Beach Boys nicely in tune

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Rolex 24 at Daytona, January 23-26: a heritage stage for America’s brave new world

Night has long since fallen when first I pass the scaffold tubes that sketch the Daytona International Speedway’s upper silhouette. The circuit might be silent, but still there’s a tingle of anticipation commensurate with a first visit to any venue. Happily, age and experience cannot dilute such things. And it adds extra resonance when your weekend lodgings happen to be tucked away nearby, on Richard Petty Boulevard. You can’t help but feel an immediate sense of attachment.

The 60-mile run from Orlando had been straightforward enough – except for offering a lift to fellow writer Giles Richards, from The Guardian. Audi had offered me the use of a courtesy vehicle during my stay and I’d assumed this would be a paragon of understated practicality. Instead, I was provided with an example of the Rolex 24 pace car, the R8 V10. This has a wonderfully solid footprint and performance way beyond the tolerance of America’s legislators, but wasn’t tailored for the world’s largest suitcase, as trailed by The Guardian. We managed to squash it in the cabin, however, and then somehow moulded Giles around it.

Later in the weekend, I took the R8 for an amble along Daytona Beach, once a popular playground for the serially ambitious. It was here in 1905 that Fred Marriott raised the world land-speed record to 121.57mph, armed only with a Stanley Steamer.

And it was here, too, that Henry Segrave, Malcolm Campbell and others moved the goalposts ever higher during the 1920s and 1930s: Segrave’s Sunbeam cracked 200mph (203.79, to be precise) in March 1927 and eight years later Campbell raised the bar to 276.71mph in Blue Bird. Me? I was pulled over and lectured for doing 18mph – almost twice the posted limit for modern-day tourists – which in the R8 equated to momentary inattention at tickover in first gear.

There are few surviving clues to the sands’ competitive past, but drive far enough to the south and, between the villas and medium-rise apartments, you’ll find the North Turn Beach Bar & Grille (sic), a memorabilia-rich haven – photographs, newspaper cuttings, results sheets, plaques, models – that stands close to the start of the old Daytona Road Course, which combined the A1A highway with a significant slice of beach. It was here in 1949 that NASCAR hosted its second-ever race and the circuit remained in use until 1958, after which attention switched to the freshly built Daytona International Speedway.

Back at which, there is a curious contrast. Every one of the 147,000 grandstand seats is traditionally full during NASCAR’s Daytona 500 showpiece, but for the 24 Hours they remain thinly populated. The infield campsites are rammed, however, so there is a decent atmosphere even if almost every TV angle might imply otherwise.

Racing commenced with a round of the Continental Sports Car Challenge, which is an approximate US equivalent of the old Donington Production GT series, a cocktail of Ford Mustangs, Chevrolet Camaros, Porsche 911s, Mazda MX-5s, Honda Civics and suchlike. Bill Auberlen and Paul Dalla Lana (BMW M3) won on the road, but their car failed post-race scrutineering to the benefit of fellow M3 racers Shelby Blackstock and Ashley Freiburg (who became the championship’s first female victor). There was some good racing at the front of the field, but several lengthy full-course yellows provided a foretaste of what was to come – as did a healthy disregard for track limits, something of a hot topic in UK racing right now.

Colleague Gordon Kirby has eloquently outlined some of the hurdles facing America’s new United SportsCar Championship, not least the constant regulatory meddling that left teams guessing until almost the final minute of pre-season, but on the surface the product looked reasonable at Daytona, with 67 cars in the field and some very strong teams. Heed the word ‘some’…

Early in the race, I wandered to the chicane to watch awhile and initially everything seemed orderly… but it became fairly obvious when second- or third-string drivers had taken the helm, as lines became stranger and spins ever more frequent. It was like a disorderly 10-lap sprint, yet more than 20 hours of racing lay ahead.

“I’ve always believed in the 110 per cent rule,” said Wayne Taylor, part of the second-placed crew. “Drivers should have to qualify. The slower ones should just stick on the racing line, but they don’t and you really have no idea which way to go.”

Winner Christian Fittipaldi added, “This is my eighth time here and things were pretty wild on the track. The traffic was worse than I’ve ever known it, with drivers fighting their own battles, so you just had to be patient.”

BMW driver Graham Rahal was a touch less diplomatic: “There were definitely lots of crazies out there…”

Looking on in his ambassadorial role for Audi, Allan McNish confirmed that dramatically fluctuating standards were typical. “Fortunately,” he said, “Daytona is the one place you can just about get away with it, because the track is quite narrow and people tend not to sweep across your bows out of nowhere. The angle of attack is usually shallow and doesn’t cause as many problems as you’d imagine.”

The one truly serious incident (see Events of the Month) involved two experienced, capable racers and was a by-product of unfortunate circumstances that could have happened at any venue.

As darkness descended, the talent gulf became less conspicuous – from my perspective, at least – and towards midnight I settled down to enjoy the spectacle of loud shadows rumbling around the banking. Walking back, I passed through the paddock to find fans standing in garages, watching cars (Aston Martins, mostly) being repaired. Spectators are allowed on the grid at Daytona, too – a nice touch that would be almost unthinkable on any other continent. (Once, at Indianapolis Raceway Park, I witnessed a USAC midget final being delayed to allow fans more time to complete their grid walk.)

Whatever you might think of flaky, full-course caution periods, America respects its paying punters in other, appropriate ways.

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