Sports-car endurance racing began in the 1920s, the goal being to demonstrate the reliability of gasoline-driven motorcars. The 24 Heures du Mans is the oldest endurance race in the world, having first been run on the Circuit de la Sarthe near the French town of Le Mans 1923. The growing popularity of endurance racing convinced the owners of the Daytona International Speedway to hold their first 24-hour race there in 1966. Forty-seven years later, the Daytona race, sponsored since 1991 by Rolex, is the premier 24-hour enduro in the U.S.
Spirit of Daytona Racing (SDR) has deep roots in Florida. Troy Flis founded the team in 1987, and it is currently headquartered near DIS. In 2011 SDR was selected by Chevrolet Racing to debut the new Corvette Daytona Prototype there.
SDR's No. 90 Corvette went on to finish Third in the 2012 Grand-Am series championship, with drivers Richard Westbrook and Antonio Garcia scoring three pole positions and three overall victories along the way. For 2013 Westbrook is paired with Ricky Taylor for the short races. Oliver Gavin and Antonio Garcia join the SDR team for longer races, including the 24 Hours of Daytona.
Earlier this year, Flis and his wife, Michelle, invited us to shadow the team during the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Naturally, we accepted. Our goal was to not only document what went on out on the track, but more important, to capture the carefully coordinated action that unfolded behind pit wall.
DIS provides teams with large garages to use during the race, and SDR makes the most of its space. The team parks a tractor-trailer nearby, using it to house an office, tools, and spare parts for the Corvette. A team of 36 people supported the car during the 24-hour Daytona race.
The race really begins in early January, with the Roar Before the 24. This three-day event gives teams the opportunity to test their cars and adjust for any rule changes that might have been made. The SDR team was happy with its car's and drivers' performance during the Roar. However, after the test, Grand-Am pulled the Corvette's engine and sent it to North Carolina for testing. Race officials were concerned that the DP Vettes were too fast, and the test was meant to determine whether they had an unfair horsepower advantage. Apparently they did (at least in the eyes of Grand-Am), as all Corvette teams were subsequently saddled with a power reduction.
When the team arrived for the race they were upbeat, having recently secured a new sponsor, www.visitflorida.com. The crew worked overtime to tweak the Corvette to maximize its performance to make up for the loss of engine power. That power reduction became evident during qualifying, when the three BMW- powered Riley Daytona Prototypes took the top spots. Fourth was a Ford-powered Riley, while No. 90 was fifth, 1.29 seconds slower than the pole sitter. On a positive note, the SDR entry was the fastest Corvette.
Team manager Flis remained optimistic, telling the crew before the race that he felt very positive about their chances. Minimizing the time the Corvette spent in the pits would be key. "Good clean pit stops will keep us in the game," he said.
The team did exactly that during the first five hours of the race, executing their stops with precision while continuing to keep pace with the leaders on track. Stops came every 45 to 50 minutes, during which time the car received fuel and fresh tires. Drivers changes were performed at every other stop, and by the fifth hour, Antonio Garcia had taken the overall race lead.
Behind the pit wall, the team engineers were monitoring the car's vital signs, while the crew's activity level varied with the car's location. When the SDR Vette was on course, crewmembers could relax a bit. But as soon as the car entered the pits, everyone sprang into finely choreographed action. Their efficiency was impressive: Hot front brakes were fully changed out in just 3 minutes, after eight hours of racing. Meanwhile, the Flises made sure that the crew had plenty of liquids and high-carb foods to help them maintain their energy.
At 3:30 a.m. Garcia went off track at DIS's "bus stop" section and damaged the exhaust system. The right-side tailpipe was dragging on the banking, leaving behind a shower of sparks. Garcia brought the car into the pits, where the crew made hasty repairs. The unplanned stop dropped No. 90 from third to sixth place, but it was still on the same lap as the leader.
By the 16th hour the crew and drivers had maneuvered the car into third place overall. It was then that a heavy fog rolled in off the Atlantic and enveloped the Speedway. "You could see [it] coming in at the horseshoe and bus stop. Grand-Am threw the yellow flag at 6:52 a.m.," Gavin said later.
Troy Flis called in the car during the yellow period, and the crew again changed the front brakes. They also removed the rear clip to work on the damaged exhaust system. The race resumed under green at 9:04, after running for 2 hours and 52 minutes under yellow.
During the yellow the crew had discovered a broken left-side header, which was dumping hot gasses onto the electrical system. They attempted to redirect the exhaust away from the wiring using hoses, but the heat only got worse. After calculating what pace they'd need to maintain to finish Fifth overall, the team did exactly that. Considering the obstacles they'd faced, it was a job well done.
After spending 24 hours with the SDR team, it was clear why it has amassed a winning record. Crew members maintained their focus and drive over the course of the grueling endurance race, pushing on toward victory until the checkered flag fell. Along the way, we learned that it takes a multitude of dedicated people to support a winning Corvette, both behind the wheel and behind pit wall.