Vernon’s Really Excellent Daytona Rolex 24HR Rookie Experience
by Vernon Ellinger
The big day is almost here. After last year’s race RJ Valentine told me I must do a Daytona race at least once in my life, so when Bruce Ledoux offered me the opportunity to be a part of his team I jumped at the chance.
Wednesday, January 21
Not only do I get to experience a Daytona 24hr from the inside, I get to do it with a team that is raising money for Children’s Hospital Boston, one of my favorite charities. To get the team some more exposure, I connected Bruce with Ed Harding, a local news anchor who found the story compelling enough to spend forty-five minutes with the drivers and put together a story. Inauguration day will no doubt keep the segment off the air for a while, but I hope it does run and generate some donations to Children’s.
I arrive at my hotel in Daytona, having driven by the track and checked out the route/entry for tomorrow. My rental car has fold down rear seats, so I bought an air mattress and blanket to throw in the back just in case there is some down time during the race. I really don’t know what to expect, as I’m working with a team where I only know one of the drivers and my race crew experience is limited to supporting my brother, Jim, in his Spec Racer Ford at a few SCCA events. I’ll be a “spotter,” which I know involves something like being “eyes in the sky” for the drivers. I think that I observe and anticipate things pretty well, and figure that if I just stay out of the way and volunteer for anything that needs to be done they’ll think I’m worth having around.
Thursday, January 22
Picking up credentials goes smoothly—my name is on the list and I get a pass with a big “P”. I’m told it gets me in almost anywhere, including the hot pits, and I realize this must be one of the most coveted pieces of paper at the track—second only to driver credentials! To me, the credential is priceless, but I do notice the cost and realize that my being here isn’t cheap for the team. I am even more determined to earn my keep. I find that I am now affiliated with The Racer’s Group (TRG), the professionals who provide all the support and logistics for five cars running the 24hr and two running in a separate 3hr race (Koni Series). It was really cold waiting in line—29 degrees last night!
I sense that this is going to be a little different from SCCA races when I see the scale of the operation and think about who is here. I find the TRG garage and hospitality rig, and it’s confirmed—this is going to be a LOT different from any race I have been to before. Everything is at the highest level imaginable, and then some; from the team of mechanics to the gals who keep the team supplied with food, beverages and transportation. I notice it right away and throughout the weekend: these TRG folks are dedicated and know what they are doing, down to the smallest details. One thing I do already know is that’s what it takes to be successful in racing.
There is trouble in the garage. The #63 car had a close encounter with the wall at pit-out, and the mechanics are tearing apart the right front corner. Not serious, but it means the first practice session is a write off and there is one less radiator in spare parts inventory. Very cold track, sticker tires and adrenaline—bad combination! Probably a five figure hit on the budget, too. I get a really good look at the car, and notice things like three layers of full windshield tear-offs. Makes sense, but I haven’t seen it before. Watching how the pros work, I’m picking up a lot that my brother can use at his level of racing. Throughout the weekend I think he should be here for this experience but Uncle Sam has sent him to Turkey for three years.
I walk over to the Daytona Prototype garages to see how the big money teams are set up, and find Juan Pablo Montoya signing autographs near the hot pit entry. He turns to go in and the crowd sort of sighs; I miss half a beat before I realize “hey, I can go there too” and follow him in. I don’t look back to see the reaction, but I sense I have left a few jealous people behind. I go to the TRG hot pits and watch the action during the Koni Series practice session. Behind the pit wall it looks like what I have seen on F1 broadcasts. Besides the guys who jump over the wall to work on the car, there are elevated seats with lots of data monitors and communication links. Looks like you could run a nuclear power plant with this setup. Kevin, the TRG boss, is always there and very friendly, but definitely keeps things under tight control. There is a monitor with the Speed Channel broadcast live, and I discover that their turn 1 camera looks straight back at the TRG pits, so what’s happening on the broadcast is also happening right in front of me. I’ll have this swivel head experience many times throughout the weekend—watch some pit action or an interview right in front of me, turn to watch it on the television, go back to live… This stuff isn’t just happening somewhere in front of me, it’s happening TEN FEET IN FRONT OF ME!
After an hour, practice is over and I go back to the DP garages. Montoya & Pruett practice driver changes. Stop, disconnect, get out, help other driver in, buckle up and connect, close door, go—all in 32 seconds first time and they get faster from there. You get a sense these guys take every second of the 24 hours seriously.
I go to lunch with the team. The drivers are a great group, and I know I’m going to enjoy working with them. Second practice session starts at 1:30, so I go back to the hot pit to watch & listen in. Bruce runs a 1:54.9 fast lap, and the best pro has run 1:50.6. I’m impressed—our guys are for real! Our last driver calls that he has been hit on pit exit by a car trying a hero move—hey, it’s only practice! Sounds like the other driver was being a bonehead—maybe he was an FCA track day yahoo before moving up to this level. The session is over for the #63 car, so we head back to the garage. More body and radiator work, more lost practice time, and another hit to the budget. The car WILL be ready for qualifying later today, though. These guys are realizing their dream, but it isn’t coming cheaply.
I wander over to the classics area and drool over the display cars. There are a lot of great cars with fantastic history, but my favorite is the Ford GT that was built as a road car for the project manager and later converted to a racing machine—even won some important events.
Still no assignment, so I try to be useful and ask Bruce what I can do. The team has brought some extra radios so friends & family can listen in, but they are a different brand from the TRG radios and need to be reprogrammed to work with this car. I take responsibility for getting them to work. TRG can’t do it, but suggests I try the SpeedCom Rep (even though these are Motorola radios). It’s not rocket science, but it is time consuming and an effort to get all the information the rep needs to do the job. Also takes time since he is busy supporting everyone with SpeedCom radios.
Back at the TRG trailer I run into RJ Valentine. He has been on the podium here a few times, and is co-driving a car with a serious shot at winning. He says I should have told him I was coming and I could have gotten a ride down on the jet. Nice.
I have gotten the radios sorted out and arrive at the garage wearing one. I’m listening to Bruce asking for a radio check. Qualifying is from 4:15 to 4:30, and the car needs to get to the grid. When I hear an exasperated Bruce say “this is car 63 for a radio check, can anyone hear me” it occurs to me that something is wrong—he can’t communicate with his crew chief! I may be a little slow, but I realize I have the solution and answer Bruce’s call. He points to Mike, the crew chief, and I stuff the radio in Mike’s hands and tell him it’s working. They are both gone in an instant—like a cartoon where the character goes poof and you see a little cloud of dust and footprints. I grab one of the other radios and head for the hot pit. Looks like Bruce would have had to qualify without comms if I hadn’t been looking for something to do during the day. Feel like I earned my keep already; also feel like maybe this isn’t so different from SCCA at Lime Rock after all! Mike, the crew chief, spends a lot of time on the radio calming Bruce down and providing encouragement. It’s nerve wracking for rookies!
He qualifies last, with a PR 1:53.4, but brings the car back in one piece. RJ’s #1 driver is Andy Lally, who is one of the best around. He has the GT pole with a 1:49.5 until two laps to go, got pipped by 0.1sec. I stop and think about this—Bruce is just 4 seconds off the pole time of best professional driver there on a 3.6 mile track. That may be a lot of time in racing, but it’s really nothing when you consider that for one it IS a career and for the other it’s a pleasant distraction FROM a demanding career.
Pruett (& Montoya) in the DP class got pipped from the DP pole by 0.001 sec by Mark Donohue’s son David. Mark Donohue won this race 40 years ago, so this could get really interesting.
Dinner at the track was upbeat, as the drivers celebrate being there and having a car on the grid. I’m really beginning to like these guys. I saw that Danica Patrick is supposed to be there and ask about her. Turns out she is sitting at the next table. She’s not that hot in person and, I hear, not that quick either.
Night practice starts at 6:30, and two of the guys go out. The track is brighter than I expected, but probably doesn’t seem so bright from the cockpit. Car #63’s crew chief, Mike, is now my best friend and willing to answer my endless questions. His priority is getting headlights aimed to the drivers’ satisfaction (can aim four—two ahead and two apex lights). I use a scanner this time to follow all four TRG cars and the car to pit conversations from the pro drivers is amazing—very technical and analytical (describes precise handling characteristics at several corners, then says, “so give me plus one rebound on the front left shock please”). They are able to have long conversations while driving the car fast, yet they sound like they are home sitting on the couch.
Friday, January 23
I have been looking out at the beach and ocean from my hotel room, but haven’t gone down to the sand. I check it out before heading to the track, so I’m running a little late. As I’m walking in I run into Bruce coming out to watch the morning practice session at a tricky part known as the bus stop. We drive over but can’t find a place to get a good view, then notice a guy cooking breakfast next to a pickup truck with an improvised crow’s nest. What can we bribe him with to let us up there for the session? We meet Dan and Dave, offer them a chance to get into the garage and meet the top GT drivers (our drivers too, of course), then scramble up to the platform. We are just inside one of the NASCAR turns—31 degree banking.
I haven’t used earplugs yet, and actually thought about the volume being lower than expected, but that all changed. The wide open throttle combined with the steeply banked turns really ups the decibels. I look at all the tents in the area and am glad I won’t be trying to sleep there. Bruce is on the radio with the driver while I practice taking pictures of the car with different lenses. Turns out I got some great shots there. Practice ends at 9:45, so we go to the turn 3 braking zone for the last two laps. We are right off the side of the track and I get my best shots of the car on-track there.
The car goes out again from 11:00 to 11:20, and I am off to on-the-job training for spotting. We ride over on a golf cart, as it’s a long way through the infield, under the last NASCAR turn, and along the front straight to the main grandstand tower. Up the elevator to floor 7, where the top corporate boxes are, and up two flights of stairs to the roof. The entire 3.6mi track is visible. I learn the spotting job from Rick, who has come from the Sacramento area to support one of our drivers. As it turns out, Rick owns a business that supports SCCA racing and knows of my brother—he has been to the same races and seen Jim’s #85 “Navy Reserve” Spec Racer Ford. Small world! I am amazed at how Rick can follow the car around the track lap after lap. I have trouble staying focused and seeing the car and what is coming up behind it. I thought I would be watching the overall track and looking out for cautions, trouble, etc., but one actually follows the car around the whole lap… every lap. If you lose track of the car, it’s nearly impossible to reacquire it until the car comes down the front straight. It is exhausting and I wonder if I am going to be any help to these guys after all. The radio comms are fascinating, and I can see how important they are to the driver, so I will give it a shot. I think binoculars may help my failing eyes.
There was a final practice session from 12:30 to 1:15, but my guys elect to skip it and preserve the car. Another lunch at the track, and there is so much great food I’m wondering why the guys who do this regularly aren’t all 300+ lbs. There is a calmness in the garage compared to the day before, which seems odd since we are getting closer to race time. But, by now everything has been done to the car that can be and I have a chance to spend some time with Mike the crew chief while he is in a more relaxed state. He is a great guy, knows his stuff and is definitely in charge of that car. This is his second 24hr race in two weeks; the last one was in Dubai. I learn things like how many sets of tires each car started with (25), that each car starts the race with all new rotors and pads, that they will have to change the brakes at least once during the race, etc.
The Koni Series 3hr race goes from 1:45 to 4:45, so I spend an hour in the TRG pit where they are supporting two cars. The swivel head effect gets even more surreal as I am surrounded by pit crew and watching the Speed Channel broadcast. I see a TRG car coming down pit lane and notice that the guys aren’t standing around me anymore. The car stops on TV and I see a crew jump over the wall toward the camera. What is surreal is that at the same time, these same guys are jumping over the wall with their backs to me. I watch car… tv… car… tv… until the car takes off and the guys are calmly picking up lug nuts and rearranging air hoses. This is so much better than watching it at home! This was about eight feet away, and I decide to get closer next time for a photo op. I try to be hyper-aware of my feet, as stepping into the coil of an air hose at the wrong time could have really embarrassing consequences.
For the next pit stop I am crouched on the wall with camera ready. I start hitting the shutter as the car pulls up and I end up with 36 shots start to finish. When I download these and scroll through them it will show fuel, tires and driver change like time lapsed photography. Very cool. I head back to our garage and find David Hobbs & Bob Varsha, two of my favorite SpeedChannel broadcast commentators, standing by the TRG garage. They are very friendly and I tell them how much I enjoy their F1 work. Hobbs was a great driver, and I tell him about our amputee driver—he is amazed that someone would pilot one of these things with a prosthesis attached to the clutch pedal. We chat for a while and they pose for a photo with me. Nice guys; maybe they will mention Kurt on the broadcast.
Dinner Friday night is at a local restaurant with team & family, which is great fun. More important, I find a Target store and buy binoculars. Now maybe I can be a spotter after all.
Saturday, January 24—Race Day
I get to the track early because I am worried about traffic and parking. I get a great spot fairly close to the garages, which will be convenient if I can get some down time. Not much is happening in garages, but the crowds build fast and it is a lot different trying to move around the area. The classics are on track at 11:00, so I go to the grid and walk around them as they prepare and start up. The sights and sounds on the grid as these old cars (60’s through 90’s) are fantastic, and being among them as they pull out is another memorable experience.
There is a spotters’ meeting at 1:00, where we learn more techniques. The overall concept is, “Imagine yourself as the driver and figure out what you would like to know.” Since most of my track experience at FCA events involved letting higher horsepower cars by, I should have an advantage there! At 1:30 our drivers pose in front of the car—they look great, seem happy, and are ready to go. I take the long ride to the spotter’s area and settle in with Rick. He is primary and I will just listen in this shift. That makes it easier for me to take in all the festivities.
The cars grid, and #63 looks beautiful there, even if no one is lined up behind it. One car to the front and right is a nice looking #40 Mazda. Not knowing the story about this car will get me in a lot of trouble later. The jets fly over and I once again think of my brother, a navy pilot, and wish he were here taking it all in. The cars roll off—I’m a good 100' above and way back from the track but you would think I am in the car the way my pulse is racing. This is a huge thrill. We hear over the radio that the first two laps will be at 4:00 pace, so it is a parade. The cars are warming up their tires, and I remember a story of a (not to be named) driver spinning out at slow speed on high banking while warming up the tires and want to warn Bruce, but keep quiet. It’s showtime! The cars come by and go racing, but the #63 car isn’t there! Bruce had talked about avoiding first corner heroics, and I realize he is thinking about a 24hr race and is hanging back at least a quarter mile to avoid any carnage…..smart! Rick and I complete our two hour shift, and I have practiced following the car with binoculars. It’s pretty clear to me what the driver needs to know, so I will be ready for the 9:30-11:30 shift. We make the long trek back to the garages, as there is no transport waiting.
I grab dinner and go to the pits. The drivers try to take 1hr shifts, so in theory the cars should be in on a schedule. Sure enough, the #67 car is in at 7:30pm exactly. Those guys are pros, after all, and are in the hunt for a win. Our #63 car has had a big hit into a tire barrier, which several people let me know got plenty of air time on SpeedChannel, and the pit stops are very irregular.
Back up in the spotters’ tower at 9:00pm and start working. Had to walk over; it’s time consuming and not how you want to expend energy with 19 hours to go, but it is what it is. Rick and I trade off on the radio. Relief doesn’t come until midnight, and I am freezing, my back and feet are killing me from standing, and my eyes are fried from watching the car. Still glad to be here, but wondering how I will manage the next shift. I got a lot better at it—figuring out the timing, closing rate of the DP cars, and trying to figure out what situations can arise and how to handle them. I’ll be back at 4:00am.
I make the long walk back to the pits and spend about an hour there. Our car has mechanical trouble and heads to the garage. One more radiator down, and it may be even more serious. I spend a few minutes there and head to my car for about 90 minutes of half-sleep. Another long walk back to the grandstand and I’m back on spotting duty by 4:00. I’m doing much better, don’t feel cold, and start working on getting ahead of the car. I’m also working solo so Rick can take on another car. I’ve thought about the car almost getting wiped out at pit exit, and practice picking up pit activity as our car comes down the front straight. There haven’t been any conflicts, but I’m sure to let the drivers know it’s clear when they exit. Then, I’m following the car around turn one and in the bottom of the lenses I see a flash of lime green. There is only one car this color and I hit the radio button, “DP at pit exit; DP at pit exit” comes out without even thinking. I get a “Great spot, I didn’t see it” from the driver and standing up here all night is suddenly a lot easier to do.
I spoke to the driver later and, as it turns out, that DP came screaming out right in front of our car and we’ll never know if disaster was averted because that’s one of the hundreds of things that went RIGHT during the race to create non-events. I get a tap on the shoulder when relief arrives and can’t believe it’s 6:45am already! Also can’t believe I have to make that long walk back to the garage again.
At about 7:15am I arrive back in the pits and have a look at the results. With 8 hours to go, our team has done 368 laps. The car in front has done 374 and the car behind 354. Mike has been calling for about a 2:00 pace to preserve the car, since you really can’t race your way across that much gap. The #63 car is 33rd overall, of 49 starters, and 20th in class.
At about 9:30am our car is on the Speed Channel monitor—facing backwards in a turn. After what seems like forever, it gets rolling but heavy blue smoke pours from the left rear tire as the fender is rubbing. What happens if it blows? The driver makes it back around 2/3 of the track for a quick stop and back out it goes. Relief! One of our drivers, Kurt, hasn’t yet driven in the race but is hoping to do so. I wish him well and say I hope he goes out while I’m up spotting. At 10:00 I head back for some breakfast before going back to the tower.
Walking back I take a picture of Bruce & Linda Ledoux pushing their kids in a stroller and think about how cool it is to not just participate in this but to make it a family outing! I eat breakfast in front of a large screen TV with the SpeedChannel broadcast. Kyle Petty has been driving, and is sitting in as a guest announcer. They cut away to a cute interviewer and it’s one of our drivers, Kurt, who is being interviewed. She asks about driving with a prosthesis and he answers but turns the conversation around to Children’s Hosptial—great job!
On camera he is charismatic and energetic—same as off camera. He is on for a long time, and they have split the screen to follow the #63 car close up (and only that car) as it goes around the track. This is great, because the only other time our car got coverage was the three times it was pointed the wrong way on the track. I realize halfway through the interview that we need a picture, grab my camera and get 17 shots over the final 9 seconds. When they cut back to the race, Kyle Petty talks about how impressive that was and cites Kurt as an example of dedication to the sport.
Back up to the tower at 10:45, and Kurt is in the car. I give him lots of info about his track position—he cooks turn 1 twice so I let him know every time down the front straight just how much clear track there is behind and remind him have a smooth turn 1. I’ve really come up the learning curve and am able to give him much better support than I could in earlier shifts. Still, I lose the car and take almost a whole lap to find him. Thankfully, his wife was on the radio and covered my lapse while two DP cars went by. At one point, two fast GT cars looked like they were fighting for position and coming up fast, so I was able to give him a few corners warning—it would be a disaster to get taken out by those guys at this point in the race. Rick relieved me early and said he was good to go the distance, so I headed back to the pits.
With 1.5 hours to go I am in the TRG pit talking with RJ and Kevin comes over to say he’ll try to get him in the car at the end so RJ leaves to suit up. I sit to watch the amazing DP race and hear on the PA system that Car #63 is heading off track behind a barrier. Mike and the crew sprint out of the pit. I can’t get an update as no one from the team is around and I don’t want to give up my seat to go back to the garage. This is agonizing! Later, the #63 car goes zooming past the pit on its way out.
Now, they just need to stay out of the way of the cars racing for position and bring it to the checkered flag. This is easier said than done, as after 22+ hours there are four DP cars on the same lap and the first two are fighting for every corner like it’s a sprint race. The excitement and tension in the TRG pit is beyond description—they have the first and second place GT cars (and the 18th place, of course!). RJ is suited up and people are wishing him well. I’ve been emailing my brother in Ankara, Turkey, throughout the race and I know he is watching it live on the internet. I tell him that they are going to put RJ in to take the checkered flag, so he has info that even the announcers/commentators won’t know for a while!
Over the last few laps our car comes in twice and I see new tires go on, but I can’t tell what’s wrong. They have to hold it together! Later I learn that Bruce was so far off line staying away from the DP cars that he needed to have the clag cleaned off his tires. At 23:54-six minutes to go, the lead GT car pits and RJ gets a very warm sendoff. I imagine the reaction from the SpeedTV commentators as the (almost) sure race winning car heads into the pits with only minutes to go.
My eyes are really feeling tired, but emotional lift of seeing the #63 Car take the checkered flag brings me back to life. Of the 750+ pictures I took at Daytona, some are actually interesting and pretty good quality. But, the best one by far is the team of newly minted Daytona Veterans standing behind the car and holding up Rolex knockoffs that someone had the foresight to bring. I sent that photo out with the title “The Real Winners.” A very excellent adventure indeed.
So I am a newbie at this, and showed it after the race. I wanted a picture of RJ getting his REAL Rolex watch on the podium, and so barged into the restricted area during the ceremony. Got some great shots up close in front but some guy waving at me made me realize that I was walking right in front of the mass of professional photographers. I suspect the number of pictures taken of the race winners AND the back of my head is easily in the hundreds!
Not until I get home do I realize that the #40 Mazda, owned and driven by someone named Patrick Dempsey, isn’t just another car. Anyone with a teenage daughter should know that he is the hottie on Grey’s Anatomy, but I have failed and now am in big trouble with my 15yr old daughter for not getting a picture. I sent her an email letting her know of the missed opportunity and this is her response:
AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMGGGGGGGGGGGG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! PATRICK DEMPSEY?!!!!!! YOU DROVE IN THE SAME PLACE AS PATRICK DEMPSEY?????? OHHHHHH MYYYYYY GODDDDDDD!!!!!! OOOOHHHHH MYYYYYY GODDDDD!!!!!! YOU WALKED RIGHT BY PATRICK DEMPSEY????? OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!! PATRICK DEMPSEY!!!!!!!!! AND HE'S SO MUCH MORE THAN JUST DR. SHEPHERD HE'S IN SOOOOOO MANY OF MY FAV MOVIES AND HE'S SOOOOOO AMAZING AND I AM IN LOVE WITH HIM AND YOU WALKED RIGHT BY HIM SEVERAL TIMES AND DIDN'T GET A PICTURE????? YOU BREATHED THE SAME AIR AS PATRICK DEMPSEY?????? OH MY GODDDDDDDD!!!!!!!!
Damn. Now I have to go back again next year and breathe the same exhaust fume laden air as that guy—just to get that picture for her…