As a true fan of Motorsport, winter is not really one of the things I look forward to. In fact, as I get older, my tolerance for the shorter days and the cold, gray weather is waning and I find myself getting impatient as motor racing in general goes on hiatus. However, just when it appears that winter will never end, we begin to see the initial signals of a new racing season. The press speculation increases, and social media crackle with gossip about new drivers, new teams and the new season. But the best part is the reveal of the new cars, and this year Porsche would be launching something special.
At the end of the 2016 IMSA season, rumors began circulating that Porsche would be making some significant changes to the legendary 911 RSR platform. Thanks to the recently implemented BOP (balance of power) rule changes, the previous generation 911 RSR had struggled to stay competitive against newer platforms from Ford, Chevrolet, Aston Martin and Ferrari. Typically, year over year changes are evolutionary, but for Porsche, 2017 was going to be a revolution. The new 911 RSR was moving to a mid engine design. And they would launch it at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.
As passionate Porsche people, we are fortunate to have a long and storied racing heritage that is intrinsically connected with brand, and the opportunity to attend my first race at the historic Daytona Motor speedway to see the launch of the new 911 RSR seemed both appropriate and timely, if not somewhat nostalgic. You see, back in the mid 1980’s, my stepfather raced a genuine Porsche 935 K3 in the Daytona 24 hour race in a low budget privateer effort. (More about that later).
So the stage was set and Fred Quintana and I packed our bags and headed for Daytona. This would be a first for both of us; and I for one was looking forward to a nice break from the cold Kansas City winter. Watching the new RSR race at Daytona in January seemed like an excellent idea; Warm temps, blue skies and lots of racecars at the greatest Motorsport complex in racing. What could possibly go wrong?
Arriving late into Orlando on a Friday night, we jumped in our rental car and headed off to our hotel, some 25 minutes from the track. All of the choice hotels near the track were sold out months in advance, but we found a reasonably priced Hampton Inn about 25 minutes away from the track, which worked out just fine. Free breakfast too. (lots of bacon included).
On a sunny, albeit cool Saturday AM, we headed off to the track, excited about seeing Daytona for the first time. About 10 minutes down the road, the TPMS sensor on my rental car flashed on. Terrific. We pulled over only to discover that there was a shiny screw imbedded in the left rear tire. We found a gas station, pumped it up and continued onward, with Fred being his usual calm and analytic self. I was cussing under my breath, hoping that we would actually make it to Daytona.
First of all, unless you have actually seen the Daytona Motorplex, it is difficult to describe just how big it is. It is a massively huge complex, and apparently much improved after a recent multi year, $400 Million dollar renovation. We arrived at the track and all of Fred’s usual well executed, advance planning had paid off. The original set of tickets were lost in the mail, but he was informed that this was no problem, and we were informed to just show up at will call and they will get us all handled. When we stepped up to the ticket window and informed them of our plight, the elderly volunteer lady looked at us like we had two heads. After about an hour wait, they re-printed our credentials and we were on our way. Fred was his usual calm and analytical self. I was not happy to say the least, and there was a little profanity present.
Important tip for first timers: Pay for the good parking.
Entering the infield from the tunnel entrance, we broke out into the daylight, and were stunned at just how big this track really is. From across the infield, over the motorhomes, tents and various outbuildings, you could see the famous high banks in the distance.
We were at Daytona. Originating back in 1962 as The Daytona Continental, the original 3 hour race was first won by Dan Gurney, in a 2.7 Liter Coventry Climax; ironic as Gurney was a factory Porsche factory driver at the time, but the 718 he was driving was considered too slow and too small to enter the race. How times have changed.
We headed over to the garage complex to review the cars and explore just how close we could get to the action. As we walked between the massive car haulers and the pit garages, we impressed at how accessible the cars and teams are. We were up close and personal, rubbing elbows with fans and drivers, and with cars of all classes in various stages of preparation. It was clearly evident that this event was very important to the manufacturers, as evidenced by the multi car factory backed teams from Cadillac, BMW, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Corvette, Ford, as well as Porsche and newcomers Acura and Lexus. For a motorsport enthusiast, this was nirvana.
It did not take us long to locate the Porsche garages and throngs of fans surrounded the new Porsche RSR’s. As we peered into the pit garage, the initial impression was that the new cars are lower and wider, with some really advanced aero, but the big change was the huge splitter assembly in the rear of the car, where the engine used to be. We walked with the team as the cars headed over to the scrutineering tent for final inspection and got a chance to eyeball the cars from all four corners. The Porsche crews were amazingly tolerant and friendly given the size of the crowds. Clearly, Porsche Motorsport is serious about putting the RSR back in the winners circle, and on this day in their debut, the Porsche’s qualified 6th and 10th, placing just behind the turbo charged Ford GT’s which would play out in dramatic fashion later on in the race.
On Saturday afternoon, the atmosphere grew more electric with the anticipation of the commencement ceremonies, and much to our amazement, they let us out onto the track. Imagine an estimated 100,000 people swarming the lawn and heading over to the start finish line, climbing the actual high banks of this storied course. Fred and I even got a chance to sign the start finish line. It was epic.
As the driver introductions began, the sunny skies turned to gray and the temperatures began to drop, and inevitably, rain was forecast for most of the event. We decided to view the start of the race from the grand stands, just above the flag stand at the start/finish line.
Television simply does not do the start of this grand event justice. The sound and fury of 55 cars divided up into 4 classes, roaring by the start finish at full throttle and then braking hard into the left hand infield corner is both amazing and dramatic. The noise is intoxicating, but not as loud as NASCAR. More of a blend of exotic sounds, combining naturally aspirated thunder with the whistles and pop of the turbo charged engines. It did not take long for the classes to sort themselves into running groups.
Fastest were the new Prototypes, followed by the spec series Prototype Challenge cars, followed by GTLM, and lastly the GTD classes. With 55 cars and over 200 drivers, this was quite a spectacle.
As we headed into the infield to view the race up close from turns 3, 4 and 5, it became apparent that the once common strategy of drivers moderating their pace after the start in the hope of insuring that both car and team were positioned to finish the race, had been abandoned to what now had become a full blown 24 hour sprint race. As the cars exited turn 6, and onto high banked oval, I recall the story of how my step dad told me about how difficult it was to manage the huge turbo lag in the 935. During his first stint, as he exited from the infield onto the oval, he mistimed the throttle at corner exit and when the boost came on two seconds later, he spun the car. That year, his Daytona 24 ended prematurely as the car broke in the middle of the night, but not before he spun the car another 2-3 times in the rain.
Lap after lap, the speed at which these modern cars entered, navigated and then exited each corner was amazing to watch, and difficult to comprehend, given the physical forces involved. And this would go on for 24 hours.
All through the afternoon, the roar of the engines continued and we visited some of the many vendor booths and displays, as I am always a sucker for a free T-shirt. We even located the PCA Tent and Car Corral and perused their display. We covered what seemed like miles of the infield, with acres of encampments ranging from million dollar motorhomes to pup tents and everything in between. As darkness crept in and the temperatures continued to drop, I had to talk Fred out of riding the big Ferris wheel, and we called it a day. Once back at the car, we were relieved that my tire on the rental car had not gone flat and we headed back to the hotel, with a brief gourmet dinner at IHOP. We were living large indeed.
Sunday morning, we were greeted by cold temps and rain and we commented on the way to the track what would it have been like to drive in this stuff all night. We arrived at the Motorplex and as we walked from the tunnel into the infield, the roar of the engines greeted us right where we left them, some 12 hours earlier. The only difference was that the once new and brilliantly liveried racecars were now covered with grime and dirt, and some with apparent body damage, after battling it out during the night, in the rain. As the infield came to life, the storyline began to develop for what was to be a dramatic finish.
The Cadillac Prototypes had been dominant all night, and as morning moved into early afternoon, they were clearly trending toward a win. In the lower classes, some great racing was happening, as the track began to dry out and the lap times dropped. In GTLM, the battles continued between Ferrari, Porsche and Ford, with last year’s winning Corvettes thundering mid pack. We headed up into the grandstands to watch the finish, and as the race drew to a close, the new RSR’s were running second and sixth with the #911 Porsche driven by Patrick Pilet, (clearly driving the race of his life), began to close in on the leading #66 Ford GT driven by Dirk Mueller. The turbo charged Fords were faster on the straights, yet the new mid engined normally aspirated RSR would draw close in the infield, and at one time both cars appeared side by side, braking hard, entering into turn 1, where the Ford would yield no room for the new Porsche. As the checkered flag dropped, the Cadillac Prototype of Ricky Taylor finished first overall, while the #66 Ford GT finished first in GTLM with the new Porsche RSR driven brilliantly by Patrick Pilet, finished second, having exhausted his tires. Amazingly, Porsche did add another win at Daytona, as Michael Christenson in a previous generation 911 GT3, finished first in the GTD class!
For a Porsche enthusiast or anyone considering attending this event, put this on your bucket list. It is a spectacle that you will not soon forget.