Photo: Ben Wedge - nasportscar.com

A Fan for 24 Hours Should be a Fan for Life

Rule number one of the Rolex 24: don’t attend while sick with food poisoning. In fact, just don’t get food poisoning.

Rule number two: Whether or not you have food poisoning, remember that this is an unpredictable race where anything and everything can and usually does happen. From bizarre accidents to breakout performances to dream finishes, the Rolex 24 kicks off the racing calendar every year with a bang. And it’s arguably the best race of the year.

For what it’s worth, I broke rule number one this year. I had food poisoning this year and it was absolutely horrible. Nevertheless, I made it twenty-three of the twenty-four hours (I took an hour long fitful nap at about five-thirty in the morning) and had a great time. The racing was just as great as I thought it would be, and if you weren’t watching the GT race (both GTLM and GTD) at the end, what on earth were you doing with your time? Also, quick apology to the people in the Fanzone at the end there. There was a lot of cursing, excited yelling, and maybe some crying from two slightly overzealous fans.

Yes, I’m talking about me.

There was a lot of excitement this year. I can’t begin to explain what it was like to watch Katherine Legge wheel the DeltaWing expertly around the track, leading the race in a car that has always been the subject of countless inside jokes. Of course, to celebrate that exhilaration means I also have to talk about the disappointment, the sudden emotional free fall that came when Andy Meyrick hit the stalled Starworks PC going into turn one. If you’re wondering what it’s like to watch that accident happen in person, it’s as devastating as it is on TV. It’s also just as mind-boggling. Why wasn’t a caution called? What might have been if that hadn’t happened? Are we going to see an overall win for the DeltaWing this season? I’ll check back with you guys after Sebring.

However, I will say this, between Pipo Derani and Katherine Legge, we saw some truly incredible performances in the Prototype class. I was so excited to see ESM win, and I think it was pretty obvious that Derani did nothing if not leave every last bit of himself on that track. I hope he enjoys that Rolex. And I hope it’s a sign of things to come for ESM in the FIA WEC.

download (23)For me though, it was all about the GT classes. Corvette’s 1-2 finish was breathtaking enough to cause enough stress for me that I forgot I had food poisoning. Then there was fan-favorite Magnus Racing’s win. I’m not sure any of us saw that coming, but it was perfect for the team who provides endless laughter in the paddock. The race was full of the unexpected, and that’s what makes it the perfect race to start off the season.

However, I haven’t been tasked with recapping the race. It’s been two weeks, everyone knows what happened. I’ve been tasked with talking about the fan experience at each race. I want to give those who can’t join us a view of the races from the track itself, not just from our couches. I love the world of sports car racing, I love the family I’ve built at the track, and I love meeting new and old friends, new and old fans. It was so great to meet so many of you at both the Roar and the 24 this year, and I hope you all had a great time. But if I’m going to talk about the fan experience, I have to get real here. So, let’s get past the “Oh wow, it was amazing!” part of this column and get to what I think has to be talked about if we’re discussing fan experience.

Daytona International Speedway has rebranded itself as the World Center of Racing, the world’s first motorsports super stadium. Daytona Rising has led to an incredible facility, there’s no doubt about it. The new grandstands provide some of the best views of any race track. I didn’t understand the point of the neighborhoods, but I’ll tell you, they are very cool. There were TVs in the grandstands, by concessions and by bars. Granted, the majority of these concessions weren’t open during the 24, but I see the idea behind it. I think anyone who attends the Daytona 500 will get the full effect of this new concept. The dialed down effect, I think, was impressive enough.

Despite this, I’m not sure it works for the sports car set. Due to the fact the Budweiser party porch is now gone, it’s impossible to watch any of the action in the bus stop (and, no, you can’t see it from the top of the grandstands), where some of the best action tends to occur. That is a loss, and trust me, I felt it. I love watching from the infield, and the new grandstand views are amazing, but we’re a group that moves around a lot. We don’t stay in one place and I think thereshould be some temporary grandstands constructed by the bus stop next year.

But it’s not just the views that are a problem. I think a good chunk of what I’m about to say can be attributed to bigger crowds. While I haven’t been able to find official numbers, it does seem like the crowds continue to grow every year. From day one, we noticed how full the international horseshoe grandstands were. There are people everywhere, and that is a good thing. The Rolex 24 Hours is a great race and the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship has great racing. But with more people comes more issues to solve.

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One of the coolest aspects of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is the pit walk. It’s awesome that we the fans are able to walk out onto pit road and look at the cars and talk to the drivers pre-race and it’s is not something that most series offer. It’s busy, it’s crowded, and it’s a timed sprint to get to each driver you want to see before they go out and compete in an amazing feat of man and machinery. This happens at every single event, and yet somehow, at Daytona, it turns into an exercise of frustration, anger, and something that resembles a cattle drive. It alsoturns into one of the worst moments of the weekend.

download (60)Daytona crowds all of the fans into a huge line up at one gate that leads onto pit road. It’s midday in Florida, the sun beats down on your face as you stand in a narrow lane between Victory Lane and the fence behind the pits. As you crowd fans into this space, teams are trying to finish setting their pits for a twenty-four hours, so you have carts and ATVs moving through this crowd. For what it’s worth, there are at least six gates that lead into the pits, and at least three that lead directly onto pit road. But they line you up at one gate, underneath a Rolex sign. While I can understand that the image is nice, imagine a group of hundreds upon hundreds of people pushing and shoving to get onto pit road for a timed pit walk. And instead of going onto the pit walk, they’re ushered onto grass, where they wait behind a rope line for a parade of a marching band and prototype cars.

It is incredible to me that no one has been hurt in this process. It’s also amazing to me that as this crowd grows, Daytona hasn’t seen fit to change the way they do this. At every other race, you go onto pit lane immediately. You also can enter from different places. Daytona, on the other hand, provides a cattle call. Once the rope falls, it’s fine, it’s normal. But if we’re going to continue doing this with bigger crowds, then something needs to change. If we’re going to provide a fan experience, then we need to be able to provide an experience that is as safe as possible. It might make a pretty picture to show fans entering pit road beneath a Rolex banner, but we need to look at more than a pretty picture.

Another great event at any sports car race is the autograph session. It’s a time to meet the drivers, it’s a time to take pictures, and it’s a time to get autographs. At most events, this occurs at team haulers in the paddocks, but because not everyone at Daytona has paddock passes, it occurs in the Sprint Fanzone at around noon. This is just a few hours beforethe race starts, and drivers go directly from a driver’s meeting to the autograph session to the pit walk, often eating lunch on the go. It should be a great event for fans. This year, Daytona posted a sign saying “No photos”. It’s understandable, I guess, but I feel like we’re missing the point of the fan experience. Yes, we’re on a time crunch because the race is about to start, but this is for the fans. This is for the kids whose parents couldn’t afford garage passes who are meeting their new heroes. Now, my understanding is people didn’t exactly follow this rule. Regardless, it isn’t a rule that should be made.

download (61)Of course, if that’s because of time constraints, then I’m a firm believer that it’s time to move the autograph session to Friday afternoon, either before or during the CT race. This gives the drivers more time to eat lunch and prepare for the race. It also provides for overlap. It provides for a really amazing fan experience for people who aren’t capable of being in the paddocks. It’s also another way to sell more four day tickets. It’s understandable that we want to cater to people who are there for two days, but the pit walk offers yet another opportunity to meet the drivers and get their autographs. So if the track and the series can’t provide the best possible fan experience, then it’s time to change things.

The Rolex 24 is an incredible event, it’s an event I tell people to go to every year. One of the most amazing things about sports car racing is the experience provided for fans. We aren’t stuck in one place. We get to meet our favorite drivers and see our cars up close. We live and breathe the sport and see it from almost every angle possible. Fan experience fosters passion. Fan experience creates life long dedication for children. Fan experience shouldn’t be sacrificed or put into a quick and unsafe two hour period.

I love this event, and while I think we’re going to go through growing pains as the event grows, I truly believe it’s going to improve, as long as the series and the track are dedicated to improving what the fans get out of this event. I think tough decisions, such as possibly limiting the number of garage passes due to a crowded paddock on race day, might have to be made. But I do think it’s going to continue to grow. I do think maybe one day sportscar racing won’t be a blip on the radar of the World Center of Racing.

Oh, and one more note. It’s not fun for anyone in the grandstands to have to sit next to anyone smoking. So let’s enforce the no smoking rule in the grandstands. It detracts from the sensory explosion that is, as always, an amazing Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

-KT

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