Rolex 24 at Daytona: Racing is what cars are for -

Rolex 24 at Daytona: Racing is what cars are for

Credit: autoweek.com

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In 1935, when Sir Malcolm Campbell came to Daytona Beach to set a land-speed record in his 10,000-pound, 2,300-hp Blue Bird, he wore a Rolex. Eighty-some years later, when I came to the Rolex 24 at Daytona, I wore a Timex. And that's just the beginning of the differences between me and Sir Malcolm Campbell. 

I’ll be honest: I’ve never really gotten the high-end watch thing. Sorry, the luxury timepiece thing. I mean, I understand spending more money for something that’s better constructed, of higher-grade, more durable materials, something that will last longer and function more reliably than its cheaper equivalent does. Totally on board with that. But when you consider that my $20 Easy Reader performs its sole task with a level of precision identical to that of Sir Malcolm’s choice of wristwear -- never mind that I have something in my pocket that is perpetually synced to an atomic clock -- well, who cares? Sure, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona, which starts around $12,000 and takes more than a year to manufacture, will go 300,000 hours -- that’s 34 years -- before needing an overhaul, but when Amazon shopper Mrs.Peep testifies that her husband has worn the same $10 Casio F-91W -- that’s my other, “sporty” watch, the one I use for less formal occasions -- for more than 20 years, I have to wonder: What’s the cost-benefit analysis here?

OK, I’m being an asshole.

Unlike me, Scott Pruett gets it. He bought his first Rolex in 1988, with his own money, after notching an IROC victory in Riverside, California. “I told myself if I won that race, I was buying myself a Rolex,” he explains, casually opening before a roomful of dazzled onlookers a box containing that watch, a blue dial Submariner, and seven more like it. (Picture the briefcase scene in Pulp Fiction.) Among the display: the five he won in each of his overall victories here at Daytona -- a record he shares with Hurley Haywood -- each case engraved on the back with the Rolex 24 logo, the year, and the word WINNER.

I wonder if any of them have Indiglo, the feature that illuminates the entire face of my Timex when I press on the crown, but I think better of asking. Pruett will be driving a Lexus RC F GT3 car tomorrow; the last thing he needs are my smart-aleck questions.

Daytona Rolex 24 Photo 1 2-8-17

A sole Ferrari scrambles for the top spot in the GTLM class. Photo by Peter Hughes

It’s hard not to be awed by the driver’s reception and dinner that follows. It's the type of event where Derek Bell is impossible to miss, but you might not notice Arie Luyendyk at the table behind you until master of ceremonies Murray Smith asks all the Indianapolis 500 winners present to stand next to him. This year’s grand marshal is Dario Franchitti, who takes a quiet glee in gently roasting his friend and fellow Scot, Allan McNish, someone he’s always looked up to, he tells us. “Not physically, of course.”

Race day dawns bright and clear, and it’s time for a hot lap of the track. I climb into the passenger seat of a Mercedes AMG GTS piloted by the burly A.J. -- not Foyt, but he might as well be. “So how hard do you guys go for this stuff?” I ask as we burble down pit row. A.J. responds by burying his foot in the throttle and sending us rocketing toward turn one -- in a car that goes 0-60 in three seconds. “They tell us to keep it around 85 percent,” he says as we hurtle through the infield, pitching the car sideways through the International Horseshoe and barely lifting for the Kink. “But you know, you get a bunch of guys out here, and 85 turns to 95 pretty quick.”

He’s hardly finished the thought before we’re up onto the banking. Here’s the thing about the banking: It’s 31 degrees, but from inside the car? You might as well be perpendicular to the ground. And in anything with a roof, the horizon just disappears -- all you see is the maybe 50 yards of track directly in front of you. Remember the guys jogging around the space station in 2001? Imagine that, except if you look to your right, you see sky, and if you look to the left, there’s the maniacally grinning A.J. deftly guiding the AMG onto the back straight. It occurs to me to glance at the speedometer. 160 and climbing. Cool.

Hard on the brakes, sail through the bus stop, full throttle back up onto the banking and just like that, we’re back in the pits. This is when I begin to fully grasp the nuttiness of a 24-hour race here. This isn’t Le Mans, with its 8-mile laps and straights long enough to at least adjust yourself if you sat down wrong. A slow lap here is under two minutes; the fastest aren’t much longer than a minute and a half. A stint at Daytona is like an hour on a roller coaster -- the old-fashioned, wooden kind, the kind that beat the crap out of you -- that it’s your job to keep on the rails.

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“The cars don’t break any more,” said Scott Pruett. “It’s a 24-hour sprint now.” Photo by Peter Hughes

“Did you ever have trouble sleeping during the race?” This question is put to Hurley Haywood during a pre-start walk-through of the pits. His resounding “no” is the first indication that Hurley Haywood is not like other humans. As someone who can’t sleep if whatever I just watched on Netflix was too intense, the idea of being able to step out of a car after a double or triple stint, climb into a hyperbaric chamber and fall asleep within minutes seems borderline supernatural. But then, the other member of the Daytona Five-Rolex Club is not exactly ordinary, either. After all, this is someone whose career spanned six -- six! -- decades and included, in addition to his victories here, three overall wins at Le Mans (in three different decades), two at Sebring, two IMSA GT titles, a Trans-Am title, and more lifetime podiums than most people will have mornings where they don’t screw up some part of breakfast. This is someone who spent his early racing years under the tutelage of the tormented perfectionist Peter Gregg and, after the latter’s suicide in 1980, found himself driving for people who paid him in paper bags full of used bills.

As far as sports-as-life metaphors go, auto racing, with its single-minded pursuit of speed, is not a particularly good one. But endurance racing -- well, that kind of is, actually. Here, being fast is complicated by other concerns, some of which run directly contrary to that aim: the need for patience, the need for sensitivity, for stamina, for both courage and wisdom where in other cases pure skill might suffice. Haywood carries himself with the quiet but unmistakable demeanor of someone who embodies all of those qualities, explaining over the din of pit row that his favorite time to drive here was during the early morning hours, when there were fewer distractions, when the carnival lights had dimmed and the smoke from the infield campfires cleared, and he used to instruct his spotters to relay only the most critical information over the radio, the better to bear down and pick his way through the darkness.

The scene through which Haywood is escorting us is something close to bedlam. The empty stands you see on TV are misleading: IMSA doesn’t release attendance figures, but crowd estimates in recent years have ranged from 35,000 to 55,000, and it feels like every last one of those people is packed into pit row. Imagine if Coachella started with every band and their gear set up on the lawn, just hanging out. We move like cattle up the grid. Here’s Felipe Albuquerque getting a phone with a live FaceTime feed shoved into his hand. There's Brendan Hartley signing a giant Porsche Team poster carefully unrolled by a guy who could be his grandfather. The race starts in an hour.

The night before, I asked Pruett if there were a correlation between the success of guys like him and Haywood in endurance racing and their ability to sustain that level of competitiveness over the course of such long careers. He dismissed the notion with a swiftness that made me think I’d read too many Phil Hill biographies. “The cars don’t break any more,” he explained. “It’s a 24-hour sprint now.” Unlike the days when you needed to work around one thing or another, knowing that your brakes or gear box were the weak link that might end your race prematurely, materials advances in the last 10 years have made it common for multiple cars to be on the same lap even after a full day of racing. What’s required from drivers is no longer patience but what Pruett calls “cautious aggression.”

Daytona Rolex 24 Photo 6 2-8-17

A slow lap here is under two minutes; the fastest aren’t much longer than a minute and a half. A stint at Daytona is like an hour on a roller coaster. Photo by Peter Hughes

That’s precisely what’s on display as Haywood waves the green flag, and the field, an impressive 55 cars deep, gets underway. A few things are immediately striking.

The Ford GTs sound terrible. Not terrible, like, “Oh man, this soup is terrible.” I mean terrible like Ivan the Terrible. Terrible like the plague, terrible like Hurricane Katrina, terrible as in a force of pure malevolence, outside your door, come directly for you. They sound like a swarm of angry bees, like a squadron of Stukas in full, screaming descent. That there are four of them, and that they are so low and wide as to make every other car on the track look like a London Taxi, only magnifies the effect. For the next 24 hours, they will rarely be separated by more than a few car lengths.

The Corvettes are the Fords’ baritone complement. By far the loudest things on the track, unlike the Fords, they sound wonderful, in a classically, thunderously American V8 way. The Corvettes are a squadron of B-17s to the Fords’ buzzbombs, and when they come around together in concert with one another, as more often than not they will, the result is the sort of thing that works on you at a cellular level. It’s Stravinsky and the Stooges. It is utterly thrilling.

The new DPi Cadillacs display the expectedly aggressive, technophiliac visual vernacular of the 21st century, while the Mazdas, lean and lithe and gracefully beautiful, signal a less antagonistic vision of the future. Then there’s John Baldessari’s hilarious piss-take of a BMW art car, an M6 featuring an illustration of the car itself on one side, a big red meatball on the roof, and the word FAST in deadpan Helvetica on the driver’s door. It’s rumored that Baldessari smokes a lot of weed.

Everything else, well, they just look like race cars, some more recognizable than others, but together forming the panoply of aural and visual stimuli just distinct enough from one another as to make sports-car racing that much more absorbing than every other form of motorsport. Roaring, howling, buzzing, keening, whistling past the penalty box into turn one -- the outside world falls away. Right here, right now, there is only this.

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Smoldering fires and glowing embers dotted the infield as day turned to night. Photo by Peter Hughes

The Cadillacs jump to an early lead they’ll maintain throughout, while the Fords, Corvettes, Porsches and a sole Ferrari scramble for the top spot in GTLM. Pruett crashes out early, leaving the fledgling Lexus GTD team down to a single car. We feel bad. He really liked his watches. You couldn’t help but root for him to get another one.

The afternoon clouds over, and the carnival atmosphere dissipates as a light but persistent rain accompanies the fall of darkness. It’s in the early predawn hours, though, the ones Haywood talked about, that Daytona reveals its essence. The cars have been circling in the rain for an hour under caution as I wander campgrounds that have taken on the ghostly aspect of a Civil War battlefield -- you know, if they’d had RVs and fifth wheels back then. Smoldering fires and glowing embers dot the infield. Tipped over plastic chairs. An empty Crown Royal bottle glistens atop a wet table, refracting the back straight floodlights’ glare. My hands grow numb.

At the fence outside International, I spy a solitary figure in the darkness, a familiar pair of Asics at its feet. It’s Autoweek’s Graham Kozak. In this entire 447-acre facility, there might be a dozen people determined, foolish or otherwise inured to suffering enough to be walking around in the cold and wet of a zero-dark-thirty hourslong caution. Two of them write for this magazine. We talk for a bit before parting ways, shuffling off into the morning’s gloom.

The scene along pit row is equally surreal, an equal-parts mixture of Boy Scouts and mission control. Around massive banks of telemetry monitors huddle sleepy-eyed technicians, some draped in blankets, others helping themselves to soup from a nearby Crock-Pot. Steam rises from coffee cups and discarded tires as the cars, back under green, come in to exchange rains for slicks, the track finally drying as morning breaks cold and gray. The best thing I’ll see all weekend happens in front of me as a Porsche GT Team crew member strips off a perfectly formfitting Porsche logotype jacket to reveal an identically branded layer underneath. The Porsche people are nothing if not meticulous.

High above in the grandstand lounge, the racing elite enjoy breakfast in an ambience that evokes, more than anything, a cruise-ship buffet. The view from up top is spectacular, the entire 3.56-mile course laid out before you. More astonishing still are the GTLM cars, still chasing each other nose to tail around the track, then pitting all at once. A Corvette gets a jump back out onto pit lane ahead of everyone else, a lead it will gradually surrender as it’s overtaken on subsequent laps by a Ford, a Porsche, another Ford. At one point, the lone Ferrari leapfrogs briefly into the lead, to a chorus of cheers from the stands.

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Cadillac took first and second in its first time out. Photo by Peter Hughes

As the final hours and minutes tick away, it’s the Action Express and Wayne Taylor Cadillacs battling for first overall, with Albuquerque in the black and gold Mustang Sampling prototype holding off Ricky Taylor in the black and blue Konica Minolta car. That’s when it happens -- the move that, were this the NFL, would already have a historical shorthand invented for it: the de Nysschen Nudge, the Coupe de Grâce, maybe even just The Pass. Albuquerque goes wide into turn one, Taylor takes the opening just as the former closes it, there’s contact, Albuquerque spins, Taylor sails past into the lead. The rest is confetti cannons and shiny watches.

A few hours later, I peer out of an Airbus window at the runway light. For a moment, my brain is certain it’s still at the track. This will happen again later that night, at home in bed, as the muted drone of a passing truck is mistaken for the roar of race cars echoing off the banking. It’s hard to think of another experience as fully immersive as the one to which I’ve just spent 24 hours subjecting myself. At one point during the race, I got a text from a friend worried for the welfare of members of my family whose legal status in this country might be open to question; I replied with a 10-second video of a Corvette and a Ford GT bombing across the banking at 180 mph.

In the course of normal life, I tend to think of race cars as cool but superfluous; “real” cars are the ones we drive every day, on the streets and highways, the ones that take us to work and school, to the mountains or the beach or wherever else the winds might call us. Especially now, as technology moves in directions that take our cars ever further from the lessons of the track -- as racing itself, for reasons of safety or cost or simply making for a better show, edges its way into various evolutionary cul de sacs -- competition cars seem increasingly divorced from reality, largely stripped of whatever relevance to which they might once have laid claim.

Funny, then, that when I come across a late-model 911 in a parking lot the next day, the thought that springs to mind is, “Aw, look, a pretend Porsche!” It seems my 24 hours at Daytona have effectively flipped the script. Racing is what cars are for, it turns out. Auto racing, that sport of irrelevant anachronisms: beautiful, expensive and, above all, mechanical. I wonder if I’m not starting to get the whole Rolex thing after all.

By Peter Hughes

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