Thursday, 27 October 2011

Daytona 24 Hours. 15-16 October 2011

Part One

Facebook status update, Daytona Motorsport, 12.28pm on 15 October 2011:

"Daytona 24 Hours Update, Hour 1 - Kart 125 shed a back wheel after kerbing."

With 23 hours and 32 minutes to go, we're beginning to realise that today just isn't our day. So far Kart 125 - our kart - has made three unscheduled visits to the pits - one for (blameless) accident damage in practice, and two wheel failures. Yes, two - the second a frightening rear wheel detachment which could easily have caused a huge accident. And worse still, the organisers are, with minimal evidence, publicly blaming us for the failures. We're last of the 34 runners and several laps down.

Needless to say, the Race Drivers Inc DMax 2 team isn't feeling the love right now. Some of us might even, for an instant, have entertained the notion of packing up and going home.

But we don't, of course. All of us - Jack Stanley (our captain), Jon Beagles, Alan Arnold, Chris Bateman and myself - have invested too much time, energy and effort to give up now. We've all been here before. We didn't like it then, and we don't like it now. So we dig deep, and begin to fight back.

At 1.30pm, we make our first scheduled pitstop. Jon brings the kart into the fuel bay and hands over to Alan without a hitch, and I breathe a sigh of relief. It's starting to settle, the kart running faultlessly; we've caught the back of the field and are rewarded with the sight of our team name beginning to climb the leaderboard.

I relax slightly, and take stock of the positives. It's a beautiful October day, warm and sunny, and Marianne is here to cheer us on. My brother Jonathan and his wife Beth - Milton Keynes locals - joined us for the start and will be back later on. Ben Bailey - British 24 Hours teammate - is here too with girlfriend Jo and daughter Eva, although he's not scheduled to race. All the girls are proudly sporting their BRKC tops; although today our allegiance is to Race Drivers Inc - fielding no less than six teams here - so many of us race under both banners that the line is blurred.

Alan looks to be running smoothly, setting solid laptimes and making up places. With fifteen minutes to go until I take over, I start to shut out the world - visualising the circuit in my head, letting the adrenalin tingle my fingertips as I prepare my gear.

Alan takes me by surprise by coming in a lap earlier than expected, and it's a brief rush to make the final adjustments to my gear and dash over to the fuel bay. But there's time in hand: I arrive as Alan coasts to a stop and the mechanics go to work.

After thirty seconds the fuel cap is screwed on and I get the thumbs up. Fit seat insert, jump in, pull ignition switch, push the electric starter button... and nothing happens. I try again to no avail, heart sinking, hand already in the air to signal a problem.

The crew take ninety seconds to diagnose a dead battery, whip it out and run through the fiddly process of fitting a new one. It's an eternity, as kart after kart wails past the start/finish line. Finally I'm rocketing out of the pits with the 125cc engine screaming tinnily behind me, the kart edgy on cold tyres. I've already forgotten the delay.

After the nightmare of pain and stress that was my opening stint at Teesside, I've taken steps to make sure it doesn't happen again: my new custom seat insert keeps me comfortable and correctly positioned in the kart, and my motocross-spec palm protectors keep my hands in one piece. Marianne has made me some miniature mufflers which I wear inside my helmet: they protect my ears from the worst of the noise.

And it's good: I'm flying in the late-afternoon sunshine. The circuit has been partly resurfaced since I last drove it: the tricky bumps into the fast chicane at turn 2 and in the braking area for the turn 8 left hander have gone. Turn 8 in particular is transformed; hang on tight through the flat-out, 65mph kink beforehand, watch for the jutting kerb on the right, brake as late as you dare and turn in, trying to keep the rear wheels from sliding as you get back on the power. Hit the sweet spot and the unloaded left wheels will ride the concrete kerb like a pillow as you're leaning hard on the rights. Exit as smoothly as possible, staying off the rumble strips on the outside kerb. If you've hooked it all up, the peaky little engine will already be in its power band; engage warp and power up the back straight.

But fifteen laps in, I feel the engine falter into turn 6. It catches again fleetingly, long enough for me to make it up the hill into turn 7. But at the apex, it falls silent. The dash display goes blank. I roll through the corner and pull to the inside of the track, off the racing line, hand already in the air.

The only marshal in my line of sight is at turn 8, over a hundred metres away at the bottom of the hill. It takes him a long time to notice me, and longer still to get a yellow flag up to signal approaching drivers. I'm out of the way, but it's a quick part of the circuit and a common overtaking point: karts are rushing past, two and three abreast. Not impressed, I flick my visor up and voice my opinion in words of one syllable.

Finally there's a yellow flag, and a second marshal is checking the engine. It's the battery again - seemingly a common problem on these karts - and they have a spare to hand. I expected to be walking back to the pits, but am underway again in two minutes. It's infuriating, but could have been so much worse. I force myself to concentrate; it's too easy at times like to these to make a silly mistake and put it in the wall.

With 34 karts on track, this 1360 metre circuit is a busy place; I'm constantly seeking out gaps, trying to squeeze between battling prokarts and barkmarkers in the DMax class. The physical demands are considerable, but it's the mental effort that takes its toll. The DMax kart is a wonderful thing to drive, but it demands precision and focus, and punishes clumsiness. Halfway through my stint a moment's lapse sees me lock up and spin under braking for the turn 4 hairpin. A harmless moment that costs three seconds, but it's a wake-up call. I'm not up to scratch in these karts yet and need to work harder on my consistency.

Still, when I pit at 4.30pm after 90 minutes at the wheel, I feel I've driven a good stint. Chris is in and gone with a thumbs-up, and I rejoin the others on the pitwall. Despite my stoppage we're knocking on the door of the top twenty, having made up 12 places in the last couple of hours. But Jack greets me with some bad news: Alan has a family emergency at home and has had to leave after only one of his three stints. I'm gutted for him and hope all's well. Ben has stepped in to save the rest of us from a very long night: the race director has cleared him to race. Sad though the circumstances are, it's great to have him in the team.

Before the race, Jack and I had some minor concerns about Chris, whom we'd never raced with before, and who seemed short on experience. I watch him like a hawk for the first half of his stint, armed with my stopwatch, before relaxing. Fears unfounded. He looks comfortable and assured and his laptimes, while not mightily fast, are just fine.

At 5pm we're graced with the presence of Alex Vangeen, BRKC regular and British 24 Hours teammate, and his girlfriend Lauren. They've dropped in on their way out to dinner, and it's a real pleasure to see them. After our disastrous start, we're blessed with plenty of enthusiastic support, and it's a huge boost to the team's morale. Alex is visibly itching to borrow a helmet and get out on the track. I suspect Lauren has to drag him away.

Beth arrives to collect Marianne just before 6pm, and I'm a little glum as I say goodbye. We'll not see them again until the morning. I eat a passable dinner of chili con carne, drink some tea and catch up with qualifying for the Korean Grand Prix - playing on repeat on the big screens in the clubhouse. As darkness follows a spectacular sunset, the floodlights blink on and the temperatures begin to plummet. The atmosphere changes noticeably - banter turns to quiet chatter, music in the clubhouse stops and the trackside PA system falls silent. Teams, supporters and track personnel knuckle down for a gruelling night.

I chat briefly with Aaron Cambden, who drove for our winning team in 2009. Not racing this weekend, he's here to demonstrate an F1 simulator, which seems to be doing a roaring trade in the upstairs lounge. It's good to catch up; I nab one of the comfortable couches and put my head down for an hour before my second stint, at 10.30pm.

I'm back on the pitwall in time for Ben's stint at 9pm. It'll be his first time on track today, but he knows this place blindfold: I know it won't take him long to get up to speed. He's suffering a little from a rib injury sustained in a karting accident a week ago; we send him out with a rib protector and my seat insert.

This time it's a clean stop; Jon reports that the kart is running perfectly, and heads off to get some rest. Aside from my battery issue it's been a clear run since our early dramas; we've clawed our way back into the top ten. It's a miraculous recovery, but I try not to get my hopes up. The night is young.

Ben puts in a typically excellent stint, running at the same pace as the leaders and gaining places hand over fist. I'm raring to go by the time he rolls into the fuel bay. Out of the kart, he sits down on the red-and-white bollards, holding his ribs; I have time only for a sympathetic pat on the back before the kart is ready. No battery worries this time.

I could see from the timing screens that the race pace had slowed considerably as night fell. It's always the way: as temperatures drop so do grip levels. Last time I was on track it was a warm, sunny afternoon. Now it's a clear night with the temperature in the low single figures, and the effect is dramatic: two laps in, the tyres still aren't fully warm.

Even once everything - driver included - is up to speed, the kart feels edgy in fast corners and hair-trigger twitchy under braking. The field seems more clumped than earlier on - battling trains of karts interspersed with empty sections of track - and I'm struggling to get by. I'm not helped by super-slippery tarmac offline and some very obstructive prokarts. Some of the drivers seem to have missed the memo about being in a different race to us; having been clouted three times (once deliberately) by the same driver, my patience finally runs out. I flip him the finger as I finally go by, and dispatch the next few prokarts with rather less than my customary courtesy.

A few laps later I spot a kart in the catchment fences as I brake for the turn 10 hairpin. The driver is motionless, and I'm struck cold as I negotiate the final corner and accelerate past the pits. Seconds later the red flags are out, and I roll to a stop at turn 4. We're stationary for nearly ten minutes; later I'm relieved to hear that the driver was only winded following a brake failure. There's never a good time for a brake failure, but turn 10 is the biggest stop on the circuit, where we shed around 40mph in fifteen metres.

Daytona have been running their customary maintenance stops: every six hours each kart is called in, in number order, for a five-minute health check. To keep things fair, every kart is held for five minutes even if the checks are completed sooner. Two years ago we made great use of these by coinciding each with a fuel stop and driver change - thus minimising the overall number of pitstops. It was a tricky strategy to manage because the timing of these stops was out of our hands, but it won us the race.

This year, in the DMax, we've not even attempted it: the fuel range is too marginal and even a ten minute delay on a maintenance stop would scupper us. So, two-thirds of the way through my second stint, I find myself in the pits. Thirty metres away, kart 125 is up on stands in the starkly lit garage with three mechanics working on it. As ever there's a sense of going backwards, of the race passing you by, and every second drags. It seems like a particularly long stop, but at the time I assume that's just me. Later I discover that they did find a problem - more electrics, I think - and took extra time to repair it.

Eventually I'm back out under the floodlights and pushing hard. Daytona made much noise about their brand-new, multifunction dash readouts before the race. These show the driver a wealth of useful information: position, laptimes, gap to the next kart, and so on. Great stuff - except they're not working. They're just ballast.

There is, however, a master clock on the start/finish gantry. That is useful - one of the many things that made Teesside so draining was the lack of any sense of time. Here, I know exactly how long I've been out and roughly how much longer I'm scheduled to be on track. It helps me pace myself mentally and physically. It also gives me a rough idea of my laptimes.

Finding myself between clumps of karts, I put the hammer down and string together a series of eight clear laps, glancing at the clock each time I pass under it. I'm in the one minute, seven second band - close to two seconds slower than at the start of the race. Such is the effect of cold, slippery tarmac, floodlights, and tyre wear.

Exiting the last corner around 11.30pm, I glance across at the team gazebo and spot Beth at the pitwall! I raise a hand in pleased surprise; next time around I confirm that Marianne and Jonathan are there as well. It's great - and slightly bemusing - to see them back, and I rattle through the final laps of my stint with uplifted spirits.

In the pitlane, the fuel bay is clear and Chris is at the ready, holding his seat insert. It's a good stop; once he's away I check the main timing screen. We're sixth. Despite all the dramas the sheer quality of this team, plus a lot of hard work, has brought us twenty-eight places up the leaderboard since hour one. Thoroughly pleased, I join my wife, brother and sister-in-law on the pitwall, and discover that a) they always planned to come back to surprise me and b) they've brought hot chocolate. Tonight's just getting better and better.

Ben and Jack are about as well, and for a little while, it's great to relax in the cold with a steaming hot, sugary drink, watch the action on track and absorb the unique atmosphere of a 24 hour race. Once Da Family has gone home to bed I film a short video diary - the third of the day. As I finish, I glance at the timer on the startline gantry.

12.45. We're barely past half distance.

(Part Two to follow)

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