The future of sports car racing in the US is actually here. The Tudor United Sports Car Championship (TUSCC) began with the prestigious 52nd Rolex 24 at Daytona on January 25 and 26, 2014. Some of the best endurance racers in the world travelled to Florida with hopes of conquering the triple crown of endurance racing. The cream of the crop from other disciplines like IndyCar and NASCAR also made the pilgrimage to put their names in the record books. Even those who couldn’t secure a seat showed up anyway to watch history being made, and there was certainly a lot to watch. I strolled through the Rolex 24 garages right after the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Daytona Rising 200 on February 24th and was surprised by the amount of activity, not to mention fans. Mechanics, engineers and support staff were everywhere working hard to make sure that every minute detail was taken care of before the big race.
Drivers were there too to practice changes because races can be won or lost on pit road and many have. A botched pit stop can easily undo even the widest lead gap.
Four classes took to the asphalt on Saturday afternoon. Two for professional drivers only with red markings: Prototype (P) and GT Le Mans (GTLM). Two for professional and amateur drivers with blue markings: Prototype Challenge (PC) and GT Daytona (GTD). One of the more ingenious innovations making its debut in this race was the Leader Light System. An LED panel attached to the rear side of each car displayed its current position in the field and in the corresponding color. It made following the race much easier at the track and on television.
There was quite a crowd in the Grandstand. Hopefully this is a new trend and they come back next year with friends because the DIS has more than enough room for everybody, including the dude in the Sprint FANZONE wearing the bear coat.
Every year, sports car racing fans are treated to the Rolex 24 Heritage Exhibition Display in the Goodyear Legends Area. As always the cars were in beautiful condition and we can only imagine how wonderful it was when they were breaking records on the world’s most famous racetracks.
While many fans were kicking back, almost everybody else was hard at work. Pit Road was ground zero for race teams, support staff, race officials and media personnel dressed for comfort and bustling about. There were a number of company reps there as well to see what was being done with their sponsorship money. We’re talking lots and lots of money.
As the sun set, one thing was on all our minds: the crash. Just before five o’clock, Memo Gidley in the #99 Gainsco Bob Stallings Racing Prototype collided with Matteo Malucelli in the #62 Risi Competizione Ferrari F458 Italia. Both drivers survived but Gidley had extensive injuries and required emergency surgery. It was quite a while before their conditions were made public and during that red flag period, the silence from and among the media was heavy. Waiting for information after accidents is quite sickening especially if you know the drivers. The sports car racing community is a small one and this kind of thing hits hard. Thankfully both men are on the mend. The green flag waved again at 6:24 pm EST.
Unlike other road courses like Road Atlanta and Circuit de la Sarthe, the entire Daytona International Speedway is very well lit. Still headlights were switched on in addition to special lights on the GT cars’ roofs that were fantastic to see streaking by along the course. Watching the cars speed by the Ferris wheel on the infield reminded me of Le Mans, albeit a more compressed version of the historic circuit.
The racing in this Rolex 24 was very tight. Multi-class racing is very tight but this race never seemed to ease up even during the night. The drivers were pushing at every turn and the lead changed often. There were little fender benders of course, as all this close-quarter combat driving led to a few very expensive cars taking an unexpected spin in the grass. The small mercy is that nothing was as serious as the sunset collision.
Daylight brought renewed vigor to the competitors, as Fox Sports 1 broadcasters expressed surprise that this blistering pace had been maintained “since yesterday.” As the time trickled towards hour 23, the racing became even more intense.
Inside Dempsey Racing
One of the highlights of this race was my time spent with Dempsey Racing. After having watched the four-part documentary on Velocity, it was fascinating to see them in action. I arrived in time to see a driver change and was impressed with the incredible amount of concentration involved. Every pit stop has its challenges but driver change can be particularly tricky but this one went off without a hitch. However, this team and pit crew were capable and more than up to the task. In a flurry of noise and activity, Marc Lieb was in the #27 Porsche 911 GT and Patrick Dempsey was out. While some racers radiate serenity and calm before getting into a car, Dempsey was the exact opposite after exiting it. Sweat was pouring from his face and his eyes were focused and ablaze. Even though his stint was over, the adrenaline was still rushing through his body.
As soon as he was out of the car, Dempsey was conferring with five-time Rolex 24 winner, Hurley Haywood, who acted as the team’s consultant. This was the time to pass along as much information to the team as possible about the car and of course, the other race cars. In a few moments, he was out of the helmet and presumably making the switch from driver to owner as he spoke with team manager, Greg Cates before taking off to a quieter place to gather himself. Despite his celebrity status and legions of fans as an actor, endurance racing isn’t a hobby for Patrick Dempsey. As much enjoyment and satisfaction it may bring him, he treats his driver duties with the seriousness and dedication of a professional.
Unfortunately the race was full of trials and tribulations for the #27 and #28 Porsches. Both managed to finish the race despite the litany of problems which they valiantly overcame. There were smiles and hugs all around after the checkered flag because they managed the smallest victory – finishing the race. However, this has value as the data collected will be used for preparation for the next race, 12 Hours of Sebring (March 13-15) and ultimately their second appearance in the 24 Hours of Le Mans (June 14-15). They came painfully close to scoring a podium last year and cemented their place on everybody’s radar in 2014.
A Final Word
There was exciting racing all throughout this Rolex 24 with a culmination that was anything but anticlimactic. Joao Barbosa in the #5 Action Express Racing Prototype pulled away from Max Angelleli’s grasp, taking the win in that class. Core Autosport’s #54 ORECA FLM09 – Chevrolet driven by Jon Bennett, James Gue, Colin Braun and Mark Wilkins won for Prototype Challenge after some contention from #25 from 8Star Motorsport. Their lineup included Enzo Potolicchio, Tom Kimber-Smith and Mike Marsal. Porsche North America brought their big guns to compete in GTLM and did not go away disappointed as the #912 Porsche RSR took top honors driven by Michael Lietz, Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy. This must have been a particularly sweet victory for Tandy who is a huge NASCAR fan. The Brit expressed excitement at getting to race on such hallowed asphalt. However, possibly the biggest drama of the day stemmed from the heated GTD battle between Level 5 Motorsports #555 Ferrari and Flying Lizard Motosport’s #45 Audi R8. Although the Ferrari was first to the checkered flag, IMSA penalized them for “contact” with the Audi. Eventually the ruling was overturned and the #555 team which included Townsend Bell, Scott Tucker, Bill Sweedler and Alessandro Pier Guidi claimed victory. The final laps between Pier Guildi and Winkelhock were nothing short of spectacular.
There has been a healthy dose of trepidation in the sports car racing fan community since the unification was announced. The loss of the LMP1 class was unfortunate but now we see that DP’s and LMP2’s can share a class, while we get the benefit of watching truly intense competition. However, sharing space with the GT cars is still another matter. All the competitors will be on a learning curve as they try to balance racing and wrecking. IMSA also has their hands full maintaining order but, they’re not beyond reproach as evidenced by the penalty flip-flop against the #555 car. With twelve fixtures left in the season, they have ample opportunities to get it right. Our full gallery of photos from pit road is available on our official My Life at Speed Facebook page. You can follow up on TUSCC series’ official website as well via social media channels.