In The DIS Grandstand

15 February 2001

Well, you've watched the race, read the reports, and joined in the debates. So how was the 2001 Rolex 24 At Daytona for you? A great race? A travesty? It seems this race can inspire more argument than Le Mans. I've just returned from my second Daytona 24, and I thought I'd give a fan-in-the-grandstand perspective of the event.

First, a confession - I was going to Florida anyway. The trans-Atlantic flights are cheap at this time of year, the theme parks are quiet, and the weather is (supposed to be) great. Fortunately, the villa was available for the fortnight around the race, and, even more fortunately, I have a wife who doesn't mind me going (as long as there is some 'retail therapy' offered as compensation).

So we (seven of us) arrived in Florida on the Jan 27 and spent the first few days visiting Mickey in his various places of residence. Much fun was had by all. So much so that, come Friday, I had almost forgotten about the race. Almost. Not entirely.

Met with some friends for breakfast at Shoney's before buying the tickets and heading to the speedway. Was rather surprised to discover that a) we were the only ones in shorts and shirts - every one else was apparently dressed for blizzard conditions, and b) the infield was full. We had to drive for quite some time to get a parking space. The main reason for attending on the Friday was to watch the HSR enduro. The Group C revival is gathering pace on our UK side of the pond, but ironically this is my best chance of seeing the cars race this year. So we had a sniff around the HSR paddock, and I was delighted to see Wynn Percy's XJR11 Jag. Sadly, it didn't race - still not sure why. Anyhow, we grabbed a large coffee and a huge cinnamon bun and made our way up - and up, and up - into the grandstand to watch the race.

I've been to the DIS before, and know how impressive the place is, but my brother hadn't and was amazed at the sheer scale. Before us was the HSR grid, a mouth-watering array of cars - most of which I hadn't seen run in anger for a decade. The $10 program unfortunately offered no information on the cars or drivers, but it was easy to identify a number of the cars as they were in their original liveries. The Sauber was unmistakable. The number 27 Nissan wasn't - I was convinced it was a Spice (mainly because it was bright yellow, not a colour I associate with Nissans).

The race started, and immediately four cars broke away from the pack - I don't know who was driving, but they weren't hanging around. A keen fight for the lead followed, until the Sauber spun in the infield. The driver (Jochen Mass?) quickly got back on the pace, and it was a joy to watch the car at full pelt around the banking - it really brought home how much I missed the Group C era. I watched the Sauber for a few laps until BANG! A tyre had blown on the front straight at a speed approaching 200mph. I feared the worst, but the driver held it superbly and brought it to a safe stop with barely a wobble. The pace car came out for a few laps and then on the green lap a Porsche did exactly the same thing. Once the race resumed proper, it was a case of enjoying the sights and sounds and trying to work out who was where from the not-very-clear leader board indicator (something, I soon realised, that was to be the only source of information for the trackside fan for most of the race). This wasn't easy as some cars appeared to be able to improve their race positions while stationary in the pits. Nor did it help that there were two number 24 cars in the race. At one point we went down to the trackside at the foot of the grandstand near the start/finish line. You can really appreciate the pace these guys are travelling at from here, and also
appreciate how noisy the engines are - ouch!

The number 27 Spice / Nissan eventually won, and I had thoroughly enjoyed the race. We did not stay for qualifying as we were unable to hear the PA while the cars were on the track, and would have been unable to follow things (I later learned from Malcolm that things weren't much easier for the press corps). So instead we drove back down the I-4 to Kissimmee, and sat in traffic for two hours through Orlando.

Saturday arrived, and the three of us attending the race set off for Daytona - this time with more appropriate apparel. The weather people had been saying all week that the weekend would be cool and overcast. They hadn't mentioned rain so it would be dry, right? Arrived at the track for about 09.30 after a slight detour caused by missing the Daytona turnoff (Quick tip for next year - avoid the queues by driving past them until you get to the lights at the infield tunnel. Hang a left at the lights and do a U-turn in the retail park there - the traffic cop then waves you right in, and saves you a good half-hour of queuing.). We parked up with rather more ease than the previous day and went and had a chat with Rick Ostman, who had prepared Bill Warner's TR6 for the HSR 24 Minutes. A very nice looking, and sounding, car. Noticed Jackie Stewart wandering through the paddock.

After watching the HSR parade, we headed to the grandstands for the start. Despite previously expressing a desire never to taste cinnamon again, I once more succumbed to the smell and ate another huge bun (fortunately someone else was paying this time - $5 a pop). Once in the stands, it was the turn of my neighbour, Andrew, to express
amazement at the scale of DIS. World Center Of Racing? Er, no - but still a very impressive place.

The crowds cleared from the pit-lane, the formalities were played out, the prayers were said, and the anthem was sung. Finally, we were ready for the start!

Eighty cars on a 3.5 mile track is always going to be interesting (imagine the Le Mans 24 hours with 170 cars starting - that's about the same cars-per-mile ratio). And so it proved. Straight from the start the cars spread out in the logical manner - SRP, GTS, GT. AGT; but after three laps the back-markers were caught and it started to get less and less clear. I should explain that have I enjoyed circuit-commentary over the radio at nearly all the races that I have attended. Thus I am nearly always able to follow the flow of the race. Not here. Oh, no Sir! At Daytona you get "NEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeoooooooooooowwwwwww!" eighty times a minute, and not a lot else. No radio coverage, and a tannoy system that was obliterated everywhere, apart from behind the hot pits and deep in the grandstands. Man, that place is noisy - no respite from the cacophony at all. Until the yellow flags appear, that is.

Yes, our old chum Full Course Yellow. To be fair, I had to agree with the first one happening when a tyre appeared on the Turn 4 banking. The pace car came out, and before he made it round to the spot, the marshals (corner workers?) had very efficiently removed the offending article and retreated. 'Great!' I thought, 'Straight back to the race!'. But no. The lights stayed on and the cars trundled past, apart from several that dived for the pits. Fair enough, probably makes sense. Next time round and I was ready for the off, but past they trundled once more! AAaaarrgh! Why? Why? I was still cursing and swearing when Robin, my brother, pointed out to me that the pace car had in fact pulled off further round the course. Oh.

You may at this point be wondering why I am not describing the actual racing in much (any) detail. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that I bought the Program on Friday, and thus had no idea who was driving any of the cars, nor where they had qualified (the programme came with a grid sheet on Saturday), while the second is the fact that I was too busy enjoying things to take notes. All I can say is that the Dyson was scrapping with the Risi Ferrari, and a couple of other SRPs - one of which was the Intersport R&S. Oh yes, and Franz Konrad was working on his car in pit-lane. Poor old Franz!

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes...BANG! Gasp! Quickly turn head to see a Porsche spinning towards the wall at the end of the pitlane, and a noseless SRP sitting forlornly opposite. Moments later a damaged Viper appears in the pits. Eventually manage to decipher enough words from the tannoy to work out who's involved. At this point we made our first foray to the paddock to have a look around - first thing we see is a knackered SRP (I forget which) with a sticker emblazoned across it. Oops!

A few minutes of wandering and watching later, and I notice that the atmosphere is noticeably damper. There appears to be some sort of precipitation in the air! Shurely
shome mishtake? Could the WESH 2 Super Doppler have failed me? Nah, it will soon blow over. Thoughts return to comments made at breakfast the previous day relating to the Earnhardts' complete lack of wet weather experience.

Fifteen minutes of cold rain later, and we found ourselves huddled under the small roof of a catering stand drinking a hot chocolate with whipped cream (yummy). Two Chamberlain personnel arrive to get a burger and I rudely interrupt their conversation (sorry chaps) to enquire after the stricken Viper. Much shaking of heads - that one is going no further.

The time is now getting on for 6.00 and we decide to get some grub across the road. On the way out I stopped by the Corvette pits to see if I could spot the legendary Dale senior. This task is made more difficult by not really knowing what he looks like (not a NASCAR fan then, Mark? Ed.). He's got a 'tache, but then so had every other member of the Corvette outfit (must be in the contract). There was one fellow in the pits that had different attire to those around him and appeared to be getting lots of attention. Must be him, I thought. After a few minutes I discovered he was the tyre guy, either that or these NASCAR fellows don't mind mucking in with the lads. I decided to have another go later.

The warmth and dryness of Ruby Tuesday was a blessed relief, and we ate our delicious meals with our attention wandering between the Speedvision coverage on the wall, and the rain outside. Sated, we returned to the track. By now the rain had stopped and the wind had died down. Not exactly a pleasant evening, but a damn sight better than it had been.

Once more seated in the grandstands (it was now dark) and we watched the gargantuan battle between Leitzinger (I recognised the helmet) and whoever was driving the Risi. It was simply sensational. Those of you that follow F1 will know that Mansell vs Senna at Barcelona has gone down in Grand Prix folklore. The battle taking place tonight was every bit as dramatic - the more so, due to it happening for lap after lap and amongst traffic. Btw, those of you that are unhappy about the lighting at DIS would have been hard pushed to argue against their value that night. They allowed me to watch the entire fight without any problem. Superb! When the pit stops inevitably disrupted the duel, we moved to the seating opposite the infield entry / egress. I mentioned the noise earlier - well on the way to our new viewing spot the noise was causing me physical pain. I have never worn earplugs, but had I had a pair on me I would have been sorely tempted to use them.

Ten o'clock, and we decide to get some kip; not because we are tired, but more a desire to experience the night action and see the dawn. Thus three adults try to make themselves comfortable in a Toyota Corolla while in the midst of sixty screaming engines. It wasn't easy, but somehow we managed to get some sleep (after a fashion).
At 03.00, Andrew and I wake and decide to go for a wander. Robin stays in the car. Hmm, it's raining again!

Wandering past the Dyson garage, we espy the second R&S of EFR sitting in the dry. Not much work is being done on the car, and I notice that the car has slipped from the leader board. In fact, the leader board has changed considerably in the previous five hours. Dyson and Risi are still out in front, but the other numbers are very different. How many laps separate the cars is anybody's guess.

Another yummy hot chocolate later, and I spot Malcolm retreating to the warm and dry Pressroom. We give chase, but he doesn't hear us. Not to be defeated, we press our noses against the window until he recognizes me and lets us in. A ten minute chat about the race, his rather snazzy (?) Hugh Chamberlain overalls, our holiday, and various other things, and we bid farewell and return to the (by now heavy) rain. Finally I work out which one is Dale Snr (open faced helmet is a give-away). But I find the Risi pit more interesting.

David Brabham drifted in to the pit, helmet in hand, with the air of somebody about to take another beer out of the fridge and go and sit in the garden. Aha! Pit stop coming up! The crew betrayed no signs of agitation or concern, but when the car came in 10 minutes later, Allan McNish leapt from the car and began darting all over the place. He strapped David in and was gesticulating to him and others. From my point of view, this was probably just part and parcel of a pit stop; but then the engine cover came off. Oh dear! The team was now definitely showing signs of concern, and the small crowd parted as a mechanic jumped on the team's golf buggy and sped off in search of the correct spanner. He returned a couple of minutes later, and shortly afterwards the engine started and the car moved. Then stopped! Almost immediately the car was dragged backwards off the pit lane and towards the garage. My thoughts went back to Le Mans 1990 when I had a bird's eye view (from above the old pits) of brother Geoff’s Nissan having severe problems with a leaky fuel cell. Both times the troubled cars were in contention for the lead. I clearly was not a lucky charm for Brabham family members.

We followed the car back to the pits and stood outside in the pouring rain and watched as the last rites were administered. It was clear from the inactivity of the mechanics, and the resigned chat amongst the drivers, that the car was finished. I didn't learn until much later that these were also the last active moments of the Risi outfit as a whole. What a shame!

We bumped into the now awake (but not very alert) Robin, and went off to see what else was occurring. I have personally never before experienced anywhere the access allowed to the general public at this race, and being able to stand inside garages and watch cars being worked on was an experience. I am genuinely amazed to hear talk of Fortress Daytona, and complaints about security personnel at the track - we encountered no problems at all at any time. The few hardy souls around stood in silence and just watched the mechanics take cars to bits and virtually rebuild them in a few minutes. We had earlier the previous evening watched the Byztek team working on three 911-GT1s simultaneously, with one of the cars being cannibalised for parts for the other two. The cars were in bits, yet both returned to the track. Incredible. I also noted a few Intersport mechanics helping to repair the GT1s. Can you imagine that happening in F1? Well done lads!

We returned to the grandstand to catch up on the action and take in the fabled dawn. Instead we got murk turning to slightly-less-dark murk. Ho hum! It was also very cold and very windy, but not that wet. Time to head across to Bob Evans for brekkie (I had previously arranged to meet some Forum buddies for breakfast at Denny's at 5.00am, but the Risi dramas put paid to that - apologies once again, fellas). I can heartily recommend the cinnamon hotcakes with appleberry topping - absolutely splendid.

The rest of the morning was a case of wandering and watching, and getting wet. So wet that we decided to seek shelter below the overhang of the upper seats in the grandstand, along with everyone else on that side of the track. As we left the paddock area, Butch Leitzinger was about to step into a car leading by 26 laps. When we sat down, the car was out! WHAT?? How? Why? “NNNEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeooooooowwwwwww". I wasn't going to find out today!

The race’s closing stages approached, and the Corvette was in the lead (as I had predicted last year - bigheaded so and so), but the bloody leaderboard was broken! I don't believe it! The only bit of info we have and it's kaput! Hasn't updated for ages! After a few minutes Andrew worked it out that this was the leaderboard, and was thus showing the leading cars - the Dyson was simply so far in front that the board wasn't going to update until the Corvette had done another 26 laps! D'oh!

The last couple of hours was spent getting wet, and trying to work out if the Dales' Corvette could catch the third place GT. That's the beauty of sportscar (and particularly endurance) racing - there's always a race going on somewhere!

Eventually, I calculated that the pitstops remaining would negate any speed advantage that the GTS car had. I enjoyed it, nevertheless. With half an hour to go, the lead car came in for a splash and dash! Or rather, the car came in and stopped! And stayed there! For twenty minutes! The crew weren't rushing about, so presumably the car was okay? Surely they aren't going to sit there and only come out at the end to take the flag? That's hardly in the spirit of things!

Eventually they do come out, and the last laps of the race are run! Well done, the ‘Vettes! And all the other finishers. Unfortunately, the reception for the winners is much more low key than Le Mans due to the crowd size, but I'm sure the drivers care not a jot! We waited in vain for the gates to the track to be opened, before deciding to
head off home.

So, it had rained for 15 hours, the SRPs had once more failed, and the widely anticipated 'Vette win had come to fruition! Was it a waste of time coming? Of course not - the whole experience more than compensated for any flaws in the race, and I certainly intend to return as often as possible!

Oh, and did anything else happen on the hols? Just another three theme parks
and a shuttle launch! I tell you, it's a hard life!

Cheers, Mark

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