Slipstream Network
SOURCE: INDYCAR, Brian Simpson

Spotter’s Stand: First timer’s guide to on track action at the Rolex 24

Each year the Rolex 24 at Daytona signals the welcome end of racing’s off season.  Its traditional late January/early February date makes it the first North American race of the year, and 2016 is no exception.

I attended my first Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2011, and 2016will be my fourth time attending.  I’m especially excited because this year I’ll be taking a group of friends to the ‘24.’ It will be their first sports car race, although most of them are avid fans of other racing series.  As I made a list about the differences between sports car racing and other types of racing, it dawned on me how different sports car racing is from other series.  The following are several ‘must know’ items that I’ve put in this‘First Timer’s Guide to On Track Action at the Rolex 24.’

Think of this as a companion to Katie Mech’s excellent ‘Twice Around the Clock and You Can’t Stop.’  Katie focused on the off-track logistics of staying up for the entire race, and her tips are vital to having a positive experience at the ‘24.’  Ignore her advice, especially about layers, at your own peril.  Here, I focus primarily on what will happen on-track, and how to see all of it.

The Rolex 24 is a timed race

Races are typically won by the first driver to cover a set distance.  The ’24’ works differently, awarding the win to the driver who covers the longest distance in a set amount of time.  The 2016 race is scheduled to start at 2:40 p.m. on Saturday, January 30, and will end at 2:40PM on Sunday, January 31.  The series that organizes the race is the International Motor Sports Association, or IMSA.  IMSA signals the final lap of the race by waving a white flag when the race leader cannot complete another lap before the 24 hour clock runs out.  The race will end the next time the leader crosses the start/finish line.  At this point, every car will have a chance to complete the lap they’ve started.  The car that has covered the longest distance during the race will be declared the winner.

Drivers must follow maximum drive time rules

For obvious safety reasons, drivers are not allowed to complete the entire race on their own.  Per IMSA rules, a driver may not drive more than four hours in any six hour period. Furthermore, a driver may not drive more than 14 hours of the race.  Harsh penalties await any team that violates this rule.  In 2015, a car was given a last-place-in class finish after a driver broke the ‘four in six’ rule.

Each car is driven by a team of drivers

In order to comply with maximum drive time rules, teams of drivers share a single car by making driver changes during some pit stops.  Driver changes allow those not driving the car to eat, get a massage, or even sleep while the car is still on track.  Teams are usually composed of four drivers, though three and five-driver teams are also permitted.

The track is a ‘roval’

The ’24’ takes place at Daytona International Speedway and utilizes the majority of the NASCAR oval.  Additionally, the race uses about one mile of the infield road course, which starts at the end of the oval’s pit road and rejoins the oval just before the oval’s Turn 1.  There’s also a short, four-turn complex at the end of the oval’s back straightaway, commonly called the ‘Bus Stop.’  Since the track is a combination of a road course and an oval, race fans often describe the track by combining those words to form the portmanteau ‘roval.’

This is a multi-class race

Imagine that for some reason, Formula 1 and NASCAR are racing at the same road course on the same weekend, and for some reason there is only enough time left in the weekend to run one race.  Instead of cancelling a race, or cutting each race distance in half, both series decide to run their races at the same time.  In this weird race, there are multiple races happening at the same time, and there is a winner from each series.

The same thing happens in the ’24,’ but with four classes instead of two.  There is an overall winner, but there is also a winner from each of the other classes.  Multiple classes are a crucial element of sports car racing.

Having multiple classes on track at the same time presents challenges that don’t exist in other types of racing.  Faster classes must safely pass cars from slower classes without risking an accident, but must not waste time waiting behind slower cars.  It isn’t possible to win a 24 hour race in the third hour, but it is possible to lose the race at that point with an ill-timed passing attempt.  The best drivers in the slower classes manage when and where the faster cars pass them.  Passing on a straightaway costs both cars little or no time, but passing in some corners can cost both the passing car and the car being passed valuable seconds.

There are two styles of cars that will race

There will be two types of cars on track in the ’24’ – prototypes and grand touring cars (GTs).  Prototypes are purpose built race cars that are not sold to the general public.  GT cars look like cars that the public can buy, and include the BMW M6, Chevrolet Corvette, Ferrari 458, and Porsche 911.

There are both professional and amateur drivers on track

Amateur drivers have always played a major role in sports car racing.  Amateurs are willing to spend their own money to race, own cars, and hire professional drivers to race alongside them.  Professional drivers are still usually the fastest on track, but without passionate amateurs, sports car racing may have vanished a long time ago.

Some classes in the ’24’ require participation of amateur drivers in each car alongside professional drivers.  Amateur drivers are permitted in all classes, but not all classes require amateur drivers.

In the amateur classes, amateurs must also adhere to longer minimum drive times.  In 2014, each amateur driver had to race for at least 4 hours and 30 minutes of the race.  I expect the rules to be similar in the 2016 race, although I haven’t been able to confirm the minimum drive times yet.

There are four classes of cars racing

There are a total of four classes in this year’s ’24.’  Two are for prototypes and two are for GTs.  Amateur drivers are required in one of the prototype and one of the GT classes.  The class names are as follows (listed from fastest to slowest).

  • Prototype
  • Prototype Challenge, or PC (requires amateurs)
  • GT Le Mans, or GTLM
  • GT Daytona, or GTD (requires amateurs)

There are three types of cars in the Prototype class

Within the prototype class, there are three different types of cars.

  • Daytona Prototype
  • Le Mans Prototype 2
  • Delta Wing

These different styles of car are remnants of two rival sports car series that merged in 2014.  Le Mans Prototypes (LMP2s, LMPs, or P2s) can be differentiated from Daytona Prototypes (DPs) by the pair of ‘trenches’ or ‘valleys’ that run from nose to tail on top of the P2 car.  The trenches pass on either side of the driver, who sits in the middle of the car, and are especially visible when the car is viewed from the front.  On the other hand, DPs lack the trenches found on P2s.  The nose on a DP is relatively flat from side to side.

The Delta Wing is its own animal.  The front end of the car is extremely narrow, and when viewed from above, the car is triangular in shape.  It was designed to be extremely fuel efficient and lightweight and needs roughly half the horsepower of a DP or P2 to race at about the same speed as its heavier, more powerful competitors.

Theoretically, IMSA adjusts the weight and engine performance of all three car types so that all types have roughly the same chance of winning at each track.  P2s are lighter and make more downforce than DPs, so they excel in high speed corners.  Since DPs are heavier than P2s, IMSA allows DPs to have more horsepower than P2s.  This gives DPs an advantage in acceleration over P2 cars.  DPs also have a faster top speed than a P2 car because they have less downforce, which slows cars in a straight line.  The Delta Wing is exceptionally quick in a straight line, faster than both DPs and P2s.

The acceleration and top speed advantages of DPs and the Delta Wing give them the edge when passing slower traffic.  P2s depend on high cornering speeds to be fast, but high turning speeds can easily be ruined by following slower cars in the corners.  It’s easier to pass a slower car on a straightaway than in a corner, so DPs aren’t slowed as much by traffic.

Realistically, a DP will probably win the ’24.’  Daytona’s roval appears to have a lot of corners, but in reality the oval’s high banked turns are straightaways.  Drivers can negotiate these corners with ease and run through them without using the brakes or even lifting off the gas.  DPs will probably have an advantage over P2 cars on the oval portion of the course because of their high top speed.  The infield portion of Daytona features mainly low speed corners, giving the DPs a chance to accelerate away from P2s when exiting the corners.

Another DP advantage is their durability.  DPs regularly continue unhindered after making contact with other cars.  P2 cars and the Delta Wing are much more fragile, and one mistake can either require a lengthy trip to the pits for repairs, or permanently hinder the car’s speed.

The Delta Wing is unlikely to factor into the final results of the race.  Its lightweight components regularly break in shorter races under three hours in length, even if its drivers avoid contact with other cars.  The ’24’ is like running over eight of these shorter races, so a mechanical failure is probable.  Contact is especially dangerous for the Delta Wing’s components, which are unable to survive abuse.  There’s little chance this car will be running at the finish of the ’24’.

Daytona offers a viewing experience for everyone

The best thing about the ’24’ is how many different ways there are to experience it.  An IMSA race gives fans access that few other series provide.  During the grid walk before the race, fans are allowed to walk up to the cars when they are parked on pit road.  Fans can also walk up the trioval’s 18 degree banking, which is much steeper than it looks on television.  Purchasing a garage pass allows fans to observe teams as they prepare the cars for the race and repair damage received during the race.

During the race, the infield provides many opportunities to sit close to the track.  Fans can watch marbles fly, and hear (and feel) the power of the cars as they accelerate out of one of the two horseshoe turns.  Sitting at ‘The Kink’ shows just how quickly race cars change directions.  Standing at the bottom of any of the four NASCAR turns provides a perspective of the banking’s steepness and the height of the turns.

The infield is also where the partiers can be found.  If you like people watching, a walk through the campsites is a must.  Camping setups at Daytona cover the entire spectrum, from 40 year old school buses with seats removed, to million dollar RVs.  There will be plenty of folks with massive hangovers on Sunday, but they’re usually pretty friendly on Saturday night.

A trip to the top of the grandstands provides a completely different viewing experience.  The option to sit anywhere in Daytona’s grandstands can be purchased for just a few dollars more than the cost of an infield-only ticket since all grandstand seating is general admission.  At most tracks, the best views at the track are reserved for spotters, who are allowed to perch on the tallest roof of the grandstands so they can watch their cars around the entire track.  The recently completed ‘Daytona Rising’ renovations give fans the same views of the entire track from seats that are as high as the spotters’ stand, something that is highly uncommon for a road course.  From high in the stands, fans can watch cars slow from 180 miles per hour to the 37 mile per hour pit road speed limit as they enter the pits, watch pit stops and driver changes, or watch cars battle with each other in Turn 1.

The lowest grandstand seats also have interesting views to offer.  Fans can feel the wind from cars at top speed just before they reach the braking zone for Turn 1.  Moving a bit closer to Turn 1 allows fans to hear which cars are braking later than other cars.  The bravest drivers will be on the gas closer to Turn 1, making their cars much louder than the drivers with a bit less courage.  The lower seats also offer a closer view of pit stops.

Summary

The Rolex 24 is simply a fabulous event.  Fans receive unbelievable access to cars and garages, and there are a nearly unlimited number of great places to watch the race.  Even if you need to sleep for a few hours on Saturday night/Sunday morning (I usually do), there will still be plenty of action when the sun comes up on Sunday.  The Rolex 24 is a bucket list item for any car or race fan.

AUTHOR: Kyle Brown

Kyle Brown