Daytona Rolex 24 Hour, 2014
Green Olives and Grapes
Words by James Edmonds
Photographs by Thomas Murray and James Edmonds
Daytona Rolex 24, 2014. It’s all about managing your expectations. I learned this the hard way as a little kid: My dad could barely contain his tearful merriment as he saw a moment straight out of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (or in this case “England’s”) unfolding with that aircraft meal as we headed for Sicily. The grape that I had on my plate and was saving until last with eager anticipation turned my face to horror and his to tears of laughter when I realized what he’d known all along – that it was not a grape after all, but a green olive! I might have liked olives – it‘s just that I was expecting something completely different – and I wouldn’t eat another one for more than 15 years!
So heading to Daytona amid swirling rumors about the decay of road racing in America, I have to admit to a certain amount of trepidation this year. I have been plenty of times in years past, but I’m not a huge fan of the track to be honest – it seems all caged in with chain link fences and gates everywhere and I hate the garages. It just doesn’t give me the warm and fuzzies. When I saw the GTP Jags doing battle with the Porsches and Nissans back in the ‘80s, the cars were so fantastic that I forgave Daytona for its shortcomings. Looking back on recent years it was perhaps a combination of uninspirational machinery and a NASCAR track that kept me from chomping at the bit, hence my apprehension this time. I suppose that watching Toyota Corollas battling it out in a spec race at Spa would be awful too no matter how grand the venue. What I mean is, that you need to have great cars and a great track to make it really work, but no matter what – you gotta have cars that inspire passion. Without them I would rather sit home with a cup of tea and a good book.
I’m not alone in lamenting the loss of the ALMS and my beloved LMP1 cars (here in the US), but I was positive about the merger with Grand Am and the newly named TUSCC series (hopefully they can find a better name and acronym soon!). Despite my reservations, I looked forward to the first race of the new season. The mix of cars in the GT field along with the promise of more to come, for me at least is an exciting dawn on a new era. These cars are not spec racers – they are diverse, distinct and disparate and arouse devotion among their respective loyalists. I admit that I found myself in a quandary now that there were Astons and Audis battling in the same class!
Ace photographer Tom Murray and I headed up on Wednesday evening and met up with other ‘Camp Amigo’ members Dr. Dave, John and JR at the weekend. Due to the bitter cold of 34° the first night, there was not much camping to be done as we enjoyed real food at a real restaurant and slept in proper beds. My, we are getting old!
|The author with John Hindaugh
It was a thrill and a pleasure to come down for breakfast to find John Hindaugh and Eve Hewitt from Radio Le Mans sitting there next to us. After a quick hello, we struck up a conversation which we had to reluctantly break away from as noon approached…we could have talked all day about the new series, Formula E, Le Mans, new hybrid technology, McNish’s retirement, you name it. I have to make it a point to do an interview with him at some point soon! (I followed up these prophetic words and had a terrific chat with John at Sebring. See separate article)
My mojo started to return after this chance encounter and we headed for the track with a spring in our step. A hot lap in an RS7 first thing also helped to rejuvenate me and I got to see exactly why the Daytona 917s had windows cut into their roofs for visibility on the banking!
Seeing the brace of new cars in the paddock and the large number of fans already gathering, there was a certain excitement in the air and with lots of big name drivers both current and retired strolling around, it really lent validation to TUSCC. Recently retired legends Allan McNish and Dario Franchitti seemed to be enjoying themselves as did Corvette ambassador Ron Fellowes. Emerson Fittipaldi, Danny Sullivan, Derek Bell and David Hobbs strolling around and shaking hands with the fans made everyone feel a lot better and although they couldn’t help the frosty weather I’m sure their presence helped melt some of the ice with the naysayers.
As it turned out, the sun shone brightly and I was greeted by the same friends, the same teams – as well as some new ones – the same crowds and the same close racing. The paddock and garages still turn me off but it didn’t seem as bad as I remembered.
After the event, some big name journo’s in some big name on-line magazines made fairly disparaging remarks about the new series. It seems that the coming together of Grand-Am DP and ALMS P2 machinery has caused a lot of money to be spent and a lot of expensive time wasted. Why couldn’t they all just “run what they brung” and see what came out in the wash later in the season?
By contrast, the people I spoke to at the other end of the grid in the new GTD class (a lesson in sports racing acronyms is a plus here) seemed quite chuffed. One team’s lead engineer said, “I couldn’t be happier. I think it’s fantastic. All the same guys from IMSA are here and willing to help. That wasn’t always the case with Grand-Am. Something that the public doesn’t see or hear about is the new communications system that we are all tapped into. It’s made a huge difference. Either you’re on board or you don’t care about sports car racing in the States. It’s just like the ALMS but with NASCAR money. The performance questions will get worked out.”
As one who is in the trenches and actually working on the cars and with the circus, this is a guy’s opinion that I trust and it makes me feel a lot more at ease for the future I can tell you. So it seems that managing my expectations helped me to avoid disappointment. I may have gone in expecting olives but I’m happy to have come away with grapes!
The ‘works’ Aston Vantage V8 that competed in GTLM had been sitting here since the last WEC race in Austin last fall and was brought out here for a run prior to being shipped back to Prodrive in Banbury. Seasoned AMR veterans Darren Turner, Stefan Mucke and Pedro Lamy teamed with Paul Dalla Lana and Richie Stanaway for the race. Whether she makes a return for any of the bigger races here will remain to be seen, but team manager John Gaw did concede that if the organizers can get the Balance of Performance sorted out giving the team a chance to win, then appearances at the bigger races may be on the cards.
The bigger excitement however came from these shores in the form of Kevin Buckler and his TRG outfit. AMR has seen success over here since the historic winning debut of the DBR9 at Sebring in 2005, but having never had a partner in the USA, the races were typically ‘works’ run efforts only for the bigger events. That has all changed now though.
The Racer’s Group has been winning in sports cars here for many years having started up over 20 years ago. TRG took an historic overall win here in 2003 with a 911 becoming one of only a handful of teams to capture overall honors in a GT car.
This season Buckler has embarked on a partnership with AMR to become the face of Aston Martin Racing here in America. As if running two V12 Vantage GT3s liveried in a sinister satin black wasn’t exciting enough, throw in the fact that AMOC member Robert Nimkoff was to be driving at the inaugural event made this truly a team for members to rally around!
I was able to pin down the energetic team leader with the help of his very friendly staff for a brief chat so that we can understand where it all started and where it’s all going.
“Motorsport has been our life and profession for 20 years. Unlike a lot of the team owners, this isn’t something else I do for fun. We ran one of the top sports car teams for many years with Porsche, so when the opportunity came along to assume that role as the Mother Ship here in North America with Aston we jumped on it. Aston – fantastic brand. Great race cars. All of the things that as a team owner I’m looking for.”
As one who doesn’t try to conceal his obvious enthusiasm, I can see also that Mr. Buckler doesn’t suffer fools gladly and that this ship is a tight one. For those who are not familiar with TRG, I ask for a little history lesson. “We started the company in 1992 out of my garage. I’d sold a business and I really wanted to be in motor sports. I was already an amateur racer and the question is always, ‘How are you gonna make a living at this?’ So we worked very hard and we did it completely the hard way. I had no money, no backing, or daddy or anything like that. I was very passionate about Porsche, about racing and all of us – myself and my team – we have a very strong work ethic. So as we pushed through ‘95, ‘96, all the way to the early 2000’s, I was our lead driver, the decal scraper, the water bottle changer. But the team grew and grew and we really hit our stride in 2002. We had our very first sponsor – we had been so lean and mean that we actually had money and it was amazing what we could do and we crushed it for a couple of years!
“2002 and 2003 were just epic years and for me – boxes I could never believe I checked. Winning Daytona and Le Mans in 2002 as a driver, winning the Porsche Cup that year as a driver, then to came back to Daytona in 2003 and win the race again this timeoverall in the GT class. That had never been done.
“In 2004 I realized that with all the good young drivers out there, I was more valuable steering the ship than driving the car. So I switched hats. Complete full time owner. Business continued to take off and General Motors asked us to run their Pontiac GTO program in ’05 and ’06 – very similar dynamic to what we’re doing here. We had a fantastic year in ’06 and won all three championships!
“We reverted back to Porsche and ran with the prototype for a while in ’05. But there are many teams that run Porsches and they run them through the motor sports division. Astons never had a foothold in this country for racing. Maybe a wealthy guy would buy a car and race it, but then fade away. Here we need someone to help get the (GT4) Challenge series going, really get the dealers behind it, gets the fans and the owners behind it, but they don’t have anyone to rally around so they’re looking for information. When the opportunity came about to being that team, I said, ‘Okay. I like it. I know the brand’s cool, let’s do a little deeper dive.’ Well we found out that AMR builds a helluva package.” He hums and with raised eyebrows carries on, “Nothing is cheap and the brand is so small, but we still made the choice of saying, ‘You know what? Let’s do this!’ because with the merger of the series we are truly at a magical time for sports car racing.” Having raced in many disciplines in this country, he is well poised to speak knowledgeably on the subject and carries on as if the world is about to end. “All other forms of motor sports are wounded in some way – some mortally – I don’t know if Indy car will ever recover and all the NASCAR series are struggling to make ends meet. We’ve had double digit growth in our series for five straight years. The merger has a strong management team, a fantastic schedule, great TV package.
Our brand with TRG has persevered through thick and thin, we’re strong and – oh yeah! – We’ve got the Aston partnership. You can see that we’ve got the busiest garage (The place did remain packed, and the lovely ladies on hand I’m sure had nothing to do with it! JE). We’re a very humble team, we earned all this ourselves. Our roots are hardcore, no chest puffing, no nothin’!”
Like any successful person in any walk of life, he has his detractors, but it’s hard not to be affected by and get caught up in his effervescent and affable charisma as we laugh and joke excitedly about the fickle nature of the Race Game. He obviously revels in the David and Goliath nature of his team against the world, “Look at the lineup in GTD: 27 cars, the juggernaut of the Audi factory must have 30 guys here. Same with Porsche. Ferrari is strong, there’s BMW and the Vipers are back, but (with Astons) there’s just us right now.”
For most teams, running a pair of new cars in a new series would be enough to be getting along with, but not for TRG. Kevin expands on the team’s plans for the future, “We have four definitively different programs running this year. We did launch the new GT4 Challenge series, all based around the Vantage. The first race will be in May and we have 10 guys signed up already. Totally different to the Ferrari Challenge and a different vibe. Our drivers like having fun and the cars are very competitive but easy to drive.
“Pirelli World Challenge is a sprint format and runs in conjunction with Indy car. Out of the blue that series last year started growing and this year we have four full time cars committed. The Continental Challenge – we have two cars here. One is owned by us and one is a client’s and then we have those two wicked cars in GT3.
“We’re very excited to be leading the charge with the brand here in the US and hopefully we can deliver some good results this year.”
It seems like an ambitious project, but if anyone can pull it off, TRG can. Having battled with grit and determination to get where they are today, my money is on Buckler to pull it off.
During the race the team led the class at one point, but in the long night the cars suffered from a variety of bad luck calls, front end damage and mechanical issues that caused some lengthy stops. In the end though, the cars finished the race with dignity. With new cars for TRG and a 24 hour race, they were able to overcome some big obstacles that could easily have caused a lesser team to throw in the towel, but valuable lessons were learned and importantly, much experience was gained for the next round at Sebring in March.
Spotlight – Aston Martin Owners Club member Robert Nimkoff (Planes, trains and automobiles)
Many AMOC members in the Northeast will likely be familiar with Bob, but there will be many others who aren’t. Hailing from Weston, CT, Bob took part as a rookie in this year’s Rolex 24 as a member of the TRG squad in one of their V12 Vantage GT3 cars running in what is arguably the class that holds the most interest for a majority of the fans: the ultra competitive GTD class.
I had a chance to steal a few minutes with Bob between team duties to learn more about his campaign. I’m lucky that I did as he nearly didn’t make it: Being caught in the ‘Arctic Vortex’ he managed at the last minute – literally – to catch a 26 hour train ride from New York down to Florida after his flight was cancelled. As we chatted, he was still catching his breath from the dash he made across town to make his connections!
|Robert Nimkoff with TRG lovelies
I ask the self deprecating and instantly likeable Nimkoff to start off with a bit of background on how he came to be driving in one of the world’s biggest races. “I was in commercial real estate and property management for three or four years and the company decided to expand into shrimp farming in Ecuador. I can’t stand real estate – suit, tie, paperwork. I’m an outdoorsy kinda person. I became the VP of this fledgling seafood business and we grew it into a pretty big importer. I left in 2004 and went on my own for three years. So later I sold my business and that was the impetus to help me to pursue my passion for racing. I had the funds and had the time and it went from track day hobby to getting my license. I started racing BMW’s and that led to me buying my Vantage. It was my 50thbirthday and I’d always wanted an Aston so I joined the AMOC. It’s such a small community that everybody knows everybody and I somehow got connected with Nicholas Mee in London who was racing in the GT Challenge. They asked me to come race at Silverstone in the 24 hour and we came first in class, second overall. That was really my first foray into racing a Vantage.”
He chuckles as he looks skywards and carries on, “They had a car for sale, so I bought their car and brought it into the States. I had it classified with the SCCA and of course they were scratching their heads, ‘What do you mean FIA spec roll cage?’ They were used to looking at garage built things so factory built race car? ‘What the hell is that!?’ They spent more time ogling it and fighting over who was going to tech it!”
Going from SCCA to the Rolex 24 is not a small jump. How did the connection come about? “Again, it’s that serendipity and networking kind of thing. One of my ex-driving coaches told me that TRG was putting on an open day at a private track in Monticello, New York, ‘Why don’t you bring your Aston?’ I got there late that night and the only seat available at the dinner was right next to Kevin Buckler. We hit it off and he was always wanting to do something with Aston. He saw my car and loved it. We met again at the Le Mans festival and I also met John Gaw (Technical director at AMR – JE). Kevin and John started talking and that really kindled Kevin’s passion to bring Aston Racing to America, because the Brits had tried to do it directly but without a US partner and it just didn’t work. TRG is the perfect partner because it’s BLING! It’s corporate events and patches and stickers and flags and that’s the kinda thing you gotta do.
“I was racing my Aston down at Summit Point and got a voice mail. He said, ‘Rob! I’m thinking about bringing Aston Martin Racing and taking over the partnership in America. Do you want to be a part of it?’ and I said, ‘Yes!’ I didn’t even ask him, ‘How much!’ So that’s how it started. I was the first investor and was intimately involved in the negotiations with Prodrive. This is the one year anniversary.”
The Rolex 24 this year is Bob’s first major event on an international stage, but he takes it all in his stride. “I’m jumping in at the deep end! It’s the biggest event I’ve done but not my first 24. I did Silverstone and Dubai. You have to find time to relax which is not easy. There’s so much complicated information coming at you because of the strategy in the race that I just don’t have that much experience with. I’m just trying to absorb it and not to overly fixate on the details.” I ask if he will be given equal seat time and he answers with measured pragmatism, “It all depends on how the strategy goes. If Jonny (Adam – AMR driver) is in the car at the end of the race they might say, ‘Stay in the car because you’re doing really well and we’re that close’ instead of putting me in to ruin it! And I don’t wanna be in that position! It’s too big of a race.”
As it turned out Bob equitted himself with aplomb and got comfortable after his first stint. I caught up with him in the pits on Sunday morning to find him beaming having just got out of the car. I chatted with him a few days later for some post race thoughts. “Just finishing the race – although we didn’t finish as high as we wanted to – the fact that our cars and the factory car finished was a positive launching point for the rest of the season.” Was the experience an enjoyable one after all was said and done? “Yes, but I think my emotions ran the gamut of, ‘What the hell am I doing here? I shouldn’t be on the track with these world famous racers’ to when I had my second stint on Sunday and was feeling better with the car and improving my pace and getting overtaken in a less quick fashion! From that perspective I learned a lot about how things are done at that level and I really got an amazing appreciation not only for what the top pro’s do, but even as I’m on the banking – an appreciation for what the Indy and Daytona 500 racers do just for two or three hours and what phenomenal athletes they are.
“Also the team camaraderie was great. We had a very good group of guys and it was a building block. Whether I do Daytona next year again I don’t know but if things worked out I would definitely jump on it. It was a great experience,” he laughs and ends our conversation with, “but the best part of the whole event, was that I didn’t have to take the train back!”
Look for Bob at the SCCA majors or at select GT4 Challenge races this year around the country.
While searching the paddock for the British cars and drivers, I was able to catch up with Aston Martin’s longest serving driver in the modern era. The always willing-to-chat Darren Turner gave some insight into last year and what’s ahead. He also talked candidly about the loss of friend and team-mate Allan Simonsen.
“Overall it was a good year. Le Mans wasn’t the lowest point of the year…..it was….. the lowest point of my racing career. Full stop. To have someone that I’ve raced with, in the same car and against often, and a key player in what we were doing last year…for him to lose his life like that was really upsetting and made everyone reflect on it and everything we do. I look at it though and think that Allan had a great life and he was doing exactly what he loved – there were lots of positives about his life.”
With Sebring off the WEC calender, AMR have announced no plans to race there, although we remain hopeful. As a 24 hour event, Daytona makes a good place to evaluate the car and the competition though. “Our main test will be Portimao in a couple of week’s time, so this is a bonus race for us. It’s good that there’s five of us in the car getting time and extra knowledge, but in reality this is exactly the same car that we ran last year. It came straight from the race in Austin and it’s not been out of America since. It’s not got any updates that we’re going to run in the WEC championship this year.”
Even to the casual observer, there are glaring differences between 24 hours at Daytona and the same race length at Le Mans. Daytona is much smaller but with a similar field, so traffic is always present. The nights here are quite long whereas at La Sarthe they are very short. I asked Darren how he approached the two very different races. “Le Mans is the big race of the year, but Daytona, Nurburgring and the Spa 24 hour are all the same sort of race – a lot of fun and a lot of competition as well. It is different because there’s no tire warmers here, so during the night it can be quite tricky getting temperature into the tires, especially if it goes under a full course yellow. Turn one is tricky under braking as you’re coming down from such a high speed to what is a first gear corner for us. It’s always a compromise between what speed you want on the straights and the banking and what speed you want on the infield, so it’s a nice balance to try and get right.
“It’s a different discipline racing in America but everyone enjoys it over here. There’s a nicer atmosphere in the paddock; from the organizing side it’s a more friendly and open format.”
For people like me who have spent their whole lives around Astons (if not always fortunate enough to be a custodian!) the history of the marque holds a lot of mystique. I didn’t expect Darren to know that Viscount Downe had ran two cars here fifty years ago, but he does have a sense of the magic, “You don’t appreciate the history until you’re looking back. The car we have now, we just use it and abuse it to get the results we need. Last week I was in London at an evening talking about the GT1 heydays. When you look back you realize that was a great period of cars and racing with the Corvettes at Le Mans. At the time – when you’re driving the car – it’s just a tool to do the job. It’s after that you get to appreciate how good a car it was.”
Fatherhood is another new experience for Darren and racing hard now is just as important as ever. “It hasn’t changed my outlook, but it’s made me more aware. What happened with Allan last year really brought it home for all of us who have families. It just makes you appreciate…” Darren pauses to choose his words carefully , ”…not to changeanything – you still drive as hard as you can – probably drive harder now because you’ve got mortgages and school fees to pay! But it puts a whole new perspective on life.”
As he has for some years now, Darren enjoys his time off by racing vintage cars. His latest car is – fittingly – a Turner which he will race at Goodwood this summer. He has also acquired a ‘90s era F1 car which he hopes to campaign in the next year or two. “What is it?” I probed. With a wry smile he teased, “You’ll ‘ave to wait and see!”
The LMP Oak Racing Morgan was there waving the banner for the Brits in the top class and although I was not able to pin him down, young English driver Oliver Webb was added to the team and put in some great lap times at dusk during the race getting the car as high as third overall. After an alternator replacement in the night, the car emerged way down the pack, but brilliant driving by the team saw the car finish eighth overall standing them in good stead for the next round at Sebring – a track more suited to the ‘P2’ machines.
Despite my inability to find some of the lesser well known drivers, I was able to have a chat with Audi Sport team driver and last year’s Rolex 24 and Sebring winner Oliver Jarvis (and recently announced Audi full time-works driver for the 2015 WEC – JE) who this year would be piloting an Audi R8 in the ultra competitive GTD class . “I had a fantastic year last year winning here at Daytona and at Sebring. It’s a shame we couldn’t top it off with a Le Mans win, but you’ve got to be happy with a podium there – you just never know what’s going to happen.” Having been a winner of the McLaren Autosport Young Driver of the Year Award, Oliver has risen through the ranks and recently spent four years with the Audi DTM squad before being promoted to the hallowed ground of the Le Mans team. He is well positioned to speak about the big differences of racing the two types of cars at very different circuits, “The biggest difference here is how the safety car works. In Le Mans it really is a 24 hour sprint race. Gone are the days when you have to look after the car and keep an eye on the engine and the brakes. It’s now 24 hours of absolutely pushing to the limit. Daytona is similar apart from the respect that a lot more can happen. For example, if you go two or three laps down you have a lot more opportunity to make it back because of the safety car procedure and the wave-bys. We don’t have that in Europe, so here as long as you have the time you can make laps back. The key is to stay on the lead lap, then the last four or five hours become a sprint for the finish.”
Having raced and won in LMP1 cars, the US spec GTD R8 is a completely different proposition. Is there a favorite? “I love driving both,” he smiles. “With the P1 car you have a huge amount of aero grip, also from the tires, the car’s very aerodynamically efficient. When we jump in the R8, the tires are much harder, a lot less aerodynamics, there’s no ABS on this car, no traction control which is what we do run on the R8 in Europe. It’s a big difference just from the European R8 to the R8 Grand-Am. In that respect it’s big…but when you compare to the Le Mans car it’s a different world!”
Team mate Allan McNish was recently in the headlines when he announced his retirement from the sport having just won Le Mans and the WEC Championship. Surprised? “It was a shock. I certainly thought he’d continue for one or two more years. He’s still unbelievably fast. I wouldn’t tell Allan this,” he chuckles, “but I’ve always looked up to him. He’s always been there and I quite often bend his ear. He’s a great guy and I think he’s made the perfect decision for himself and his family. He’s done everything and there’s nothing left to achieve. It’s never easy to walk away but why not when you’ve won everything and probably had one of the best years of his life.”
The recurring theme amongst the British drivers is the fact that they love plying their craft on these shores. Oliver is no different, “I like to think I’m a fun loving guy who is happy to chat with anyone, so please come and say, ‘Hello’. I’ve been on the European team for a long time but I’d like to do a lot more here in America.” We can only hope!
|Danny Sullivan and a chilly Stefan Johansson
Although not a Brit, he qualifies as an honorary Englishman due to his many years living in Blighty, and anyway – who could resist a quick conversation with Danny “Spin ‘n’ Win” Sullivan? I asked him what makes this place special for him. “The great thing about the Daytona 24 hours is that it’s a bit like racing out on the M25. You’re always in traffic! It’s fairly compact and with the different categories of cars it’s a really exciting, never dull, always busy experience. I’ve loved this place with another Brit – Allan McNish – we won here in ’98. It’s”, he pauses for the right words, “It’s Daytona! It’s not Le Mans but it’s got its own special quirks particularly with the banking.” What is his take on the current cars? “I think that the merger had to happen. Why have two series with sports cars, especially in our economy? I know some people are happy, some people aren’t happy. That’ll probably change once they get the performance all equaled out, but if you walk up and down this area you’ll see sixty something quality teams in here. All good equipment, all the latest stuff, good crews and a good strong group of people. What we’re ultimately going to have is great racing. Are some big teams going to have problems tomorrow and in the next 24 hours? Are there guys that maybe don’t that you wouldn’t expect? Sure, but that’s just racing. I think it’s still ultimately gonna be the right move.”
The last legend I managed to catch before he performed his duties as Grand Marshal at the race start was none other than David Hobbs. Surely the man with more self-coined colorful adjectives than any other would have a favorite memory of Daytona? “Well one of my favorite moments was when I first came here in 1962 when I was just a lad to drive an E Type in the very first running of this event – a three hour race – and I met Stirling Moss for the first time and he was my hero. It wasn’t like today when you can run at an eye-watering pace for 24 hours…we only lasted 16 laps!”
With that we all retreated to the comfort of the Audi suite above the start/finish line in time to hear Hobbo proclaim that most famous line, “Gentlemen! Start your engines!”