“Happy hour 1.40pm – 1.40pm. Race… What race? Toothbrushes $25, AA meeting 1.41pm. Free beer.” It might not pull in the size of crowd that Le Mans does, but the Daytona 24 Hours draws a fun one, as a sign embedded on the inside of Turn 6 can attest.
Since my first visit in 2018 to watch Fernando Alonso, Lando Norris and Lance Stroll take on the endurance classic, I’ve always been at a loss to explain why this race is not more popular. The location in the US creates an obvious barrier to European racing fans who find it much easier to drive to France in the middle of summer for their 24-hour fix, but Daytona has something equally special about it. Perhaps even more so.
This is a race you can fully immerse yourself in. As an event, Le Mans is far bigger, but the race itself can often pass you by as you pick a short vantage point of an 8.5-mile long track. Awesome cars flash past you and then disappear for over three minutes, closer to four if it’s the GT classes.
At Daytona, as soon as you arrive at the self-proclaimed ‘World Center of Racing’, you’re hit by the enormity of the grandstand that straddles the finish line and can hold more than 100,000 people. There can barely be 5% of that at its busiest times during the race, but it’s a vantage point that can offer a view of the entire circuit, and with it the whole race at all times.
It might actually be that the smaller crowd actually adds to the event, because you feel like you’re in elite company as a fan here, both inside the track and outside.
Daytona International Speedway is just off I-95 as it runs from Jacksonville to Miami along Florida’s Atlantic coast, some five miles inland of Daytona Beach. But it’s in the hotels along the beach that the majority of teams and fans stay, so you’re always mixing with the competitors themselves. And as Daytona Beach is set up for the Daytona 500, spring break and summer holidays, the racing crowd is pretty much all that is there during 24 week, so places rarely sell out.
Actually, one place does: the infield. While some fans are staying in Daytona Beach, in reality, the majority are camping, mainly in huge RVs that line both the outside and inside of the track.
When you first arrive at the enormous facility and take a ‘tram’ (a large pick-up truck pulling a couple of carriages) through the Turn 1 tunnel, you’re instantly struck by the variety of sizes and shapes of the different accommodation options that fans have driven into the circuit.
Some of them are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and feature cutting-edge technology, with the sides extending out to create bedrooms, and awnings over outdoor screens where fans will grill dinner and follow the TV coverage.
Others are a little more basic, but highlight the real function of the RV here, which is to be a mini grandstand of its own. The infield features a few select sets of ‘bleachers’ (grandstand seats), but each is only able to hold a few hundred fans at most. Some of the fan creations – such as an ageing school bus with its engine exposed – have had a whole extra storey added to elevate the view above the track fencing, and provide added capacity.
It’s clearly a race that caters to the fans, by making it easy to move around while still watching from as many possible places. Walkways on the infield filter the crowd between the barrier and the grandstands so you’re as close to the action as can be, with the infield fan zone making you feel like you’re always at the heart of the event.
Thousands are also able to simply purchase garage access, allowing you to roam freely even during the race itself.
It must be said that the speedway set up means the garages are open-plan buildings behind the pitlane, with each team just having a simple awning and stand next to the pitwall for during the race. Only when there are car issues would they return to their garages, but that means fans are able to watch repairs taking place and get up close with a race team at work.
“The fastest prototypes superbly carve through the lower classes”
Similarly before and after the race it gives them a chance to rub shoulders with the drivers as they move between the team trucks, garages and large motorhomes they will base themselves in during the 24 hours. You just feel part of it.
The Sunshine State isn’t used to sub-zero temperatures but despite unseasonably cold weather the fans were out in force on Saturday morning to walk across the pitlane and out onto the banking pre-race. Some could mingle on the grid – a line-up of all 61 entries in the pitlane – but most took the chance to stand on an iconic piece of track, overlooking the huge ‘Daytona’ logo sprayed on the grass in the tri-oval.
And once the main festivities such as the national anthem needed to take place, gates in the barrier allowed you to walk across the banking and straight into the grandstand, where you’d head for Turn 1.
From here you can clearly see the whole infield section, but it’s where the track leaves and rejoins the banking that you’re closest to the action. When more than 60 cars – led by the DPis (Daytona Prototype International) – come barrelling towards you two wide on the opening lap it’s cool. When they do so three or four wide a lap later when fully up to speed, it’s awesome.
Given the large number of entries across classes ranging from DPi, through LMP2 and LMP3 to GT, you’re never more than 15 seconds away from a car coming past. And for those in the top class – such as early leader Tristan Vautier – it meant dealing with traffic after only a few laps. That was all the invitation Kamui Kobayashi needed in the popular No48 entry that also included Jimmie Johnson, as he cleared Vautier and led the opening hour.
It really is mesmerising stuff, because as the laps tick by the race never seems to settle down.
Having so many cars means there could be an incident at any second, as you’re constantly watching the fastest prototypes superbly carve their way through squabbling lower classes, knowing any issue could be crucial.
In LMP2, Dwight Merriman in the No18 Era Motorsport entry had kicked off the race in inauspicious style by spinning when still in the pitlane, having to reverse out while facing the majority of the field, before he could right himself out on track and start the formation laps. Less than an hour into the race and he crashed heavily at Turn 6, leading to a lengthy delay as a track worker was given medical attention and the wreckage cleared. It served as an early reminder of how quickly the race can go wrong.
Unlike Le Mans in recent years, this really was a wide open race between multiple teams at the end of the DPi regulations. Next year is a mouthwatering prospect as Hypercar programmes kick into gear and multiple manufacturers are expected in the top class, but for 2022 there were seven entries that all had a genuine shot of overall victory.
So the key was to stay out of trouble, and stay on the lead lap. That so many did for so long is testament to the strength in depth of the field, with sports car regulars joined by almost half the IndyCar field and even NASCAR runners.
Reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou admitted to Jordan Taylor pre-race that he was struggling with traffic, in particular meeting it at the right time.
In response, Taylor pointed out driver knowledge is key. The son of team owner Wayne Taylor has won in the top class twice for his father – including alongside Alonso in 2019 – but is now a factory Corvette driver and arrived after winning GTLM in 2021, and highlighted how a pro driver will be braking a lot later than an amateur in the same GT car.
You could see it at an early stage as drivers lost time in traffic, wary of a major incident. But it would be car issues rather than driver error that would take three DPis out of contention overnight.
Exactly when that happened was lost on me as sunset brought even lower temperatures that caused me to leave in search of food and warmth away from the track. But being in such close proximity – plus the fact every TV in every hotel seemed to be showing the race – soon had me heading back with an extra pair of socks on in time for 10pm fireworks and action under the lights.
Amid a few beers and laughs in the grandstand, the seriousness of the battle on track was highlighted by a BMW M4 sliding across the grass on the oval having been nudged sideways in a gaggle of cars at over 150mph. And the ensuing caution period – one of 17 overall – served as a reminder that this would be an endurance race until the final two hours.
While the infield crowd blared out music to stay awake or huddled round fire pits in sleeping bags to keep themselves warm, I headed for some sleep and returned to a wide-open race as the sun changed things the following morning.
The temperature swing was massively noticeable between sun and shade, and as the track warmed up so the competitive landscape altered as well. Acuras took over from Cadillacs as the marginally quicker car in DPi, and it was the hugely popular Hélio Castroneves leading the way as Meyer Shank Racing looked to end Wayne Taylor’s three-year run of victories.
As the crowd got into what was a four-way battle for the overall win, the LMP2 fight also had them making noise as Colton Herta – in a car shared with fellow IndyCar talents Pato O’Ward and Devlin DeFrancesco – led Louis Delétraz before a caution led to the last round of stops and a sprint to the flag.
Castroneves retained his lead but Herta had dropped behind Delétraz in the pits, slowly closing in before muscling his way past with an impressive move into the Bus Stop with 15 minutes to go. There had been no sign of fatigue among the fans but that got them on their feet, as did a wild scrap between the two leading Porsches in GTD Pro.
With Castroneves holding Ricky Taylor at bay, Porsche 911s took the limelight by swapping positions (and paint). On the outside Laurens Vanthoor of KCMG couldn’t get through and spun through the grass after further contact, limping home second to Mathieu Jaminet in a barely believable finish after 24 hours of racing.
No sooner had I sat down to process that final lap, I was back on my feet to salute Castroneves climbing the fence as the Meyer Shank team celebrated. Fans in all manner of sports car clothing ran to the front of the seating to get close to ‘Spider-Man’.
The grandstand might have appeared empty but felt full as you filtered out among excited spectators, who rather than join the traffic leaving the infield headed to wander the garages and inspect the wounded cars.
It was a decent send-off for the DPi category at Daytona, and an example of just how great this race can be. I can barely imagine what the new regulations of 2023 might serve up, but I’ll certainly be imploring more people to come and find out for themselves.