Serving as the Grand Marshal for the 54th Rolex 24 At DAYTONA, his first trip to the World Center of Racing, we sat down with the most decorated driver in endurance racing history.
DIS: You’ve been here all weekend to witness the inaugural race at the World’s First Motorsports Stadium. What are your thoughts on the results of the DAYTONA Rising project?
Tom Kristensen: It’s unbelievable. Right away, it definitely gives you that stadium feeling. The facility is incredibly impressive and I understand why the drivers feel this place is so special. Being here in DAYTONA is something unique. You can appreciate how the history started on the beach and has developed into what I’ve seen this weekend with the new stadium. With the Rolex 24, the DAYTONA 500 and all of the incredible races you hold here, I understand why everyone is so excited to return year after year.
DIS: You’ve made your name in endurance racing, but never participated in the Rolex 24. What have been your impressions of the race? In your mind, how does it differ from Le Mans?
TK: Unfortunately, I was never able to race here due to sponsorships. In a way, I would say that the circuit is quite short for a 24-hour race, but is wonderful because you can see the whole track. Drivers have to have a lot of mental stamina for this race with all of the yellow flags. It’s very much a game of strategy for a long duration of time. This gives everyone a great opportunity to tune-in on equipment, cars, drivers, and everything else. It gives drivers and race teams time to get into the zone and prepare to be at their best for the final attack. When teams show up for the Roar [Before the 24], they don’t show their cards. They leave a bit of their ability and strategy hidden and save it for the very end of this race. The other thing that I’ve noticed with this race is that, even though there’s a lot of floodlight, this race has the longest night. It starts around 6 pm, which is quite unique. For the fans to go into the night that early is not something you see at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it slowly starts to reach dusk around 10 pm.
DIS: What makes night racing like the kind you see at the Rolex 24 so difficult?
TK: I’m old enough that I remember some of the first years at Le Mans, which had no floodlights at that time. There was no other light. The light we did see was off-road and just very distracting. When you’re driving at night, the focus has to be higher with the adrenaline and heartbeat pumping faster. You need a lot of determination when you enter the circuit to make sure that you get up to speed immediately as you get the temperature in the tires. Sometimes you don’t really see from the apex of the exit curve before you actually hit it, giving you no time to react. You have to drive a lot on pure grit and self-confidence to get into that rhythm. That’s what I like about the night, when you find it. When you don’t find it, it can be your worst nightmare as well. That can be challenging, which is why this was something that I very much liked about endurance racing. It keeps your attention and, in the beginning, it’s a bit of a love-hate relationship. Every time you race at night, it’s a new experience.
DIS: At this race and Le Mans, you have multiple classes of cars with different speeds, different weights, and different braking points all running close together. How difficult is that to maneuver?
TK: That’s always a race within the race. You have to be alert to danger because you can touch, but you can’t hit. Any hit and it means you’re headed back to the pits – or worse. That’s why you really have to read the track and the field well. You have to know, not only the abilities of your car, but those cars around you. It’s a delicate balance being cautious with doing all you can not to lose any time. You are always playing with your mind to decide which of these ways to go at any given time. That’s where the teamwork of the Crew Chief and the entire team comes in to help you. When that respect and camaraderie goes well and you end up in Victory Lane, there’s nothing better.
DIS: It’s been about a year and a half since you retired. What have you kept busy with since?
TK: I’m still very busy. I’m an Audi brand ambassador. I’ve really found a home with that company. I work a lot with them being a Rolex Testimony, which is one of the reasons why I’m here. I’m very proud of that. I’m involved with the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) in Europe as the President of the FIA Drivers’ Commission. It’s a small commission, but it’s very important. All drivers from every category of racing, from Rallycross and karting all the way up to sports cars and Formula 1, use us in an advisory role. It’s used quite a lot within the FIA. The FIA made a push to get experience drivers into the stewards’ room during Formula 1 races, with it now materializing into other racing series’ as well. It’s great that we have ex-drivers giving a lot of the feedback within the sanctioning body.
DIS: What advice would you give to a young driver with looking to catch on?
TK: Never give up. Never ever give up. Keep pushing and truly enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t win today, you may win tomorrow, so don’t ever give up. Passion is a very good start and, from there, you just have to keep pushing and believing in yourself and your abilities.