Heylen: 2014 Rolex 24
The first race of the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship took place last week at Daytona International Speedway and it was certainly one to remember. For those new to sports car racing, this race was the first North American sports car race since the merge of NASCAR’s GRAND-AM Road Racing series and the American Le Mans Series. Similar to many years ago when the Indy Racing League and ChampCar merged, these were two very similar race series with essentially the same audience, joining together to strengthen their area of the sport. Sports car racing is different from open wheel racing in that you have many different car manufacturers, tire manufacturers, even different classes of car competition not only against the whole field, but within their class as well. Two other big differences between sports car racing and open wheel is the length of the races and the amount of drivers competing in the events and in each car. This year, 67 cars and 262 drivers (give or take) competed in this year’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. And yes, it really is 24 hours long.
The new TUDOR Series took eight classes of cars and combined them into four: P, PC, GTLM and GTD. For the Rolex 24, I joined Snow Racing and Wright Motorsports in GTD in the brand new No. 58 Porsche 911 GT America. After 24 grueling hours, we finished not only in third place, but on the lead lap within seconds of the leaders, battling in the final laps for the lead. Alongside me were co-drivers Madison Snow and Marco Seefried. I was very excited going into the race because not only did our team have a strong driver lineup, but almost every team did! Porsche had most of their Factory drivers there, not only racing in their Factory 911 team, but in the GTD class as well. Ferrari, Audi and BMW all had their factory drivers in the field as well. That’s what races like this are all about. It’s one thing to win a race, or be fast, but when you’re competing against the best in the world, that’s something to get excited about.
I’ve known Madison for some time. We did pre-season testing together
and I’ve spent time with him off track as well, so I knew what to expect from him. In 2011 at 15 years old, he won 2011 IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge by Yokohama. Last year, he won the 2013 IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge by Yokohama Platinum Cup Championship. If you’re not watching his career yet, now is the time to get started. This kid is fast! Going into this race, I knew what to expect from him. He’s got a lot of stuff going for him, and a solid race builds on his momentum for a strong career. I wouldn’t be surprised if he became a factory driver. He was a big part of our third place finish. He did an amazing job, had a strong pace, and did exactly what he needed to do.
Marco was the guy I didn’t know. In racing, all drivers meet each other at one point, sometimes very briefly. That was Marco and me. Everybody told me what a great guy he was, but I really got to know him at the Roar Before the 24. He’s one of the most pleasant guys I’ve ever had to work with—total team player. He wasn’t there to prove himself to anyone, he just did a great job for and with the team. He brought a competitive spirit and a great attitude to the team. Not only was he an awesome guy, but man, he also brought the speed and consistency too! I really can’t say enough about him and Madison.
With Madison and Marco, I felt like we were decently matched against other lineups in our class. I believe we really made a difference by not making any mistakes. The car was in near perfect condition when we finished and we never received a penalty. We never put a wheel off, and our splitter was still on the car by the end of the race. For 24 hours of hard racing, that’s an accomplishment!
Another big part of lasting strong all 24 hours is driver endurance. For a 24 hour race, teams will have anywhere from three to five drivers rotating through each car. I started preparing about two weeks in advance, making sure I was eating right and getting plenty of sleep. A lot happens during the week leading up to the race, and even then, it’s crucial to make sure you’re getting enough rest, eating right and staying hydrated. To be as prepared as you can really makes a difference. Most teams start off the Rolex 24 with a single stint (typically around an hour, depending on the yellow flags). The quick stint keeps the drivers fresh for the end. I didn’t really need to rest after the first stint. I had a recovery shake, relaxed in the driver RV and headed back to pit lane after Madison and Marco completed their first stints. As the night goes on, it becomes more and more difficult to find the proper balance of resting and racing. You just want to go to bed, but you have to eat, and you have to get just enough rest. After 20 hours of the process, if you don’t take the proper precautions, you’re dehydrated, tired and sore. It takes a lot of discipline during an endurance race to take care of yourself off track while your co-drivers are on track. It’s certainly not just heading into an RV to take a nap until it’s your turn again! This goes for the crew as well. Those guys only get to take naps in between our stints, as they have to fuel the car and change the tires every hour. Thankfully, we had Robust Energy drink as a partner and a fully stocked fridge to help out the guys during those rough night hours. I felt good at the end of it all. With four hours to go, the team sent me a message saying I was going to do the last two hours, a double stint. As we neared the end, they asked me if I was okay doing a triple stint. The way the yellows came out in the final hours, it all worked out. I was feeling pretty good and was more than willing to do the final three hours. With such great runs from Madison and Marco, and excellent pit stops from the team, our strategy worked out in the end!
That’s not to say our race was perfect. We had some refueling issues that surfaced with our first pit stop and although the team worked incredibly hard to improve the situation, and did to some extent, but it was something that plagued our pit stops throughout the race. We managed to find some kind of consistency, and the team fought hard to ensure we were still right there at the end. It’s not every year you finish not only on the lead lap, but battling for the lead with almost 24 hours complete! We crossed the line in third just 1.452 seconds behind first position and just 0.159 seconds behind the second place Audi. In those final laps, the three of us were nose-to tail. Third place with battles like that definitely isn’t bad as far as results go, but to know you were so close to the lead at the end, is a little frustrating as a driver, especially after 24 hours.
This year, the GTD Cars were harder to pass than in previous years. I don’t know what it looked like on the outside, but I enjoyed it. It made for good racing throughout the whole race. There was a lot you could do as a GTD driver in traffic of other classes. This however will probably change by our next race at the 12 Hours of Sebring. I’m very interested to see how the BOP changes over the next few weeks.
For those new to the sport, the BOP, or Balance of Performance, is the
sanctioning body’s way of equalizing the cars in each class, as well as each class against the rest of the field. It can be confusing to new fans, but think of it this way: 100 people compete in a triathlon. Not every entrant is at the same level of skill, experience or even area of expertise. Participants are usually divided up into pace groups. Although each participant is competing in the overall triathlon, they’re also competing in their own group. Each participant is also faster in one area than another. For example, certain body types are better at the swimming portion verses the running portion. Sports cars are the same way. Each class of car is built with a different style of performance. Some are better on the straights instead of the road course portions of the track. The BOP’s job is to equalize the field as much as possible, while also spacing out the performance of each class to give fans more battles to watch.
Being the first race that we were all merged together, there were
bound to be some areas of improvement on the BOP regulations. The GT and LMP cars may have found it frustrating at times to get by the GTD field compared to previous years. Another area of concern with the BOP at the Rolex 24 was the level of performance of the GTD Porsche compared to the Ferraris and Audis. They were a second and a half faster than the quickest Porsche in the race. I’m anxious to find out what and when IMSA, the sanctioning body, will come out with new BOP regulations. We were pretty aware of where we were lacking in our Porsche and like us, every team has their own story as well. I hope at Sebring, we have a much more competitive package. The Porsche is known for reliability, and we certainly had that, but pace-wise, we were far behind the competition, which was a tough break, especially when we were down to some hard racing at the end. Although, all that makes our third place finish even sweeter. There was a lot of commitment and hard work from the team. With all the little stuff we had going on, that was really quite the effort, and finish, by the team.
The end of the race certainly wasn’t without controversy. For those who missed it, just ahead of me on track, the 555 Ferrari and 45 Audi had pulled away in the final two laps and were in an intense battle for the lead position. Although the Ferrari crossed the finish line first, they were penalized for avoidable contact and given a time penalty, dropping them down to 4th in the charts, and promoting the Audi up to first and us from third to second. Four hours after the call was made, IMSA reversed the penalty, awarding the win to the Ferrari and pushing the Audi and us to second and third place. It was one of the toughest calls I’ve seen, and everyone had some pretty strong feelings about it. The fan response on social media was overwhelming. Although both teams stayed relatively quiet on the matter, fans took sides immediately and lots of arguing ensued. Any of us deserve to win, and I personally think it was a clean race through the end. Just good, hard racing. The Ferrari made a good move. It couldn’t have been a better pass. I enjoyed the battle and I think I would have done the same if given the opportunity.
All in all, it was a strong first event for the United Sports Car Series. The fan turnout looked the best I’ve seen in years, and I’m honored to have been a part of it with Snow Racing and Wright Motorsports. We’re still sorting out the rest of the season, but I’m looking forward to the 12 Hours of Sebring in March. We’ve got some great momentum and Sebring is an event that never disappoints. Hope to see you there!
You can follow Jan on twitter: @HeylenJan