A Spectator’s Guide to the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona Jan 2011

The high pitched scream of the Dempsey Mazda, the 747- like rumble of the Stevenson Chevy Camaro, the perfect 6 cylinder whine of the TRG Porsche, and the quiet swoosh of the Telmex BMW Daytona prototype…these are the sounds that my wife, Debbie, and I savored to as we stood in the tri-oval of Daytona International Speedway on a cloudless 75 degree day in January…life is good.

My son Ben and I attended our first American LeMans Series (ALMS) race at Virginia International Raceway last spring and got hooked.  The speed, beautiful cars (including all of the Porsches) and the ACCESS to the race action is intoxicating.  Unlike most series, ALMS allows fans to get right in the middle of the action with inexpensive paddock and garage passes, walks on pit row before the start and all in all,  more of a family event.

Rolex 24 Race

We booked a hotel on Daytona Beach (low prices – off season) in December and then 10 days out checked the weather forecast which called for blue skies and warm temperatures.  The trip was a go! I went online to Daytona International Speedway www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com  and bought two “endurance package” tickets which allowed unlimited access to the racetrack Thursday – Sunday, garage access, and infield parking and access – only $85 each… the friendly sales agent said the tickets would be waiting for us at the “will call” window upon our arrival.

We had decided to drive rather than fly (seemed easier and avoids a full body scan!) and planned on departure on Thursday, Jan 27th.   However, we left on Wednesday afternoon in heavy rain after seeing the weather forecast and narrowly missed the snow as we made our way south into NC and checked into a hotel. The next day we had an easy 8 hour 2nd leg to Daytona, arriving at about 2:30pm.

If you have tickets waiting at the will call window it is a good idea to pick them up in advance so we stopped by the raceway (right on the main drag).  We got the tickets in 5 minutes and since the cars were having a practice session we walked over the grandstands and walked right up to the start and finish line to watch them for a few minutes…the sights, sounds and smells are hard to describe, but I was very excited to be standing there to say the least.

We checked into our hotel on the beach (about 15 mins from the raceway) and prepared our plan for the next three days.

You can drive right on the beach in Daytona…

I had asked the question on the Rennslist Forum what is the best strategy to watch the race and a local gave me his plan which we loosely followed. He said you do not have to spend every minute at the race to enjoy the action to its fullest.  Friday is one of the best days at the track as everyone is making final preparations for the Saturday start, the Continental Tires race starts at 1:00pm and the crowds are small.  We drove right into the infield via the turn 4 tunnel, parked easily, and spent a great day in the sun seeing everything… be prepared for lots of walking and constant movement.

Before the start of the continental race, Debbie and I along with hundreds of other fans got to walk pit row, walk across the famous Daytona grass to the start/finish line and up the banking to the safer barrier wall.  The new $20 million asphalt resurfacing has left the track in as smooth as silk condition…it led to faster lap times by all cars, breaking the old record.

Banking and new surface!

Banking and new surface!

Now to Saturday race day… the only reason to get there early is for infield parking as it does fill up but the race does not start until 3:30pm.  We arrived mid- morning, parked in the infield, and took part of all of the festivities, including hanging out near Victory Lane for the drivers meeting listening  to all of the steward instructions and seeing Jimmie Johnson, Dario Franchitti, Max Papis, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Hurley Haywood to name just a  few. Also spotted, was Patrick Dempsey, the TV/movie star, who has turned into quite an excellent race car driver in his own right.

The race start is similar to Thursday with complete fan access and now is where the uniqueness of a 24 hour race comes in…the nighttime. It’s especially exciting to be there in night time under the lights enjoying the infield RV craziness, a ferris wheel ride, great racing action and multiple garage visits where cars were being worked on as they broke or crashed.  We also stopped by the PCA Porsche Corral and visited the tent where we watched the live racing action on a large screen TV and listened to the MRN radio broadcast.  The Porsche corral had been filled with almost 100 cars earlier in the day and there were still quite a few left by evening. It was my favorite part of the weekend and it was still 60+ degrees when we left for the evening so weather conditions were ideal.

Into the night…

We headed back to the hotel for the night, hearing the cars from our balcony 5 miles away combined with the breaking surf.  The next day  we checked out of the hotel and headed back to the track where this time we climbed high into the top rows of the backstretch grandstands that allowed us a complete view of the whole track and specifically turn 1 where the cars break from 180mph to 60mph to make the turn.  This area also allows a great view of all of the action and you can sit anywhere you wish as there is no NASCAR crowd there.   This was an excellent new perspective on the race and we enjoyed the warm sunshine yet again.  By noon we were satisfied we had sampled all of the aspect of the Rolex 24 hours and we left Daytona for Savannah GA (site of the 2011 Porsche parade).  We followed the race to conclusion on Debbie’s IPAD and were pleased the TRG Porsche won the GT class.

We had dinner at Paula Deen’s restaurant and toured the city – cool city…it will be a great parade.  Our last day on the road was Monday and we made it home safely midafternoon, an easy drive.

Paula Deens in Savannah

The Rolex is a great race to attend; its nature allows you to come and go to the venue on multiple occasions when you feel like it. The weather is great for winter, and the access is unlimited to the cars, the drivers, and made for a great experience.  I plan on going back on all good weather years in the future!  Essentials to carry along are good earplugs (put them in when you enter the turn 4 tunnel!), sunscreen, hat, and good walking shoes, binoculars and a camera.

Up Close – perfect spectator race…