Story by Patrick Reynolds
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla- IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship opened with the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. The word ‘weather’ not only describes the series sponsor, but the literal term threw teams an extra complication as they strategized throughout the 24-hour contest.
Saturday race morning dawned with sunny and bright Florida blue skies. Some clouds began to collect as the field moved through tech inspection. The cars were moved to the grid and that was the end of the day’s sunshine.
Pre race ceremonies and the 2:30 pm ET green flag took place under overcast conditions and falling temperatures.
Darkness set in around 6pm, wind picked up, and the cooler air settled in.
Rain started around 8pm, but not in an initial downpour. A light sprinkling began, then stopped, and then started again. Pit crews watched the track surface wetness, driver feedback, and lap times.
Moving from slick tires to rain tires would reduce any car’s speed versus increasing grip in the wet conditions. A completely dry track versus a steady rain would make the decision easier. However the gradual dampening had to overcome the heat built up in the asphalt to a certain point.
When would the slippery conditions overtake the grip of the slick tires?
Saturday night Wayne Taylor Racing’s Jeff Gordon said, “They will probably minimize my time in the rain- which I think is a great call on their part.”
Rain gradually increased as the field bled over to the wet weather tires. Overnight showers were heavy enough to bring out the pace car for full course yellows
James French, winning co-driver in the Prototype Challenge class said, “The rain was freezing cold. Not a lot of grip. Trying to control the cars with numb fingers and cold feet was not fun.”
“That rain in the night was difficult for everybody,” said Chip Ganassi Racing GTLM winner Joey Hand.
Katherine Legge co-driver of the GTD Michael Shank Racing Acura with Andy Lally, Graham Rahal, and Mark Wilkins said, “Jeff (Segal) and Andy drove the cars here in the Roar, in the rain for about 20 minutes and that was it.
“Fundamentally they (the cars) are a great level of grip,” Legge said. “It didn’t feel like that when you are out there (in the rain), trust me.”
Joao Barbosa said he drove in, “very very challenging conditions. Very cold and wet for most of the night, which made it difficult for everybody.”
Christian Fittipaldi said, “It was a tough race because of the changing conditions because of the weather.”
The race was under green and in lighter but still persistent rain for the Sunday morning hours.
Wet weather trailed off around mid-morning on Sunday and the slippery track began to dry- each lap drying a little further to a minute degree. The same question from the overnight hours emerged in opposite form- when to change to slicks and get the speed but risk the danger of losing grip and spinning, or worse… crashing?
Gordon said, “I wanted to watch what these guys did in the rain and the cold and the most treacherous conditions, and they did it at a level that, I’ll be honest, I’m not capable of doing. I was so impressed.”
“One of the highlight moments of this race, and it was a crucial moment, was when Jordan (Taylor) was on slicks- and they stayed out. And when he was out there on slicks and it started getting really wet… just the fact to get that car back to pit road without wrecking to get the wets (tires) was an amazing moment,” said Gordon.
“Watching these guys do what they did throughout the night in crazy conditions… and I had the experience of being in the wet and I couldn’t see anything,” Gordon said. “It was very hard to feel the car, let alone push it and they were in much more difficult conditions than what I was in. They were overtaking, building gaps, it’s impressive.”
Teams swapping to slicks around the 20-hour mark saw several drivers go for a slide after pit exit. Neel Jani, Fittipaldi, and Scott Sharp all went sideways in the grass around the infield International Horseshoe.
At the 21-hour mark, a gray dry line had formed on the pavement while off-line remained dark from remaining moisture.
The track was mostly dry and pit road remained somewhat damp at the 22-hour mark. Then sunlight started peaking through the clouds. The track had not seen that kind of brightness since pre race ceremonies the day before.
The Rolex 24’s final fifteen minutes featured bright sunlight beaming down on the fight for the win between Ricky Taylor and Felipe Albuquerque.
The rain added to the race’s intrigue. It was one more factor for the teams to deal with. What may have the Taylor-Albuquerque battle looked like with a wet track beneath their tires?
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT on http://speedwayreport.com/ . Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.