Featured: This Is What It's Like To Experience The Rolex 24 At Daytona For The First Time

This Is What It’s Like To Experience The Rolex 24 At Daytona For The First Time

Alex Sobran By Alex Sobran
January 31, 2018
6 comments

Photography by Jamey Price and Alex Sobran

This past weekend marked my first attendance at the day-long endurance race in Florida known as the Rolex 24, and throughout the experience that put me on pit walls, got me lost in chainlink mazes, fed me both fried chicken fingers and truffle, took two years off my ankles and knees, sat me down inside team trailers in one moment and crouched in the rain the next while providing a thoroughly memorable time in general, I saw a consistent theme of contrast wherever I looked inside Daytona International Speedway.

It’s a place known by many as the World Center of Racing (as its primary stakeholders have spelled out in capital letters along the top of the looming wall of multi-colored plastic seats), and there’s a good argument for that being an objective fact and not merely marketing. Hosting something like Supercross as well as the eponymous and infamous Daytona 500 in the same stadium is just one juxtaposition that can be made out of all the motorsport that happens here, and though the Rolex 24 is a single event bookending a crowded schedule, it’s arguably the year’s most fun to watch. 2018 was the 56th running of America’s preeminent endurance race, and I was fortunate to be there with Ferrari North America to see it all up close through bloodshot eyes.

My best reference points would be a few trips to Le Mans spread out over the last two decades, but besides the obvious similarities of time, a day spent at Daytona is a very different one. I mentioned contrast earlier, so here are some examples that you would be much harder-pressed to find in France: a conversation about winching ATVs out of the mud carried out in a Cajun drawl, and then native German coming from below the carbon fiber belly pans of a mid-engined Porsche; a Corvette spectator parking corral that could pass for a dealership with Type 2 Volkswagens puttering past in the background; a golf cart shuttling a rack of magnesium wheels past a man opening up a cooler full of catfish for the security guard who isn’t batting an eye; even just the steep grade of the banked turns is in contrast to the severely level land surrounding it.   

If any part of that came off snobbish please know that it wasn’t intentional—I am positive there exist a hell of a lot of pickup-driving people down in Florida who know a hell of a lot more about cars and everything else than I do—but the outliers certainly exist, and when you have top-level international racing crews sharing a funnel cake line with people who pulled their tickets out of the trash and started drinking in the morning long before they even planned on seeing some racing, it’s hard not to notice.

Even the light is part of the contrast theme, seeing as more than half of the race takes place without sunlight and all that darkness is sliced up and blasted away by banks of high-powered lights that do nothing to allay the mild hallucinations that edge in as you trudge around the track in the early morning hours—nor does the flashing ferris wheel. A weekend in which you sleep for only a few of the 48 given hours brings your mind to a weird place after becoming so stretched out and in a sense, isolated. People will often say that driving their favorite cars makes the rest of the world “fade away,” and though I’ve always thought that was kind of corny, it’s very applicable to endurance racing, even on the spectator side of the wall—spend so many unbroken hours listening to thousands of gear changes and the accompanying sounds of exhaust in between them while wandering between the same infield landmarks, at some point you feel like you’re in a punch-drunk bubble where you’re not so much habituated to it all as just increasingly saturated.

That’s a special feeling that you can’t find perched alongside the most exhilarating rally stages or in box seats for Formula 1. It’s unique to endurance racing, and you get it in full at Daytona. And though I was constantly looking for scoreboards in team tents or the nearest Jumbotrons to try to stay abreast of any drama (a few fires and plenty of right-rear tire punctures seemed to be the most interesting things in that aspect, apart from some routine bumps and spins), I won’t re-report the full finishing order or attempt a turn-by-turn analysis that you would’ve already read on Sunday evening while I was asleep and flying over Texas. That said, there are a few cool facts to note:

For starters, the class winners all achieved something interesting: the overall winner, the #5 Action Express Racing Cadillac DPi, set a new distance record of 808 laps, breaking the previous record of 762 on this track configuration set all the way back in 1992. The winner of GTLM, the pair of Ford GTs, gave the American racing icon Chip Ganassi his 200th organizational win, and the Lamborghini Huracan that finished first in the GT Daytona class established itself as the first car of the marque to win an international 24-hour race.

The prototype racing up front was interesting in that the cars purpose-built for Daytona mingle with the LMP2-spec cars like you’d see at Le Mans, along with a skilled group of drivers including Fernando Alonso, Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor, and many, many more, but regardless of how fast they are or who’s in them, the space ships never do it for me like the GTs. I’m always more intrigued by the cars that look like the ones you might be able to look at in your garage.

Being a guest of Ferrari for the weekend provided a rare opportunity to not only watch some of the best GT racing we’ve had in decades, but to do so from a more “embedded” perspective. Walking around (AKA, trying to stay out of the way) in the Risi Competitizione and Scuderia Corsa pit setups (I was surprised by the cramped quarters and erector-set atmosphere of every team’s designated area—as a friend said, it reminds you of camping more than you’d expect), you get to be a little closer to the genuine feeling of competing here. You sense the change of emotions rippling through from the team manager down to the guy checking tire pressures when their car gains time or loses it, and being a fly on the wall for this aspect of the race is especially fun when it’s a 24-hour ordeal. You see the patterns of shift rotations, mechanics sleeping wherever their bodies will fit and others won’t be likely to bump them, different faces looking at the monitors than you saw when you peeked in an hour ago, things like that. Fresh pots of coffee being poured into cups and old ones into drains.

The racing was entertaining in its own right of course, and though I could be saying this in an optimistic reaction against the uncertain but mostly sad fate of prototypes in the WEC/at Le Mans, I think we’re in a renaissance period of sorts for the GT categories of the world. Ferrari has been a strong force and a consistent winner with its mid-engined V8s, and the 488 will again vie for championships in America and abroad, and other long-time staples like Porsche are still chugging away at developing their platforms further (remember a time not too long ago when the GT field was almost exclusively 996 GT3s?), Aston Martin will finally update their DBs this year, and the bright yellow Chevrolets are never to be counted out of podium contention.

Their are plenty of newcomers joining in as of late to make it more exciting from a perspective of factory involvement, with Ford’s GT being the obvious standout following their Le Mans triumph and now this 1-2 finish at the Rolex 24. The Acura NSXes performed admirably once again in just their second year at Daytona, and BMW debuted their brand new M8 GTE that will be headed to Le Mans this summer. Last weekend belonged to the Americans this time, with the GTs and the C7.Rs taking the top four spots in GTLM followed by Risi’s lone 488 GTLM entry, then the Germans taking up the rear between the Porsche RSRs and the big Bimmers. 

As the hours moved from one end of the figurative hour glass to the other and night fell, the racing was otherwise unchanged aside from a few more bugs and cracks in the carbon, and some of the more garish paint jobs in the field were lit up wildly in the floodlights, making the pack of cars after a caution restart look like a very loud and glittering parade or a pack of high-tech candy spilled at speed. The pit lane tents in the middle of the night and into the 7AM sunrise are a juxtaposition of weariness and focus, people moving between the two states on alternating rhythms like keeping watch on deck during an ocean-crossing. It feels a bit too personal to take photos of sleeping people, but I do it anyway and hope that if they’re reading this they won’t mind their likeness being used to summarize what so many else were feeling. As the big Rolex in the sky counted down, more and more tents on pit lane were emptied of their telemetry screens and banks of computers and carts of tools.

Eventually, and too soon despite everything, it was time for me to leave too, and though not I couldn’t have been as weary as the people that raced in one form or another, I did toss a few more empty Red Bulls in the footwell of my silver Sentra rental (one of the last cars you want to drive after watching great racing is a front-wheel drive blob with a wheezy bore under the hood) on the way to the airport. After leaving the Mickey Mouse-ified bizarro-land called Orlando International, taking a very inelegant drooling nap on the plane back to LA, and finally showering off the dirt and specks of what I guess must be tire rubber, I finally cut off my Ferrari wristbands. I usually hate things like that because they’re itchy and always manage to get tighter over the course of the weekend, but I’d grown to really like these. The little plasticized wristlets gave me tons of great food, two cold beers at 11AM, tons of access to the teams (more on that to come), and best of all, the chance to be one of the many diverse fans that gathered in Daytona Beach to watch some superb racing.

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6 Comments on "This Is What It’s Like To Experience The Rolex 24 At Daytona For The First Time"

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chuck wing
chuck wing

I have been to several F1 races in Europe; the La Petit in Atlanta, the Indy 500 and more but this was the most fun. Thanks to my friend Nelson and the people at Ferrari hospitality this one was the best. Your photos and dialog were right on. Great job.

Russell Jones
Russell Jones

Always a great time, thanks for your pictures and perspective.

David Yando
David Yando

This was my first time at the Rolex24 as well. I’ve been to Petit a few times, and Sebring a few years ago, but this was my first 24. I did go back to the hotel from 2:30-6am, but other than that, was there for all of it, Thursday until the end. Walked almost 30 miles, took 4K photos, and enjoyed almost every minute of it. Thanks for your write-up!

mraffauf
mraffauf

Alex, very interesting. Thanks for your perspective as a new comer. I first saw this race in 1971 and have basically been to every one since. It has changed markedly over the years, but still inspires “the passion”.

Dennis White
Dennis White

Alex, great photos and your creative writing teacher in high school would be very proud! Thanks!

ALRandall
ALRandall

Nice write up, I enjoyed it. And very nice photographs.