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.
As the eight-hour mark, third-distance, came and went, and with neither the DP nor GTS (“supercars” and tubeframe American V8s) class entries expected to go the entire 24 hours without issues, it was time for the GT cars to start to capitalize. Sure enough, after its flat-chat run in the opening hours, the No. 66 TRG Porsche stood out among them and, incredibly, the overall lead was within striking distance for it.
“I never thought (the GTS cars) would be reliable enough to go 24 hours,” Buckler says. “But they were brutally fast. The way they were going, it was more of a Trans-Am-type car in that it was good, but not for as long.
“We just pushed our car, drove it way on the edge those first eight hours,” Buckler says. “When we had a yellow flag about hour eight, everyone looked up on the leader board and saw only one GT car on the same lap as the DPs – that was pretty cool. We felt like in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with everyone looking over their shoulder at us saying, ‘Hey, who are those guys?'”
A motor issue for Brumos Racing's Porsche FABCAR with David Donohue driving took that DP from the overall lead, allowing TRG to seize it for the first time. After that, although the two engaged in a back-and-forth battle for the next few hours, once the Brumos Porsche suffered a cut tire, TRG took control.
“We always had the goal of winning our class, but we'd crept up the overall standings once it got going,” Bergmeister says. “We had to try to win it!”
While TRG had set itself up for the win by a mix of pushing as hard as possible and seeing the DPs fall progressively by the wayside, there was a very fine line in not over-driving the car and potentially setting itself up for its own problems the rest of the way. Plus, the way the cautions flew didn't work to their benefit, as Bergmeister relates.
“You just always try to stay positive and keep your fingers crossed that nothing will happen,” he says. “We were actually losing laps because of the safety car and the way the rules were picking up other leaders. So there was a lot of strategy involved to keep us where we were. It was probably more interesting being out of the car, watching the drama, rather than when you were in the car doing your job!”
For Buckler, any small niggling sound became magnified, given the increasing magnitude of the moment.
“We hadn't felt realistic about it until late the next morning,” he admits. “We started to slow ourselves down, because we had a four-lap lead and we didn't want to blow it. Yet we also didn't want the other guys to catch us. Still, the yellows weren't kind for any number of reasons.
“When we started slowing down, that's the point when you hear all the different noises in the car. I'll never forget when we finally got within striking distance of the finish and there were only a small number of minutes left and the math was in our favor. It was so cool at that point.”
As TRG drove home to the win, the closest a DP got to them was Multimatic's Ford (ABOVE) at 30 seconds back; however, a lengthy stop to repair a throttle cable that had already broken once finally eliminated it from contention. The ultimate margin of victory over the second-placed Risi Ferrari 360 GT was nine laps, with the Risi Ferrari hanging in there on reliability, rather than outright pace in class.
As the checkered flags flew, the dominant thought for Buckler and TRG was making sure they'd be receiving a gold Rolex watch for the overall win – not that they'd just defeated the top class runners in what would doubtless be their one and only opportunity.
“I'd had a picture of a gold Rolex for years, from seeing the winners in ads,” he says. “In 2002, I got the stainless steel one, which they give for class wins. But when they started doing the stainless steel for class, now here I am getting my Rolex on the podium, and being the GT class winner, it was a stainless steel Rolex! Well, I wanted a gold Rolex!
“I hate to feel like – and wouldn't want to sound at all like – an ingrate. So, I called the [company] president the next day and asked him about it. I told him, ‘I had a dream all of my life I'd get that gold Rolex, but I never thought I'd have the opportunity to actually win it. Do you think we could work something out?' And bless them, they worked something out; I got a gold Rolex for the win. I still keep my stainless one and wear it. I cherish them.”
Bergmeister has won a lot of races and many sports car championships, but the '03 Rolex win ranks as one of his ultimate highlights.
“I can't think a lot about it happening much anymore,” he says. “Luckily it all worked out, and it was one of the coolest wins I've ever had, because I didn't expect that we could win overall with a GT car.”
For Buckler, as time passes, the win has come to mean even more to him.
“It certainly means more now, because the way these things normally go, when you're in the moment, you don't think about the fact you're making history,” he admits. “We never thought that at the time. Now, we know it was a very significant event not just for us but in Porsche's history – especially for a GT car. The 911 is one of the most historically significant GT cars, and I'm really glad we got it.”
Almost a decade later, TRG heads into 2012 looking for a repeat of its most recent GT class win last year, with an impressive five Porsche 911s in its arsenal. In fact, the team has run five or more since '05, proving its continuing allegiance to a marque that has brought Buckler so much success, including that unforgettable '03 achievement.
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