Sunday, January 27, 2013

Over, Over, Over

Another 24 Hours of Daytona is in the books. The watches have been distributed, winners and losers have dried their tears, and the teams are well underway in the process of breaking down and packing up. (Team trucks have to leave the speedway by noon tomorrow, and the garages will be closed from 7 p.m. tonight to 7 a.m. tomorrow. They've got to hustle.)

It was not a banner year for TRG. Not a single car technically finished the race, though the 66 came extremely close, with only the driver dissenting in the last two minutes (seriously, the last TWO MINUTES of a 24-hour race), saying "No, something's wrong. I'm not going out there in this." (Further investigation seemed to point to another broken differential, so kudos to Ben Keating for sticking to his guns. That's the beat-up car below. Note the irony of the winner's circle confetti as road-kill on the tire.)

But it was an epic race all the same. They always are, one way or another. This year for Audi's first GT win (and second) and for Ganassi's 97th. (I'm kidding, I don't know how many, but it was a lot.)

There was no rain. There were no epic, multi-vehicle crashes. No major injuries. But plenty of good, hard racing, plus some gamesmanship. To be expected.

What I didn't expect was quite how many pages of notes I'd take, or quite how long I'd be able to listen in on the team radio (the answer: as much as I wanted, which turned out to be about 16 hours).

I didn't expect (but should have, because I just wasn't thinking) was how many contacts I'd make and how many different people I'd really enjoy having long conversations with. Or how nice the drivers would be.

Or that I could really make it through a full day on only three hours of sleep (and a shower).

It was a weekend full of surprises and new friends. Racing data (tons) and plot ideas (a couple). But you know? This was the easy part, getting to Florida and sleeping so little. Now, to write....

To The End

We've got about an hour and a half left to find the winners here at Daytona, but don't think that means the leaders now will be the ones with the watches come 3:30. Ask Tony Stewart about that ... his best car here self-destructed with 17 minutes to go one year.

TRG continues to battle valiantly on with the 66 car (shown here last night sometime). They got bumped at one point this morning, and have been trying to fix massive rear end grip issues since then. But the drivers are making the best of it.

So we're nearing the end of the long slog. Everyone looks tired. Some look disappointed or defeated. And some look hopeful. I'm quite sure that many thoughts have turned already to the next race they'll be running, if not to this race next year. Racers are like that.

I'll be here in the pits with TRG until they pack it in for the day. I'm so impressed with this team and how they continue to struggle and work hard hour after hour, just like all the other teams on pit row.

More from the end, but a full team shot in the meantime....

Silver Linings

There are four hours and change remaining in the twenty-four hour race, and the track and time have taken their toll. On a personal level, none of the teams or drivers I especially cared about is vying for the win. That means TRG, Truspeed (80), Patrick Long (Park Place 73), Melanie Snow (62), and Andrew Davis (Brumos 59) aren't in the hunt anymore.

Well, it's happened to plenty of cars.

One of the experiences I requested of TRG when asking them if I could embed with their team for the duration of the race was some time on the pitbox, listening to radio communications between the team and driver. I'm getting hours of that this morning, sadly.

So I suppose the silver lining of the attrition in this race is that by race's end, there's a lot more space in the pits for (sometimes intrusive) guests to hang out and watch--unlike the start of the race, where crew, drivers, and guests were tripping over each other with every step.

Actually, crew and drivers were tripping over guests who usually stood in the way, clueless. I tried hard not to be that guest, but I'm sure I was, on occasion. The patience of the team is impressive in those instances.

But the race is still young, and there are still five cars on the lead lap in GT, with the top three separated by about thirty seconds--amazing, considering we've run for nearly 20 hours!

Here in TRG we're doing a pit stop and driver change. Porsche ace Joerg Bergmeister will get in the car, taking over from Dominik Farnbacher. I presume pro Kuno Wittmer will finish the race later. The car and drivers might be 47 laps down, but, true warriors to the end, they're fighting hard for every position, lap and minute. They want to be running at the end, no matter how battered the car and exhausted the support team.

I'll be here with them!

Photo of the 66 car drivers: (l to r) Joerg Bergmeister, Dominik Farnbacher, Kuno Wittmer, and Ben Keating

Spotting, Sleeping, and Fog

It's a foggy morning here in Daytona, though it was clear just two and a half hours ago. The race has been under caution for a while because of the fog, which seems to be annoying the drivers to no end. (We're just going back to green on what seems to be a mostly fog-free track as I type this.)

I managed to grab three hours sleep last night and get a shower, which puts me ahead of many people at the track. Though I'm not feeling in tip-top shape (I wouldn't want to drive an expensive racecar in the fog, for example), I'll make it through the day just fine.

The same can't be said for all of TRG's cars. As I walked to the track this morning (it was only an 8 minute walk!) something went wrong on the differential of the 67 car, ending their race just as they'd clawed their way back on the lead lap. And last night, as I rode in a golf cart from outside the track to the infield (feeling like I shouldn't leave anymore), the 68 car had a nasty spin into the wall at turn 5 that "deranged" (as David Hobbs would say) the engine itself. It was done by 2:30 a.m.

So the sole TRG representative remains the 66 car, which is unfortunately 40-some laps down after a water line broke in the engine around 1:45 a.m.

I didn't see the repair drama firsthand, because I was up at the top of the Speedway tower on the spotters' stand, enjoying the view. (That's Chris at the top of the page, one of the spotters for the doomed 68 car, working his binoculars to help the drivers out.)

The spotters' stand is very high up, and it's magic. The view is incredible, and the experience of watching the cars and listening to the spotters talk their charges through traffic made me feel like a proud parent, just by association. What a sight, and what an experience. It wasn't even cold up there.

More later as the day really gets underway.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Midnight Snacks

i'm still mostly on California time, so it doesn't really feel like midnight. But the hospitality crew came around with warm, cheesy rolls for everyone and the clock says it's midnight, so I guess it must be.

Mostly it just feels like cars have been circling for a very long time in the dark.

After a long period of green-flag racing, a Porsche ran into a tire wall (in Turn 5, I believe), and high drama ensued.

You see, there's a very detailed procedure for how cars are sorted out behind the safety car in a caution, which has to do with the fact that there are basically two classes in the race, and the safety car can only pick up one of them.

SinceTRG (and Sandham Swift Racing, in theory) run in the slower, GT class, they are not the class picked up by the safety car. Some cars get waved around at the start of the caution, sent around the track to the back of the pack. Then cars can pit or not, as they choose. Then some other cars are sent around the track to line up at the back of the pack.

It all has to do with making sure that the class leader is at the front of the line, and the result is that cars can pick up a lap if they're lucky and smart. And if other cars and/or race control don't make mistakes. There's a lot of calculating and list-making that happens very quickly after a yellow is thrown, and I have to be honest, it's fascinating and entertaining to watch.

In the end, the car that did something wrong was penalized, but their mistake affected TRG's choices and lessened the advantage they might have gained. Win some, lose some? Yes, but easier to say that when you're not the one playing the game.

Five Hours Down

We're in the middle of a long green run, and the only problem recently is cars doing themselves in. A couple cars inexplicably spun out at the exit of Turn 6, and a quite a few cars have run afoul of the Bus Stop. I've heard Kevin Buckler refer to that set of corners as the Bermuda Triangle, and I think a bunch of drivers are letting themselves by psyched out by its voodoo.

Either that or they're taking the turn for granted, believing they can do more with it than is really possible.

TRG cars are running solidly, and the team is still moving at top speed, and, incidentally, fueling up with lasagna and Klondike ice cream bars in between stops. (Though the pit lane speed issue continues to haunt this team, as it's doing to others.)

In fun news for me, MRN, the track announcer, came by and did a short interview with me (thanks to the press release TRG sent out this week about giving me access). It was hilarious to hear my voice over the track PA in the background while I was trying to give coherent answers to the questions he asked. The crew guy sitting next to me was also mightily amused at knowing I was talking next to him and hearing me over the airwaves also.

Fortunately, I had a good answer when the guy asked me a question about what I'd found surprising, and that's the spotter interaction with cars and drivers. For all of my race attendance, I haven't spent a ton of time listening to in-race radio, and there aren't many races I've been to where a team can see the entirety of the track from one spot (however high up). So the spotter involvement was a surprise to me ... but you can be sure I'll include it in the next book.

In fact, a team of two spotters gives me some good plot ideas....

The First Hours

A paraphrase of Murphy's Law applies to this (and probably any) twice-round-the-clock endurance race: "Anything that can go wrong, will." And the first hours of the race proved it again.

No matter how much Race Director Paul Walter exhorted drivers in the drivers' meeting to "be safe, respect each other, and enjoy yourselves," some failed to heed his words.

Or, to be fair, they just made mistakes. But when you have 56 cars with 4-5 drivers and 8-10 crew members per car, even one mistake per person means a whole lot of chaos. It's widely agreed that the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win, regardless of outright speed.

Most of the mistakes early on were recoverable--in part because they happened early on. The leading GT car spanked the tire wall and barely made it back to the pits before tearing apart all of its rear bodywork. But I wouldn't be surprised to see them in the fight at the end, because they've got a lot of hours in which to recover.

At TRG, we had early issues with spotter radios not working (the small shapes on the top of the Daytona tower are the spotters, who call down to their cars and warn them of approaching cars), but managed to get those sorted out by two hours in.

Plenty of drivers also suffered a surfeit of adrenaline (two of the TRG cars included) and incurred penalties for speeding in pit lane. Or they misjudged corners and bombed through the Bus Stop turn (which team owner Kevin Buckler calls the "car killer").

Then there were the mystery ailments, the random punctures, the fuel spills, and the bumps from behind. Everything you'd expect from 56 cars in a twice-round-the-clock endurance race.

I'm off back to the pits (from my seat in the garage) for more watching and listening to the radio. Only 21 hours to go!

The Start of the 24

Greetings from the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona!

The run up to the race was intense over the last couple days, as teams struggled to get their cars running and handling well with only three hours of practice and ten minutes of qualifying.

Even today started slowly, with drivers, teams, and fans trickling into Daytona International Speedway throughout the morning. Then all of a sudden, it was time for the drivers meeting, the autograph session, a quick bite to eat, and a team photo. By then, everything snowballed. 2:05: drivers dashing to pit lane for introductions on the pre-grid stage. The grid opened, and fans were everywhere.

I took the opportunity to walk up onto the banking of Daytona's front straight (check out the angle above), to pose with the wall (second photo above) and sign the start/finish line ... for both me and Kate Reilly.

Then back through the crowd in pit lane to the team pit wall, where I stood and watched Bob Varsha do the intro for the SPEED coverage and Juan Pablo Montoya be mobbed by fans. Before we knew it, the pace car was peeling off the track, and we were green, green, green!

And that's the next chapter. Stay tuned! (Also follow me on Twitter @tkaehler for more updates.)