Saturday night fever: experiencing the Daytona 24 Hours

Daytona International Raceway 24 Hours race

The 24 Hours combines Daytona’s famous banking with a twisty infield section

What better way for any motorsport fan to beat the winter blues than by taking in the Daytona 24 Hours in Florida? We park the RV, light the barbie and soak up the action

It’s hard not to feel a pang of envy when friends tell you they’re going abroad in January. With a well-earned reputation for being one of the hardest-going months of the year, it counts Blue Monday among its dark, cold days. 

For travellers with a thing for motorsport, there’s a way to leave all this behind. On the third weekend of the year, Florida’s Daytona International Speedway hosts thousands of race fans from America and beyond.


They come for the nation’s first major motorsport event of the year, the Daytona 24 Hours. And just down the road is the ‘Birthplace of Speed’ – the arrow-straight, white-sand beach that has seen cars haulin’ ass and suckin’ gas since 1902. 

These days, it costs 20 bucks to drive as many of the 20 or so miles of compacted sand as you wish. But you’ll have to stick to 10mph. There are few visible connections to the amateur racers who helped put Daytona on the map. Or the likes of Malcolm Campbell, who drove Bluebird to 276mph on the beach back in 1935. 

That’s hard to get your head around, given the fastest prototypes racing at in he 24 Hours won’t even top 200mph on a circuit that combines the famous banked tri-oval with a slower infield section. 

Speed isn’t everything, though. The competitors at Daytona, and the wider IMSA Sportscar Championship, are here to prove their mettle against some of the best drivers and racing teams in the world. 

One of the hottest prospects Britain’s Oliver Jarvis, who races for Mazda. The former Audi Le Mans ace broke the lap record in the ‘Roar Before the 24’ test, then set pole position for the race itself. He’s clearly relishing his US adventure. 

The scale of the speedway itself dwarfs anything Europeans are used to. The recently rebuilt main stadium, called Daytona Rising, seats more than 101,000 and affords a spectacular view of the entire 2.5-mile tri-oval. Jarvis says one of the keys to performing well in the race is to read the traffic and plan where you’ll pass the slower cars. The teams employ spotters, who sit on the fifth floor of Daytona Rising, to help drivers negotiate each lap. 

There’s plenty of spare capacity wherever you go around the circuit and, unlike Europe, the grandstands are free to all. During the preamble, the fans get to meet their favourite drivers and pose next to the cars. 

Then prayers are said, the national anthem is sung and the star-spangled banner is pulled through the sky by plane – followed, comically, by another flying a banner for Bubba Burgers. Watching the start of the race from one of the higher tiers of the grandstand is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

Thousands of race fans camp here. But most do it in true American style, in an RV rather than under canvas, so the campsites bear a closer resemblance to a Hollywood film set than a hardcore music festival. 

Barbecues sizzle, fire pits roar and the level of knowledge among the fans we meet suggests these are seasoned race-goers. You can pitch a tent up against the chain-link fence down by Turn 5, if you get there early enough. Alternatively, rent an RV with uninterrupted views over the banking between Turns 7 and 8. 

Seeing the cars run through the gears, then remain flat out in top for sustained periods around the banking, is a novel experience for any European visitor. 

However, it’s those prolonged periods of hardship that are to prove the downfall of the much-fancied Mazda team. Despite the number 77 car of Jarvis leading the race, and the 55 sister car clawing its way back to the front of the pack after problems, both suffer engine trouble. In the garage, the engineers pull the engine cover off 77 and remove the air intake from the roof. Taking turns to smell what lies beneath, their pained expressions suggest something catastrophic has occurred. 

Mazda runs a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine pushing out more than 600bhp. The competition, including eventual winner Cadillac, have six- or eight-cylinder motors, which are inherently less stressed. 

I ask Jarvis if he feels the strategy of using an engine that reflects Mazda’s road car range and ‘challenger spirit’ is the right one. Needless to say, his view is that’s a decision for those that run the team and pay the bills. “I just drive the car as fast as I can,” he says. 

Now Mazda must improve the durability of the RT-24P over the rest of the IMSA season, so it can deliver on its promise when the Daytona 24 Hours comes back around in 2020. Better luck next year. 

Rain took the shine off the race for visiting fans and drivers this time. But still, it sure beat Blue Monday.

James Mills

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Source: Autocar Online

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