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!
|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)
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.
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.”
“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’!”
“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.”
|Robert Nimkoff with TRG lovelies
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.”
|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!”