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Inside the Rolex 24: Finding racer heaven in Daytona

Inside the Rolex 24: Finding racer heaven in Daytona
There is a period of calm that comes in the middle of a 24-hour race. It’s when the infield overnighters have dowsed their campfires and hunkered down for the night, and the daytime ticket holders have made their last pass through vendor row and shuttled through the tunnel toward home. An eerie stillness settles over the track that even the 500-plus horsepower engines can’t disturb.

The joyful roar that just hours earlier had greeted the drop of the green flag is transformed into a monotonous drone as competition cars circle the track, chalking up lap after lap – as they will all through the night and long into the following day.

This year marked my second trip to the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. It concluded a busy travel week that took me to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, a couple of days of meetings in Toronto, a dinner in Los Angeles, an IndyCar team launch in Baltimore and, finally, Daytona for the unofficial opening of the 2013 motorsport season.
Daytona was the place that felt most like home. It’s a must-do event for any racer, so the mix of drivers, reporters and fans that turn up make it feel like the motorsports equivalent to a homecoming weekend. The field included drivers from 22 countries, with competitors ranging from sports car amateurs to Formula One, NASCAR and IndyCar pros. I found people I had just seen at every one of my stops the previous week. (Lesson learned? Just wait until after Daytona to schedule meetings.)

There’s a great sense of camaraderie and enthusiasm for the coming season, as well. Within minutes of arriving at my beachside hotel, I settled down by the fire-pit with marshmallows and chocolate to roast some s’mores. It wasn’t long before Audi’s German PR team, a couple of journalists and one Doctor Wolfgang Ulrich (the head of Audi Motorsport) joined me by the fire and right away we were sharing stories about mutual friends and our favorite cars. Language is no barrier when you’re talking about racing.

The following day, pro driver and TV host Emile Bouret contrived to get me a fast track inspection a few hours before the race. It’s hard to make me squirm in the passenger seat (I’m a rally co-driver: if you’ve driven it, I’ve probably slid, crashed, or flipped in it). But, after pushing our Audi RS 5 through some showy drifts in the chicane, Emile floored it and the needle approached 200. My stomach dropped as we transitioned from the back straight onto the 31-degree banking of the Daytona oval.

It’s a demanding track and the experience gave me a new appreciation for the challenge of the twice-around-the-clock contest. Drivers will tell you that success isn’t about being flat-out every lap, but about making no mistakes and driving perfectly at about 80% commitment. It is impossible not to respect that kind of discipline.

Inside the Rolex 24: Finding racer heaven in Daytona
The team I had traveled to Daytona to support was the AF Waltrip team, an unusual effort that merges the Italian AF Corse squad and NASCAR’s Michael Waltrip Racing. European-style sports car racing meets the good ol’ US of A, with driver/owners Rob Kauffman and Michael Waltrip, NASCAR star Clint Bowyer, and Portuguese Ferrari pro Rui Aguas sharing duties behind the wheel of a Ferrari 458 Italia.

I had met the team in 2012, the American debut of a purpose-built racing wheel made by the company I work for (the Motegi Racing Technomesh GT). This year, we returned to check in on the team (and their wheels) and offer some hospitality in the form of a giant transport rig that we truck around to races and offer up as a home-away-from-home for drivers, crews and corporate guests looking for a place to get a drink, a meal, or just a place to hang out that doesn’t smell like burnt brakes.

There were a few other drivers in the field wearing our company colors and they all stopped in for a visit. Paul Tracy took Motegi Racing to Doran Racing's No. 77 Ford/Dallara (driving alongside Dr. Jim Lowe and brothers Burt and Brian Frisselle until the team’s race ended early in a crash). Tony Kanaan, who I had seen days earlier in Baltimore with Simona de Silvestro at the launch of their KV Racing Technologies 2013 IndyCar team, was representing another company brand, American Racing, behind the wheel of a Porsche GT3. (His race ended early with a mechanical problem). And although he wasn’t driving on the weekend, Townsend Bell – another Motegi Racing brand ambassador – also stopped by to visit and swap stories. If you ever get the chance to listen to a few race car drivers telling stories, be sure to muscle in and pull up a chair for a front-row seat. You’ll get stories of accidental flights in private helicopters, close encounters with sharks in Fiji and colourful late-night experiences with locals in the most unusual places.

Inside the Rolex 24: Finding racer heaven in Daytona
Once the racing began, our corner of the hospitality area began to quiet down as the drivers and crews got down to business. At least, until one late-night visit from Rolex rookie Bowyer. After his first stint in the car, and with about 19 hours remaining, it was clear the Sprint Cup driver was genuinely mystified by the endurance racing experience. I had caught up with him during a visit to the team’s pit shortly after sunset. “How long do we have to be here?” he asked. “I guess I should’ve done some research before saying I would do this.”

Time for a change of scene. He, his brother, his rig driver and I piled into a golf cart for a sight-seeing tour of the track. Infield traffic was fierce, and we pulled out for an impatient pass that caught the attention of a motorcycle cop. His initial shouts trailed off as he registered the man in the front seat was indeed a NASCAR star in a driving suit. He let us go, suggesting it would be better if we please tried not to do that… so often. Ah, the power of NASCAR.

Our trip around the track returned us to the hospitality trailer just in time for the fireworks display. From the roof, we watched an entire Canada Day’s worth of colour explode into the night sky. It’s a Rolex 24 tradition, but one that often comes as a surprise to race newcomers – especially ones that haven’t done much research on the event. Bowyer was incredulous, eyes wide as he studied the inky clouds of smoke drifting over the track. “I’m glad I’m not driving right now!”

Inside the Rolex 24: Finding racer heaven in Daytona
I can only imagine what he thought as he fought to stay awake under caution in dense fog through the entire 17th hour of the contest the following morning. The AF Waltrip team would press on, and finish eighth in class.

After the fireworks is when that period of calm descends. Photographers inevitably capture this peaceful time of night with long-exposure images that trace the glow of head- and tail-lamps through the curves of the track. It’s a fair approximation of the thing but there’s really nothing like being there. Alone on the roof of the rig, I took a few moments, leaned out over the track and inhaled deeply of the cool, damp sea air, scented with the intermingled aromas of corn dogs, popcorn and race fuel. Racer heaven.

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