The Driver’s Seat: Spotting the Rolex 24

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The Driver's Seat

So there I was, in the middle of the night, wet and freezing cold, atop of the Daytona grandstands as I watched Paul Tracy put the car on the grass and out of contention for the win of the 24hrs of Daytona. Nice going hot shot. This was going to be a long night. Such is the life of a spotter. Not so thrilling when the car is 50 laps down but it’s not always this way.

For a couple of years I worked for Mike Shank Racing as a spotter for their Daytona Prototype team at the 24 hour race, my friend and yours Ian James was then the lead driver for the number 6 car and drove with a couple of gentlemen drivers for the full season. If you want to cheer a DP car on this year, pick them, they are an awesome team and great bunch of guys. For the Daytona race some top notch drivers dabble in the series, the likes of Montoya, Franchitti and even Grace’s favourite Jimmie Johnson.

The first year we had AJ Allmendinger and Paul Tracy with Ian, the sister car had Castro Neves and Sam Hornish alongside team regular Oz Negri. Before the race there’s not much to do, I spent my time sitting in on driver debriefs & meetings, trying to get a semblance of where the team was at, and picking up any info I could use for once the race was going. I also kept an eye on the other teams, who’s quick? It’s not just simply looking at the time sheets. There are usually 4 drivers so a team that may be able to put down a quick time may not be a threat as their driver lineup talent falls down substantially. Also I kept my eye on the top teams on the track so I could recognize them quickly from my vantage point on all corners on the track. Which car it actually was day & night—multicar teams make this harder of course—thanks to Mr Ganassi! I also talked to the drivers and chief team personnel on what information they wanted me to relay etc. Tracy didn’t want anything (oh you’ll pay for this Tracy! Well we all did actually).

Pressure and excitement was high as both cars were quick. So I climb the stairs to the top of the stands armed with spare batteries, jackets, headphones, snack bars , Todd’s favourite Red Bull, and my secret weapon, chocolate covered espresso beans, hyper-caffeinated ones at that. This was going to be my home for the next day. It may be Florida but in January 300 feet in the air, it’s windy and cccccold.

Each car has a spotter. My partner in crime was equally well prepared. It’s my job to call the start, and sure it’s an endurance race, but it’s still a race so you want to always treat every second with equal importance, because they can be. So green! green! green! Then its eyes peeled on the field as they storm into turn 1—priority here is to watch out for any collisions—you’ve got to try and be ahead of the game for potential yellows, debris, oil etc that can impact your team’s race. You really need three eyes, one to keep an eye on your car, one to keep an eye on the leader (hopefully it’s one in the same) and one on the rest of the track generally, as the race wears on, this can be of utmost importance. If a yellow comes out the team will instantly call “where’s the leader” so that a judgment can be made whether to pit now, later or not at all, if you don’t have the info you can cost a great opportunity or even worse a lap for your team. I was paranoid about it, but it has come into play numerous times, and I was proud to have that info on the tip of my tongue. Sure I’d like to be driving the car, but a competitive spirit is a competitive spirit, and if you can gain the team an edge, you still get a rush from it.

The first year I did this I was probably a little quieter than I wanted to be when talking to the driver and team, not too sure of my station I guess. As a driver I always like a calm but informative voice on the radio, and of course knowing Ian as well as I do I felt comfortable chatting back and forth in the manner I would have appreciated, although I kept pretty silent when he was battling intensely with Montoya and Franchitti, but I still just put a couple of words of encouragement in.

In 2008 however I was confident with what I was doing and saying and the drivers seemed to really appreciate it, AJ was awesome in traffic and on a clear lap, he didn’t need too much, but you gave him a dog to hunt and he was on it. A good driver can deal with all the info and doesn’t crack under the pressure situations, sometimes, we hear even in F1, the team withholding information so as not to get in the drivers head. AJ is not one of these and I think it’s a crime he never got an F1 ride.

When PT was driving I would stay pretty silent unless there was an incident on track, there wasn’t much time to talk anyway, as he would talk a lot himself about how great he was doing. Until he went off of course.

With the gentleman drivers it can turn into more a coaching exercise, seems pretty funny that you’ve got guys out there driving in one of the biggest races of the year, yet it feels like you’re teaching at the Racing School. Money does wonderful things for a driving career.

It really was a night and day difference between O7 and O8. In 07 we were up front and all was good, but once PT put it in the tyres and considerable time was lost fixing the damage it was a little painful to be up the whole time. Luckily there was a race stoppage in the middle of the night to get a bit of a rest, but every now and again the team would call in for an update so you can’t just get your teddy bear out and have a nap, but at least I could get out of the wind, rain and cold for a bit. Stuck up high on the grandstands your food is normally cold and damp, and you usually just shove it down, as you’ve still got to have your beady eyes on the race. No foodie critiques on this day

In 08 it was intense the whole time, both cars qualified on the front row, and I would run to and from the bathroom as I didn’t want to miss that crucial call. Once the sun comes up you do get a new lease on life, but that night is very long, but so so important.

Alas while leading with about 2 hours to go our rear suspension broke, what a letdown, the blood just rushes out of you at that point, all the efforts of everybody, coming so close.

The drive back to the airport after the race can be quite eventful, you are so out of sorts, one time I had to just pull over and take a cat nap, the exhaustion just rolls on in like a tidal wave once the intensity of the race is gone. You don’t smell too good, you look like a street person with all your layers and you hope no one asks you any difficult questions like “what’s your name”, but still you feel like part of something cool. So when you tune into the race this year, take a look at the top of the grandstands and try and spot the poor buggers, and have a beer for them, just not a fruity one.

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