The Rolex 24 at Daytona

Vile Gossip

I forgot just how brutal and wrong it is to stay up for twenty-four hours. The last time I was that stupid was eighteen years ago, my name was Lindamood, and I worked on Hurley Haywood’s pit crew at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, manning the fuel-shut-off valve for the entire race. He didn’t win, it was freezing, and I haven’t been back until this year.

Oh. My. Goodness. How things have changed. First off, the track itself has become a megalopolis of modern buildings, towering electronic scoring displays, crisply flying flags, an army of smartly attired employees, a media center with everything an international motorsports journalist could ask for (except, as it turned out, the ability to transmit Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, or other wireless communiques with any regularity), an infield packed with manufacturer displays, hospitality tents, games, and even a Ferris wheel for that 24 Hours of Le Mans feel.

The pit road was the real eye-opener. Back in 1994, the pits were a hobo jungle of plastic sheeting and lumber, with a few metal and plastic-webbed lawn chairs. It was freezing cold — the coldest year ever, with overnight temps dropping into the twenties. I had written the numbers 24 through 1 down one of the lumber uprights, crossing one off every hour as the day and night and day wore on. The Brumos Porsche team gave it to me afterward and it now hangs in my office, a badge of honor reminding me that I survived. These days, the Daytona pits are packed on one side of the wall with the racing transporters of the most prominent teams in IndyCar and NASCAR. The track side is jammed with high-tech team tents stuffed with timing stands, flat-screen TVs rolling closed-circuit race feeds, and stacks of electronic equipment feeding armies of racing engineers.

This was the year to return: it was the fiftieth anniversary of the race, and five-time-winner Haywood, here for his thirty-ninth time, took a stint in the GT class in the Brumos Porsche 59 car, his old number. Back in the day, Daytona was a race for the racers. Spectators had the run of the joint because there were so few of them, and virtually none stuck around once night fell. This year, it might as well have been an all-night Indy 500. The infield was sold out. People were actually turned away. Corporate hospitality suites were jammed. Continental provided all the tires — ten different sizes (8000 slicks, 4000 rain tires) to cover the teams’ allotment of thirty-two sets for the Daytona Prototype (DP) class and thirty sets for the GT cars. Continental also contributed eighty-five engineers and technicians, ten tire machines, six balancers, and two bead breakers.

The racing was unbelievable, like twenty-four hours of qualifying. I watched the sunset from the seventh-floor tower of hospitality suites, high enough to see each car’s unique rooftop light display. Spotters used the lights to find their drivers in the tight pack of racing cars streaming around the 3.56-mile, twelve-turn course. In the pits, roaming packs of girls with cell-phone cams were ready for a shot of Indy 500 champ Dario Franchitti (racing against brother Marino) or Mazda driver Patrick Dempsey, a competitor so fierce there is no need to add the qualifying word “actor.”

I checked the Brumos team frequently and never saw team owner Dan Davis leave his timing stand. At four in the morning, fuelers, tire wranglers, and assorted crew were taking catnaps where they could as I threw in the towel. The race was only half over, but I was finished.

Returning quite unrefreshed after three hours of sleep, I found the situation basically unchanged — crew guys asleep on their feet while superstar drivers from Indy, ALMS, NASCAR, and F1 turned the track into butter. At one point, the top three cars were swapping the lead, lap after lap, separated at times by mere tenths of a second. In the end, Chip Ganassi’s number 01 BMW-Riley (Scott Pruett/Memo Rojas/Graham Rahal/Joey Hand) lost it all with seventy-five minutes left, giving Ford the top three positions after a thirteen-year dry spell here. The winning number 60 Ford-Riley was driven by John Pew, Oswaldo Negri, Justin Wilson (in his first race after breaking his back last year), and Roger Penske’s new NASCAR driver, A. J. Allmendinger. Dinger was at the wheel for the victorious finish, fresh as a daisy…after an eight-hour sleep.

Didn’t seem quite right to me, somehow.