American Scream

The Daytona Classic 24 Hour is a world away from its European counterparts – and all the more terrifying for it

When it comes to iconic motor sport venues the Daytona International Motor Speedway is right up there with the best of them. The self-proclaimed title of ‘World Center Of Racing‘ that’s unashamedly writ large atop the colossal start-finish grandstand is debatable, but when you’re standing in the pit lane, dwarfed by the surroundings and nervously contemplating your first taste of what this legendary track has to offer, it’s hard to think of a more imposing or impressive place to drive a racing car.

I’ve travelled to Florida to take part in the snappily titled Historic Sportscar Racing Classic 24 at Daytona presented by IMSA. Though a relative newcomer to the world of classic motor sport the Classic 24 Hour at Daytona has quickly established itself as one of the Bucket List meetings on the historic racing calendar.

Being a jammy so-and-so I’m doing it in some style, driving not one but two cars run by Iconic Racing: a Broadley T76 (that’s a newly-built, FIA HTP compliant and 100 per cent accurate copy of the legendary 1969 Lola T70 Mk3B, in case you didn’t know) and a factory Pratt & Miller-built Corvette C7.R – the actual GTLM class winner in both the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona and Sebring 12 Hour races.

If you know anything of Peter Auto’s biannual Le Mans Classic meeting then Historic Sportscar Racing’s (HSR) formula for Daytona Classic 24 will be very familiar, with six grids taking to the track in rotation across a 24-hour period. Like LMC, the spread of cars reflects the history of the ‘real’ 24 Hours meeting, though as Daytona held its first 24 Hours in 1966 it doesn’t have such a large pool of machinery from which to draw.

The Broadley runs in Group A for cars from 1960-1972, the Corvette in Group E, which spans 2003-2015 and features the most modern cars at the meeting. That might seem at odds with the event’s ‘classic’ billing, but HSR was amongst the first to pioneer a shift towards more contemporary cars: a trend that’s now being seen across historic racing in the UK and Europe.

Group F, the sixth and final grid of the meeting, is made up of HSR regulars who have cars that were never eligible to compete at Daytona. Again that’s not the norm, but it’s a nice touch that’s typical of the inclusive nature of US racing. Naturally it also helps HSR claw back a return on its considerable investment to hire Daytona for five days, but ultimately it adds to the diversity of the cars on show, as a mooch round the paddock reveals.

As purpose-built racing venues go Daytona is amongst the most intimidating I’ve ever driven. Every morning when you head to the track and emerge from the vehicle tunnel that burrows beneath the banking, the sheer scale of the place blows your mind. For a moment or two you don’t know where to look, but then your head begins to slowly rotate in an owlish attempt to drink it all in. The novelty of it never wears off.

To someone steeped in British and European racing Daytona is at once familiar and utterly alien. Familiar because it’s part of the fabric of our sport, alien because it is so obviously the product of a totally different racing culture – one largely devoted to the raw speed and pure spectacle of NASCAR. Think of it as a man-made place of worship with a cathedral-like grandeur and you’re getting the picture.

WITH PLENTY OF testing, free practice and qualifying sessions spread from Wednesday until the Classic 24 races begin at 1300hrs on Saturday afternoon, there’s an abundance of track time. Which is just as well as although I’ve visited Daytona on two previous occasions to see the Rolex 24, I’ve never so much as done a passenger lap around the 3.56-mile road course.

Like most motor sport in America, the vibe is remarkably laid-back compared to the equivalent meeting in Europe. There’s a distinct lack of formalities and the drivers’ briefing is actually worth going to, which has to be a first. The garages are a mix of humble low-rise buildings and bigger, more modern constructions. All are set some way from the vast expanse of pit apron which itself sits a long way back from the track, in true Super Speedway fashion.

There’s a real hubbub once everyone has arrived and starts to set their spaces up for the weekend. Where possible the organisers cluster cars from each race group together, but when there’s a team running lots of cars across multiple grids they tend to keep them as a unit. In the case of Iconic Racing this means the Broadley is parked nose-to-tail with the Corvette C7.R, while immediately adjacent are a fabulous LMP900 Judd V10-engined Oreca-Chrysler owned and driven by Florent Moulin and an equally gorgeous GT1 Saleen S7-R owned by another Iconic customer. It’s quite a quartet.

While Gérard Lopez – with whom I’ll be sharing the Broadley and Corvette – familiarises himself with the C7.R, I get ready to drive the Broadley. I’ve raced this car and a genuine T70 many times before, but never anywhere like this. The banking looms over you literally and as the time to drive draws near, psychologically too. Three or more storeys high and raked at 31 degrees, it’s a monumental and daunting prospect. Worse, unlike a normal track, where you can familiarise yourself quietly and steadily while keeping out of everyone else’s way well off the racing line, there are no half-measures at Daytona.

Still, if there are such things as the Gods of Motor Sport I’m hoping they’ll be looking down approvingly at the Broadley’s livery, for it’s the very same as that worn by the 1969 Daytona 24 Hours-winning T70 run by Roger Penske and raced by Mark Donohue and Chuck Parsons. Few combinations of car and place come more evocative than this. It looks born to the task ahead.

The first time I step out onto the pit lane apron and hop over the low concrete wall it’s like walking into a Kodachrome archive image from the ’69 race. The car looks sensational against the backdrop of the front stretch grandstands. Almost timeless. I half expect to see Roger Penske leaning into the cockpit or for Donohue to hop out and start talking to the engineers. It’s pinch-yourself moments like that which make historic racing so special and sit at the core of meetings like the Classic 24.

If you’re big the T70/T76 cockpit is a bit snug, but my compact (okay, short-arsed) frame fits just fine. When the door is dropped shut we do a quick radio check between car and crew, then I get the whirly finger signal to fire up the Chevy V8 before being waved out onto the circuit. The pit exit is a challenge in itself. Barely a car wide, it follows the inside of Turn One and is separated from the live circuit by a metre-high concrete wall. The first curve isn’t so bad, but after a brief squirt of throttle there’s a more acute 90-degree left that looks tailor-made for a humiliating 20mph shunt on cold tyres. I make a quick mental note to treat this section with utmost respect, especially in the Corvette.

I don’t take much of the infield circuit – basically a trio of hairpins linked by short straights and one ballsy kink – because all I can think about is what the banking has in store for me. The answer comes quickly and explicitly, for no sooner do you pop out of Turn 6 (the last corner of the infield section) than you’re climbing the banking where NASCAR Turn 1 segues into NASCAR 2.

It’s a wild feeling to power up towards the rim of this vast tarmac saucer, punching through the gears until you’ve got no more to throw at it. Speed and g force ramp up quickly, as does the sensation of being tilted steeply to the left. What remains of NASCAR 2 isn’t sufficient to get the full impression of speed, but as the banking flattens you really do fire out onto the Back Stretch and the run towards the Bus Stop chicane that punctuates the Tri-Oval for the Classic 24, just as it does for the modern Rolex 24.

From here it’s back up onto the banking and the crazy charge through NASCAR 3 and 4. This is where you get the full Daytona experience as you strain your neck against the lateral g to try and get a glimpse through the top left corner of the windscreen in a desperate effort to see through the endless corner. By now the Broadley is butting into its rev limiter in its long top gear. We could up the rev limit by 500rpm, but Iconic reckon it already equates to just on 180mph. Slow by NASCAR standards, I know, but still honking on in my book.

AS THE WEEKEND settles into its rhythm Lopez, Frantz Wallenborn (my other co-driver in the Broadley) and I get ourselves dialled in. Qualifying is actually run as a race on Friday, but it’s lap times that count rather than finishing positions. Things go brilliantly in the Broadley, which sets a time that’s comfortably on pole. Lopez and I have a clean run in the Corvette, too, but for some reason there are a few protoypes running in the E-7 class. We’re right up there with the quickest of the GT cars, but ultimately outpaced by the Oreca and Ligiers.

After forming up in the assembly area, grids are sent straight out onto the track in two-by-two formation behind a pace car. With one lap to get some heat in tyres and brakes everything happens pretty fast, as before you know it you’re straining your eyes to see the flag marshal perched in the gantry above the start-finish line. When the green flag waves everyone pins the throttle and the whole grid tears down towards Turn 1 like a stampede. It’s proper heart-pounding stuff whether you’re in the car or watching from the pit lane.

Lopez and I decide to do alternate races in the Corvette. My first is five in the afternoon, which means my second run comes at five in the morning. The muggy Florida humidity has abated a little, but it’s still warm. The sun sets early and rises late this close to the equator, but such is the level of floodlighting that there’s nowhere around the lap that’s left without some level of illumination. That said, it’s dark enough to have senses heightened as I slide over the hefty side impact bars of the roll cage and into the low-set, super-supportive seat.

The C7.R’s cockpit is a wraparound array of displays and switches. There’s a big rearview display screen – sadly we don’t have the radar system fitted that predicts which way quicker traffic will pass you – and myriad switches on the steering wheel. I’m sticking with the traction control settings suggested by Pratt & Miller, so I won’t need to fiddle too much with any of the controls, apart from the radio button to signal when I’m entering the pits (there’s a mandatory pit stop in all the races, and a minimum pit-in to pit-out time, hence my call as I close the entry line) and the pitlane speed limiter.

Otherwise it’s all pretty simple stuff – left and right paddle shifters to go up and down the gearbox and a few warning lights to signal brake lock-ups and when the traction control is cutting in.

After the animalistic Broadley it feels safe and calm in the Corvette. You’re much less active in the car. Fewer steering inputs, finger flicks to change gear and no clutch to pump once you’re out of the pits. You just seem to be sitting there, clamped firmly in place and watching for the shift lights to prompt your next upshift. It’s strangely serene, yet exhilarating at the same time.

BOTH CARS FEEL at home around Daytona. No great surprise, but a welcome discovery. Where the Broadley feels rampant everywhere the Corvette is much more contained. As it the modern way you don’t hustle a car with slicks and wings in the way you need to in the Broadley. You can make the rear end work a little, but the window between working the rear tyres j-u-s-t enough and tipping into a scrappy, snappy slide is narrow. When the tyres are coming in you have a fabulous sense of grip and traction. You soon learn this is something precious, for if you can tread that line fine line where you’re working everything cleanly and close to the limit, that feeling of grip, balance and poise stays with you for a few laps longer. However, when you have grip and traction it’s easy to over-drive, and when you do that you squander the tyres and enter a vicious circle as less grip means more scrappy slides, which overworks the tyres and leads to, you guessed it, less grip. It’s hugely frustrating, not least because you know it’s entirely self-inflicted.

The C7.R’s V8 is running GTLM restrictors so it delivers a big slab of power and torque, but feels a bit strangled in the higher gears at high speed. Once you’re up into sixth gear it’s as though you’ve driven into an invisible buffer. I think it’s fair to say you must always crave more speed at Daytona, but the upside of being one of the middling Group E cars for ultimate pace is that you get treated to the spectacle of the big prototypes going by you on the top lane of the banking.

One of the highlights of the entire weekend is Andy Wallace coming by in the Champion Racing Audi R8 as we head through NASCAR 4. Memories of seeing his ‘AW‘ crash helmet tucked down behind the windscreen and watching the rump of that magnificent car leaving me for dead along the Front Stretch now replay in my head a scene from a movie.

One thing the Corvette emphasises is just how important nailing your braking points is at Daytona. Without any challenging sequences of corners – say something like the Maggots/Becketts section at Silverstone – the big braking areas into Turn 1, the International Hairpin and the Bus Stop are where commitment will gain you time. With so much of the lap spent with the throttle pinned this means you have plenty of time to think about these critical braking zones and, if you’re me, find new and imaginative ways of not quite nailing them.

Jumping from one car to the other is the best kind of history lesson – one in which I learn how quick a car designed some half a century ago and running on treaded tyres can be made to go (my qualifying lap is a 1:48.7, compared to a 1:46.7 in the Corvette), and how endurance racing used to be a divergent mix of needing to go quick, but to also look after the engine, brakes and gearbox. And of course there’s the physicality of simply operating the machine.

By contrast the modern GTLM machine feels unbreakable – as sharp and keen at the end of the weekend as it was at the start. It’s this relentless stamina coupled with a remarkable ease of operation that places extraordinary pressure on the driver to work the car to its limits lap after lap after lap. Discipline, consistency and precision is the modern way, but it’s as mentally tiring as the Broadley is physically. It certainly threw new light on how tough it must be to compete at the highest level in GTLM.

SO HOW DID WE DO in the Classic 24 standings? In a nail-biting crescendo to an exhilarating weekend’s competition, Gerard brings the Broadley – ailing badly with what we think is a fuelling issue – across the line to secure an outright win Group A. In the moments after the initial euphoria has passed it’s always a strangely deflating feeling knowing the racing is done and dusted. That said, walking into Daytona’s Victory Lane is a really nice moment, especially as the car gets in on the podium celebrations. Confetti canons pump a blizzard of red, white and blue flakes into the sky, and as we push the gorgeous Sunoco blue car away it leaves stripes of clean tarmac as its fat Avon tyres – still hot and sticky from the final race – cloak themselves in a multi-coloured blanket of paper spots.

We have one final race left to do in the C7.R, but after a long night shift in the Corvette and Broadley I’m now beginning to flag. That’s nothing a coffee and some breakfast wouldn’t sort, but I’m more worried about my ears than tiredness. Without the sound-deadening protection of moulded silicone earplugs (I don’t have a set with radio kit) I had to use foam radio plugs, which offer scant defence against the high-decibel hammering from the Corvette’s ear-splitting side-pipes and the Broadley’s roaring small-block. I can’t face subjecting myself to another 45-minutes of intense noise, so I reluctantly rule myself out.

As it transpires Gerard’s not that keen to run either, though his decision is based on the belief we’ve ridden our luck to the limit with the C7.R. Having dodged my way through two potentially major pile-ups in my Group E races, and learning how close Gerard came to experiencing a sudden tyre deflation on the banking after a rear wheel rim was broken by a coming-together with another car, I’m inclined to agree with his decision to withdraw from the final race while his precious Rolex Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours winner is still in one piece.

It’s not quite how we’d planned to conclude the 2017 Daytona Classic 24, but it does nothing to detract from what’s been a brilliant race meeting and a spectacular experience. Driving this uniquely thrilling circuit in these two fabulous cars – one that raced and won its class here just a few years back, the other shot through with the DNA of the outright winner from almost 50 years ago – has been better than I dared hope. The American Dream? I think it just might be.