DECEMBER 19, 2013

How teams overcome the significant night component at the Rolex 24 At Daytona    

With sunset in Florida in January just before 18:00 and sunrise close to 07:15, night is a serious component of the Rolex 24 At Daytona. The race start is at 14:30 EST on Saturday and by the time the sun crests the eastern horizon of Daytona Beach on the Sunday morning the drivers will have spent over three-quarters of their race negotiating the dark. A third of the total race time is still to be run.

In the words of David Donohue, a winner in the GT class at both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Rolex 24 At Daytona: “You have to enjoy the night to race at Daytona.”

Darkness is a relative term. The Rolex 24 At Daytona is driven entirely within the Daytona International Speedway, and benefits from close to 2,000 lighting fixtures around the circuit. These are run at 20% during the night, and Jeff Hazell, a former racing team manager who has tasted success at Le Mans, makes the point that, in essence, the night presents drivers with similar problems to the day: “They need to focus on braking points, a corner’s turning in point, its apex, and the exit clipping point. They need to watch for oil, gravel and debris. Hands follow eyes, even at night.”

Maximising racing time
There is common consensus that the most significant, but hardest aspect of the night is to avoid making a mistake, getting hit, or running over something on the track. “In a 24-hour race it is not so critical to be the fastest car, it is important to spend the least amount of time in pit row,” says Mike Colucci, a 37-year veteran of Daytona and team manager of Napleton Racing in 2013, winner of the debutante GX category. This is easier said than done.

As the Saturday night draws on, and most people are going to bed, the drivers and pit crews face a long stretch without the luxury of uninterrupted sleep to keep mind and body sharp. The race may start in the afternoon, but most team personnel have been up since the early morning preparing the cars. By the middle of the night fatigue has firmly set in, as Michael Shank the principal of Michael Shank Racing, overall winner in 2012, explains: “We work about 38 hours straight. Right before it gets light bodies can be slumping. Typically this is when bad things happen, just because of the tiredness.” 

Driver’s view
For the drivers the night session has to be approached as just another period in the race. “We are not allowed to choose what time we drive,” explains Alex Gurney, winner of the 2007 and 2009 GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series Daytona Prototype drivers' championship and son of American motor racing legend Dan Gurney. Gurney says drivers just accept the darkness as part of the game, even if it presents added difficulties: “At night, when you are in the race car you have a lot of lights coming from different directions, oil on the windshield, debris all over the track, and sight lines are closed in. You don’t have the same vision, so you have to have a heightened sense of awareness.”

Donohue also points to reduced vision as one of the biggest challenges, especially deciphering what is a stationary light and what is a light of a car: “There are so many lights around the track and in the paddock that they can get caught in your mirrors. At least on the banking it gets nice and dark. The rear view mirrors look into the pavement; if there are lights you know it’s a car.”

Drop zone
The hours of darkness also lead to a drop in temperature, which has a significant impact. In some respects it can help, according to Hazell: “The cooler temperature can mean more power from the engine, and may allow a softer tyre with more grip. Fastest lap times are often posted at night.” Jon Fogarty, co-Rolex Sports Car Series champion with Gurney in 2007 and 2009, points out that: “[Night] affects the balance of the car pretty quickly, but there are only so many adjustments you can make in the timeframe of a pit stop.”

Some relish the night hours; relating the experience to the surreal feeling of being cocooned. German driver Mike Rockenfeller, a winner at the Rolex 24 At Daytona in 2010, is in his element: “It’s a special atmosphere, like being alone in a tunnel. If the car is going well it’s a really enjoyable part of endurance racing.” He admits that in between stints at the wheel: “It can be difficult when it’s cold and you’d rather stay somewhere warm. But you have to get on with it and you soon get back in the groove.”

Time management
Managing minds and bodies is part of the science of endurance racing. The drivers benefit from a rotation system: the opportunity to remove themselves from thenoise and activity. This is particularly helpful during the night hours. At the Rolex 24 At Daytona, standard practice is to race with four drivers - one in the car, one ‘on deck’ in the pit and the remaining two resting in a motor-home located within the circuit, but away from the distractions of the pit lane.

Ron Barnaba, principal of Napleton Racing, explains how the rotation helps keep drivers as close to peak readiness as possible: “We have one person to take care of the drivers to make sure they can sleep, rest, eat, and hydrate. We don’t want them thinking of anything but the race.” Even if a driver struggles to fall asleep Hazell says that evidence suggests just lying still is 70% effective. Fogarty finds: “The ability to rest between stints changes each year. Some years it seems pretty easy, and you feel rested. Other years, say, if it is colder or there’s rain, it can wear you out.”

For some the greatest problem is finding the discipline to take themselves away from the pits to switch off. Recently retired, veteran racer Dario Franchitti once commented: “It’s a catch-22 situation. I want to watch the race, because it’s exciting – I’m a race fan and I want to see what’s happening. On the other hand I’ve got to distance myself and focus on my job.”

The pits
The night world of the pit crew is wholly different matter, whether in a top Prototype team or in a smaller GT team. According to Shank, even if he had the budget he would struggle to find sufficient skilled crew to rotate them. Colucci takes the point further: “We have almost twice the number of people we would have for a 6-hour race. Even so, the technicians have to stay up all night.” Despite the fatigue it seems the pit crews would have it no other way. There is a professional pride in their work and a desire to see the complete race through to its finish whatever it takes.

With cars pitting every 45 – 50 minutes, the technicians remain at their post throughout the night. As soon as they find a moment for a powernap their car will inevitably pit for an unexpected reason. “They are on it all the time,” says Colucci.

Night masters
Hard experience helps managers prepare their troops for the long night hours at the Rolex 24 At Daytona. To keep his crew focussed on the task at hand, Shank is not opposed to catnapping, but: “They keep their headphones on.” Colucci installs a couple of “surprisingly comfortable” zero-gravity chairs in the pit area. Yet, while driver nutrition and rest patterns are planned carefully, there is no special training for the crews. “It’s hard to practice the exhaustion,” laughs Colucci.

From a driver’s perspective, the night component at a 24-hour race is something you may never get completely comfortable with, however many years of experience. According to Rockenfeller: “It doesn’t matter how many times you drive 24 hours it never gets easier, except perhaps knowing what to expect.”

For the team managers knowing what to expect can make that critical difference between success and failure. Shank has a ‘bible’ recording his notes from years of running teams, and before each Rolex 24 At Daytona emphasises to his team: “If we follow this path, and the car stays in one piece, we will get a podium at this race.” 2012 was proof of this philosophy.

Colucci, whose first introduction to 24 hour racing as a mechanic back in 1975 ended in success, draws on his considerable experience to avoid the night component becoming an issue: “Treat it like any other race. Make sure that the car is bulletproof, that mechanical pieces do not fail, that bits do not fall off or wires separate and make sure people stay focused.” If only it was that simple.