Words and photos by Jack Webster
No matter how you look at it, the Rolex 24 at Daytona is exhausting – a non-stop endurance contest for everyone involved. The preparations actually began far earlier than the actual start of the race at 1:40pm on Saturday, January 28 – as the teams and participants had spent the months since the final lap of Petit Le Mans last fall getting ready for the 2023 season and this event. The drop of the green flag on Saturday afternoon was merely the start of the official Rolex 24-hour clock and only on Sunday at 1:40pm did we know who the winners and losers would be, whose work paid off, who triumphed and who failed. It was a survival of the fittest as it were, and not only for the drivers, but for the crews, officials, vendors, spectators and even the photojournalists like myself.
I am in the unique position of having participated in this great race both as a photojournalist (many times) and as a Team Manager (for the Porsche Fabcar team in the 1980’s). I know the ups and downs of this event, what it is like to have victory seemingly in your grasp only to have it taken away just when triumph seemed so certain, the sense of accomplishment that comes with just finishing this grueling day, night and day of racing, the heat, the cold, the dry, the wet, the fog – every conceivable weather condition you can imagine to go along with every conceivable emotion you can imagine. You don’t experience the Rolex 24 at Daytona as much as you survive it – and it becomes something that you look back on with fondness from the comfort of your easy chair once you have returned from the race and had a chance to reflect on all of your experiences there. Without doubt, the Rolex 24 at Daytona is one of those things that “reads better than it lived”. But for all that triumph and tragedy, numbing discomfort and fatigue – you wouldn’t go back in time and change a thing, for the experience of surviving 24 hours of racing at Daytona is something to cherish forever – it unites you with all that have come before you and all that will come after you. As Merlin said in the great film ‘Excalibur’ after King Arthur conquered his enemies: “Be still and look upon this moment. Savor it! Remember it always, as you are joined by it…for it is the doom of men that they forget.”
The 2023 edition of the Rolex 24 witnessed the birth of a new era in worldwide sports car racing with the debut of the GTP prototype class with all new cars and new hybrid powerplants designed to propel IMSA and sports car racing into the future. Word certainly got out about how monumental the Rolex 24 was likely to be, as a record crowd filled Daytona International Speedway to witness a sellout grid of 61 cars in 5 different classes compete for overall and class wins. Leading the charge were nine new GTP cars – two from Acura, two from Porsche, three from Cadillac and two from BMW – a great start to the new era in which John Doonan and the whole crew from IMSA should take great pride.
But I digress – this story isn’t meant to be a race report per-se, as that cut and dried info is available elsewhere. If you were interested in just the race itself, you could have watched it live or seen the results immediately following the race online. Suffice to say that the Meyer Shank Racing Acura won the race overall, taking a 4.190 second victory over the Konica Minolta Acura (and a devastated Filipe Albuquerque), the LMP2 win was by inches and decided at the line, while the AWA team got their first IMSA class win in LMP3 (over the unfortunate Sean Creech Motorsport team that led most of the race), GTD-PRO was captured by Mercedes and WeatherTech Racing, and finally GTD was won by Heart of Racing’s Aston Martin (actually finishing ahead of the GTD-PRO winner).
This is a photo story, a diary so to speak, of my experience covering this classic endurance race. The photos represent what I witnessed from the time leading up to the race and then throughout the race itself. It is certainly not intended as a catch all of everything that occurred during the week, but merely a snapshot from my point of view. If it gives you a sense of what it was like to be there, then I have achieved my goal.
I arrived at the circuit on Wednesday morning, having driven down from Ohio, looking forward to some warm Florida weather. I made my way to IMSA and Daytona International Speedway registration to pick up my IMSA hard card media credential (I will be covering quite a few IMSA WeatherTech races this season as in previous years). Then I checked in at the Media Center and Photographer’s Room to say hello to some old friends that I hadn’t seen since Petit Le Mans last fall. There were no cars scheduled on track on Wednesday, so with all I needed to do finished, I took the afternoon off to visit the Kennedy Space Center, which was only about an hour down I-95 from Daytona. It seems natural that most people who follow auto racing are also big fans of airplanes and spaceflight. I know I certainly am, having grown up in Dayton, Ohio in the shadow of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, the home of the Wright Brothers and the site of their research and many flights on Huffman Prairie. There are a lot of parallels between prototype race cars and spacecraft or airplanes. Both require innovative thinking and state of the art design and both require massive support teams to operate successfully. All of this was in evidence both at the Kennedy Space Center and in the garage area at Daytona International Speedway. As a matter of fact, the new GTP cars required so much extra support that those teams were permitted to bring extra transporters which were parked in a special compound in the paddock.
Since qualifying was all concluded the prior weekend at the Roar Before the 24 and the grid was set (Tom Blomqvist put the MSR Acura on pole with an outstanding flying lap), Thursday through Friday was the opportunity for the teams to work on their race set up and hopefully work out any bugs that may happen to bite them during the race itself – particularly among the GTP teams. There was a lot of talk among the worldwide media assembled about the reliability (unreliability?) of the all new GTP cars, with a number of people (myself included) voicing the opinion that perhaps an LMP2 car might be able to take the overall win. However, going into the race, it was apparent that Acura had a good handle on speed, while it looked like the Penske Porsche 963 might have an edge on reliability (having done the most off-season testing).
On race day, the grid was packed with fans, as more people than I have ever seen at the Rolex 24 were on hand to soak in the pre-race festivities. I roamed up and down pit lane a few times taking people pictures before taking my spot for the start of the race, right below the NBC broadcast booth at pit out.
According to the IMSA pit notes, at 1:32 pm the air temperature was 64 degrees with a track temperature of 84, under sunny skies. It was quite comfortable.
The prototypes took the green flag at 1:41 pm, with Tom Blomqvist in the MSR Acura in the lead going into Turn 1. Ben Keating in the #52 Wynns ORECA took point in LMP2 (one of my picks for a top spot – perhaps for the overall win). The very quick youngster Nico Pino was on point in the Sean Creech LMP3 car at the start.
After a few laps of shooting from the pit lane, I moved over to the International Horseshoe to get some shots of the cars there. At 2:35 pm Blomqvist made his first pit stop for fuel only and retained the overall lead of the race. At 2:47 pm the first of the GTP cars experienced difficulties, as the #25 BMW was towed to the garage area after having been stopped on the course for about 15 minutes. The first chink in the GTP armor?
By 3:30 pm I, along with my friend Martin Spetz (who shoots for Daily Sports Car) hiked all the way over to the bus stop (now renamed the Le Mans Chicane – but everyone still calls it the bus stop) to watch the cars there for a while. That’s a pretty long walk, and unlike Sebring, where we get a golf cart to get around, at Daytona we just hoof it everywhere.
It was certainly beginning to look like we weren’t going to get a colorful sunset, as pretty thick clouds had been descending on the circuit since the start of the race, and Martin and I commented that it looked like the lighting conditions would be just going from dim to dimmer and finally dark, without the usual colorful sunset. That’s a shame for the photos, but we can’t control the weather. At least it was comfortable and not raining!
At 4:16 pm, eight of the nine GTP cars were still fighting it out on the lead lap (85 laps at this point), while the #25 BMW was still in the garage, some 55 laps behind the leaders. However, the first eight cars were separated by only 9.9 seconds.
Martin and I had separated by this point, and as the light grew dimmer I walked from the West Horseshoe back toward the International Horseshoe. By the time I got around there, what little dusk there had been, faded and it was time for a break, so I walked to the Media Center for some dinner. Hat’s off to Daytona International Speedway for taking care of us in the media with breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The next big event would be the fireworks at 10 pm, so before heading back out onto the circuit I grabbed my tripod and old school manual focus Olympus 28mm lens, which I had adapted for use on my Sony A9ii camera.
A quick word on camera gear. I have been using Sony equipment for the past couple of years, and find it excellent for my work. It is fast, reliable, great in low light and not too heavy to carry around all day and night. I currently use the full frame Sony A9ii and Sony lenses: 16-35mm, 24-70mm Zeiss, 70-200mm and the 200-600mm. All are quite sharp and the autofocus is outstanding when used with the A9ii. I also just picked up a manual focus full frame fisheye lens, the 11mm ED made by TTArtisans. It is nice glass as well. I also have a full complement of Olympus OM system film cameras, but never seem to have the time to get them out and actually use film like in the old days. Perhaps at Sebring this year…
By the time it was totally dark I was taking a break in the Media Center and saw that Filipe Albuquerque was currently leading in the Konica Minolta Acura, followed closely by Simon Pagenaud in the MSR Acura, only 1.5 seconds apart. At this point, 7:39 pm, there were six GTP entries on the same lap, with the #24 BMW one lap down, and the #7 Porsche 963 20 laps in arrears after having to replace its high voltage battery. The #25 BMW was back in the race, but now 82 laps behind the leaders. So far, the bulk of the new GTP cars were running well and without issues.
By 8:59 pm, Ben Keating had taken the lead in LMP2, while up front Alex Lynn had just taken the top spot in the #02 Cadillac and at 9:01 pm Marco Sorensen made a routine pit stop from the lead in GTD with the #27 Aston Martin and in LMP3 the Creech Motorsport Ligier was once again at the top of the leader board. It seems like every time I looked, the #33 was up front in LMP3. At 9:15 pm the #23 Aston Martin took the lead in GTD-PRO, so things were looking pretty good for the British – they were now leading both GTD and GTD-PRO.
I was at the braking zone for the International Horseshoe, setting up for the fireworks along with about every other photographer who was still at the track. The fireworks went off right on schedule, I got my shots and then hung around for another hour or so taking night shots as the cars entered the corner and exited by the Ferris wheel. That Ferris wheel has become pretty iconic at Daytona and you just have to include it in some of your night pan shots. The problem is that the shot has become somewhat cliché and the challenge is to try and make night shots that are a little bit different than all the others you see.
By now it was approaching midnight and the race had settled down to a rhythm of racing, pit stops and yellow caution periods. I usually leave the track and go to my hotel for a few hours of sleep and then return before dawn, but this year I decided to hang around and just try and get some rest in my car. Since it wasn’t freezing cold at Daytona this year, it was pretty comfortable in the car and I was able to get some rest.
At 2:37 am the GTP battle was still close and going strong and it actually looked like earlier predictions that most of them would have difficulties during the race was going to be inaccurate. Simon Pagenaud was leading in the MSR Acura, followed closely by Alex Lynn in the Cadillac. The #6 Porsche 963 piloted by Dane Cameron was in third, followed by the Cadillacs of Scott Dixon and Pipo Derani. Marco Whittmann was next in the BMW and those six cars were only separated by 32.303 seconds after almost 13 hours of racing. The Konica Minolta Acura followed 3 laps down, the #7 Porsche was 16 laps in arrears and the #25 BMW was 133 laps off the pace.
About 4 am I headed to the pits to get some night pit stops and just hang out waiting for the sky to lighten before going back out on the circuit for early morning photos. I enjoy working in the pits in the early morning hours, for things have settled down to a routine and a few cars have exited the race, leaving more room in pit boxes to be able to maneuver and get good photos. Plus, at zero dark thirty, there aren’t many shooters to compete with for shots, so you can take your time and perhaps be a bit more artistic in your efforts.
Still hard at work in the pits were IMSA’s Johnny Knotts and his crew of pit lane officials. They have a really tough job and are on their feet for hour after hour of the race. Most of his crew are female and are unbelievably professional at what they do. Johnny is to be commended for putting together such an outstanding group of talented people. I always say hello and make sure to get photos of them in action, which I then share on Facebook so their friends and families can see them in action.
Dawn broke and I shot for a while in the morning light at the horseshoe. Then it was off to the Media Center for breakfast and to watch a little of the action on the televisions there (they also had monitors showing timing and scoring, so it was easy to get caught up on what was going on). A note on that: when you are out shooting for hours at a time, it is easy to lose track of what is actually happening, or how dramatic the race is becoming. I also have the IMSA app on my phone, and can check timing and scoring while out shooting, but frankly, you have to spend most of your time really paying attention to what is going around you and not looking at your phone. Safety first, as they say.
At 9:53 am the Corvette C8.R driven by Jordan Taylor had worked its way to the top of the leaderboard in GTD-PRO, holding a slight lead over the WeatherTech Mercedes AMG. This was somewhat unexpected as the Corvette had lacked the outright pace to lead on speed alone, and their strong showing was a tribute to the outstanding strategy and pit work done by the Corvette team. Unfortunately, they ended up second in class after a flat tire and a brake change, but they were vying for the win for most of the race.
By noontime I had made my way back to the pits to take in the drama of the last hour or so of the race. By 12:18 pm the race for the overall win had come down to pretty much a four-car battle: the #60 Acura of Tom Blomqvist was leading Earl Bamber in the Cadillac, with Filipe Albuquerque in the Wayne Taylor Acura third and Renger van der Zande fourth – all on the same lap and less than two seconds apart. The other GTP entries were out of the picture for the overall win, being down 13 laps for the #31 Whelen Cadillac, 16 laps for the #24 BMW, 34 laps for the #7 Porsche 963, 40 laps for the #6 Porsche 963 (it ended up retiring with a broken gearbox) and finally 132 laps in arrears for the #25 BMW.
It was, however, shaping up to be a shootout for the overall win, as well as each class win, with just over an hour to go.
At 1:07 pm the yellow flags flew for the 14th time in the race and the field packed up for the dash to the finish. At 1:15 pm the green flag flew for the final time with Tom Blomqvist in the MSR Acura and Filipe Albuquerque nose to tail at the restart – and both going flat out for the win. In the closing minutes, Albuquerque was held up in traffic and Blomqvist was able to pull away for a tight, but comfortable 4.190 second victory.
In LMP2, the #55 car crossed the line mere inches in front of the #04 car, winning by just .016 of a second and going from 4th to 1st in the last couple of laps. In GTD the #27 Heart of Racing Aston Martin took the win, finishing in front of the GTD-PRO winning #79 WeatherTech Mercedes. In LMP3 the AWA Racing Duqueine D08 took the win with the dominating Sean Creech Motorsport Ligier having to settle for second place after a late race electrical issue.
With the cars coming into the pits, it was time to grab a few shots of Helio Castroneves and his teammates once again doing their “Spiderman” routine climbing the fence, while a devastated Filipe Albuquerque pulled to a stop right in front of me and climbed, deflated, out of his Acura and held his head in his hands. He was soon joined and consoled by his teammates before regaining his composure and heading off to accept the 2nd place trophy.
Then it was off to Victory Lane for the celebrations by the winning drivers, their crews and respective owners. But you know, everyone who finished this race was a winner, and each had their own stories to tell. For everyone sees this race from their own perspective, and no two perspectives are alike. Most of these stories will remain untold, or just shared with friends and family. Another Rolex 24 is in the history books, and we are all off shortly to the next round, coming up in March at the legendary Sebring.
I walked back to my car, took off my gear and packed it away. After savoring the Florida warmth one last time, I settled into my car and began to head north. My memories of this edition of the Rolex 24 at Daytona were preserved both in my head and on the camera memory cards that I had just packed away.
In the meantime, it will do us all good to remember those words of Merlin: “Be still and look upon this moment. Savor it! Remember it always, as you are joined by it…for it is the doom of men that they forget.”
We should all take those words to heart.
See you at Sebring where more new memories will be made.