What an experience. The Daytona 24 hours was unlike anything I've ever imagined or done before. A real proving ground that requires true grit from the drivers, team and car.
Even before I got into the car, I was very well placed. Being part of the SpeedSource team was my first advantage; these guys have form, having won the GT class two out of three times in the past three years, and I was hoping to help chalk up yet another victory over the weekend. Secondly, I was privileged to be partnered by a group of exceptional drivers for this feat of endurance; Number 70's line-up was completed by Sylvain Tremblay, John Edwards and Jonathan Bomarito.
I arrived trackside on Thursday to prepare for testing, and it all went off smoothly, however it quickly became apparent that the Porsches and Chevvies had a straight line speed over the Mazdas, and we knew that at Daytona that was going to make it tough for us. On the corners the Mazda was unstoppable, but in a straights we just couldn't compete.
Qualifying followed on Thursday afternoon, and Sylvain was our nominated driver. It was pretty close between the Mazdas, but as a whole we were still off the pace compared to the other manufacturers. We qualified 16th out of 35 in class, 31st out of 50 cars overall; it certainly wasn't as good as we had been hoping for.
Friday gave us the quiet before the storm, and I was out of the car, but Saturday moved at a completely different pace as we geared up for the off. In the morning we had our driver and team photographs followed by a team meeting. We discussed various scenarios, tactics and our plans for safety car periods and pits stops.
At midday there was autograph signing and the fan walkabout. The cars were already in pit lane, but with a huge swell of fans it was pretty much impossible to see any of our competitors even from our pit stand. It was a pretty awesome sight.
At 3.30pm Eastern time the race started. The roar of the engines as the lights went green made the ground shake, and the following first hour went smoothly. I headed off to rest as my first go in the car would only be once darkness had set in, and I needed to be as fresh as possible for the off.
In the third hour of the race I was back in pit lane and John was in the car. We were in P15 and had had to take an unexpected pit stop due to a high speed puncture in the second hour. This had caused some unwanted damage to the rear of the car, but despite this we were still going well and making a comeback. Within 30 minutes we had moved into 9th position. I jumped in and took us through the next two hours or so, and my enduring memory is that there were plenty of wild drivers taking some unnecessary risks considering we still had 18 hours of the race remaining.
My next stint was roughly at 2am and towards the half way point of the race. On my way to the pits I was taken to the garage and my heart sunk when I saw the car in bits being stripped and repaired. Apparently we had been making huge progress within the top 10 before suffering an alternator failure, and as a consequence had lost our in-car radio link, lights and power steering. It forces us to pit.
Twenty five minutes later the car was back on the track. The SpeedSource crew had reacted quickly and repaired what they could. We had moved down to 20th and now were around 15 laps down. Our chances of winning had been blown to pieces, but we weren't going to give up the fight that easily; in the remaining 12 hours anything could happen...
I was in the car after John again. We kept our driver sequence, starting with Sylvain, Jonathan, John then myself. I was in the car for another good 2 hours, but by now it had seen better days.
Not long after I finished my run, around 4am, the fog settled around Daytona. There was a three hour caution period where pit stops were allowed but no overtaking was permitted. It was the slowest part of the race, and we were all relieved when the safety car finally went back into the pit lane; we made our way back into the top 10.
By the time it had reached the 18 hour mark, we were as far up as 8th position. At 21 hours we gained 7th, and by the penultimate 23rd hour, I got out the car and handed over to Sylvain in 6th place. It had been a good recovery, and despite a bit of a battering, the car was still holding together with a few extra pieces of tape and straps wrapped around it.
With 7 minutes before the end of the 24 there was a final and sudden safety car due to debris on the track. It arrived just in time for the last lap, and every car was doing whatever it could to make up any last minute time and position before the finish line, but for us, there was just too much of a gap to the car in front to make a difference.
We crossed over the line in 6th position, completing 670 laps (2,385 miles) averaging a speed of almost 100mph for 24 hours. It had been a fantastically challenging 24 hours, but an awesome experience; I had completed my debut 24 hour race, perhaps not quite the result I was hoping for, but I was grateful for the strength of the team I had been a part of. There was never any sense of giving up even when the car wasn't in its best condition towards the end of the race. A huge amount of respect to my co-drivers and crew - I was lucky enough to be able to rest during the night between being in the car - but the crew stayed up and endured it all to make sure the car kept on running.
Finally, I'd like to say congratulations to Mazda for providing a car that stood up to 24 hours of track abuse, pushing it to its limits. I'd like to thank the SpeedSource crew for being the best team out there, doing everything they could to keep the car on track, and of course to all my co-drivers for doing an awesome job behind the wheel. This is one race I want to be competing in every year.