Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Daytona 24 Hour Race

The 24 Hour race at Daytona is, for crews, quite possibly the toughest road race in the world. Some thoughts:

It’s dark for just about twelve hours, much longer than at Le Mans. Le Mans is dark for only about half as long, between its June date and its northern latitude. And the “new” start time for Daytona of 3:30 PM, instituted just a few years ago (for TV?) insures that it will get dark very soon after the start of the race. Of course, the darkness isn’t as big a challenge for the drivers as it might initially appear to be. The course is fairly well lit, not at all like blackness of Le Mans, Sebring, or the 25 hour race at Thunderhill. For the crews, the effect of the long darkness is this: You know you are going to have to miss a night’s sleep. So, you want the night to be over, so you can at least stand a better chance of staying alert in the light of the second day. But, the night drags on and on, and so do you.

The early visit to the garage
The worst thing for any team member is, sometime in the first half of the race, getting that radio call from the driver that the car has been involved in an incident or isn’t running right. If the solution takes 30 minutes in the garage, you are totally out of contention. And yet, there’s still the remainder of the night’s sleep to miss, 10 more pit stops to accomplish successfully, and the reward of loading a trailer when it’s all over.

It’s the first race
Preparing the car is a lot of work. Everything on it has to be touched, freshened, made ready for a long trouble-free run. As soon as the race is over, there is even more work ahead to restore the car to top condition for the next race.

It’s a 24 hour sprint
Yes, I know the TV commentators are fond of pointing this out every year. Yes, they are right. The significance of this isn’t really about the cars, though. The cars, both DP and GT, are fully capable of being run hard for 24 straight hours, without any babying. The real significance is on the crew. The engineers have to be on their game for race strategy and tactics. The over-the-wall guys have to execute 24 or more fast and flawless pit stops.

Smart phones and other connectivity
Having an Android, iPhone, iPad, or Blackberry on the timing stand has become essential. The number one reason is to monitor weather radar. That's such a biggie! A very close number two is NEVER losing touch with your drivers. It used to sometimes be fun to locate the driver who was due for the next stint. Beyond that - tweets, Facebook status updates, and texting help keep everyone in the loop. If done correctly (and not obsessively), they don't get in the way of running the race. This year, our PR guy was updating the website every hour or two, direct from the timing stand, via his PC's wireless card. If done wrong, it's just tech obsession. If done right, everything is lifted a notch.

Grand-Am doesn’t allow carbon brakes, which can comfortably last 24 hours. With the “sprint” nature of the race, teams may choose to run aggressive pad compounds, in search of improved braking performance. For an engineer working on a unfamiliar car, or for a new team, or for a team running its first 24 hour on a new brake pad compound, there is always a bit of uncertainty. Did we get enough practice running to forecast pad and rotor life accurately? Have we correctly judged the tradeoff of braking performance against brake life? Will we get a conveniently timed caution flag to allow changing pads, or will we be stuck with changing them in a green flag pit stop?

Is it cold enough for you?
The overnight low is frequently in the mid 40s, and can be colder. That doesn’t sound so grueling, does it? Not so. Being outdoors, and yet largely immobile, for eight or ten hours straight in mid 40s, with no warmth from the sun, can be chilling and draining, both physically and mentally. There’s no secret, but having a tent with enclosed sides, staying hydrated and well fed, and wearing every stitch of warm clothing that you own can all help.

The payoff
Win or lose, there’s a fine sense of accomplishment that comes with seeing the checker. That’s what keeps us all coming back.

See you there next year!