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Days of Thunder

Daytona Main Marcelo Maragni

 

Linda Vaughn is missing from the start. In years gone by, the garages and boys’ bedrooms of America were graced with the buxom, formidable vision of Miss Hurst Golden Shifter. For almost half a century, the blonde was a fixture at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the full-day race at the legendary racetrack that traditionally kicks off each international motorsports season. This year she has decided not to attend.

But pretty much everyone else is here. Former Formula One drivers, sports-car greats, gentleman drivers, and showbiz stars form a colorful contingent in Daytona Beach, Florida, all contending with the action on the super speedway’s oval for a day and a night. After the start-finish straight, the racers turn toward the infield, to the east and west horseshoes, clocking in at over 185 mph.

Until his 70th birthday, you could usually see Paul Newman at the start; two Andrettis have won here, as have Al Unser Sr. and Jr., Hurley Haywood, and Chris Amon. The career of Infiniti Red Bull Racing technical genius Adrian Newey really took off here in 1983, when the young designer turned a March Engineering car from a design write-off into a surprise frontrunner almost overnight. Only engine problems in the 23rd hour prevented Newey’s drivers from waking up the day after with a new watch on the bedside table. Winners of what began as the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1962 are awarded a Rolex Daytona watch; the prize-givers splurged for naming rights in 1991.

nullJulie Glassberg

For all this history, 2014 represents the start of a new era in U.S. long-distance racing. The country’s two rival racing series, GrandAm and American Le Mans, have come together and agreed on joint rules. This year’s Rolex 24 was the first race of the new United Sportscar Series, and 68 cars divided into four classes revved their engines at the start.

The top tier, Prototypes, is a walkover for the representatives of the erstwhile GrandAm against the open sports cars of the American Le Mans series. The Daytona prototypes share the lead among themselves. “They may say that constancy trumps sheer speed in long-distance races, but here it’s full speed ahead from the first lap,” says three-time Daytona winner Memo Rojas. “Twenty-four-hour races have become long-range sprints.”

The Daytona International Speedway is huge. The tens of thousands of spectators here on the last Saturday in January are simply lost in grandstands that can seat 168,000 and tremble as the field goes into the first lap. The differences in performance are so great that the first lapping comes less than 15 minutes into the race—the circuit is a 2.5-mile oval—and that’s after the worst of the jalopies, the homemade family projects with a lot of heart but little else, are stricken from the field at registration. Because things are dangerous enough without them.

nullJulie Glassberg

At 4:58 in the afternoon, after a driving time of 2 hours and 47 minutes, leader Memo Gidley laps one car—and smacks straight into another, the No. 62 Ferrari driven by Matteo Malucelli. The impact of Gidley’s Corvette DP into the back of the Ferrari is so powerful that everyone fears the worst.

At this point, the cars are driving into the setting sun and “for a moment you can’t see anything at all” says one driver. The race is stopped and Gidley has to be cut out of the wreck of his car. The race has long since resumed when news finally comes that the two drivers are responsive. (Gidley would go on to spend 12 days in the hospital and endure surgery on his broken left heel, elbow, and leg, and a compression fracture in his back. Malucelli was kept overnight for observation.)

Accidents are inseparable from the Daytona experience, as much a part of the legend of this race as who takes up singing duties of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the start of the race or the Catholic Mass Celebration in the media center on Sunday morning. The camping area in the infield is divided into three areas: partying north, rich east, and family-friendly south.

nullMarcelo Maragni

In the north, between turns three and four, are the frat boys, the party animals. They brought beer and small tents in pick-ups, SUVs, and other vehicles with a whiff of the farm about them. They also came with plenty of wood for the campfires, which tend to blaze a little brighter around here. Firefighters regularly take stock of the situation, just to be sure. It’s not even midday before the tent ropes claim their first stumbling victims, who bawl their disapproval. The unmistakable sound of couples coupling issues from a few tents.

Things are very different in the south, the home of RVs and those who appreciate the finer things in life. These vehicles have a bedroom, a kitchen, and a closet, and a dead animal is sacrificed to a gas barbecue rather than open flames. Here, the cuts of meat and the paunches of those grilling them tend to be larger than in the north. These are experienced campers. Most of them have flatscreens elegantly worked into the bodywork of their mobile homes. Territory is carefully marked out; awnings block the view of the track. It’s an idyllic holiday-home setup, with thundering eight-cylinder engines as a backdrop.

But the big money is over in the east. Not that there are any people here—they’re presumably off somewhere getting food—but they’ve left behind a full parking lot, neatly delineated. The largest is the Porsche parking lot. You can pick out your dream 911 by color or model; every combination imaginable is here. The true connoisseurs come here in their 928s or maybe even an early 1600 Super. The plump Panameras and Cayennes, mere urchins in the eyes of true racers, have to park elsewhere. There are also plenty of Corvettes, Camaros, and Mustangs, although they seem a little banal here in one of the epicenters of American motorsports. The Rolex 24 has always had a touch of the European about it, reflected in the racegoers’ rides.

nullJulie Glassberg

Half past 4 in the morning is a good time on the track for the professional racers to charge. Mechanics slumber in orthopedically dubious positions, drivers wander absentmindedly through the paddock with toothbrushes in their mouths, and the last party die-hard out in the campsite has been silenced. But out on the track it’s time to mount an attack. The major teams have old hands behind the wheel, who have gone through the night in double shifts, exchanging places with the super sprinters. Even if the low track temperature means that there will be no record times, this is no time for dawdlers. The Porsche junior , just 22 years old, steps out of his 911 after a flawless run. His team isn’t sending him off to bed, but to a debrief in the command bridge. Young men like him have a lot to learn. It’s nights like these that turn young hopefuls into true racing drivers.

The race gets dramatic once again shortly before the end. The pace car comes out after a relatively minor crash and presses the field together. In three of the four classes, places are decided in the last 15 minutes of the 24-hour race, all of it broadcast live on TV. Spectators bite their nails as the battle comes down to the second-to-last bend. In the lowest class, GTD, there is metal-on-metal action in the fight for victory. Once the black-and-white-checkered flag falls, the dam breaks, fans crowd around the drivers and grope at the cars. Confetti falls, and there are watches for the winners.

Christian Fittipaldi, João Barbosa and, with the honor of taking the flag, Sébastien Bourdais, are the 2014 winners at Daytona, in a Corvette C5-R. At the press conference, Bourdais, who has raced in Formula One for Scuderia Toro Rosso, proudly displays his brand-new Rolex Daytona. “Daytona is one of those races you want to win once in your life,” he says. “Every day when I look at my wrist, I’ll remember this victory.”

imsa.com

 

 

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