Rolex 24 Flashback: A Personal Test of Endurance
The No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing team performs a pit stop on pit road during the Rolex 24.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When it comes to winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the drivers get the glory, but they’ll be the first to admit that none of them would be trying on that beautiful, but elusive Rolex watch in Daytona International Speedway’s Victory Circle without the tireless efforts of every single member of their crew.
Simon Hodgson, the general manager for SunTrust Racing, and Iain Watt, an engineer for Action Express Racing, know all about the very personal test of endurance that staying awake, alert, focused and functioning for the twice-’round-the-clock classic is for every crew member.
Preparation is paramount in several ways for Daytona. Namely, accruing enough sleep and nutrition in the days and weeks leading up to the event so that a 24-plus hour run of staying awake isn’t as difficult as it might appear.
“I think the main thing is getting the right nutrition really, and lots of sleep; simple as that,” Hodgson says. “The actual week of the 24 is quite long, from load-in on the Tuesday through going green on Saturday. We also have to keep the stress levels moderated to have a routine 24 hours.”
Keeping those stress levels down means working on the tiniest details in advance and, should things go wrong, having a Plan B. And a Plan C, D and E, too.
“You have to approach this race differently from the outset,” Watt explains. “The way we go about racing it, we make sure there are extra preparations for the cars. You’ll go at all costs to keep it running. You do everything to keep the wheels turning. There are lots of strategies you have to do to prepare for what you don’t expect. It’s a different kind of preparation.”
The preparation involves having not just spare parts, but also spare people at the ready. If one crewmember goes down, it’s a greater necessity to fill the spot and operate at full strength rather than a man down.
“You have to have that redundancy in every level, from calling the race to people doing jobs like running tires and getting fuel,” Watt says. “It all has to happen. You have to build that into your procedures, systems and personnel. For instance, if your lead guy twists an ankle on the first stop, you have to have a backup guy. Otherwise you do slow pit stops the rest of the race and that doesn’t work.”
With the preparation in place and every eventuality hopefully covered, race morning dawns between 7 or 8 a.m. local time, when the crew wakes up and head to the track. Hodgson estimates a good night’s sleep the night before begins at 8:30 or 9 p.m., after a good dinner.
From Saturday, they’ll stay at the track for a much longer period than just 24 hours. The race itself begins at 3 p.m. and between pre-race setup and post-race takedown, it’s easily one full day and a half, straight.
“It’s not like you can teach yourself to sleep in and avoid going to the track,” Watt laughs. “It’s more like 36 hours, going on 48 that you have to be awake and alert. You can’t be a zombie!”
The race begins and, within just a few hours, darkness falls. Temperatures drop. A standard race length is quickly exceeded, yet there are several more to go. And then, inevitably, the urge to sleep hits the guys on pit road.
“The guys can get some rest in-between fuel stints,” Hodgson says. “The difficult thing is that, by the evening, you feel like you’ve already done a normal race. The hardest time is about 10 p.m. through to about 4 in the morning, as those are really long hours. You hope the crew starts getting its second wind when the sun rises.”
Watt says the toughest part comes at the end of that late night/early morning window – roughly between 3 and 4 a.m.
“Right then, your body tells you that you should be going to sleep,” Watt admits. “If you’ve just serviced the car about then, there might be a natural lull in activity after it, so it’s hard to keep focused. Your body wants to go to sleep but you do your best to stay awake until that second wind.”
That’s often the coldest part of the event, as well. Despite what you might think about Florida’s balmy climate, Daytona can be notoriously chilly in the middle of January, and available heat is limited. Watt’s energy and heat kick is aided by several cups of coffee, while Hodgson says he tries to find as much heat as possible from the pit box.
Watt says the lights at Daytona help aid competitors and crewmembers, where it’s almost never completely dark at any point on the circuit. By way of contrast, Le Mans, where Watt crewed several races in the 1990s, is a much tougher challenge to stay awake at because it’s pitch black on almost all parts of the circuit. Armed with that experience, the first time Watt worked with Eddie Cheever at Daytona in 2006, he says he “knew what he was getting into.”
To stay awake, Hodgson says he just tries to keep even more engaged with the race than usual. As he says, time goes quicker. He admits sleep could claim the crewmembers, but the intensity and focus for each stop fuels them to keep going. Most crewmembers stay up the whole of the race and only briefly shut their eyes – maybe for an hour or two in total over the two days.
“To be honest, from as soon as the race starts, there’s nobody on our team who wants to leave the pits,” he says. “They all take the responsibility of seeing the cars finishing well.”
Both Watt and Hodgson have extensive experience as mechanics in IndyCar racing. Hodgson, a SunTrust crewmember since 2007, had a rough first time at the Rolex in 2004. He witnessed the usually well prepared Chip Ganassi Racing team almost underestimate the challenge of how tiring the work can be in its first Rolex 24 start.
“Honestly, it was very difficult, and not just from a fatigue standpoint,” he says. “Ganassi is all about preparation, and we thought we all were prepared, but we were definitely underprepared. We had a lot of rain and things we didn’t think we’d have to contend with. I saw how hard it could be if things weren’t going right, and what we needed to do better going forward.”
In contrast to coming in half-ready, Watt believes being over-prepared for the task of staying awake, ready and focused is the real key to success for crewmembers over the course of the Rolex 24.
“If you’re prepared for adversity, then adversity stays away from you,” he admits. “But if you’re scrambling, you’ll get challenged. It always seems to go that way, at least from my experience.”