Presented in partnership with Lexus Racing
It’s 1:40 on a Saturday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway, where the green flag has just waved to officially kick off the Rolex 24 as a resounding roar suddenly echoes throughout the 480 acres that comprise the legendary Florida racetrack where the 38 cars taking part in the 58th annual running of the competition prepare to endure one of the most grueling events auto racing has to offer.
However, if it wasn’t for the drone of engines permeating the air, you might not be aware that the inaugural race of the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) 2020 WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was underway based on a glance at the virtually barren grandstands overlooking the track’s homestretch, where the few fans dotting the over 100,000 variously-colored seats severely lack the ability to produce a roar of their own.
However, the Rolex 24 is far from your average race.
The typical Daytona 500, the speedway’s premier event, lasts for about three-and-a-half hours from start to finish. However, it’s doubtful you’d find many people amongst the rumored 50,000 fans in attendance at the track during the last week this January—many of whom eagerly lined up for the chance to step onto the hallowed asphalt just an hour before the competitors made their way to the starting line—who would be willing to be confined to a seat for the full 24 hours the numeral in the race’s title refers to.
As I mentioned in a previous article concerning my chats with Kyle Busch and the other members of the AIM VASSER SULLIVAN team that represented Lexus Racing USA in the most strenuous event of the IMSA season, I was admittedly a bit hesitant to accept their invitation to join them in Daytona because I know about as much about the world of auto racing as Joe Pesci did about the intricacies of procedural law in the state of Alabama in My Cousin Vinny.
Thankfully, after being assured having never attended a professional race over the course of my almost three decades on the planet didn’t disqualify me from covering one, I decided to make the trek down to Florida with a single goal in mind: showing solidarity with the Lexus team by staying up for the entire race.
The masses had already descended on Daytona by the time I showed up to the speedway on Friday, where the entrants in the Rolex 24 had run the qualifying laps that determined their starting positions the prior day.
I’d spent the previous night walking around the neighborhood the track calls home, largely sticking to a fairly sleepy main drag lined with strip malls, big-box stores, and chain restaurants. It was quite the contrast to what is perhaps best described as the pop-up town I encountered after passing through the tunnel to enter the massive infield, where traffic guards directed the battalion of golf carts that whizzed through the RV-lined streets of the miniature neighborhood.
Fans at the Rolex 24 are given ample opportunity to get up close and personal with the manufacturers who have cars competing for a spot on the multiple podiums the teams in the four different classes represented in the race hope to earn the right to step onto after the checkered flag waves on Sunday afternoon.
Virtually all of the carmakers represented arrive at Daytona with massive tents in tow to showcase their offerings and I made my way down a stretch lined with these temporary installations, where fans gathered around the many sports cars on display and formed massive lines in search of all of the free swag they could get their hands on.
I eventually made my way to the Lexus Racing Experience, where a horde of spectators had gathered for a hands-on look at the multiple cars parked outside (and an appearance by Busch)—including the RC F Track Edition, the production model available for purchase to members of the general public who want to come as close as they can to experience what it’s like to drive the GTD cars that represent the company in the Rolex 24.
The closest most people will ever come to getting a taste of what it’s like to partake in the event they made the pilgrimage to Daytona for is to step into a car for a “hot lap,” which I got the chance to do after Busch took to a stage to field some questions before hopping on a simulator and absolutely smoking the two people who were lucky enough to earn the right to brag about the time they got crushed by a NASCAR champion for the remainder of their days.
After stepping into the off-the-line RC F that would transport me around the 3.8-mile road course and repeatedly checking to make sure my seatbelt was firmly secured, I was joined by a former professional driver who was tasked with ferrying me around the track who assured me I was in good hands.
Thankfully, he lived up to his promise, expertly navigating the multiple hairpin turns and pushing the Lexus to its limits on the straightaways. After completing the circuit, I asked him what speed we’d maxed out at only for him to inform me he never glances at the speedometer (when I did at one point, it read a casual 150 MPH).
I spent the remainder of the day attempting to hold my own while interviewing members of the AIM VASSER SULLIVAN and Lexus Racing USA teams and (at least I think) successfully managed to avoid being identified as the imposter I thought I was.
After everything wrapped up, I then headed back to my hotel for an early night in preparation for the long day (and night, and day) that awaited me when I woke up.
I made my way back to the track about an hour before the Rolex 24 kicked off on Saturday afternoon with a coffee in tow and multiple energy drinks stowed in my backpack in preparation for the journey ahead.
When the green flag waved, I couldn’t help but think about the advice Samuel L. Jackson gave when he rebooted the electric grid in Jurassic Park, as it was officially time to hold onto my derriere and hunker down for 24 hours of continuous action.
I looked on as the cars made their way around the track again and again (and again, and again), and after about the tenth circuit, I made the mistake of checking to see what the record for the most laps ever recorded at the Rolex 24 was only to discover a team had managed to navigate the course a grand total of 808 times in 2018.
Welp. This was certainly going to be an experience.
Thankfully, Lexus provided me with a few opportunities to help break up the day, including a visit to the flag stand overlooking the finish line where I received strict instructions to not wear red lest I inadvertently caused the race to come to a screeching halt.
Despite being provided with a set of earplugs, they failed to do much to soften the boom that resonated throughout my entire body as cars streaked past at upwards of 200 MPH and I only managed to endure a couple of minutes before having to search for a respite that would come in the form of a visit to pit row.
The area is a bustling one filled with crew members preparing for the cars that stop by for a visit approximately every 50 minutes for new tires, a fresh tank of gas, and other necessary adjustments (in addition to the occasional driver changes necessitated by a 24-hour race).
They shared the space with the people on the AVS team who huddled around the many monitors providing feeds of every area of the track while pouring over screens providing an overwhelming amount of data concerning the performance of their cars (as well as that of their competitors).
By the time I departed, darkness had begun to fall.
All of the teams in the Rolex 24 have two amateurs and two professionals at their disposal, all of whom must be behind the wheel of their car for a collective minimum of four-and-a-half hours over the course of the competition.
The general strategy is to have the less experienced drivers get the bulk of their shifts out of the way during its opening hours, so while the stakes are technically high during the entirety of the Rolex 24, most teams are focused on simply putting themselves in a solid place to kick things into high gear with their pros at the wheel in the final hours.
While things on the track might not noticeably heat up once the sun sets, the same can’t be said for what goes down in the infield once nightfall hits, which is when the party at Daytona truly begins.
As a result, there was no better time to wade into the fray to soak in the atmosphere and there was a buzz in the air when I began to navigate the multiple camps populated with a myriad of motorhomes and lifted pickup trucks hauling giant trailers sporting license plates from around the country.
I eventually made my way into a campground informally dubbed “Tent City,” which was noticeably more raucous than any of the other areas I stopped by. I was very surprised to learn Daytona apparently doesn’t have a problem with fans digging holes in the ground to create giant fire pits and multiple groups posted up there took full advantage and huddled around the flames as the temperature gradually dropped.
The nature of the Rolex 24 is a bit interesting compared to your standard race, as the lack of access to the grandstand means vantage points to witness the action tend to be few and far between.
There is a smattering of bleachers erected at various locations and certain spots where you can post up along the fence to get the most intimate look at the track Daytona has to offer but many of the people in attendance opted instead to set up televisions or project a feed of the race on a giant screen to stay posted.
We were slowly approaching midnight and I couldn’t help but notice the broadcasters assigned to cover the Rolex 24 (including AIM VASSER SULLIVAN driver Townsend Bell, who opted to hop into the booth between some of his shifts as opposed to resting for his next one) were noticeably less enthusiastic than they were when things first kicked off.
I was thankful to know I wasn’t the only one beginning to deal with a lack of energy (it appeared many of the people in the pit were in similar shape based on the multiple shots of crew members slumped over their chairs as time began to take its toll).
It was at this point I realized we still had over half of a day to go and I was unable to resist the urge to crack open the final can of carbonated caffeine I’d brought with me. However, I’d set out to write an article about what it’s like to stay up for the entirety of a 24-hour race and I was going to do everything in my power to avoid disappointing loyal readers like you.
I arrived back at an area that provided me with an idyllic view of the entire speedway and saw it was noticeably less populated than when I’d departed, and as Saturday night gave way to Sunday morning, the brightly illuminated Ferris wheel in the infield that spent the day spinning at a surprisingly fast rate ceased to rotate as a remainder of the people in attendance slowly trickled out until I was the lone soul in the room.
The seven or so hours I subsequently spent turning my attention between the track and blankly staring at the screen showing the broadcast were a bit of a struggle, and around the 16-hour mark, I recalled a conversation I had with a Lexus Racing USA team member who informed me the Rolex 24 didn’t “really” start until it was about 20 hours in.
However, I resisted the urge to rest my eyes despite the lack of witnesses who could have called me out for failing to achieve my goal and was eventually greeted by a sunrise that excited me more than any other one I’ve witnessed over the course of my life.
Around two doubleshot Americanos later, the 20-hour benchmark finally arrived and the seemingly newly-rejuvenated broadcasters saw the excitement return to their voices as the Rolex 24 entered a final stage that featured constant lead changes and a car that saw its race come to an end after it burst into flames.
Finally, 1:40 PM arrived yet again as the checkered flag waved, and while the Lexus team was unable to reach the podium after securing a second-place finish in the GTD class the prior year, the No. 14 still secured a top-ten finish and my long day came to an end when I headed back to my hotel and slept harder than I ever have before.
It’s safe to say I took a fairly aggressive approach to the first real race I’ve ever attended, and while I definitely caught the racing bug over the course of my time at Daytona, I think the next time I attend an event, I’ll choose one that requires a bit less of a time commitment than the Rolex 24 does.
With that said, this was certainly one heck of a way to experience my first vehicular extravaganza and it certainly won’t be my last.