Prepping for the Rolex 24 at Daytona With a California Road Trip

Porsches, race drivers, museums, and restaurants put us in the mood for the 2017 racing season

Richard Dolewriter, photographer

LOS ANGELES, California — In a few days, the Rolex 24 at Daytona kicks-off the 2017 racing season at Daytona International Speedway, which is less than an hour's drive from my house, yet I came to California to prepare for my 31st year in motorsports. Go figure.

My reasoning is pretty simple: California is all about cars and I had an assignment out here anyway, so I decided to make a proper road trip out of it and tick off a bunch of boxes. Call it equal parts relaxation, motivation, and inspiration.

Upon my arrival in Los Angeles, I picked up a 2017 Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid Platinum wearing Purpurite Metallic on the outside and Agate Grey leather on the inside. I then did what everyone should do immediately after gathering their luggage at LAX: I drove 20 minutes down the freeway to the Porsche Experience Center in nearby Carson.

The company strategically built both of its U.S Porsche Experience Centers close to two of the busiest airports in the country, LAX and Atlanta Hartsfield. Both are worth the minimal effort it takes to visit, whether you have just gotten into your rental car or have a four-hour layover.

A 2017 911 RSR race car that will make its racing debut in a few days at Daytona greets you as you enter the facility. Against the left-hand wall is a 917 in Gulf livery. To your right is the Porsche North America west coast racing shop with three historic race cars in various states of restoration. Around the corner is the Speedster Café and gift shop. Upstairs is Restaurant 917, with great food, and a great view of the real reason you are at the Porsche Experience Center: the 53-acre automotive playground.

Want to master launch control and pull some g on a banked curve? Then choose the Acceleration Straight. Need to improve your skills away from the pavement? Choose the Off-Road course. Haven't been able to hit two apexes in a row? The Handling Circuit is for you. But the coolest exercise is the kick-plate area: Accelerate toward a wet skidpad and a computer-controlled kick plate knocks the car's rear end in either direction. Your job is to master the skid, prevent the spin, and get the car back under control. Porsche driving instructors will teach you how. Rates range from $385 to $950 (depending on the type of car you choose) for 90 minutes of one-on-one instruction. It is money well spent. Want to visit? The Porsche Experience Center Los Angeles is open Tuesday-Saturday and is located at 19800 South Main Street in Carson, California. (www.porschedriving.com)

My next stop was Palm Springs for the global launch of Michelin's new Pilot Sport 4S tire. The event included driving supercars through the stunningly beautiful Joshua Tree National Park, followed by a variety of track exercises in identical BMW road cars at The Thermal Club track and luxury-lifestyle facility.

Next I headed back to Los Angeles and caught up with Porsche factory driver Patrick Long.  Fluent in several languages honed in Europe as a teenager, and a source of thoughtful and considered answers to all questions, Long is a bit of a renaissance man. He spoke at length about his latest project and passion, Luftgekuhlt. The brainchild of Long and his business partner Howie Idelson, Luftgekuhlt is a celebration of Porsche air-cooled cars and Southern California's design, art, music, and culture scenes.

"After talking for over a decade about buying a vintage 911, I finally got off my wallet and bought one," Long said. "And I became completely immersed in this subculture of air-cooled cars. The attraction is the experience of driving a vintage 911, the simplicity, the raw feedback and raw nature of what we fell in love with when driving as a teenager."

Long felt there was a lack of emotion at most of the car shows he attended; they were too controlled and predictable, he reasoned. "So I wanted to merge the creative art world of west L.A. where I spend my free time and cross-pollinate that with music, culture, art, food, and the most bitchin' cars from the '50s through the '90s," he explained. Long and Idelson created an event were everyone is welcome and where folks connect from L.A. 's creative art and automotive worlds. For more information and to see what Long and Idelson are up to, visit www.luftgekuhlt.com.

Our conversation soon turned to the upcoming Rolex 24 at Daytona, where Long will drive for the CORE Autosport team in the GTD class.

"The timing of the 24 Hours of Daytona is so fitting, it is a just great way to kick-off the year," he said. "You have so many drivers from so many different disciplines who can make that race because it is a standalone on the calendar. Competition-wise, it is as deep of a GTD field as I can recall. It is going to be another one of those events that you wait until the last two hours and the race really starts."

You can hear Long's excitement in his voice when he talks about this weekend's race. In addition to his co-drivers, Colin Braun and Nic Jonsson, he sings the praises of two other key members of the organization: Jon Bennett, team owner and co-driver, and Jeff Braun, the team's race engineer.

"Jon Bennett is a refreshing character," Long continued. "He is a guy who only does things first-rate. He is a real car guy and a real Porsche enthusiast. It is always fun to share a couple weeks of January with someone who has common interests and someone I admire. When you get the call from an organization like CORE, I know as a driver I am going to have everything I need to do my job."

As for Braun, "I think Jeff is a guy who is under-studied from the outside world," Long observed. "The people on the inside know who he is. The guy is a racer and he is so thorough. He looks at every single angle. It is staggering the amount of content I received from him leading up to the Roar (January's pre-race test). It was unprecedented in my career. Data, facts, figures, plans, etc. He looks under every single blade of grass. It is a great working condition for a driver.

"I think this will be Daytona number 14 for me. I just want to go and try to win another watch. It has been since 2009 since I've won here." A strong field, talented drivers, and stiff competition from Mercedes, Audi, Lexus Ferrari, Acura, and Lamborghini will make this a great class to watch.

While in Los Angeles, I also had to make a stop at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Almost 20 years had passed since my last visit, and the rave reviews about its recent remodeling made it a mandatory stop. I was not disappointed. The day I visited the museum, it was filled with car lovers, families, and two busloads of grade-school students. The Petersen (petersen.org) has something for everyone, from the "Forza Motorsports" simulators to photographs by Jesse Alexander to cars from movies and TV shows to race cars, significant cars throughout history, and a stunning exhibit of all things Bugatti.

Next, my plan was to drive California Highway 1 to Santa Barbara, further up the coast to Big Sur and then finally to Carmel. Unfortunately, heavy rain and mudslides prevented this, so it was on to Plan B, Highway 101 to Santa Barbara.

When I was a kid, "Daniel Boone" was one of my favorite TV programs. So I was a bit surprised when I was booking a hotel in Santa Barbara and discovered The Fess Parker Resort. Parker was the actor who played Boone, and he retired from acting at age 49 and opened a hotel and winery. I didn't know that, but I made a reservation. The property is a Doubletree (Hilton) hotel; Parker's family still owns the hotel, and Hilton manages it. It offers great views of the Pacific, is close to downtown, and best of all, close to perhaps the best Mexican restaurant ever, Los Agaves. If you ever need a reason to visit Santa Barbara, Los Agaves (www.los-agaves.com) is legitimate, and there are two separate locations.

WeatherTech team driver Gunnar Jeannette and his wife Amanda suggested I visit Nepenthe in Big Sur. Mudslides blocked Highway 1 two miles south of the restaurant, so the only option was to stretch the Porsche's legs on the 101 to Salinas, turn toward the coast, and take Highway 1 south from Carmel for 29 miles. High winds and high seas made for a great drive and great sightseeing. An open table by the window, a blazing fire, and a couple of glasses of Pisoni marked the perfect end to a wonderful drive. (www.nepenthebigsur.com)

Of all of the art galleries in Carmel By The Sea, one of my favorites is the Light & Shadow Fine Art gallery. Located on 6th street between Dolores and Lincoln streets, it showcases the motorsports work of Thierry Thompson. In the age of social media, this phenomenon where photography is displayed and disappears faster than a narcissistic minute leaves me empty. Don't get me wrong, I love looking at all types of photography, including on the internet. But it leaves me empty because great art—whether a painting, or sculpture, or photography—cannot really be appreciated by appearing on a smartphone screen. It demands to be hung on a wall, and it demands time and consideration. It also demands to be observed and studied over time, and only a photographic print delivers this. The images hanging at Shadow and Light confirm this point. I implore you to visit the gallery the next time you are in Carmel. (www.lightandshadowfineart.com)

I finally arrived at the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, with rooms over Monterey Bay. This hotel's feel is a rather relaxed, confident, elegant, graceful vibe. For more than 20 years I've covered races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and have stayed at virtually every hotel in Monterey. This one is in a league of its own, and is the perfect destination after a long road trip or a tiring day at the track. (www.montereyplazahotel.com)

Next up, I will head to one of racing's great cathedrals, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. It will be silent and empty, and I will park the Porsche Cayenne, get out, look around, then close my eyes and imagine the sights and sounds of race cars at full song. Then I'll head to San Francisco, fly home to Florida, and immediately drive to Daytona International Speedway — relaxed, motivated, inspired, and ready for the 2017 racing season.

Thank you, California. I could not have done this without you.

About the author: Rick Dole is an award winning sports photographer, and part-time writer, who specializes in motorsports. For the past three decades he has covered virtually every form of auto racing including Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR, NHRA, Pikes Peak, and IMSA and FIA World Endurance Championship sports-car racing the United States and Europe. In addition, he has photographed major sporting events around the globe including the Olympic Games, the French and U.S Open tennis tournaments, the PGA Tour, NFL football, and a variety of NCAA sports.

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