In the two and a half weeks since the Rolex 24 Hours, I’ve struggled to find a unique take on the fantastic race we all witnessed. A fan favorite won after far too many years of being close to that top step, the Acura NSX impressed on its race debut, the Fords continued their domination from 2016, a small Pro-Am team won in GT Daytona, and the Prototype Challenge class was an utter disaster. Countless words have been written about all of those things and it’s sometimes hard to find another take. We’ve gone over it, we’ve rehashed it, and the arm chair race directors have made their thoughts heard.
In terms of being a fan, what else can I say about the race? It was rainy. It was cold. The grid walk, as I documented last year, was run like a cattle call that actually has its fingers crossed; someone will be hurt. And after all that, we were treated to a thrilling ending that immediately reenergized all of us after a long, bitterly cold night. Two weeks later, I’m not sure I could make anyone care about that long, rainy night.
So I struggled. What else could I say? How else could I document the 2017 Rolex 24 Hours?
While I tossed that question around, IMSA started to get some great press from outlets all over the country. Some pieces were absolutely incredible and really tried to understand this crazy sport. Others, well… It’s hard to understand, isn’t it? I mean, here were 55 cars racing in Florida for 24 hours in rain and cold. Why in the world would anyone do that unless the drivers were speed demons who didn’t care about whether they live or die?
If it’s hard to understand why racing is a sport, it’s even harder to understand the fans. Ask anyone who isn’t into racing what their idea of racing fans are and the answer is the redneck obsessed with crashes and not much else. I know people never know what to do with the fact that I love racing, and trying to convince them that racing isn’t just about cars exploding into pieces all over the place is sometimes an uphill battle. But people who cover racing rarely look at the fans, rarely try to understand what makes the sport so loved that people will stand out in the rain and cold for hours on end.
I wish people who covered racing, who really wanted to understand it, picked a fan to follow around for a day. Instead of following around a team and trying to describe the level of commitment it takes to run a race team and finish a twenty-four hour race, talk to a fan. There is a certain level of passion amongst racing fans that never fails to amaze me. I have seen fans withstand the unbearable heat at Circuit of the Americas, stand in monsoon-like weather at Petit Le Mans, wade through a flooded campsite at Sebring, and wait-out snow at Silverstone. You don’t do that if you just kind of like something. You have to love it, you have to breathe it, it has to fill your soul.
It’s not like we get credit for these things. After 12 hours of heavy drizzle and after temperatures dropped into the 40’s with wind chills in the 30’s at Daytona, I saw a few teams tweet thanking the fans who stuck around, but how many others noticed it? How many journalists took note of the semi-zombie-like state of fans who had caught cat naps in their cars, or stayed up all night? How many took note of the sigh of relief when the sun came out, finally allowing people to strip off the layers they had been wearing for hours? How many of them noted the kids who ran towards cars and drivers with grins on their faces? Could they appreciate the passion being born there?
Racing fans are a passionate breed. Some of us can list every part of the car, how it works and what happens when it breaks. Others can recite racing history like some kind of creed. Still others thrill in being able to judge the rules and decide when they should or shouldn’t apply. We can fill an off-season with complaints about driver ratings or excited talk about a car that has only been seen from afar. Corvette fans can poke at Porsche fans and we can all agree to side eye the Fords a little bit, while still being able to appreciate the technology and dedication it takes to build these fantastic machines.
The drivers become a mix of hero and friend, especially if you’ve watched one specific driver for many years. There can sometimes be a bit of a bad connotation to the words “super fan”, but it is this fan who do all he or she can to get to the races, to support their favorite driver or team, to live and breathe the action. Is it just the cars that make a super fan? The drivers? Or is it a combination of the two, a need to live vicariously through a driver as he or she battles the twists and turns and banking of a circuit in an incredible car?
As racing begins to shift with the times, as the technology and the engineering behind a winning car becomes more complex, racing fans have asked if racing can survive, but few others are asking that question. The journalists struggle to understand the speed demons, but the people behind the fences of pit lane or in the expansive and creative campsites in the infield understand. “The grandstands were empty!” The journalists exclaim, a subtle dig to this sport. But they don’t venture out to the campsites, to the fans who are huddled in the infield at one in the morning, desperately clutching their coffees, beers, or energy drinks. They don’t ask how the passion of the few can grow the sport for the many.
Maybe it seems a little self-indulgent to write an ode to racing fans, when this column is meant to explore what it’s like to be a fan. Is it a little too meta? Maybe. But here’s what I do know. I go to several IMSA races a year. Since 2014, when Grand-Am and ALMS made their debut as one series, I have watched the crowds grow. It’s not just the long time fans who can spout racing history and engineering facts. I have met the curious fans who decided to take a day to see what was going on at their local race track. I have seen the young kids with sparkling eyes who thrill at being around these super-sized Hot Wheels cars and meeting these drivers. Men and women, young and old, people are going to races, and they’re falling in love.
So yes, it might be self-indulgent, it might be annoyingly meta, but I’m here to praise the racing fans. I’m here to give a shout out to the people who brave the heat and cold and wind and rain. I applaud the people who travel from all over the world just to experience an American 24 hour race. Because while journalists aren’t asking, while journalists may not notice, I know that it’s not just the roaring machines, fast drivers, and talented crews who make this sport special. The fans are as integral to the sport as the mountain of rain tires that lined pit lane in the middle of the night. It’s the fans who breathe the life into every race, no matter how bad the weather or how long the day (and night). To understand racing, you have to understand those who love it. And from the team owners to the drivers to the crews to the fans, the passion is enough to make anyone decide to give a race a chance.
But if you ask any racing fan, they’ll tell you to be careful: once you catch the racing bug, you’ll understand why Steve McQueen insisted that racing is life.
Featured Image: IndyCar, Dana Garrett