Club Happenings – Winter 2019: Roadtrip to Rolex 24 at Daytona 2019


By Larry Engel

As has been the case every winter for the past fourteen years, I headed south in late January to attend one of the greatest events in motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It’s all Bob Isbitski’s fault. (Have I thanked you lately, Bob? Thanks again for introducing me to this huge piece of car-nut heaven all those years ago!) I think it was 2006 when Bob organized a huge group of New Jersey Chapter members and we descended upon Florida to enjoy the race weekend. If I recall, there were more than 20 of us. I was hooked, and I’ve attended every Rolex 24 since.

This year, a group of New Jersey, New York, and Delaware Valley Chapter members met up in Daytona for this spectacular event. As has been the case for the past several years, the BMW CCA teamed up with BMW NA to provide a corral and front straight hospitality that included weekend food and beverages, as well as allimportant shelter and seating with TV viewing both overlooking pit road and in a tent behind the pits.

Will Turner fielding questions during the BMW CCA meet and
greet at the Rolex 24. BMW racing legend Bill Auberlen is on
the left and Former NJ Chapter member Don Salama is on the
right. Photo by Larry Engel.
The Turner Motorsport Liqui-Moly BMW M6 GTD getting last
minute prep. Photo by Larry Engel.

This year, Jeff White acted as my co-pilot and travel buddy, as he has for the past several years. We drove down, stopping in South Carolina for a night before finishing the trip on Thursday of race weekend and arriving in Daytona at about midday. Thursday was sunny and warm enough to wear shorts, but it turned out to be the best weather of the weekend.

NJ Chapter members Larry Engel and Jeff White after
arriving at Daytona for the Rolex 24. It turns out that
the winter tires on Larry’s X5 weren’t needed, but
the weather wasn’t ideal for most of the weekend. Photo by Larry Engel.
Getting ready for the start of the Rolex 24. Photo by Larry Engel.

By Sunday morning it was so bad that the race had to be red-flagged twice for dangerous conditions and the checkered flag was thrown at 23 hours and 49 minutes. (The Rolex Twenty Three Forty Nine doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?)

It was pouring rain when we got up on Sunday morning, and we hung around the hotel breakfast area and watched the TV coverage from my iPad as other guests watched along with us while deliberating what to do.

The best way to watch a race under red flag conditions –
from a warm, dry hotel that includes breakfast! Photo by Larry Engel.

The first red flag had already been waved and in our case the corral parking area was a long walk from the shelter and free booze offered by the BMW CCA hospitality package. Jeff and I made the wise decision to forego the soggy and bone chilling hike and head to our evening destination in Naples, and hopefully arrive in time to watch the end of the race on TV in the unlikely event that it re-started. It didn’t. (Before any of our friends accuse Jeff and me of being fair weather fans, I’ll remind all of you that we’ve both been the last man standing in rainy paddocks numerous times. We’ve paid our dues!)

Watching the end of the Rolex 24 from the warmth of
Naples. Well, it was warm in the den, anyway! Photo by Larry Engel.

Jeff stayed with his niece and her husband in Naples before flying home on Monday and I met Karin at her mom’s house, where we spent a few days before heading north via Palm Beach and a quick visit with old friends who’ve had the good sense to move out of Jersey. I’ve made this trip by car for the past five or six years, and I really enjoy the escape from my daily grind and the ability to just drive and listen to music while the miles roll by. Jeff doesn’t seem to mind my music selections (which are mostly in the country and Jersey Shore genres), but Karin announced after the return ride home that she didn’t want to make that trip by car again. I put almost 3,000 miles on my F15 X5 35d, which is by far the most comfortable and capable road car I’ve ever owned. It also gets about 32 mpg at brisk highway speeds and on snow tires – closer to 34 mpg on summer tires and at more reasonable speed. (I’ll break from the current storyline to curse at Volkswagen and stick my you-know-what finger up at them for ruining the reputation of diesel-powered motor vehicles and to beg BMW to bring the diesel X5 back to the US.)

The Rolex 23:49 was, in many ways, even more appealing than ever. It marked the return of Formula One great Fernando Alonso (who teamed up with Wayne Taylor Racing and co-drivers Jordan Taylor, Renger Van Der Zande, and fellow F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi for the overall win). For BMW fans it was particularly exciting to see former Indycar and Formula One great Alex Zanardi return to center stage in one of the RLL BMW M8 GTLM cars. He is an inspirational force after overcoming the loss of both his legs in a 2001 accident to compete at this level and becoming a Paralympic champion, as well. He could be seen buzzing round the paddock in his wheelchair and was always happy to chat with the fans and stay still long enough for fan selfies. Technical problems plagued his car during the race, but his team car won the GTLM race – so it was a very good day for BMW. The red flags messed up the strategy for the Turner Motorsport M6 GTD, but it was great to see BMW-legend Bill Auberlen wearing a blue and yellow racing suit again! The car was fast and overcame a lengthy pit stop repair to finish in the top 10, quite an accomplishment under the circumstances. Auberlen will be driving for Will Turner all year along with Robby Foley. With race strategy called by former NJ Chapter member Don Salama, this team should add to their winning record this year!

The newly re-named Michelin Pilot Challenge series featured several teams running BMW M4 GT4 equipment in the GS class. In addition to Turner and others, BimmerWorld had two entries in the four hour Friday afternoon race. BimmerWorld owner and long-time friend of the New Jersey Chapter James Clay finished 4th with co-driver Devin Jones, who made a great late race charge. This is a team that also looks to put some wins on the board this year!

If you’ve never been to the Rolex 24, you need to put it on your bucket list. It’s a Who’s Who of racing, and the on -track action is as good as it gets (as long as the flag stays green, anyway). Let’s hope the CCA can do a corral and hospitality again next year!

Club Happenings – Winter 2018: Roadtrip to Rolex 24 at Daytona


Text and Photos by Larry Engel

M CEO Frank van Meel fielding questions in the BMW CCA hospitality tent at Daytona. The club and BMW NA provided a great experience for club members during the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The hospitality packages sold out in a few hours this year.
Bobby Rahal watches as the #25 BMW M8 of Bill Auberlen is repaired following a right front blowout that took out the suspension on that corner of the car. Auberlen’s legendary driving skill likely kept the car from hitting the wall. The car was repaired and returned to action, but BMW’s hopes for a top finish were dashed. The #25 was looking good until this incident. That’s racing!
Bimmerworld driver Tyler Cooke chatting with CCA members prior to the Continental Sports Car Challenge Race at Daytona. Cooke and co-driver and team owner James Clay finished second in their new Optima Batteries M4 GT4. It was the first race for the new car.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Winter-2018-Club-Happenings-Rolex-24-8.jpg
Don Salama and Will Turner discussing Turner Motorsport’s
strategy prior to the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona.
The Bimmerworld 328i finished first in the ST class. Overall,
it was a great day for Bimmerworld and BMW!
One of the best parts of the Rolex 24 at Daytona is the pre-race
grid walk, where spectators can walk down pit lane to look at the
cars and chat with the teams. You can even climb the banking at
the start-finish line!
The Bimmerworld M4 GT4 running through the infield.
Saturday at the Rolex 24 ends with a spectacular fireworks
show. This is the view from the BMW CCA corral.

Club Happenings – Winter 2017: Roadtrip to Rolex 24 at Daytona — An Annual Adventure


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.

Hot Laps-Performance Center’s Tommy Van Cleef
driving – Photo by Larry Engel
Pre-Race Grid walkabout – Photo by Larry Engel
Photo by Larry Engel
Turner Motorsport with Don Salama (L), race
strategist and former NJ Chapter member – Photo by Larry Engel

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.

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