Club Happenings – Winter 2017: Roadtrip to Rolex 24 at Daytona — An Annual Adventure
by Larry Engel
By Larry Engel
It started at about 6:45am on Wednesday, January 25th. We had just put Jeff White’s Mini Cooper S in my garage for safe keeping while we were away, and Jeff and I took off for a six day junket to the Rolex 24 in Daytona. As usual, this year’s event was a great adventure. What we didn’t count on was more than our share of adventure on the trip down and back!
For me, this annual adventure started in 2006, I think. Bob Isbitski organized a trip for NJ Chapter members. If I recall correctly we had almost 20 people. We all bought the Champion’s Pass, which entitled us to infield parking (highly coveted), full access to the paddock and stands for all four days of practice, qualifying, and racing, and weekend access to the Daytona 500 Club, which is the 4 story building on the infield directly across from the start/finish line. Inside the Club, the bottom floor is a banquet hall (where they feed you very well for the two days of the race), the third floor is a bar with TV monitors, and the top floor is an observation deck with monitors, a bar, and a view of the entire track – which at 3.56 miles is a lot to look at! The only part of the track that you can’t see is turn one, but the monitors allow you to see the exciting stuff that happens there.
In 2006 the Champion’s pass was $275. The price went up every year. After a while, I told myself that I was going to stop going to the Rolex 24 when the ticket price went over $500. In 2015, it happened. I was done.
Then a miracle occurred. The BMW CCA, with the help of BMW NA, offered a corral and hospitality package for CCA members and a guest – and the price was much lower than the Champion’s Club! For some strange reason Karin (da wife) wasn’t interested in driving for a day and a half, watching race cars for 3 full days, and then driving another day and a half. Fortunately, Jeff White was. We had a great time and agreed to do it again if we had the chance.
Jeff couldn’t make it in 2016, but he was able to join me again this year. So, at 6:45 on Wednesday the 25th, we were off! I’ve been driving for the past 4 or 5 years. I used to fly, but I’ve been driving ever since terrible snow-related travel delays a few years ago caused me to miss all of Thursday and Friday. I like having the flexibility to leave when I like and I’ve found I really enjoy the travel time. I crank up the tunes and forget about my cares. It’s nice having someone to travel with, too. Jeff and I talk about everything from Driver Schools to politics (although not so much about politics).
There was some congestion around Baltimore and DC, but it didn’t slow us down too much. The real excitement occurred later in the day as we were traveling though South Carolina. Jeff was driving, and as we approached a construction zone that narrowed I-95 to one lane, traffic began to slow from the prevailing average of 75-80 mph to a more suitable speed for the conditions. We both saw a huge cloud of smoke about 100 yards ahead of us, and then an 18 wheeler flew across the road from right to left and down into the swampy center median. As every good instructor does, Jeff checked the mirrors and slowed safely to a stop. The folks around us did the same. We were six or eight cars behind a multi-vehicle wreck that looked pretty serious. We could see that debris had blocked everyone from moving through. Someone got out of a vehicle and moved some of the bigger pieces, and a couple of cars moved through, but we were still blocked by about 10 cars ahead of us. After what seemed like a minute or so, we both heard a terrible noise behind us and looked in the mirrors to see another tractor trailer barreling across the road a couple of hundred feet behind us. Everyone around us must have drawn the same conclusion as us – we had to get the hell out of there! One thing about having two CCA Driver School Instructors in a situation like this is that a lot of information sharing and problem solving kicks in immediately. Two sets of analytical eyes beats a trip-fatigued family when it comes to staying calm and plotting a solution!
One by one, the cars ahead of us maneuvered around the debris and through the slick of diesel fuel. When our turn came Jeff deftly navigated my car though the chunks of car parts strewn on the road. We were back underway and safe from what could have been a bigger disaster. I later learned that nobody was killed, but one person was airlifted to a hospital and the road was closed for several hours. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful, but we did see the aftermath of another bad wreck the next morning.
Our arrival at Daytona on Thursday was met with Chamber of Commerce weather, with sunny skies and 80 degree temperature for practice and qualifying. It was great! We were able to say hi to friends of the Chapter, James Clay and Will Turner, and did our share of celebrity watching. One special thing about the Rolex 24 weekend is the variety of famous drivers who attend. This year Jeff Gordon got the headlines, but guys like Dixon, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Bourdais, and so many others were also racing this year. There’s really nothing else like it. You can walk around the paddock all day and be right next to these guys, chat with the mechanics, and see what’s going on right in front of you. It’s really amazing. A bunch of CCA members from our area have made the Rolex 24 an annual event. This year Jeff and Sharon Caldwell were there, and we also saw Greg, Jason, and Tom Lockman, Brian Morgan (who was covering the event for Roundel), Lisa Mellott, Chris Faust, Steve and Steve Jr. Herchenrider, Bob Ball, and Bob Kelly from the DelVal Chapter. DelVal’s Dave Wollman is on the Bimmerworld crew, and we chatted with him for a few minutes. I’m sure I’ve left people out, and I didn’t cross paths with some who I know were there.
The Continental Race on Friday was a great one. It was the first time they ran for 4 hours, and it went right down to the wire. One of the Bimmerworld cars was close to a podium finish until a last lap incident put them down to 7th, and a Mini Cooper ended up winning the ST class race. It was a great battle to the end.
Jeff and I couldn’t get dinner reservations at my favorite spot, so we ended up going to Longhorn Steakhouse. We had to wait at the bar for about a half hour for a table to be available, but we didn’t mind, especially since Steve Dinan happened to be sitting right next to us. I had worked with him a couple of times in the past on club events, and he always gives me a wave when he sees me at the track. We had a great time talking about his current venture.
Race Day Saturday dawned bright but much cooler. We got to the track before 9 and needed to sign the waiver for the hot laps we had reserved earlier in the week. As a promotional tool, the participating manufacturers offer ride along laps to lucky customers. Jeff and I ended up in the back seat of a F80 M3 with the Performance Center’s Tommy Van Cleef driving. It’s always fun riding along with a pro driving flat out, but being next to the wall on the high banks of Daytona takes it to a whole other level!
The race is always fun to watch, and the BMW hospitality was great! As the day wore on the temperature continued to drop and the damp chill of winter took over. It started to rain at around 8pm. A little after 9, Jeff asked if I wanted to get out of there. I didn’t need any coaxing, and we decided to pack it in for the night. We returned to the track fairly early on Sunday morning to find the GTLM team just out of contention for the lead, and the scrappy Turner GTD car fighting back from overnight troubles. They got within a lap of the lead beforeout a little before the end of the race, wanting to get to our overnight destination in Santee, SC at a reasonable hour to have a nice dinner. Both the Turner #96 and Rahal Letterman #19 art car finished 8th in their respective class.
We finished the trip home on Monday, and were fortunate to have almost no traffic all the way! The only complication was a snow squall that created white-out conditions for about 15 miles in Maryland and Delaware. Once again, it was nice having another instructor riding shotgun, as we checked off possible threats and stayed on course, despite being caught out in a small car with all-season (no-season) tires. Very calm and professional the whole way, unlike a certain winter-phobic spouse I know. (I got her permission to say this.)
After attending 12 straight Rolex 24 at Daytona Races, I still count it as a trip I really look forward to every year. If you’re a racing fan, you need to find a way to experience this tremendous event first-hand.