With my head tipped back and eyes closed, I envisioned the gently swaying of palm trees and the warmth of the sun on my face. For a few moments in my mind, I was already in Daytona Beach, enjoying the pleasantness of the Floridian winter weather. A sharp blast of mid 20 degree wind whipping through the open spaces of the warming hut snapped me back to reality, taking my daydream and the warmth of the heat lamps overhead down the train platform with it. I pop open my pelican case to rearrange a few items in the minutes before the Friday morning 4am westbound train toward Manhattan arrives. A construction worker and a few professional types headed to work sneak glances at the contents of the hard case as I swap a few items from my usual Thule camera bag into the pelican. Two camera bodies, four lenses, two memory card cases, an add on battery grip, a few lens hoods, flashes and transceivers, and an assortment of neatly tied cables are nestled within the dividers of the case. The professional looking guy is watching from the right, clutching his briefcase and burying his chin in his collar from the wind blowing through the openings of the warming hut. I can see him from my peripheral vision alternately looking at my case and the tripod mounted to the bag and I can only imagine that he’s trying to deduce who it is I’m working for and what assignment I’m headed to on.
Two trains and a terrible airport cup of coffee later, I’ve settled in my seat and am taking a mental note of all the motorsport apparel adorning the other passengers as they board. The last two Porsche hat wearing passengers board, the doors close and we take to the skies toward the sunshine state. A short time later we land to the mid 70’s temps and the gentle breeze I had been daydreaming of while shivering on the train platform. I’m sitting beside a retired NASCAR stock car, listening to southern accents and sipping on another charred tasting cup of coffee, thoroughly enjoying not being at work when I hear the distinct symphony of the Ferrari engines rounding the long banked turns in the distance. I collect my bags to sit outside in the breeze and soak up the sound for a little while longer until the race ends.
Sam Dobbins and his father pick me up shortly after, and we grab a few last minute supplies and head to our camp in the infield. The campsite is located on the inside of the the massive banked turn 12 before the straightaway, only a short walk from the campsite we claimed last year (a little further away from the shitters though). We crack open a few beers and assemble the flags to attach to the easy up tent moments before the pace car leads the BMW endurance challenge cars around the course. Sam and Papa Dobbins stay at the campsite to relax, while I arm myself with my cameras and head out to the horse shoe to start shooting. The field of cars consists 43 cars divided into three classes- Grand Sport, Touring Car Racing and Street Tuner. The three classes run simultaneously, with closely matched performance makes for intense racing over the 4 hour period. Nine AMG GTs, Seven Mustangs, Four R8 LMSs, Four Porsche Caymans, Two Mclaren 570s, Two M4s, and Two Aston Martins- all built to SRO-GT4 spec- would battle for position in the GS class. RS3 LMSs would make up the nearly the entire TCR class, a single GTI TCR being the odd man out. Mini JCW and a single E90 328i would round out the Street tuner class.
Saturday morning brings the excitement of the main event, prefaced only by a few rounds of practice before the racing legends make their laps. Our breakfast of brats and scrambled eggs was interrupted by the announcement that dozens of vintage race cars of various makes and generations would rumble to life and proudly take to the course for an hour. It’s rare to see a single Lancia on a US track, let alone three lapping simultaneously, and the 1980 Lancia Beta Montecarlo would catch and hold my attention each time it would pass.
I make way way back to camp to eat my now lukewarm (but still delicious) breakfast and campfire brewed coffee to charge batteries, when Sam’s Jeep decides to lock itself with the engine running- with the only key we have conveniently placed in the cup holder. Fuck. I ask a friendly camper nearby to borrow a fiberglass rod from his makeshift fence to try to reach a window switch and gaffer tape up the hatchet to use as a wedge, acquire a ton of fiberglass splinters only, but to no avail. Hours will pass before a wrecker finally comes to open the window using his big pink rod (Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s literally a big pink bendy metal rod, jeez) and collects a crisp 20 dollar bill. Pro tip- Don’t trust a Jeep Renegade, and definitely don’t trust me with your keys.
Just prior to the Jeep debacle, the infield of the stadium is opened to spectators to walk on the straightaway and through pit lane where they can get up close to the race cars and meet the members of each team. Spectators sign the yellow line at the lower portion of the bank and mark their presence on the squares of the start/finish line. Literally thousands of people sit, recline, lay and take photos on the steep grade of the bank and on the adjacent grassy lawn before the race begins. The R8 pace car leads the parade of Prototype vehicles as their teams walk together carrying their countries flags and pushing the vehicles toward their places in pit lane. Shortly after the drivers are announced on the center stage, and walk off to their places with the vehicles. The start of the race is less than an hour away at this point, and security begins ushering spectators into the stands and out of the pits. The national anthem is sung, and the announcement everyone has been anxiously awaiting: “Drivers, start your engines!”
20 Prototypes, 9 GTLM and 21 GTD cars’ engines start within seconds of each other, creating a cacophony of raspy baritone exhaust notes, punctuated by the shriek of thousands of rpms being called upon at once with a sharp blip of the throttle. All 50 vehicles roll out of pit lane in formation behind the pace car. The green flag waves, and without further ado the 24 hour race is officially underway. The roar of the collective horsepower can be felt from any point throughout the grounds, and probably within a mile radius of the actual race track. Standing behind the protective chain link fences, you are within about 30 feet of the passing cars. The resonance of the exhaust rattles your chest, and after a while feels more like pressure than sound with every passing vehicle. The heat from friction and combustion cut the chill of the night air, and a thin veil of haze from exhaust and rubber lingers below the lights for the entire night.
Around 7:30 pm the daily Florida downpour rolls in, dumping Skittle sized raindrops and completely saturating the track for 45 minutes or so, keeping drivers on their toes to avoid spinning off the course until pit crews can swap out slicks for wet specific tires with tread. The track stays damp for a few hours after the shower, and vehicles send up huge rooster tails of spray from their diffusers and giving a visual display of the redirection of air normally invisible to the naked eye.
Despite multiple cars spinning due to the rain, the race would continue with surprisingly minimal cautions- only for this year in comparison to last year’s 21 yellow flags. Numerous tire failures wouldn’t even stop the race, and as a result the number 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac would complete a record of 808 laps before the checked flag waves. In fact, the top 15 cars would all break the overall mileage record for the Rolex 24 previously set in 1982. The Chip Ganassi racing Ford GT’s would go on to win first and second in the GTLM class, and celebrate their 200th team win at Daytona. Lamborghini would take their first manufacturer win in the GTD class via the Grasser Racing no. 11 Huracan GT3.
24 hours. 1440 minutes. 86,400 seconds. It’s a test of will both for teams and machines alike, and even as a spectator it’s no easy feat to stay awake through the night. If you can fight the warmth of your sleeping bag and the relative comfort of your tent, your reward will be some of the most exciting racing you could hope for, and a chance to be right in the mix of the action in the garages and pit lanes. It’ll always be worth the trek from wherever in the world you are, so pack a tent and your gear and rough it for a weekend around the campfire with a few friends, and embrace the symphony of raw horsepower circling you day and night.
P.s. Label your firewood so the asshole at the campsite behind you can’t blame you for stealing his.