When the checker flag flew at the Rolex 24 at Daytona last month, Porsche came in 1st and 3rd in Daytona Prototype (DP) and 1-2-3 in GT. Brumos took 1st and 3rd in the DP category, while The Racer’s Group (TRG) came in 1st-2nd and Wright Motorsports 3rd on the GT circuit. From the young (Patrick Long, 27) to the seasoned (RJ Vallentine, 64) to father and son victories separated by 40 years, this year was an overall victory for Porsche. For me, it was a fantastic opportunity to experience the many parts that make motorsport exciting. Below, I share a diary of sorts of my experience at the race.
Friday on the way to Daytona
11:30 am, sun shining, rental car shuddering (I think wheel imbalance) and there she is: the slumbering giant known simply as Daytona. One part sport stadium, two part NASCAR heaven and truly an auto racing Mecca.
For 47 years Daytona has hosted a grueling, demanding, humbling and incredibly prestigious driving battle known as the 24 Hours of Daytona. This “test” of both mechanical and super-human driving prowess happens rain or shine each year and attracts drivers from all motorsport disciplines (Gurney, Hill, Elford, Siffert, Donohue, Haywood, Andretti, Ickx, Foyt, Unser, Holbert, and Bell, to name a few).
Approaching the raceway, gate 40 leads you to the largest of the 3 tunnels that go under the raceway and into the heart (180 acre infield) of the giant. But even giant seems like an understatement. This tunnel is wide enough for two semis to travel side-by-side to the pit and paddock. When I arrive, fans are walking with coolers, spit-polished Porsches are rolling toward the PCA parking pit and a truck tows three Gondola-like trailers shuttling visitors through the tunnel. When I emerge, I am upon the infield, which hosts over 200,000 fans, their toter homes, campers and RVs.
As I exit the car the smell of racing engulfs me (brake pads, race fuel and even campfires). The glorious symphony of race motors can be heard amidst the cacophony of sound echoing from the high banked speedway for the last of the practice sessions. Most cars are Daytona Prototypes (DP cars; mostly V8s — even a Porsche V8), but there are a few 4L flat-sixes. They all make their way three-fourths up the steep 31-degree banking with ease. If I ever were to forget my current location, the banking is a daunting and visual reminder that screams Daytona.
The Koni Challenge
Friday was the perfect appetizer to the Rolex 24 spectacle. GrandAm hosts the Koni Challenge, which is less like JV Football and much more like a playoff game right before the Finals. Many of the drivers I had come to see (Randy Pobst, Craig Stanton and Andy Lally, to name a few) drove in the Koni Challenge Race. A few even raced in both races for a grueling back to back racing weekend! Three very hard hours of racing found BMW expert and last year’s Ruby Tuesday Championship Team Porsche Crawford pilot Bill Auberlen at the front. A great race was followed by a great dinner with a few fellow racers and friends, and I ventured back to my hotel for my last chance for sleep until Monday.
Saturday morning, much needed venti Starbucks in hand, I make my way back to the Speedway. This time the infield is standing room only–seriously. It’s 10 am—still 5 ½ hours before the start–and all infield parking is completely full. Thankfully, Michael Stahlschmidt, motorsport promoter and photographer, had 150 feet reserved for his toter, trailer, car, 4wheeler, scooter, golf cart and even my rental Chevy. The atmosphere in the infield had the feel of a family barbeque: friendly, high spirits, people helping each other with tents, wood for fires and plenty of adult beverages.
The center of the infield consists of “Fan Zone” – a variety of garages and the Pits, all next to each other. The layout is great for fans because it provides great access to the cars and drivers. There was also a spectacular display of previous 24-hr winning cars. I spotted Joerg Bergrmeister and Patrick Long by the Porsche Motorsport trailer, while Wolf Henzler was doing some last minute checks on his TRG Porsche. I even saw Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey making his way toward the pits followed by two golf carts filled with his crew.
After a tour of the “Fan Zone” and a double cheeseburger, I made my way to the pits for the start of the race (scheduled for 3:30 PM). The pits were abuzz with anticipation. The Racers’ Group (TRG) pits were as big as a city block. I walked up toward the front to see the cars take the green flag, choosing a spot in a rather open pit belonging to a car with a prancing horse…the other prancing horse. No one seemed to mind I was wearing a white Porsche polo (perhaps because they knew Ferrari took its cavallino rampante from the Stuttgart coat of arms?). After the start and once the field had run by, an official-looking fellow in a red fire suit ushered everyone out of his pit. “Come on, come on, must go” he said with an Italian accent. He walked up to where I was standing, each foot inside the coil of an air hose, looked me in the eye, then at my shirt, then up again. I was waiting for him to say “you must go for sure,” but instead he said, “you… you can stay.” He revealed a Porsche hat hidden in his backpack and winked. I stood there for the next hour, enjoying the energy.
It was an absolute thrill to walk right up to the pit wall and peer out to the main straight. Twenty Daytona Prototype (DP) cars (led by the 58 Brumos Porsche) and 31 GT cars (led by the 67 TRG Porsche) screamed into the break zone for turn 1, blipping the throttle while shifting down 4 gears in the sequential dog cut box. I stood there, enjoying the energy.
The neighboring pit housed the Wright Motorsports Team fielding the #33 GT3 Cup Car. One of the pilots, Porsche factory driver Patrick Pilet, stood next to me watching the race in anticipation of his turn. One thing was very clear at the pits: Daytona was all business and the teams, drivers, crew members, family and friends were all in for the long haul.
It was now 6:30 PM and I was ready to sit down and eat. When I mentioned this to Mike, he said “just think of those guys,” pointing out of his Freightliner window, “they only have 20 more hours of this s**t!.” I’ve always considered myself a bit of an endurance freak, but only four hours in and the demands of a 24 hour race had started to sink in.
The cars ran hard through the night, brakes and exhaust tips glowing a colorful mixture of amber and red. The white headlights of DP cars bounced along the banking, sometimes passing the yellow headlights of GT cars two at a time. As they raced relentlessly, I watched from the International Horseshoe, various parts of the banking and even from Lake Lloyd (for the action in the bus stop chicane). The chicane is interesting because it has proven challenging to even the pros. Imagine driving 195 mph, breaking to 60 mph to turn left-right, right-left and accelerating back up to 195. It’s even harder than it sounds!
By about 2am I could make it no further. I had seen plenty of good racing, including cars crashed, fixed, and even retired. I saw gear clusters, brake pads, rotors and calipers changed. Even though I was only a spectator, I felt guilty for not staying awake…but not guilty enough to stay. While heading back to my hotel, I spotted crew members catching 5 minutes of sleep on tires or in the back of a golf cart.
The next morning, four cars were still on the lead lap and mere seconds apart so it was possible to catch them all in the same photo. The GT battle had seen car #86 drop out early in the morning, leaving Kevin Buckler and TRG with a potential one/two finish. The #67 car with Andy Lally, Joerg Bergmeister, Patrick Long, Justin Marks and RJ Valentine and the #66 with Sascha Maassen, Emmanuel Collard, Spencer Pumpelly, Ted Ballou and Tim George Jr. were equally fast and a few laps ahead of their competitors. In the DP field, the Brumos camp was sitting pretty with both the #58 and #59 cars in the top 3 spots. The infield had thinned a bit, and the pits were eerily open in places where teams had already closed up shop. I popped into the Brumos pits and noticed they were relatively quiet; drivers were not really talking to each other. Mechanics were checking fuel rigs, calibrating the next stop and watching the telemetry from the cars very carefully. The possibility of another win for Hurley Haywood and the gang was very real– almost inevitable. But as the previous year had proven for car #58, nothing is certain at Daytona until the 24 hours are over.
22 hours into the race had seen 48 lead changes, 16 cars gone home, 23 cautions and 2,400 miles traveled. Cars #58 and #67 were leading the DP and GT categories, respectively. This point in the race is even more exciting than I anticipated. In both fields, Porsche is in spectacular form, running strong and racing all the way to the end. For the teams on top, the last two hours must feel like two days. For me, they fly by.
The end of the race is here; 2 laps to go. I am at the Brumos pits, standing next to Darren Law, Antonio Garcia and Buddy Rice. The tension is high and they don’t even look at the monitors–they are looking down at their shoes. Photographers have started to congregate at the Brumos pits and have started to capture the moment. Juan Pablo Montoya in his Lexus Riley is pushing the #58 car hard but David Donohue has him–he is going to win. Everyone in the pit can taste the victory and the crew chief looks like he may cry. The white flag flies and the cheers start as #58 flies by for the second-to-last time. But those who race don’t cheer yet, because things can always change: there could be traffic, a back marker, or even fuel. However, those in the pits know #58 won’t run out of gas as it did in Canada the year before.
David gets around a GT car, putting it between his car and Juan Pablo Montoya’s into the bus stop. The move all but guarantees he will have an unbeatable lead onto the banking for the last time. Now we’re all sure: he has won. I turn to his teammates and give a smile and nod. In a moment they are rushing to pit wall–everyone is there. As if to make the moment sweeter, David Donohue’s victory comes exactly 40 years after his father’s.
Today’s post is written by Christian M. Maloof. Christian is Track Chairman and Chief Instructor for Porsche Club of America’s Rally Sport Region. He holds instructor certificates and race licenses from the MidOhio School and Skip Barber. He races a Porsche 993 3.8 RS in the German Touring Car Series (GTS) division with NASA. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting christianmaloof.com