In 1962, Bill France Sr. brought international sports car racing to Daytona International Speedway for a three-hour race called the Daytona Continental. Four years later in 1966, the World Center of Racing staged its first 24-hour race and created an instant classic.
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 and, in the coming weeks, we'll be 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, Alex Gurney describes what it's like to race on the Daytona oval/road course.
SECOND-GEN GURNEY'S DAYTONA MASTERCLASS
If U.S. motorsports had a Mt. Rushmore, Dan Gurney's face would be carved upon it. Among his countless achievements as a driver, team owner and racing visionary, Gurney won the 1962 Daytona Continental to usher in the era of top-level, international sports car racing at Daytona.
Now, the torch and the driving talent have been passed down to his son, Alex, twice a champion of the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series in the premier Daytona Prototype class with GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing.
A first Rolex 24 at Daytona victory continues to elude the second-generation racer (second in 2008, sharing with regular team mate Jon Fogarty, five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson and CART champ and IndyCar Series team co-owner Jimmy Vasser, is his best finish to date), but a win in the 2012 Rolex 24, a half century since his father's Daytona Continental win, would be a fitting and timely way to open his account.
Like his father, whose Eagle cars won in Formula 1, the Indy 500 and sports car racing, Alex has been blessed with an innate ability to process detailed, technical information and relate it in an easily understood way. So, for those of us not talented, privileged or lucky enough to be rolling off the Turn 4 banking and taking the start of the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, here's Alex Gurney's take on the track and its challenges.
RACER: Alex, describe what it's like to take a Daytona Prototype on the high Daytona banking.
“The track had a major surface change last time out, and that pretty dramatically changed the way it feels. It's super smooth now, whereas it was a really bumpy ride all the way around before. Previously, you had to pay more attention with your steering inputs, but now it's like glass. We can run our car a little bit lower, and don't have to be concerned with bottoming out.”
How technical is the infield? What's the toughest challenge?
“The thing that makes it really tricky is having to run so little downforce to be fast around the oval. On the infield, the car feels loose, and has that tendency throughout the section. It's more technical than it might seem. Also, there's a large spread between gears, so the infield is always a compromise between first and second gear. That's one of the things we're constantly working out.
“For me, I'd say the second hairpin is toughest, because it's an awkward angle coming off. Rarely do you feel you got it exactly right. The next corner coming back onto the oval features a tricky balance in how much you want to roll the throttle in, while turning the car quite a bit. It's a very critical corner.”
Where can you conserve the car even though you're still trying to lap quickly and consistently?
“Saving a little bit with the gearbox is really important, and not over-revving the motor. We're really not holding back otherwise. In general, these cars are built like tanks.
“You have to go flat-out now, and the cars are very capable of withstanding what we can give them. At least a few cars make it to the end without issues. That seems strange, especially knowing the history of 24-hour races. You might still keep a little bit in reserve, but we're usually flat out the entire time.”
How physically demanding is it, and how do you feel after a maximum stint from the driving and G-loading?
“Three and a half hours is the max on stints. You're definitely thrashed at the end of it. Everyone has their own feelings; for me, I get a backache from driving that long! You do get a chance to rest on the banking a little bit, and it's better now that it's been repaved.”
The night in Daytona is longer and cooler. How do you handle it and how does the car change?
“That's a big deal to stay on top of. The front with the splitter is very sensitive, aero-wise. You have a little change in temperatures and how you get through the air. There are a lot of making adjustments during the night, let alone the rain, which often happens. It's definitely testing and grueling, no doubt.”
Traffic plays a major role. Where are key overtaking spots and how can you calculate where to pass?
“Traffic may be the biggest deal in the whole race. It's rare when you see a car finish without a mark, and that's the one that usually wins. I would guess you could pass maybe three or four GT cars per lap, and it adds up! Over the course of 700 laps or so, you have a lot of chances to mess up, regardless of where.”
Describe the difference in approach to qualifying versus racing laps.
“The only difference really, in qualifying, is that you don't have to worry about the tire at all. You can take a little bit more risk, and the laps are close in quality. Say maybe you're going 99 percent vs. 100 percent.
“If you go a little too deep in a braking zone, maybe you ruin your qualifying. But to me, it doesn't matter at all where you start. You could start from the pit lane and as long as you don't lose a lap, you're fine. It's largely for fun and for show.”
Obviously, your dad is a big source of experience and knowledge on how to handle this event. What are some things you've taken in from him?
“Where do I even start with that one? It's a thousand little things. The key is he's very passionate about racing in general. He has a real serious intensity that he brings to the table; hopefully I got some of that too. He tried to instill in me as much I can learn about how the car works, and all the different possibilities that come up engineering-wise, so I can be a student of that.”
For tickets to the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, CLICK HERE.
And for the latest news and stories from Grand-Am Road Racing and the Rolex Sports Car Series, CLICK HERE.