It's oft-repeated -- just finishing the Rolex 24 At Daytona is a major accomplishment. The wear and tear of a 24-hour race strain the best drivers, crew and equipment. Adding the high banks of Daytona International Speedway and the stress of the season-opening race exacerbates the task for even seasoned veterans.
AIM Autosport met the challenge and surprised observers with the performance of the No. 61 Lexus-powered Riley Mk XI in this year's race. Mark Wilkins qualified 17th in the top Daytona Prototype class, but started 27th after the car's starter balked at the green flag. He and his co-drivers David Empringham, Brian Frisselle and Burt Frisselle then logged consistent laps and the AIM crew executed smooth, penalty-free pitstops to finish fifth.
So how does a rookie team post a top-five finish in a race that routinely zaps the best?
"It's definitely preparation," says Andrew Bordin, who co-owns the Canadian team with Ian Willis and Keith Willis. "The team has to be calm, they have to be confident. To be up there, you need quite a bit of experience because things have to flow so smoothly. Ian and Keith are so meticulous in the way they do things that you see it in the result of the car."
AIM has 12 years of experience fielding multi-car teams in Formula BMW USA and the Star Mazda Championship, but the Rolex 24 was the team's first endurance race. Used to sprint races lasting 30 to 45 minutes, the crew members found themselves preparing for a single race as long as 48 Formula BMW races, or four seasons of racing!
But the owners knew where to start. They hired experienced personnel and let them do the job. Team manager Don Sobering, chief mechanic Kevin O'Reilly and data engineer Craig English quickly gelled into a cohesive force with race engineer Ian Willis. The drivers were equally impressive, flashing the car's striking gold-and-black livery around the 3.56-mile Daytona track for sponsors Exchange Traded Gold, Barrick Gold Corporation, RBC Royal Bank and Telus' Mike Network.
"The drivers did a fantastic job; they were consistently quick in their lap times. They couldn't do that without a good car that the crew put together," Bordin noted. "Everything went really smoothly. A lot of that was the experience of the guys who were hired into this program. We come from the world of sprint races. These guys spent a lot of their time and energy explaining things. Communication was a big factor in getting us off to the right start."
Bordin also credited the team's engine manufacturer, Lexus -- "The engine ran flawlessly throughout the race" -- and the partners of Doncaster Racing, who shared the knowledge that has helped them earn two GT-class podium finishes in the Rolex 24 -- "There are so many things going on, but it seems like they had everything covered."
AIM is already tackling the next set of lessons, changing strategy to match the two-hour 30-minute format of the upcoming Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series races.
"We found a setup that was comfortable to run a certain pace for a long time. It wasn't very knife-edge and it wasn't the fastest, but it was very consistent. When you have a safe car underneath you, it feels good, it's really comforting," Bordin explained. "But when you get to a sprint race, a safe car isn't the one that wins. So it's a different idea now. Looking ahead, we definitely have to focus on outright speed and taking the car to its maximum limit."
-credit: aim autosport