst our exhaustion was “Christmas Tree Racing”. It makes no sense, but that was really the best way we could describe it. At that point we were watching bright lights go around a track more than we were watching cars. We were watching for glowing brake rotors and occasional bursts of exhaust fire. Words and photos don’t do it justice; you need to experience this. The once buzzing grandstands were now mostly empty. Only a few daring souls remained, even though some of them were sleeping. Most people had left the track to call it a night, but those racing couldn’t. It carried on regardless of the break from TV coverage and the mass exodus from the grandstands. The racing would be there for anyone who had the endurance to stay there. From my experience at Petit Le Mans, night racing means the show is almost over. There was still 18 hours to go. The Rolex 24 is a cruel race.
After a quick break at dinner across the street (where we could still hear everything going on), we came back in to the same glorious sight of night racing as the one we left. Green flag pit stops were underway and the colorful lights started making their way into their stalls for some much needed attention from their crew. Cars pulled up and came to a rest as crews emerged from the shadows and got to work. Jacks went up, new tires went on, drivers were swapped, and the cars roared back out into the darkness for another round. The levels of athleticism the pit crews displayed so early in the morning were nothing short of inspiring.
The Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3 accepts its human sacrifice.
With green flag pit stops done, we eventually left our hard seats and stunning vistas for the infield for a more raw experience. Buses and caravans lined the walls of the circuit, most of them dark. Signs of life at 4AM were hard to come by, but a few people were still around. We were part of some secret society of people crazy enough to still be wandering around the track, but our brothers and sisters weren’t quitting and neither were we. There was almost a sense of pride to be one of the few left standing. It’s as if they were racing just for us.
Sleep was for the weak.
Nighttime was also when the weird/awesome things came out to play. Namely this.
All sense of time was shattered when the sun began to rise again. We were in darkness for almost 12 hours and the very thought of seeing the sun again without sleep was daunting. For most people, the day was only beginning. For us, it was just another hour gone by. 8 hours to go.
Dawn was a chance to see everything under natural light again. The Christmas Tree Racing™ was just a normal sports car race again and the wonderful sights once hidden were now unveiled. Campers emerged from their shelters and spectators returned to the grandstands. The little slice of civilization inside the Daytona International Speedway was waking up.
Dawn was also a chance to see the toll that night’s racing had taken. What had looked like a light show to us was still a grueling battle with some high-powered machinery. After all, it was a test of toughness and endurance of both the machines and the people backing them up. At dawn, it finally started to look that way.
A quick stroll around the garages revealed some of the cars that had been taken out of contention. Body panels were removed or outright missing, tools were strewn across the floor, and the drivers were usually off in bed in preparation for the off chance that their car is brought back to life.
The last stretch from dawn to the end of the race was by far the worst. Everyone around us was all bright-eyed and bushy tailed while we were in training to be extras for the Walking Dead. Every joint was aching and we could barely keep our eyes open. The sun was back up so surely there wasn’t much left of the race, right? We walked up to the official Rolex timing arch and nearly dropped dead. 7 hours to go. Suddenly staying up for the 24 hours (minus a 30 minute break) sounded as insane to us as it already did to everyone else.
Morning was also rough for the drivers. More mistakes were being made and were no longer hidden by the night. Lockups, spins, off-road adventures, and missed apexes were more obvious now. Nobody is perfect, but every mistake I saw was expertly recovered. These guys and gals were animals.
The morning light was also a time to see how the cars still running held up through the night. Every car looked like it had driven through a war. The once shiny and clean cars were now dirty, battered, and torn. The fact that they were still running at race pace after a day-and-a-half of racing serves as a testament to how tough a race car really has to be to survive this.
The wonderful Sabine Schmitz, Queen of the Nürburgring, was driving this Porsche 911 in the GTD class. Her driving was impeccable and I’m positive she was responsible for adding this bit of positivity to the team.
Amazingly, the same race that had gone all through the night was still too close to write the headlines for. Positions were being fought for all the way up till the very last second among all classes. The racing was unreal and it was impossible to take eyes off the track. It’s probably the only reason why we survived the final few hours of the race.
I alluded to it earlier, but the final hours of the race were the toughest. It was the closest I got to falling asleep while sitting just a few rows up above the track. We were back in the grandstands and off our feet, but the last twenty-something hours had already taken its toll on us. We kept glancing at the time expecting it to be further along than it actually was. It was a huge kick in the jewels to see there were still 4 hours left when we were that tired. But the cars and drivers on track weren’t slowing down. In fact, they were speeding up for the final push to the finish. Positions were up for grabs all the way till the end as indicated by the always enthusiastic voice of Hindhaugh whenever it was able to break through the cacophonous sound from the track.
In the end, there were four deserving winners and two exhausted hoons. My friend made a run for the parking lot to rest while I sat in the stands trying to process the silence that had just returned. The noise that had reverberated off my organs for the last 24 hours was gone. The cars were finally stationary again and the teams were wrapping up. 24 hours of non-stop racing and it was gone faster than it came.
It was an emotional goodbye to the track that had been my home for the last three days, but I left feeling accomplished. I wore my zombie look with pride as I walked away amongst a crowd of well-rested spectators. I couldn’t hear anything and my body was about to rage quit life, but it was the best feeling in the world.
Farewell, Daytona. I’ll be back every chance I get.
[Images © 2016 Hooniverse/Greg Kachadurian – Full-resolution images plus some extras are available on my Flickr]