Text and photos by Luke Munnell
If history teaches one lesson more clearly than all others, it’s that we humans can endure amazing extremes when pushed to our limits. Survival is usually the driver of these feats of human endurance, but there’s often another important motivation here: the promise of greatness. Plenty have lived and died trying to be the first to achieve something big. This drive can inspire craftsmen and professionals to make breakthrough discoveries, athletes to redefine human ability, or it might just push the truly passionate (mad?) among us to the extremes of finding and testing our own limits, just for fun. Take a little of all that, add some racecars, and you have the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
First run in 1962, the 24 Hours of Daytona (known today as the “Rolex 24” for its longtime title sponsor) enjoys more publicity and prestige than any other race of the IMSA season, and its winners have to fight harder than ever to take home top honors and those coveted Rolex watches. Rather than bring you race results that are old news by now, we thought it might be interesting to present the event from my own point-of-view in covering the race as a photographer/writer, and also as a first-timer to the event. Beginning at the very start (for me), here are the 24 most memorable moments of this great race. Buckle up — this one’s a beast:
1. Holy Sh*t, I’m actually going!
I’ve survived the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill on a few past occasions, as well as covered IMSA competition rounds as recent as last year’s COTA and Watkins Glen events. A few years back I produced a video chronicling one OEM-backed team’s all-new entry in IMSA GX-class racing beginning with the Rolex 24, but I never attended the event myself. I’ve always wanted to. In my own slightly sadistic way I also love the challenge of covering endurance races, but this one just never seemed to fit into my schedule until this year, when I decided to double-down on motorsports coverage for the coming season. It was all just a good idea in theory, until the moment I booked my travel. Then it became real.
2. Damn, this place is big.
Billed as “the world’s only motorsports stadium,” Daytona International Speedway is huge. Sprawling, massive … none of those words really do it justice, especially after a multi-year expansion that brought its total seating capacity to 101,000 and modernized much of the facility’s aging architecture (it was originally built in 1959).
The grandstand is where this is most apparent. With space for display areas, restaurants and vendors every few feet of what seems to go on for miles on five floors, populations of entire towns are needed to fill this place to capacity for events like its most popular: the Daytona 500.
Daytona Beach is ground-zero for the NASCAR organization, and the facility’s construction reflects that with its “tri-oval” speedway construction and steeply banked oval turns. But there’s also an infield section and back-straight chicane to add some “spice” for better-handling race machines, and IMSA competition at the Rolex 24 runs a combination of both configurations.
3. Opening Races: Ferrari Challenge, Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge
In the day and hours leading up to the main event were two short races of the Ferrari Challenge series bookending one four-hour endurance race of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge (billed as the BMW Endurance Challenge at Daytona).
These series aren’t as popular as IMSA’s WeatherTech series, but they each have their own character and the racing is every bit as intense. Since I’d never shot at Daytona and had no real commitments with either series, I decided to use this time to get to know the facility and its shooting locations a little better.
4. The Fan Experience
Compared to NASCAR, sportscar racing in the U.S. has historically drawn a much smaller following. Chalk this up to sportscar racing’s tumultuous and fragmented history, or its deeper complexities compared to stock-car racing’s easily understandable and neatly packaged format — both play a role. Whatever the case, the flipside to all this is that the fans who do understand and appreciate sportscar racing, and actually make it out to the races, are usually every bit as knowledgeable, diehard and welcoming as the drivers they follow.
The infield at Daytona is even more sprawling than its grandstand, and the Rolex 24 fills it to capacity with race fans living out their weekend in RVs, tents, and assorted other shanties. They roll in Wednesday or Thursday and stay well past when awards are presented Sunday afternoon. They live to wring out every last drop of racing, BBQing, partying, commiserating, and just enjoying life. Think of the Rolex 24 at Daytona as racing’s Burning Man in the Nevada desert, but with major (yet enjoyable) corporate sponsorship, and thankfully, more clothing.
5. Pre-Race Festivities
From the international cooks and vendors of the food court and annual “Taste of the 24” event, to the uh-MAZE-ing array of vintage race machines brought out by the Rolex 24 Heritage Exhibition, to the crowd-favorite autograph session, and much more, fans (and newbie media people!) will have plenty to keep them busy throughout the event other than just the racing.
6. Media Access
I should take a moment and note how cool media access is. First, it’s crucial to allowing us to do our jobs. We can get up close and personal to racers, cars, teams, crews, and officials to really dig in and get the stories at hand. But also, as a fan myself (why else would anyone choose this to do for a living?), I try to take moments whenever possible to let everything happening around me really sink in. This time I got to have a chat with Fernando Alonso in the pits … at least, before one of his guys showed me the door (tent flap). Rightfully so, I guess.
7. The Women
In an age where traditional gender roles are questioned and under scrutiny more than ever, and so many industries seem to be in a race to promote women to power positions, to hopefully sweep away decades where their efforts were taken for granted, you have IMSA and professional racing. Yes, both are very heavily male-dominated, but where best-possible performance and achieving victory are the biggest priorities, boundaries as insignificant as gender and its associated stereotypes seem to dissolve. Here, women drive, crew, manage teams, officiate, represent brands, and serve the racing mission every bit as skillfully and effectively as men. It’s not often talked about, and it’s not something done on purpose. It’s just business as usual, and all of that is something that’s impressed me from the start.
8. Competitor Roll-in
Chalk it up to herd mentality, groupthink or whatever, but there’s nothing quite as electric and adrenaline-inducing as being surrounded by cheering fans packed in as tightly as they possibly can, lining the paddock to catch a glimpse of their favorite cars sparking to life and rumbling out of their garages and onto pit lane. It’s not even technically part of the race, but it’s easily the most exciting part of the event. I really had to force myself to shoot it, versus stand in awe, gawking with the masses at the beautiful sights, sounds and aromas of these beasts and their masters heading off to battle.
9. Fan Walk
Immediately following roll-in is another awesome part of IMSA races: the Fan Walk. With their cars on display in front of their respective pits, racers and teams talk with fans, rip selfies, maybe sign a few lingering autographs, and so on in the final moments before the race. At Daytona, fans also seem to love taking photos at the start/finish line, or venturing out toward the steepest banked sections of the tri-oval that track officials will let them on as they walk back to the grandstand. And while I didn’t need to take that route to the grandstand myself, I did. And it was pretty sweet.
10. The World at a Glance
This is one of my favorite images from the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It’s not an amazing image, but in a single frame it captures the most awesome aspect of the race: the people. The fans, crewmembers, officials, other media personnel, and drivers from 25 countries on six continents of the small world we all share. The geographical and ethnic diversity of it all is another significant point to mind. Most impressively, it’s not artificial; not a product of social outcry or legislative effort. It’s just what happens when the best people are given a fair shot, no matter who they are or where they come from.
11. Manufacturer Rivalries
IMSA WeatherTech series competition in 2018 will exist for three separate classes all running at the same time: Prototype (P), GT Le Mans (GTLM), and GT Daytona (GTD). Factory backed support is common in each, and when corporate bragging rights and brand perception is on the line, the tendency is for performance and competition to become huge.
Cadillac-powered teams have generally owned Prototype-class competition, both at the Rolex 24 and the IMSA season in general. Wayne Taylor Racing won the event last year and took the pole at the start of this year’s race (running the fastest lap in Qualifying), looking like a good bet to take the overall win. But the Action Express team has been winning this race since it was part of the Grand-Am series, won the 2017 Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup, and finished a close second in last year’s event.
But for any Cadillac-powered team to win, they’d have to cut through some fierce competition, namely Mazda and their new effort with Team Joest for 2018 (who brought Audi multiple endurance racing titles), as well as new challengers Acura with legendary Team Penske. To paint an even clearer picture, a full 13 prototypes qualified within a half-second of each other for this year’s race.
An even more heated rivalry existed in GTLM, between Chevrolet’s two Corvette Racing ‘Vettes and Ford/Chip Ganassi Racing’s two Ford GTs. Ford won the Rolex 24 in 2017, but Chevy won the season overall and cinched the GTLM-class pole for this race. To complicate matters event more, the Porsche GT Team was looking to improve on their second-place Rolex finish and solid season last year with a win from one of its two 911s this time around. And then there was BMW Team RLL, who won the final two races in class last year and ended the season looking as solid as ever.
GTD was the largest class on the grid and any number of teams looked ripe for a class win. Ferrari qualified first this time around and won the 2017 GTD-class season championships last year, with Mercedes following just four points behind, and Porsche only three points behind that. But Porsche won the Rolex 24 last year, and teams fielding cars like the Lamborghini Huracan, Lexus RC F, Acura NSX, Audi R8, and BMW M6 all ran within mere seconds of each other.
12. A Bad Omen?
It’s funny — for a race that spans an entire 24 hours, the start of it is every bit as exciting and relevant as any other. At Thunderhill, 25 hours is enough time to make just about anything happen. You could start dead-last and win overall in a race where nearly every small, heavily amateur team encounters some major mechanical setbacks along the way. But here very, very little is uncertain or left to chance. Where competition is so equally high among all teams, every second counts.
The Rolex 24 enjoys a rolling start, so first up after the cars leave the grid behind the pace car is the formation lap. This is a great chance for drivers to warm their tires and brakes, get some throttle jabs in for the crowd, and strut their stuff. But this time around one driver — Robert Renauer in the No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 — lost control in doing so and hit a wall, necessitating an extensive repair before the race had even begun. We all wondered what we didn’t want to: Is this a sign of things to come?
13. Filipe Friggin’ Albuquerque!
As tensions and excitement reached their climax and the green flag dropped, drivers throttled across the starting line, jockeying for position on the wide speedway tri-oval before crowding into turn one’s bottleneck leading to the narrower infield. Almost immediately, Filipe Albuquerque and the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi Prototype moved from third to second, with a brazen pass of the No. 7 Team Penske Acura DPi. Acura quickly regained their place, but like a fresh inmate knocking out a guard on his first day of prison, that move from Albuquerque let fans and drivers alike know he’s one to watch out for.
A half-hour later he would be leading the race.
14. Drama Ensues
The first unfortunate racing incident went to Mazda Team Joest, when a wheel from their No. 55 DPi Prototype broke clean off its hub and the car was brought in for repairs. Shortly after, their No. 77 car limped in with a blown left-rear tire. All the bad luck seemed to befall poor Mazda! But at nearly the same time, the No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan DPi Prototype came in with a right-rear puncture — weird. And then their No. 22 car came in with the same affliction within an hour. Too weird.
Several other right-rear tire failures plagued Prototype-class cars throughout the afternoon and evening (as well as another left-rear for the No. 77 Mazda), and around 10:30 p.m. things got scary when the No. 23 United Autosports Ligier LMP2 Prototype and No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing/Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi Prototype blew right-rears within minutes of each other, both suffering dramatic mechanical damage in the process. The problem persisted for teams fielding DPi and LMP2 chassis in Prototype competition, but didn’t seem to affect GTLM or GTD cars. Speculation abound as to whether the Prototype-class spec Continental tires, or an issue with Daytona’s fast left turns, was the culprit.
Then, just before midnight, Continental Tire messaged from their official Twitter account:
“Teams are pushing the envelope with low pressure and camber. When this happens, and teams are not within the parameters we set forth problems can occur,” also stating that the tires are the same as the teams have been using for the past five years.
Teams and commentators alike strongly disputed this, but the mystery continued into the night.
Prototype teams hate it, GT teams sometimes love it, and I selfishly wanted as much of it as I could get. Racing in the rain is tricky on its own, but also when it comes to tire and pit strategy. Speeds fall and aerodynamics become less effective, but while that hampers some, others can get ahead by luck or strategy. No one was sure which it was that allowed Patrick Pilet in the No. 911 Porsche GT Team 911 to work his way to the lead of the GTLM class while remaining on slicks in a heavy downpour at about 7:45 p.m., but he did and that threw some excitement into the end of an otherwise uneventful afternoon. As for me, racing in the rain just looks cooler in the pictures, and I brought all my rain gear. Too bad (for me) it only rained for about 10 minutes.
After the rain subsided and the track dried, Ford regained the GTLM lead, Acura retook the Prototype and overall lead by fending off the Caddys, and things seemed to right themselves for a bit. In the midst of that came the Rolex 24 fireworks show, which entertains spectators before sending most of them off to bed for the night.
17. The Eerie Still of the Night
Occurring in the northern hemisphere during winter, the Rolex 24 at Daytona is mostly run at night. There’s an odd mix that comes with that. While a lot happens, a lot stays the same. Engines roar at full din all night, yet tired fans, campers, and crew settle in to eat and catch a few Zs. Everything on the track is buzzing about as violently as ever; while everything around it rests.
Racing at night is also tough to shoot. It’s fun, and there’s plenty of time to work on more “creative” shots, but there’s less to see from it all, since it’s … you know … dark outside. I was starting to feel tired at this point, but also awake from wanting to go have fun.
While I shot, several other right-rear tire blowouts (and another left-rear for Mazda) kept cars sidelined on pit lane and in the garages, especially Wayne Taylor Racing’s No. 10 Konica/Minolta Cadillac, which seemed to fail catastrophically each time. The No. 7 Acura and No. 5 Caddy prototypes traded places for the lead a few times before the Acura seemed to solidly hold it. The No. 911 Porsche spun in GTLM competition, leading to a full-course caution, but re-emerged shortly after in good shape. Things seemed to stable out a bit, so I too decided to return to base.
The media center of an IMSA race is always an interesting place. Lots of chatting, frantic photo-editing and/or typing, LOTS of coffee being, uh … tolerated, and—in the case of a 24-hour endurance race—lots of sleeping at, on and under desks. I charged my batteries, dumped my cards, laughed at my cohorts, and then joined them in a couple peaceful hours of rest.
18. Light on the Horizon
Through the night even more right-rear tire failures were incurred, all by Prototype-class teams. The No. 7 Acura re-gained, then lost the lead to the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi, then spun and fell back a bit. The No. 6 Acura prototype held decent position on the track all the while, until pulling into the pit garage for an unusually long time with a reported electrical failure. GTLM and GTD racing continued with little incident.
With the sunrise at any 24-hour race also comes a second wind for most involved. Drivers and teams quite literally see the light at the end of the tunnel, and fans awake from their slumber (or stupor) to take in the new day. A warm sunrise is all that’s needed to remind us photographers that new, fun shots are waiting to be taken, and there’s a general shared feeling of optimism by most that the end is in sight. Even if it’s more than nine hours away.
19. Day Two
As quickly as that renewed optimism wells up, it was washed away by the tasks at hand. Another full-course caution briefly ensued (just the third for the race!) when the GTD-class No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R drove off course through the infield, and the No. 7 Acura prototype collided with the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing car while fighting for the lead, sending itself to the pits for over a half-hour and losing contention for the win. The No. 5 Action Express Caddy assumed the lead.
At about 7:30 a.m. Wayne Taylor Racing made the bold move of voluntarily retiring its No. 10 Konika/Minolta Cadillac Prototype after repeated right-rear tire failures and subsequent other damages. “I can’t afford to put a driver at risk,” explained Wayne Taylor, on site. Twenty minutes after that, the No. 55 Mazda caught fire heading into turn two and retired. Only five cars had called it quits, all prototypes and all plagued at one time or another by tire failures.
The longer the morning continued, the more laser-focused teams and fans alike seemed to become; all just want to see the end. The No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac Prototype seemed to be having some problems but so far had not stopped widening its generous gap for the overall lead. The No. 11 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracan and No. 33 Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes AMG had been fighting for the GTD class lead all morning, but the Lambo seemed to be leading and widening its gap as well. And there was just no stopping the Chip Ganassi Ford GTs in GTLM.
20. Final Hour
All day it seemed like it would never come, but while no one was looking, the final hour of the Rolex 24 at Daytona crept up on us. And the excitement began to reach the same levels it did just before the race.
With 54 minutes remaining, driver Filipe Albuquerque broke the all-time distance record for a Rolex 24 race, a record that had stood since 1982. He also beat the cumulative lap record held since 1992. Considering the course is now longer and more technical than it was back then, this is quite an achievement and largely thanks to the exceptionally clean and contact-free racing drivers have done this year. And the fact that the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac car was one of the few prototypes to not have had a tire failure thus far.
But it wasn’t all blue skies for Albuquerque and company. Rain seemed imminent and it had become clear that something was up with the No. 5 Cadillac’s engine, as rumors of an overheating issue abound, and its lead had shortened to about one lap. Rather than pit for an inspection, Albuquerque and the team decided to push it and hope that another Toyota-at-Le-Mans-in-2016 moment didn’t strike.
More excitement was found in GTD: With thirty-one minutes remaining, the No. 33 AMG closed its gap to the leading No. 11 Lambo to within one second. One second! After nearly 24 hours of racing. Amazing.
21. The Checkered Flag
Breaking Murphy’s Law and crossing the line first was Filipe Albuquerque and the utterly spent No. 5 Action Express Racing/Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi Prototype. The No. 67 Ford GT its No. 66 teammate crossed the line in a picture-perfect first/second-place finish in GTLM competition, and earned the Chip Ganassi team its 200th career win. And in GTD, the No. 11 Lamborghini successfully defended its lead and earned Lamborghini its first-ever Rolex 24 win. Final count on distance traveled by the No. 5 Prototype: 2876.48 miles, or about the driving distance from Daytona Beach to San Francisco – at full-tilt race pace, with 49 other cars aggressively seeking the same result.
As exciting as roll-in was before the race, rollout afterward might have been all the more rewarding. And humbling. Seeing your favorite race cars up close and squeaky clean before a race is cool; seeing them battered and nearly (but not quite!) broken at the end of one really helps you appreciate all that these amazing machines endure in the ‘24.
As the saying goes, there are no losers in endurance racing who make it to the end. That in itself is an accomplishment and honor everyone is entitled to share.
Just as fans, teams, drivers and even us media people crowded onto pit lane in an adrenaline-induced frenzy for the Fan Walk at the start of the race, so did we all (those of us left, anyway) crowd into Victory Lane for the award ceremony. Where we once were excited at the day ahead, we were now proud of the day behind, and the stellar work put in by all in making it happen.
24. Until Next Time
As I boarded the public shuttle back to the parking lot, it hit me: Possibly the only feeling better than looking forward to a 24-hour endurance race is the feeling of having put one behind you. My first Rolex 24 at Daytona left me sore, drained and not wanting to give it another minute, but proud to have endured its extremes and grateful to have found some of my own limits. And as arduous as it all was, I’d do it again next month if I could.
OK … maybe next year.