The 55th 24 Hours of Daytona (or Rolex 24) is in the books and by now you probably already know about the winners, the new cars, and what to expect from the rest of the season. If you missed the results and analysis, we’ve got you covered here and here. Every good thing you heard about that race was all true, and I know because I was there and awake for about 21 hours of it.
It was my second trip to the Rolex 24 and my third visit to Daytona in the past year. Remember how I thought last year’s Rolex 24 was tough? That pales in comparison to how tough this year’s race was. The conditions that drivers, crew, and spectators were subject to made it an uphill battle to survive the twice-round-the-clock classic. Here’s a little taste of what it was like to attend this year’s race. Past the jump are plenty of shots showing off the stunning new field and none of the actual cold and misery we experienced.
[Images © 2017 Redusernab/Greg Kachadurian]
For the 2017 WeatherTech Sports Car Championship, IMSA has made a few changes to the regulations which allowed for dozens of new cars to compete, either for the first time ever or for the first time in America. The biggest new addition was of course the beautiful new Prototype class which featured ACO-spec LMP2s and factory-supported DPIs like the Cadillac and Mazda. But there were new cars everywhere in the field (except the Prototype Challenge cars), more so than I’ve ever seen debut before.
Seeing all those cars lined up on the grid only added to the excitement I’ve been carrying since the last IMSA race last October. Then watching that grid line up for the green flag brought the excitement up to eleven. At that point, I was sure I’d stay up for the whole thing simply because it’d be impossible to take my eyes off the track.
Also adding to the excitement for this year’s race was the biggest crowd I’ve seen at a race in a very long time. The grand stands at Daytona were packed, especially over towards turn 1 as you can see above. I felt like I had the place all to myself last year, and compared to this year’s crowd, I did. The new prototype class, the new GTLM and GTD cars, and all the legends on track wasn’t being ignored. It was so great to see.
The weather was overcast and somewhat chilly on day one, so I rushed into the infield to take advantage of what little light was left on track. At this point the race was only an hour or so in but people were already making moves on track. The infield, like the grandstands, was also packed. Thousands of other enthusiasts of all genders, nationalities, and ages were packing in the few seating areas they had inside and stacking up against the fences to get a look at all the new cars. It was like everyone knew the rain was coming and was trying to get their money’s worth.
Speaking of new cars, I can’t even begin to express how awesome the DPIs were to watch. The last few seasons had gotten me used to seeing nothing but Corvette DPs and an occasional Ford or two making up the top class – those cars were fine, but it got boring. What IMSA has given us this year is a proper prototype class to look up to.
The GTD class had also gotten its fair share of new entries. New rules meant the GTD cars were more like the GT3 cars raced elsewhere, so that opened the door for cars like the Acura NSX GT3 (pictured in lead image), the Mercedes-AMG GT3 (which isn’t entirely new, but is for this series), and Lexus’ new RCF GT3 pictured above. Both Acuras had a really strong showing in their first race even if the results didn’t show it. Lexus had some bad luck with both cars though, with one crashing out early and the other being battered and torn to finish 14th in class.
The Benzes, which have already been racing a few seasons in Europe and elsewhere, were pretty reliable throughout the race. They made some spectacular noise as one of them finished third in class on its first IMSA debut.
I don’t think anybody had worse luck than the Mazdas, once again. Both of their gorgeous new RT-24Ps were down on speed in qualifying and neither finished the race. The #55 car above caught fire in the pits, which seems to be a reoccurring theme with them. I feel like these Mazdas are the cars that everyone is rooting for because they built what might be the prettiest car in the field and deserve to have luck on their side for once.
Not to be outclassed by the newer cars in their class, Alex Job Racing ran with this throwback livery on their Audi R8 LMS paying tribute to the Audi 90 Quattro IMSA GTO. Those two cars couldn’t be any less alike within the Audi family, but that livery still works so well on the R8. It was hard not to look at it every time it went by.
Darkness descended pretty quick, partly because of it still being overcast and mostly because of how early in the winter this race runs every year. Part of what makes this such a tough race is that it’s in darkness more than any other endurance race and it was only worse this year thanks to the weather.
For the fans that remain overnight, the darkness provides a breathtaking look at the action on track. All of the cars have some sort of defining characteristics with their lights on that still make it possible to identify them at night, but now you can see things that you normally couldn’t in the daylight.
Neon light strips on roofs, illuminated cockpits, and glowing brake rotors shine around the dimly lit track to provide some sort of reward for fans who didn’t go home. There’s no bad place for a spectator to be during nighttime at Daytona.
From the grandstands (or stadium as they call it now, fittingly) you can still see action all around the track, including the infield if you sit by turn 1 as pictured above. For a brief moment we were at the very top for the best view, but then the rain came.
There was a large band of rain that just so happened to cover the middle part of the Florida peninsula (including Daytona) and nothing else. Fortunately the rain wasn’t too heavy, but it was sustained for what must have been at least half the race. We left the track for dinner late in the evening and came back to try and settle in for the night. Even though the conditions were miserable for everyone involved (especially drivers), it was cool to see these drivers wrestle their cars around the track in the conditions. It wasn’t ideal, but it was still neat to watch. Our energy was good and we were determined to stay up for the whole thing.
That plan didn’t last long.
Even though the rain wasn’t very heavy, it was relentless. We weren’t allowed to bring umbrellas into the stadium so our only option was to sit far back in the first level of seating where some of the higher rows gave us shelter from the rain. Sometimes. We had to move around quite a bit to avoid the occasional water leak from the rows above. It seemed that no matter where we were under those higher seats, we were still getting wet. The temps never dipped below 40°F, but all the rain and the surrounding metal made it feel like it was close to snowing. I had four layers on and it wasn’t enough, and my friend had fewer.
At about 3:00 in the morning with the race barely halfway over, we felt forced to give up and take shelter in the warm rental car. On the way back to the car, we heard that the race was under a full course yellow due to the worsening conditions on track and that it would probably stay that way for a while. I think we made the right choice.
After a few hours of sleep, we went back into the track at about 7:00 AM after being rejuvenated by news of the rain letting off in a few hours. We came back to a drying track (on the racing line at least) and some battered competitors. The action was starting to pick up a bit as drivers were getting more comfortable, but everyone still had to be on their toes. Anyone that wandered off the racing line or went a bit wide kicked up huge rooster tails and lost time trying to keep the car going in the right direction.
There were quite a few FCYs as well which bunched everyone up and made for some dramatic restarts. Any teams that survived the night were slowly picking up their pace again while being cautious enough to not throw it away this late in the race.
It must have looked a little boring on TV, but it was fascinating to see how far drivers could push their luck. We sat above turn 1 with bated breath as each car went off the high-speed tri-oval and into the decreasing radius hairpin. Some people got it a bit wrong a times and some really wrong, but more often than not we saw true professionals mastering the careful balancing act of racing in the rain.
Eventually it cleared up enough to wander back to the infield to get a closer look at the battle damage from the night. It’s one of my favorite times to get up close to the fence because the cars take on a completely different character after around 20 hours of racing as they were captured here.
You can see battle scars and all the dirt that’s been accumulated over time as a visual reminder for how grueling a 24 hour race really is. This BMW M6 GTLM Art Car, for example, truly looks as if it’s been fighting all night. I wasn’t able to survive for the entire 24 hours, but this car did and it shows. The Art Car also looks waaaay better when it’s dirty.
And what’s more impressive than the cars themselves are the drivers who at this point were in an all our war for their respective class leads. The drivers and teams worked literally around the clock to get the cars as far as they had gotten, so now it was up to the finishing driver to make all that effort worth it.
There were close battles in every class with the exception of the PC class, which was won by running the cleanest race – no easy feat. The top four in GTLM were within a second or two of each other for the closing laps and the two leaders in the Prototype class had a now infamous incident which decided the winner. GTD had five cars on the lead lap within contention and that too produced some good racing. For the fans who had endured as much of the race as the conditions allowed for, the final battles made all the suffering absolutely worth it. I had stayed up for 21 hours of it and some fans stayed up even more, and these amazing battles were our reward.
In the end, GTD was won by Alegra Motorsports and their Porsche 911 GT3 R. Carlos de Quesada, Michael de Quesada, Daniel Morad, Jesse Lazare, and Michael Christensen drove it to victory. Radio LeMans gave the interesting statistic that a Porsche has been on a podium for every Rolex 24 pretty much since the year it started, and these guys helped that record endure.
GTLM was won by Ford Chip Ganassi Racing with their beautiful Ford GT. Ford brought four of these things along for this race, which made things interesting. Ford had the best chances of winning and it was last year’s Le Mans winners Dirk Müller (who brought it home with a spectacular drive), Joey Hand, and Sébastien Bourdais.
The Prototype Challenge class ran their last race at Daytona and it was won by Performance Tech Motorsports. Their Oreca FLM09 ran the cleanest race of the class to secure the win, and they have James French, Patricio O’Ward, Kyle Masson, and Nicholas Boulle to thank for that.
And then taking home the Prototype and overall win was the Cadillac DPi-V.R. of Wayne Taylor Racing. Their win wasn’t without controversy after some late , but Ricky Taylor, Jordan Taylor, Max Angelelli, and Jeff Gordon got to bring home a Rolex that day.
It may have only been my second Rolex 24 at Daytona, but it’s already become the toughest and the most memorable. The weather overnight made it extremely tough to endure even with some of the cover we had, but being there with friends and thousands of other passionate fans made me happy to be there. Even at 3 AM with the cold wind and rain fraying our nerves, the stands were never completely empty. In the end, our endurance and commitment to at least 21 hours of that race was rewarded by the spectacle we all got to witness on track.
Even on the second go, the Rolex 24 just feels so much more special in person. If you’ve been before, you know what I mean. If you’ve not been to this race before, you really need to make it out one year. If this field returns next year more or less as is, do whatever you can to get there. I’ll be there every year I can.
[Images © 2017 Redusernab/Greg Kachadurian – full size images and some bonus shots are on Flickr]