Gleason finish in Rolex 24 at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 4 - David might not have exactly slain Goliath at the 39th annual Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, but he certainly wounded him. The overall victory by a GTS ...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 4 - David might not have exactly slain Goliath at the 39th annual Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, but he certainly wounded him.

The overall victory by a GTS Corvette driven by Ron Fellows, Chris Kneifel, Franck Freon and Johnny O'Connell over the more sophisticated Sports Racer Prototype machines was only part of the story.

Genesis Racing, an independent team that fields two BMWs against a plethora of factory-backed Porsches, had better results than all but five Porsches in the event, the largest endurance sports car race in North America. What's more, instead of having a drivers' line-up that consists of only big road-racing names, there was one big name decaled on its lead car - veteran BMW factory driver Bill Auberlen of Redondo Beach, Calif. - and three businessmen who race as an avocation rather than a profession.

One of those businessmen was Chris Gleason of Johnstown, Pa., president of The Gleason Group, who shared the driving duties with Auberlen and two other businessmen - team owner Rick Fairbanks of National Paintball Supply Co., Greenville, S.C., and Chris Miller, a Yokohama tire executive from Fullerton, Calif.

Together the quartet not only drove one of the cars out of the 80 starters that finished the race 24 grueling hours later, but their National Paintball/Yokohama BMW M3 #10 finished sixth out of 40 entries in the GT class and ninth overall. The event, which concluded at 1 p.m. Sunday, had an unprecedented 25 hours of live TV coverage on Speedvision.

"Our goal was a podium [top-three] finish in class and a top-10 overall," Gleason said. "The podium was a little too hard to obtain this year, but we're really pleased that we not only went the distance, we finished in the top 10."

Rain hampered the event most of the night and Sunday morning, which made for very challenging track conditions.

"The track changed conditions with the amount of rain we were getting, so you had to constantly adjust your line," Gleason said. "There was a lot of dirt pushed up in the apex of the turns too. When it rains you look for rough surfaces in the turns because the drainage is usually better there, but sometimes that's the outside of the turns so that can really screw your line up."

Gleason did four different stints and drove about six of the 24 hours. He spun twice in his first stint, but he restarted both times and had no other incidents. "I had to go off course a couple of times to miss some horrible spins by other people, but that was because of the rain," he explained. "I was a little rusty myself from the winter layoff, but I picked my rhythm up and I didn't have any more trouble in any of my other stints. There is nothing like a 24-hour race for seat time, but you have to develop a rhythm that is just instinctive. If you look at things too much or think about the way you're approaching your lines and your braking too much, you don't go as fast as you do if it is all just instinctive.

"Our car was fine," he said. "At one point it developed a little high-speed miss [in the engine] because of all the water that we were driving through, but really the car was dead-on. The brakes were fine and the Yokohama tires were great. The only problem I had was that about the time it started to rain, my radio developed a problem. The crew couldn't understand a word I said. I just stayed out about an hour and 15 minutes each time so that I wouldn't run out of fuel, and I'd flash my lights at them to let them know I understood what they were telling me. But I'll tell you, trying to run a 24-hour race on a track as large as this one with no radio is a challenge."

One of the big stories of the race was the participation of NASCAR Winston Cup star Dale Earnhardt and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who drove a Corvette that just happened to be pitted right beside the Genesis Racing team.

Did Gleason ever think he'd be pitted beside Dale Earnhardt at Daytona, and race against him on those famous high banks?

"Never in a thousand years," he admitted. "He's a great American hero and it was a privilege and an honor to compete against him. I have a great deal of respect for him and his family."

Auberlen qualified the car ninth in class and 48th overall, and the #10 steadily worked its way up the hourly listings. It was 30th overall at the end of hour one but slipped to 37th by the end of hour three. It was back to 29th at the end of hour five; 18th by hour 10 and 14th at the half-way point. It was 11th at the conclusion of hour 16 and broke into the top-10 at the end of hour 18. It reached its highest spot, ninth overall, with three hours to go, slipped back to 11th by the end of hour 22 and nailed down ninth overall for good in the last 60 minutes of competition.

-Linda Mansfield

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About this article
Series Grand-Am
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Ron Fellows , Johnny O'Connell , Franck Freon , Bill Auberlen , Chris Gleason , Rick Fairbanks , Chris Miller