The 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan. 28-29, marks a half-century of top-level sports car racing on the high banks and twisting infield of Daytona International Speedway. We're counting down to that milestone with a series of stories looking at some of the drivers, marques and stories that have shaped those 50 years. This week, The Racers' Group boss Kevin Buckler and factory Porsche driver Jorg Bergmeister recall an amazing win in 2003 – at the wheel of a GT car.
Grabbing a once in a lifetime opportunity
Kevin Buckler and a few buddies took a winter vacation to Daytona International Speedway in January 1995. After listening to the sound of the Ferrari 333SP echoing gloriously off the grandstands in its Rolex 24 debut, Buckler turned to his friends.
“I said, ‘You know, someday I'm gonna drive in this race,'” he recalls. “Then they tell me, ‘Yeah, right. Now have another beer.' But I was serious.”
Buckler had the last laugh when, just 12 months later in 1996, he made his Rolex 24 debut.
After six years of learning the ropes, Buckler and The Racers' Group broke through for their first GT class win at Daytona in 2002. Not bad at all.
And then 2003 came along…
The previous top class of Sports Racer Prototypes had run their last Rolex 24 in 2002, with a Doran Racing Crawford-Judd taking the overall win and that same venerable 333, run by Risi Competizione, signing off from competition altogether. For 2003 it was time to introduce the Daytona Prototypes as the new top dogs at Daytona. But with only testing to iron out any reliability issues for the six DPs entered, the biggest question heading into the race was whether this new breed could go the full 24 hours and stay the distance for an overall win.
Behind the new cars and heading up the GT ranks, Buckler's lead No. 66 TRG entry still had the same crew and the same driver lineup of Buckler, Michael Schrom and factory Porsche drivers Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister, but with a new Porsche GT3 RS at their disposal. The “Killer B's” had laid the groundwork for their incredibly successful careers in their first drive together the previous year.
“TRG does a really good job at Daytona and the wins just confirm that,” Bergmeister says. “We'd won together in our first start in '02. I've won with them three times at Daytona. They're always going to have a competitive car and be there at the end.”
Buckler recalls that his and TRG's mindset going into the 2003 race was optimistic, despite the fact they would start 16th in the 45-car starting field.
“From when we first started here, we'd got our butts whooped so many times because we didn't have the right resources,” he says. “But the longer we ran, we figured out what to do. In '02, Jorg and Timo came on board, we won the race, won Le Mans that year, I won the (international) Porsche Cup and it was a year we could do no wrong. When we came back in '03, we got the band back together and led the GT times most of practice and qualifying. We knew we had a good shot, and we had an opportunity to podium or win the class again.”
Before the green flag, Buckler gathered the group together for a pre-race meeting that eventually would take on a greater magnitude.
“We had a magic moment – I haven't shared this with a lot of people, but it's a great story,” he recalls. “Just before the race started, we all got together in the trailer to talk about the pink elephant in the room. We knew that, in a perfect storm, calculating the lap times, knowing how reliable Porsche is, how new the DPs were, the speed differential, and how long we could go on fuel, we had an outside chance that we could do it. But we didn't want to talk about it.
“We all put our hands in, and I said, ‘Guys, we can either play it safe and go for a class win, or we can go all-in and have a shot at something that could happen once in a lifetime. We can win this, if we push the first six to eight hours.' They said, ‘Let's do it.'”
Bergmeister's take was more succinct, but no different on the outlook.
“The state of mind, as ever, was that we had to have zero problems the entire race – but as it fell, it was really surprising,” he says.