9 February 2015

Live On Board: Riding shotgun at Daytona

It is 11 p.m. on a Saturday night and I am onboard the #3 Corvette C7.R at Daytona. I’m not sure who's driving at the moment — could be Jan Magnussen or Antonio Garcia or Ryan Brisco — but I’m riding shotgun and watching this mysterious Corvette factory driver navigate through the night at one of the world’s greatest endurance races. For 12 hours now, off and on, I have been passively involved in the 53rd running of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, checking in now and then with the race broadcast and jumping from car to car in some of the manufacturer’s feeds. Thank you, www.IMSA.com.

In addition to the #3 Corvette, the #911 Porsche, the #24 BMW Z4 GTE, and the #01 Riley-Ford prototype all offer dedicated onboard feeds. Michelin has one, too; most of the field is on Continentals, but this feed jumps around the few Michelin-shod cars throughout the race, like the #4 Corvette and the #912 Porsche. Mazda’s prototype diesels had a feed, too, and one of those cars led overall for a bit, but both have dropped out, so there’s nothing left to see. “ACCESS DENIED” is the message you get when you try to watch.

I don’t have any fancy cable package, where the race is being broadcast on three different Fox networks, so throughout the day I've alternated between the feeds online. During certain hours, there’s been a feed from the televised broadcast, which is great for a high-level view of the proceedings. But tonight I’m exclusively on the onboard feeds. These cars have cameras all over them, which have been alternating all day, and while the Corvette, Porsche and BMW are all in-car and aimed at the driver tonight, the #01 Ford has us on the roof and facing backwards. The #911 Porsche feed is still live, though the car is mostly dead at the moment, sitting in the garage with some amount of unhurried crew activity around it. Apparently the #911 and #912 Porsches knocked each other out of the race for a while

I am at my desk and mostly doing other things tonight. I am not strictly watching the feeds; if I were just sitting around on my couch watching in-car footage from Daytona, it might get boring. Rather, with my headphones plugged in, working away on a project, I am listening. You hear a lot when you ride inside a Corvette race car. That 5.5-liter V-8 makes it an angry, snorty, roaring car and nothing like the whine and cry of the 4.4-liter BMW, which screams in two pitches on the back part of the oval and is interrupted only momentarily with each twitch of an upshift. The Corvette sounds reptilian, the BMW sounds robotic.

The Corvette is far from base, however, and one of the coolest things about it, beyond the sound and the fury, is the live display that serves as a rearview for the driver. It’s maybe 10 inches across and each car that appears on it is visually identified for the driver by an enormous green arrow, just to make sure it is seen. When one of the prototypes comes past on the left, the arrow comes with it, changing orientation to let the Corvette driver know exactly where the car is. Pretty cool.


Right now there is a full-course caution, and with no screaming V-8s or shrieking flat-sixes, I switch to the Riley-Ford's feed, which is more fun to watch than listen to. It comes from the backward-facing roof-mounted camera, and some part of the blue roof, a small antenna and the rear wing are all you see of the car. The Riley-Ford has been at the sharp end of the grid all day, and what I see beyond the wing are headlights. Lots and lots of headlights.

To me, only passively involved, it feels as if this caution has been on a while. But I imagine if you're driving this sucker for the day, you'll take the slowdown, a chance to wiggle your fingers and unclench whatever gets clenched during the heat of racing. Still, I have been lulled by these immense 12-or-so minutes of maybe 3/10ths, of shifting at 5,000 rpm behind a pace car, of keeping heat in the tires and cold air in everything else once or twice per lap with a brief scream through the gears. But mostly it is moping along under yellow.

And then, instantly it is not. Instantly we are ON IT, up through the gears and real damn fast, the headlights fading as we come into and then out of turn four and down the front straight. There is the slow reeling in of a BMW on the straight and then hard braking for the infield — hard braking just hair later than at least three other cars around us, because one moment they were not there and in the next I am looking at them, instantly behind us and then just more headlights as this incredibly fast prototype race car pulls away.

I jump around the feeds for another hour before I call it quits for the night. Before I do, I check the televised broadcast. The kind British gents on IMSA Radio instruct me on where things stand, and where they stand is this: 13 hours down, 11 hours to go, and just 0.4 seconds separate the 1 and 2 cars of Scott Dixon and Jordan Taylor. Four-tenths of a second after half a day.

I love endurance racing.

(The next race in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship is the 12 Hours of Sebring. Watch it live on imsa.com March 21.)

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