Back in 1979, as a callow youth, I made my very first visit to a car race.
Unlike many, though, it wasn't a humble clubbie meeting or even a round of the BSCC or F3 championship, not even the British GP.
No, my interest was piqued by a poster in a classroom whilst still at school, which showed a Porsche 908, headlights blazing, swooping through curves in the dead of night. My first race meeting was the 1979 Le Mans 24 Hours.
I made the trip on a coach with my father (Who I think only tagged along to please my mother who seemed to think I'd be murdered or lured into white slavery on a trip to France alone!), but we had a great time.
To save you looking it up, the first day was swelteringly hot, with the works Porsche 936s expected to win easily, but they wilted and the privateer Porsche 935s (from the next class down) rose to the front and a battle royale developed between the American Whittington Brothers and Klaus Ludwig in one car and Hollywood star, Paul Newman and Rolf Stommelen and car owner, Dick Barbour.
To add to the drama, fierce storms broke the heat and the track (and grass car parks) were awash for the second half of the race.
The ultimate movie ending didn't happen and Newman's car finished 2nd after a dramatic last few hours in which both 935s hit trouble, but it was a race so full of excitement, action, tragedy and drama, that we were both hooked and returned for 30 years.
In latter years our enthusiasm waned a bit, as the events best viewing and parking spots were dedicated to 'corporate guests', who probably knew nothing of the teams or cars racing (except those built or sponsored by the corporation that provided their free meal, drinks and tickets) at the expense of the poor 'paying public'.
A mixture of this and my dad's ailing health led us to stop going after 2008.
2019 was to mark the 40th anniversary of that first visit and for a long while I considered making the trip back to La Sarthe, but with the WEC (which Le Mans is a round of) in a bit of a slump and that nagging feeling that, to be honest, 10 years ago we'd felt pushed aside at the expense of people who might buy an Audi, but dressed for a visit to Le Mans as if it was a day at Ascot, never going away, I just couldn't see the point.
Then one day, another thought struck me. Le Mans isn't the only World Class 24 Hour race featuring top level sportscars and drivers that I’d wanted to see, there was also Daytona!
Back in the heyday of Group C I idly dreamed of going to the Daytona 24 Hours, but a trip to the states to see a car race seemed beyond fanciful, but now (having actually done it once to see a race at Laguna Seca in the late ‘90s) it seemed like I could mark the anniversary and, if nothing else, have a 'different' experience.
A bit of heavy duty 'man maths' and web surfing made a 6 day trip to Florida in January 2019 look practical and before I knew where I was, I had airline, hotel, rental car and race tickets booked!
I flew out to Orlando on 23rd January, arriving late afternoon and drove up to Daytona Beach that evening. I found the massive International Speedway with little trouble, but tracking down my hotel was a little trickier.
Once that was done, though, I unpacked and went to bed!
The next morning was overcast and only middling temperature, but I drove down to Daytona Beach proper (the circuit is about 5 miles from the coast) and, as the weather brightened, wandered along the hard packed sand that once echoed to land speed record attempts and beach races, before the racers moved inland to the purpose built, tarmac circuit.
After a stroll around there (and a diner breakfast), I headed to the circuit and collected my tickets. I noticed that practice was that afternoon, so after a quick trip back to the hotel, mainly to switch lenses on my camera, I returned to the track and asked if I could get a one day ticket. Sure enough I could and at just $10, it seemed a bargain, so my afternoon was spent watching the cars practice and then qualify for the 24 hour race.
The sun was shining and I made my way around the infield to get some shots of cars on the banking and then watch qualifying for the 24 Hours proper.
Qualifying consisted of a few short (15-20 minute) sessions for each of the 4 categories (GTD - GT3 spec cars, GT LM - More modified GTs, with the works Vette’s, Fords and Porsches, LMP2 - Euro spec LMP2s and DPIs, the top Prototype class in the US, with Cadillacs, Mazdas, Nissans and Accuras and drivers including Felipe Alonso, Juan Pablo Montoya, Romain Dumas and Loic Duval). This format of qualifying was really quite enjoyable, with no time to get bored waiting for something to venture on track.
In the DPI class, one of the Joest run Mazda’s set a stunning time to eclipse the lap record that had stood since and I left the track to go and get some dinner a happy man.
Dinner itself turned out to be a bit unusual too. I chose a tex-mex restaurant chain and enjoyed an excellent mixed chicken and beef Fajita. When I asked for the bill, I was left waiting for some time and then my waitress came past and asked if I needed anything. I explained I was still waiting to pay and she said “You’ve paid”. I assured her I hadn’t and she pointed to a small gadget on my table which obviously allowed me to pay with a card, but I assured her again, I hadn’t paid.
After about another 10 minutes she returned and said “You’re good - No charge”. So, I had a pleasant meal for free, although I have a suspicion from some overheard comments that another table was billed (and probably paid) for my meal, but had left without realising!
I’d always had in mind to have a couple of days to get used to the time difference, but I also planned to do something useful with the Friday and I’d discovered that Kennedy Space Centre was only about 45 minutes drive away from Daytona Beach and had bought an advance ticket to tour. I was a bit concerned that, being a National Park run site, that Trump’s latest tantrum of shutting down the government might stymie my visit, but, although a few parts were closed, the main sites were open, which was plenty for a day’s visit as it turned out.
You can read about that, here, if you like.
After that, I had a light dinner of grilled chicken in a restaurant a bit like a US version of Nandos, but with less spice on the chicken - It was cheap enough and better, I suspect, than a rubbish burger somewhere.
The next day was race day!
Having experienced Le Mans, I expected the roads to be heaving with traffic around the Speedway, but the reality was that it was really fairly quiet. I drove the mile or so to the car park and then headed into the massive stands.
I got there just in time to see a short display by IMSA GT and Prototypes from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, which was a nice bonus, but it did make me wish I’d somehow made the trip back in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s with my Dad. I know he would have enjoyed it now I’ve been.
It was dry and fairly bright, but up in the stands, it was bitterly cold in the wind and I only had a waterproof jacket over my fleece, because rain was forecast, although probably not until the early hours of Sunday.
I decided to head out of the Speedway and down to a Subway I’d seen, the thought occurring to me that I could buy a 12” Sub for a relatively low cost and make it last lunch and dinner, maybe eating something hot later.
I was back in a seat high in the stand at the entry to turn one, where the cars turn onto the infield section and then back out onto the banking from it.
Having only ever seen a Speedway in the UK at Rockingham, I was very impressed by the fact that from this seat I could see, without exaggeration, the whole track, oval and infield.
Less impressive was just how cold I was feeling in a fleece and a waterproof.
The race got underway at the rather odd time of 2:35PM and the pole setting Mazda and one of the Penske run Acuras (Hondas) battled for the lead, with the rest of the DPI field in close attendance.
I watched the first hour or so from my first corner perch on the stand and then descended to wander around the infield to watch some action of the cars on the banking and the twisty infield section.
Darkness fell about 6PM and it was getting very cold by this point, I wander around for a while and then headed back to the hotel to pick up my coat and returned around an hour later, warmer but still pretty chilly.
Daytona is a good track to watch a sportscar race on. Not only do you have the opportunity to see the whole track from the stands, but you also have a great view of the pit stands from there and plenty of places where you can see the cars with little to obscure your view and few of the huge runoff areas so beloved of the circuits the major series run on in Europe.
There are also more than a few spots where photographers can get clear shots of cars without the intrusion of catch fencing.
It was, though, in 2019, bitterly cold once night fell properly and around 12:30AM I headed back to get some sleep (and warmth) in my hotel. My plan was to sleep until around 7 and then return to the circuit.
However, when I awoke I was greeted by the sight of the torrential rain that had been promised to arrive in the early hours and once connected to the Radio Le Mans website to catch up on events, I found that the race was currently red flagged!
I had a leisurely breakfast and coffee and headed over the track about 8AM. When I arrived, the cars were all sitting in the pit lane, but there were the first hints that maybe the race was about to restart as the rain abated a little.
After a while the cars did head out and I watched from the stand again for a while, before heading around the track again, but in the pouring rain it was a cold, slightly miserable experience, although at least the competitors attempts to keep their cars on the tarmac while trying to hold or take positions meant there was plenty of action to watch!
Sadly, after a while the rain returned with a vengeance and, as more and more cars skated straight on into turn one, it seemed to me that it was only a matter of time before a rather serious accident happened. Obviously the organisers felt the same and the race was red flagged once again.
In the end, that was it, there was no more racing to be held and the 24 Hours of Daytona 2019 is actually the ‘not quite 22 Hours of Daytona’ 2019, which was a shame as the classes were all excitingly poised for a dramatic last couple of hours.
As you’ll know, Fernando Alonso added a Daytona win (In a Cadillac) to his Le Mans win from the previous year, whilst BMW won (the less charitable might say fluked) a win in the GT LM class, Ford being particularly unlucky to be on a strategy that required them to pit just as the race went yellow before the final red was thrown, which saw them drop to an undeserved 4th in class.
So, that was it - I’d visited the Daytona 24 Hours exactly 40 years after my first visit to the ‘other’ 24 Hour race. In a way, the torrential rain was appropriate as it mirrored that which had been a big element of that first Le Man visit, but I would have happily foregone that for 24 hours of dry running and some 60F+ warmth!
It was a little disappointing to have picked the worst weather race anyone could remember and the only Daytona 24 Hours cut short, but it was still a great experience. The sight and sound of Daytona is very different to Le Mans and well worth experiencing in its own right and I have a niggling feeling that maybe, just maybe, I’ll go back for another visit sometime.
If I don’t, that’s OK, as with many great experiences, I suspect this will be one that sticks with me for a long time to come!
In many ways it felt to me like the ‘old days’ of Le Mans. IMSA focus on the fans, not on ‘corporate guests’ and I (and the surprisingly few people there, I guess the weather forecast dissuaded many casual visitors) felt like I was important to the organisers and even the teams. The Radio Le Mans team provided the excellent race commentary (as they do at all IMSA and WEC races, though, of course), but there weren’t many places I couldn’t go and there were no expensive stands or ‘corporate viewing areas’ with good views that I couldn’t access.
As the WEC loses its big spending German teams (and probably Toyota too, with no competition and impending rule changes), the FIA would do well to look at the IMSA model and see how a series can appeal to fans who will stay around even when those on a freebie day out at a sponsor’s expense have moved onto Ascot, Wimbledon or Henley...
I stayed in Daytona one more day and then headed back towards Orlando on the Monday.
On the way to Kennedy Space Center, I’d spotted a sign for a ‘Warbirds Museum’ at Tico, so I took that route back and spent the morning there.
It’s not a huge museum, but they have an interesting variety of aircraft and the guided tour by a former USAF pilot was really informative and enjoyable.
If you're interested, you can read about that, here.
So, that was it. I got my car back to the airport with about 30 minutes to spare (I should have planned to return it an hour or two later, on reflection) and headed back on an overnight Virgin flight to Gatwick, arriving early on a Tuesday morning.
Writing a month or so later, I look back on the whole trip as a great success and highly enjoyable.
The whole Daytona experience was enjoyable, if a little dampened by the weather and the Kennedy Space Center had exceeded my expectations, making me feel it would probably have been worth a visit alone.