Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Daytona 24 Hours 2012

I'll begin with an apology. This story should have been published months ago. For a little while, life and other writing got in the way. Better late than never, I hope.

A motorsport pundit once said of Formula One that each race featured one winner followed by 23 excuses. Here's mine.

Friday 12 October

Sunset over Milton Keynes. From my vantage point on top of the mound beside the Daytona clubhouse I can see most of the twisty circuit infield; the last rays of sunshine picking out kerbs and grass in streaks of red, gold and green. It's 6pm, eighteen hours before the start of Daytona's blue riband event. All around, a hive of quiet activity is building: tents are appearing on the open grass, awnings being erected in the pitlane before me. In the pit garages a four-stroke kart engine fires, roars, falls silent.

I take some pictures of the view, turn and survey my tent. I've bagged a good, sheltered spot against the base of the mound and for the first time ever, have succeeded in setting it up on my own. With a few minutes to spare until I need to get changed for practice, I should be savouring the atmosphere in these quiet moments, the calm before the storm.

But to be honest, I'm a bit glum.

These big races are demanding - physically, mentally, emotionally - and in the past year I've come to rely on Marianne more than I had realised. She brings perspective, pragmatism, support, motivation and one of the clearest heads I know. She takes some of the strain and helps me focus. Most of all, she makes it more fun.

Needless to say she's not here, kept home by a clashing family commitment, and I miss her like hell. I finish taking my pictures, stash the camera, tell myself to man up, and prepare for my practice session.

Daytona's fleet of prokarts is new, and this session is my first opportunity to try them. Feedback from other drivers suggests that the karts - and particularly the new Bridgestone YDS tyres - are a huge improvement on the dog I drove when I was last here during the summer. It takes me half a lap to believe the hype; the twin engines feel strong, and the handling is a revelation. The vague, glassy feel of the old karts has been replaced by a wonderful sense of being keyed into the tarmac. The kart's nose tucks in obediently, the tail edging smoothly and predictably wide when asked; it's years since I've driven a quicker prokart at Daytona.

With spirits lifted, I pit after my allocated 25 minutes, chat briefly with a couple of the regulars - including RDI team organiser Stuart McKay - and head across town to get an early night. I'm lucky to have my brother Jonathan and wife Beth within ten minutes of the circuit. They'll be along to support or commiserate at some point during the race.

I seem to be getting better at sleeping before a big race. As at Teesside, the butterflies stay away, and I drop off with a minimum of sheep-counting. The alarm is set for 6am.

Saturday 13 October

The first couple of hours on race day are as chaotic as ever - dashing around a huge and unfamiliar Tesco in search of bananas... lugging a carload of gear from car park to pitlane... locating Jack and Alan amongst the scrum of drivers, staff and supporters... being ordered to move our just-erected awning to the 'grassy knoll' ten metres back from the pitwall... setting up the camping stove without Marianne's help and hoping I don't blow up the paddock... realising halfway through the pitlane briefing that I'm still missing a driver.

But by 8.45am, things are beginning to fall into place. Stuart, Alan, Jack and I are all present, correct and wearing the regulation red Daytona wristband which signifies that we've attended a briefing and will be allowed on track. I've drawn kart 29 from the silver trophy in the clubhouse, and hope to get my hands on it again before long. In the pitlane, kart 29 is nowhere to be seen, which bodes ill - but several karts are still undergoing final checks in the garages. Our prokart class is much the smaller of the two - just 12 karts compared with 31 Dmaxes. We'll aim to show the 2-stroke teams how it should be done.

At 9am, the pitlane opens for practice. Kart 29 has appeared, and looks tidy as far as we can tell from a walk-around. Jack is suited up and hops in; as he exits the pitlane and gets our race weekend rolling, I send up a silent prayer.
Please, please let it be a good kart.

He's back in after ten laps and reports that it's okay aside from the brakes, which need a very firm shove. We send Stuart out next - he's got more mileage here than the rest of us put together - who, after five laps, agrees with Jack - though he reckons they're getting better with use and might simply need bedding in. I take over for a short run to get my eye in. The kart feels a little less balletic than the one I drove last night, but that's probably down to track conditions and brand-new tyres. The brakes, however, have bedded in nicely.

Once Alan's completed his run, we pit to refuel the kart, switch the engines off, and relax. According to the timing screen we've completed just 43 laps - less than any other prokart team save arch rivals RDI Pro 1 (42). I breathe a sigh of relief. The kart is quick. The drivers are happy. The sun is shining.

Unlike at Teesside, we have a separate, ten minute qualifying session for each class. Team consensus is that I'm likely to be quickest over a single lap, which is heartening (though entirely weight-influenced). With just 12 karts on track, it's fairly easy to find clear air; after a couple of attempts I bang in a 1.09.287 which is good enough for third in class. It's a solid effort, but we're shaking our heads at the pole position time. BRKC regular Daniel Truman, weighing in at around 50kg, has done a 1.08.3. He's a good driver, but weight is king at Daytona. There's no way we'll get anywhere near his pace.

No matter. It's a long race. One lightning-fast driver alone won't win it, and qualifying is of limited importance: defending champions RDI Pro 1 have qualified tenth, having completed just one flying lap - they're not wasting a single second of track time, saving their kart for the trial to come.

The start of the Daytona 24 Hours is a major event in itself. Like last year, we're graced by the presence of a Mercedes from the local dealer, which will act as the pace car on the parade lap and be on display throughout. Sadly, last year's SLS gullwing coupe has been downgraded to an SLK - but we're heartened to see that it's the full-fat V8 AMG version. When it fires up, the soundtrack is pure NASCAR.

As the SLK leads the field out of the pits - the Dmax and prokart fields separated by a pace kart - Alan and I stand behind the barriers at the pitlane entry and take pictures. Jack is at the wheel of kart 29, easy to pick out in his Stig helmet and Help for Heroes camouflage race suit. It's still sunny, but clouds overhead are beginning to thicken: rain is forecast within two hours. As the SLK pulls into the pits, V8 thunder is replaced by the mosquito buzz of 2-stroke engines and the chesty roar of 4-strokes; already squabbling, the front of the field dashes for the line as the gantry lights blink green and the clock begins counting down from 24:00:00. In many ways it's my favourite part of the weekend; the great race stretches out for a whole day before us, and anything is possible.

We're already off to a better start than last year, when our opening driver managed to put it in the wall on lap one of a thousand plus. Jack keeps it neat and tidy, bringing up the rear of a four-kart train in fifth place. Daniel Truman leads, pulling away from the rest of the field at a second a lap.

The weather forecasters are almost right: the first shower arrives within the hour and turns the tarmac into a skating rink. Karts begin visiting the grass and barriers, bringing out the yellow warning flags - but the front-runners in both classes cut through the carnage as the first pitstop window approaches. Unlike the old karts, this new fleet won't run for two hours in the dry, so we've switched to 1 hour 40 minute stints. It'll mean that two of us do extra stints in the last hours of the race.

At 1.15pm I begin suiting up and running through my pre-stint routine, shutting out everything but the job at hand. With separate fuel bays for each class and marshals to attend to the karts, pitstops are far less hands-on than at Teesside. Avoiding a time-wasting queue for fuel can be tricky, but with only 12 karts in the prokart class, we're not expecting too many problems.

At 1.35pm, Alan and Stuart give Jack the nod; I'm already in place at the fuel bay, seat insert tucked under my arm. The rain has stopped, the sun flashing fire off the still-wet circuit. Jack rolls in at the regulation snail's pace. The marshals are a little tardy getting the kart turned around, but otherwise it's a clean stop. As I throw my seat insert in, Jack has time for one shouted piece of advice:
"It's still very slippy..."

And then I'm away, out of the pits and slithering into Turn 2. Even when the track is wet, tyre temperature has a marked effect on grip: the tyres have cooled during the pitstop and for the first three laps I'm forced to tread very carefully.

But the tarmac is drying in the watery sunshine; within fifteen minutes we're virtually back to dry weather pace. The shaded exit of Turn 7 is as treacherous as ever, though - waiting to lubricate rear tyres fighting for traction. Several times I encounter hapless drivers facing the wrong way or bouncing over the rutted kerb on the right.

Since early in practice we've been aware of a looming  - and unexpected - problem which is already beginning to dominate our race. Based on what we've seen so far, the Prokart class consists of eight strong teams and four slightly slower - but competent - squads. The faster DMax class consists of perhaps ten strong teams, a smattering of midfielders - and at least fifteen teams that would have been better off spending the £2k entry fee on a nice holiday. Or perhaps some driving lessons.

There are Dmax karts trundling around six seconds a lap off the pace - not unusual in a 25 minute arrive and drive session, but totally out of place in a race like this. They're mobile chicanes: mildly annoying and occasionally a touch dangerous. The real problem is the swathe of Dmaxes running three to four seconds off the pace. That's a little slower than prokart pace: avoiding being held up by these drivers is more than a little challenging. They're faster on the straights but slower in the corners, making them devilishly difficult to shake off unless they make a mistake - which, thankfully, happens quite often.

By mid-stint I'm fighting to stay patient, having been baulked, blocked, bumped and generally treated with red-misted contempt by drivers who aren't even in the same race. Driving standards have nosedived since last year; in the early days of the Dmax karts, Daytona would only let experienced drivers race them. Bring back that rule, I say.

I pit at 3.15pm, feeling that I've made heavy work of this stint - but as is so often the case, it was better than it felt. We were leading the prokart class before my pitstop; as Stuart crosses the line after his first lap (after a seamless changeover) we're second behind RDI Pro 1. I've made up two places which comes as a pleasant surprise.

Marianne rings to check on our progress. "Nothing's gone wrong. At all. I don't know what to do with myself. It's almost boring..."

Which isn't entirely true. The kart's running like a train, but Mother Nature is toying with us, alternately drenching and drizzling the track. As afternoon washes into evening and the floodlights blink on, I cup my hands around steaming mugs of tea and make frequent visits to the clubhouse in a vain attempt to keep warm. Over the PA system, the race director tells us that the showers will die away, but that temperatures will drop to freezing overnight. It's going to be a long one.

We've struggled a little in the worst of the conditions, and have fallen to third by the time I exit the pits for the second time at 8.20pm. The rain has stopped, as promised, but it's so cold that the circuit remains wet, the tyres struggling to gain any temperature at all. We're lapping over twenty seconds away from dry pace.

I give it everything I have and turn in a solid, if unspectacular, stint. As usual. I've pegged our gap to the leaders and kept it pointing in the right direction; as Stuart takes over we're still third, and the gap to the fourth placed team has widened. At just over ten hours in, I'm happy with that. If we can just hang on, we can bag the podium we deserve.

Then the lights go out.

"That can't be good," I hear someone say as the world is plunged into blackness - then realise it's my voice. Out on track, 43 drivers are now driving blind; there are gasps of horror all around as a train of karts exits the final turn at full racing speed. In the gloom I can just about make two marshals leaping over the pitwall, bravely putting themselves in harm's way to try and grab the attention of the fuckwits.

If you can't see anything, it might be a good idea to stop racing.

It takes them a full minute to bring the last kart to a halt, and I'm amazed that some of the drivers in this race remember how to tie their shoelaces and keep breathing. Remarkably, natural selection seems to have taken the night off, and nobody has been hurt.

But as the minutes go by it becomes clear that the problem is serious and will take time to fix. Until then, the race will remain in stasis, the karts parked out on the circuit. We agree that Stuart, who had just started his stint, will continue once the race resumes. I leave them to it and wander back to my tent.

The porch zipper is frozen shut, and as I pull it back the awning crackles. It's fifteen minutes before I begin regaining the feeling in my toes, zipped fully-clothed into my sleeping bag with the hood over my head. I'll never make a mountaineer...

My position behind the hill masks a lot of the circuit noise. But when I snap awake sometime later, the tinny buzz and throaty roar ebb and flow on the breeze which I can see rippling the outer skin of the tent. The race has restarted.

I struggle up - helped by not having to don freezing, damp clothing - and stumble across to the pitlane. Nobody is under our awning, which is never reassuring... but after an anxious minute I spot Alan on track. According to the timing screen we're still third; all appears to be well.

But I've no way of telling how long Alan has been out there. Jack is out next. There's no sign of him; should I be worrying? A pitlane marshal tells me that the race restarted around midnight. It's now coming up to 2am, which should mean that Alan is around half an hour into his stint. I trust Jack to turn up in good time, but nevertheless am relieved when he makes an appearance twenty minutes later.

He confirms that he's due to take over from Alan at 3am, which means I'm on at 4.40. Because of the stoppage - over 90 minutes - the race has been extended by an hour, and will now finish at 1pm. Both Jack and I will need to do a fourth stint.

I give Alan the nod at 3am on the dot, and once again we're lucky with the timing: Jack is fuelled and on his way without delay. The circuit has finally dried, the pace back to normal. Alan reports that the kart is running well - it's had two scheduled maintenance stops, both of which fell during Stuart's stints - and heads off to put his head down. I get on with the business of ingesting calories and preparing for my stint on the graveyard shift.

As ever, the atmosphere in the pitlane is one of quiet single-mindedness. Our world is reduced to this patch of Buckinghamshire real estate. For us, there is only the race.

With ten minutes to go I'm as near to my peak as is possible at half past four on a freezing Sunday morning, and am raring to go. Jack rolls into the pitlane as another prokart is fuelling; waiting at the fuel bay, I calculate that the delay will be minimal. As usual, a marshal is gesticulating wildly at him to slow down as if he'd come piling in at fifty miles an hour; he's trundling along at walking pace, just like everybody else. Sixteen hours into the race, the drivers are tiring of the over-officiousness of the pitlane staff. We know the rules, and we're adhering to them. This would all be a lot more friendly if they stopped treating us like naughty children.

Soon I'm on my way under the floodlights, trying to bring tyres and extremities up to temperature... and the stint flies by. Aside from a little pain in my hands I'm not suffering at all, and it feels great to be able to push instead of tiptoeing around on a wet track. The DMax backmarkers are still troublesome, but less so than earlier on - I suspect that some have found extra pace as the race progressed, and others have slowed due to fatigue. Either way, I build a good rhythm, the kart pivoting beautifully around its front axles as I edge the rear a little wide on entry to the slow corners. It's years since I've felt this level of response and precision in a Daytona prokart.

According to the startline clock I've been on track for ninety minutes when I spot Stuart on the pitwall. He'll show me the board sometime in the next ten minutes, depending on traffic in the pitlane, and I keep an eye on him every time I exit the final turn.

Two laps later I'm heading towards Turn five, throttle pinned to the stop, when the floodlights blink out. Again, we're plunged into complete darkness. Sweat suddenly cold on my forehead, I brake gently, straining to make out the corner, wary of stopping too suddenly in case I'm hit from behind... as I roll out of the corner I make out the waving hand of the driver in front, and pull to a stop behind him. A marshal appears armed with a torch, switches off the engines, and silence joins the darkness.

Ruefully, we trudge back to the pits. Everyone seems to have got the hang of stopping when the lights go out, and once again there have been no incidents. But we're more than a little disgruntled at the stoppages.

Stuart and I agree that since we were so close to pitting - he had been planning to call me in on that very lap - once the race restarts, he will take over straightaway. I change out of my overalls, buy a bacon buttie and join the others. Daytona announce that the electricity company has been called out again. But with dawn less than an hour away, it's clear that we won't be racing under the floodlights again.

With the sky morphing from black to silver, and the rising sun catching the red and white stripes of the big top clubhouse roof, the drivers are sent back out to the karts. Just after 7am, we're underway again. Stuart drives straight into the pits to refuel. It's turning into a beautiful morning, and as he accelerates onto the circuit, I feel my spirits lifting. We're still third with six hours to go.

A couple of minutes later, Stuart comes trickling into the pits. We watch, bemused and then increasingly downcast, as the marshal directs him to the maintenance bay. Jack, Alan and I converge on him and the maintenance manager. Between them they explain that Stuart had been black-flagged because the kart was dropping oil on the circuit. He hadn't felt anything amiss, but the mechanics quickly diagnose an oil leak, and prescribe an engine change.

Our race is effectively over.

A little later, I watch numbly as the the kart is wheeled out into the pitlane. Stuart hops in, and we wander over to the screens. We've lost over ten minutes, and have fallen from third to seventh. Barring a miracle - and a lot of bad luck for several other teams - our podium dream is gone.

There are no more extensions to the race, and the second stoppage has effectively wiped out my final stint. Jack will take the wheel for run to the flag in three and a half hours' time. With nothing to do for the moment, I head inside and watch a little of the Korean Grand Prix from one of the sofas upstairs. The race seems to jump straight from mid distance to the podium ceremony, and I realise that I must have fallen asleep.

With two hours to go we're still seventh, with no sign - nor much hope - of improvement, despite the best efforts of the others. We send Jack out at 11.20, and I begin de-rigging. I can't remember the last time I felt so deflated.

I'm staring at my tent, wondering how the hell I'm going to get it dry, when Jonathan and Beth arrive to save my bacon. They're enormously cheering and bring a crucial sense of perspective.

Jack takes the flag in seventh place, as expected. After driving our hearts out and dodging every obstacle that Mother Nature, the circuit, the competition and the electricity supply threw at us, we're bitterly disappointed. We didn't have the pace to win, but we were third on merit and should have been on that podium. I find myself wondering if I'm contributing to this bad luck in some way - something to do with the way I drive, perhaps - but I can't think how. I've always been gentle on the machinery, far less aggressive than many others.

In 2013, the Daytona 24 Hours will have a new date - May 4 - and has been hit with a hefty price rise. If I compete, it will be with a different team: few of the drivers in my circle are keen to enter again. The floodlight outages have been something of a PR disaster - along with some aspects of the marshalling, I suspect. And the standard of competition across the event - especially in DMax - took a significant nosedive in 2012. It's a shame, because the 2012 karts were excellent. The fact that ours picked up a problem was, I suspect, just one of those things.

Endurance racing remains addictive and heartbreaking in equal measure. When our time comes - and it will - the pain we've endured will make victory all the sweeter.

For 2012, that's all she wrote. 2013 waits in the wings: the British Rental Kart Championship kicks off at The Raceway in London on 13 January. As I write, the field numbers over 60 drivers and includes the current and two former indoor World Champions.

Bring it.

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