Ken Stiver's First Race at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 10 ­ It was "baptism under fire," but Ken Stiver's first race at Daytona International Speedway ever resulted in a fifth-place finish in the top class in last weekend's Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, the Super Bowl...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 10 ­ It was "baptism under fire," but Ken Stiver's first race at Daytona International Speedway ever resulted in a fifth-place finish in the top class in last weekend's Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, the Super Bowl of North American sports car endurance racing.

Stiver scrambled to find marketing partners for the effort up until the last minute, but he rewarded those that came on board by coming in fifth in the most exotic class, Sports Racer, in the twice-around-the-clock classic in Daytona Beach, Fla. Feb. 5-6.

His sponsors for this event were not Fortune 500 companies, but smaller businesses which had the foresight to believe in the Avon, Ind.-based driver ­ Michael George & Associates Corporate Entertainment Company and Benchmark Surveying & Engineering, both of Brownsburg, Ind.; Bonnell Grain Handling Equipment of Winamac, Ind.; and Pharo's Truckstop of Shippensburg, Pa. In return, these companies got international exposure in an event that is second only to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in this type of racing.

The business side of racing definitely affects what happens on the track, but Stiver was so committed to being in the race that he wouldn't take "no" for an answer. His tenacity and perseverance paid off, but just in the nick of time.

"The hardest part about racing is finding marketing partners, and my deal didn't come together until 11:30 a.m. Friday for a race that started at 1 p.m. on Saturday," said Stiver, a native of Logansport, Ind., who won the Mid-Summer Madness Series at Indianapolis Raceway Park and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last year in a Formula 2000 car and finished fifth overall for all classes in SCCA's Central Division.

"I got into the car for the first time at 1:30 Friday afternoon for the last practice period before the race. The company that made my uniform, Design 500 Racewear, pulled out all the stops to get me a uniform with the right colors and the right patches in time for the race. We were the last team to get its driver roster to registration, and halfway through the race they were still getting our names straightened out with the TV broadcasters."

Although Stiver had very little practice on a track and in a car that was new to him, he downplayed those challenges.

"It was unfortunate that I didn't have the opportunity to get more seat time before the race, but right away I was within a few seconds of the drivers who had done quite a bit of testing before the race," he noted. "Together we came home with a top-five finish in the Sports Racer class, so I think all and all it was an exceptional effort from all of us."

Stiver was part of the RaceStar Motorsports team, which fielded an aqua-colored Spice Chevrolet, #47, carrying Flo-Tec and Jack's Magic Products as its primary sponsors. (Stiver also tested Tom Volk's TRV Motorsport/Supreme Exhaust System Products/Racer Parts Wholesale Riley & Scott Chevy in December, but he was unable to acquire the necessary sponsorship funds in time to guarantee a seat in that car for the Rolex 24.) He didn't drive RaceStar's Spice before Friday afternoon's final practice session. He also hadn't met all of his four co-drivers ­ Todd Vallancourt, John Thomas, Rich McDill and Les Vallarano ­ until three days before the event.

Stiver said the most memorable part of the experience was "driving at night at those speeds without ever testing at night.

"The visibility was bad, and I had to get a feel for the traffic and re-acclimate myself to all the turning points," he explained. "You had to drive by the seat of your pants, and hope that when you turned there was a corner. The car was completely different than when I tested it on Friday; it didn't have the mechanical or the aero grip that it had on Friday. The straightaways seemed to be shorter than they were in the daytime too, but all in all it went well."

This year's Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona was run under colder weather conditions than any other in recent memory, which definitely affected the cars', the teams' and the drivers' performances.

"You had to be careful to maintain heat in the tires and in the brakes," Stiver noted. "It took five to seven laps to build up any temperature in them whatsoever."

He'll also never forget running three-abreast with two of the other top cars in his class on Daytona's notorious high banks. "We were three abreast with a Cadillac on the outside, a Viper on the inside and me in the middle," he related. "We had joined up going into turn three, and we stayed together through NASCAR four and onto the trioval. It was flat-out fifth gear and we were carrying a lot of speed. We all held our line and there was no touching, but coming through NASCAR turn four and onto the frontstretch three-abreast definitely gets your attention.

"Just to be running at the finish was an accomplishment," he added. "Our car owner crashed hard on pit lane at one point and our total off-track time was a little over four hours, so to finish was an exceptional effort. Being one of the few Chevys running at the end was a great testament to the Chevrolet powerplant and to the engine builder, David Krume, too."

Only 49 of the 79 starters finished the race, which was won by a French-based Dodge Viper driven by Olivier Beretta, Karl Wendlinger and Dominique Dupuy. The winning car completed 723 laps or 2,573.88 miles in the 24-hour period at an average of 107.207 mph. There were 21 cars in the class Stiver competed in, Sports Racer.

"Overall, it was an enlightening experience that I won't forget," he said. "The race and the pre-race festivities were more than I expected; it was a bigger deal than I thought it would be."

The event was covered live for 10 hours on ESPN2, and a highlights show will be shown later on ESPN. The Rolex 24 is covered by the international sports press corps.

"The easiest part of racing is the driving," Stiver said. "The hardest part about racing is finding corporate partners for this type of sports marketing program. I feel we have a great deal to offer any company, and we can create synergistic opportunities between numerous marketing partners that will pay off in increased sales and help them achieve their marketing goals.

"I never could have competed in this race without the support of close friends and local companies like Michael George & Associates Corporate Entertainment Company of Brownsburg, Ind.; Benchmark Surveying & Engineering of Brownsburg, Ind.; Bonnell Grain Handling Equipment of Winamac, Ind.; and Pharo's Truckstop of Shippensburg, Pa.," he emphasized. "Some other people promised support and then didn't follow through, and that was very disappointing."

Stiver would like to run more Grand American Road Racing events in the future, and he's working hard to put together a limited Northern Light Indy Racing League (IRL) program which would include the Indianapolis 500, the world's largest single-day sporting event.

"Although this was the 38th annual Rolex 24, it was the first race sanctioned by the new Grand American Road Racing Association, and I was impressed with it," he said. "With NASCAR and the France family behind Grand Am, I think it's going to be great. But our ultimate goal still is what it's always been: the Indianapolis 500. Once we find our marketing partners, there'll be no stopping us."

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Series Grand-Am
Drivers Karl Wendlinger , Ken Stiver , Olivier Beretta , Dominique Dupuy