Great time at the Rolex 24 this year. If you’ve never spent the weekend surrounded by screaming engines and the smell of race fuel, put it on the list! We went up to Daytona to work a Corral organized by Ford Racing, and Grand-Am, with support from Castrol Oil via ShineBox Media. The weekend was perfect – even before the checkered flags started flying.
The Rolex doesn’t need hype. A tradition like this doesn’t endure 50 years relying on glitz and pageantry. This is essential sports car racing – plus high-octane sleep depravation. We had a pretty specific checklist for the weekend: Help support a regional Mustang club at an infield Corral during the Continental race on Friday, and again inside Gate 25 on Saturday – and then soak in the experience of the ’24.’
The weather was not cooperative in the pre-dawn hours of Friday. The cold front was still 12 hours away – but spitting rain announced the arrival of winds. Big winds. We were met with a chilling breeze and warm smiles from the Castrol crew as we pulled into the infield. Castrol sponsored the Corral – along with Grand-Am and Ford Racing – and the great folks from ShineBox Media were on hand setting up the charity raffles, the Dyno, and offering goodies for the Mustang Corral attendees. Big props go out to Palm Beach Mustang Club President Frank Perdomo for organizing the Mustang portion of the Corral (yes we had to share the infield with other makes and models – but not many) Just when the weather looked like it was going to scare away the pony-faithful, a rumble of modular horsepower started pouring from the infield tunnels.
The Roush Road Crew rolled 27 Roush Mustangs into the infield Corral before an 8:00 meet-and-greet with the Roush Racing team in the garage. By 9:30 the members of the Palm Beach Mustang Club and the Muscle Stangs of Miami rounded out the car show. Two more meet-and-greets had been scheduled for Friday morning – and as it turned out, if the Corral visited your garage before the race, it promised to be a good luck charm.
Other race teams that went out of their way – considerably out of their way – to greet the Mustang Corral at Daytona were Starworks Motorsport of Ft. Lauderdale, and Michael Shanks Racing from Pataskala, Ohio. Both teams went out of their way to discuss the cars, their experience at prior Rolex weekends and the differences between the ST, GS, GT and DP series.
The MSR garage tour was hosted by none other than Michael Shanks himself. In the background, the team was thrashing on the #60 DP car, trying to diagnose a rear end problem that had the potential to ruin their entire weekend. You wouldn’t know that judging the calm and comprehensive tone of Shanks remarks. He explained some of the individual details that are unique to Daytona Prototypes – from chassis to tires – walked the Corral through some of the performance characteristics of the Cammer engine, and teased us with a glimpse of what to expect next year when the EcoBoost will become the power plant of choice.
For our next tour, we were lead through the Starworks garages, around the cars while crews finished preparations. Marcus Haselgrove, manager of the team’s GS program lead us around the GS Mustang Boss 302R and showed some of the technical details distinct to the R. This team had a long Rolex history, and fielded the pole-sitting #8 Daytona Prototype for the weekend, but they were new to the Boss Mustang. How new? Try 5 days. That’s right, this team was running 4 Mustangs in the Continental race in 4 short hours – and they had only 5 days to get them ready. Wow.
Mark Wilson, Ford Racing’s Engineering Supervisor was a surprise guest in the Starworks garage. In addition to answering questions about the platform, he entertained our crew with stories of his THREE cobra R’s that he reserves for track-only duty back home. Ford Racing, MSR and Starworks were fantastic hosts, and next year looks to be even bigger for another Mustang Corral on the infield.
As Friday afternoon approached we were all getting pretty excited for the Grand-Am Continental race. Daytona is a big track, really big. There are many places to spectate from: Grandstands, back stretch, the Budweiser party porch (the only place to watch the ‘Bus Stop’ on the back stretch) and the infield horseshoes. The weather was wet and windy for the start of the race, so we opted for the infield to see how the cars were going to navigate the slick surface while bunched together for the start.
I’m not much for play-by-play, and to be honest – we were having too much fun to take notes. Mike Laney from Ford Racing was on hand, and has a great recap on the Ford Racing Enthusiasts site:
Friday afternoon brought about the first racing action of the weekend with the aforementioned Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge race. There was no shortage of Fords to cheer for, with 13 Mustangs entered in the Grand Sport class (11 of which were Boss 302Rs) and the all-new Focus ST-R entered in the Sport Tuning class. Leading the 80+ car entry to the green flag was a pair of Mustangs from Roush Performance. Shelby Blackstock sat on pole in the #51 car and Jack Roush Jr.’s #61 Boss 302R was just a tenth of a second behind in qualifying. The pair of red Roush Mustangs led the field to the green flag on a wet Daytona International Speedway and at the end of the two-and-a-half hour race, it was the Mustang Boss 302R of Roush Jr. and Billy Johnson holding off a sextet of BMW M3s for the win!
The Rolex 24
We started our day early Saturday. First stop was the Corral to get everyone in, parked, and signed up for the giveaways. In addition to the piles of stuff given away by Ford, Shinebox Media was handing out cases of Castrol Edge Synthetic oil, hats, shirts, toys and dyno runs to lucky winners. The Corral had moved outside of the track – but the feeling was festive. Right next to us was a tent with over 30 cars that had won previous Rolex 24s.
The Rolex is 24 hours – but the day feels a lot longer. We had been up since 5am, and had no plans to return to the hotel during the race. The weather was mixed – it was hot Saturday, but a cold front was expected to roll in at sunset – bringing a 30-degree swing by sunrise Sunday. Thankfully the track allows you to bring in backpacks and coolers. They were packed with essentials.
The first thing you notice is the noise. Not that it’s loud – most races are. No, what dawns on you is “this sound is going to last all day, and all night.” Within a few laps the field starts to spread out, and within a few hours there are cars everywhere – and that sound is coming from every direction. Wow. We followed the start of the race from the infield – moving from the East horseshoe to the West. Each seat had a great view, and little different perspective.
Next up: A trek over to the Budweiser Party Porch to watch the sunset and the lights come on. Attendance was high, but the crowds were manageable. The pace of the race was fast – it seemed more like a sprint race. We had 20 hours of racing ahead of us and drivers were fighting for position like there were only 3 laps remaining.
In the late evening hours I was expecting Mardi Gras type behavior from the acres of RVs in the infield. I was wrong. People were having fun, but it wasn’t an out-of-control Frat party. There were a lot of BBQ grilles, Christmas lights and smiles. Everywhere we walked (did I mention Daytona is a really big place?) people were truly focused on watching the race – like they didn’t want to miss a single second of action. That’s hard to do, because there was a lot of action.
By 4am it felt like everyone had gone to bed. The midway was empty, sans a single coffee vendor. The security guards monitoring this gate, or that garage were bundled up tight against the cold front that had finally arrived. A walk through the garages revealed signs of life – and action. The Patron Porsche was receiving a lot of attention in the garage. There were only eight hours left in the race, and the crew was racing around the car trying to get it back on track. Members from each crew up and down the garages looked anxious, determined and tired.
We had a goal to be sitting at the top of the front straight grandstands to watch the sun rise – with a cup of coffee in hand. So, a run to Crispy Crème donuts was in order. We grabbed 4 dozen donuts that were made to order. We returned to the track with donuts still warm – handing them out to the track staff as we drove up to the grandstand. Mission accomplished. As the sun rose, two of the Fords were fighting off the BMW and the track started to stir with life.
I knew the Ford prototypes had a real chance at winning the 2012 Rolex 24, but the resulting podium sweep was a surprise. Personally it was even more rewarding considering the top 3 cars were from the two race teams that had gone out of their way to show our Mustang Corral so much hospitality and such a great time at the track. The passion these professionals have for their craft is remarkable and infectious. It is evident in everything we see them do at the track, and all the hard work we don’t see when they’re away from it.
At the donut shop we met a man that hadn’t missed a Rolex 24 yet – his father brought him to the first race when he was seven, and he’s been to every one since. Now I know why – I’ll be back next year, and hope I never miss a race.