Lally starts season with win at Daytona Rolex 24

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 5 - Andy Lally looks at the silver Rolex watch dangling from his left wrist and smiles. "I never wear watches, but I'm not taking this one off. I'm going to wear it every day for at least a year," he says. "That's what...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 5 - Andy Lally looks at the silver Rolex watch dangling from his left wrist and smiles.

"I never wear watches, but I'm not taking this one off. I'm going to wear it every day for at least a year," he says. "That's what I did with the rings I got for winning those karting championships. I wore them for a season and then I put them away. I have to get it sized though, because the band is too loose. Do you know where I can get that done, and what that costs?"

Owning a $7,000 Rolex watch isn't something young Lally expected, but less than 12 hours ago three-time Grand Prix champion Jackie Stewart presented him with the watch in victory lane at Daytona International Speedway as part of his prize for winning his class in the very first Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona Lally ever entered. The watch is engraved on the back to signify the accomplishment.

The Rolex was more than just a nice surprise for the young driver from Northport, Long Island, N.Y. Only two years ago Lally had plastered his racing resume on the walls of the men's rooms in the garage area at Daytona in the hopes of landing a ride in the largest sports car endurance event in North America.

To say that Lally's story is one of beginner's luck isn't correct. Even though this was his first Rolex 24, his resume is filled with lots of other accomplishments in tough series like the U.S. Formula 2000 national championship and the Barber Dodge Pro Series, and a blue-ribbon panel selected him as one of the top three young formula car drivers in America when he was named to the Valvoline Team U.S.A. squad in 1999. It also doesn't give Lally and the other members of Mike Johnson's Archangel Motorsport Services team enough credit for their perseverance, talent, strategy and dedication to just plain hard work.

The story's happy ending is more of a miracle than a simple case of beginner's luck too. Lally wasn't sure the ride was even for real until he put it in the show on Friday by qualifying sixth in the SportsRacer Prototype II class and 24th overall out of 80 starters. The Lola that he and three co-drivers campaigned last weekend at Daytona didn't even arrive at Archangel's shop at Road Atlanta in Georgia from the marque's factory in England until the previous Saturday night, Jan. 27, only four days before it had to leave for Daytona Beach if it was really going to compete in this year's Rolex 24.

Archangel fielded two Lola Nissans in this year's Rolex. They carried numbers 21 and 22. The #21 was driven by Lally; Paul Macey of Oakville, Ontario and two British men, Peter Seldon of London and Martin Henderson of Liverpool. Henderson had been in the Rolex once before, but that year his car lasted only a couple of hours. Seldon had never even raced in the United States before, let alone the Rolex 24. Macey and Lally had no Rolex 24-Hour experience either. The former had never driven at Daytona before, and Lally only had two Motorola Cup races under his belt at the Big D.

The car was sponsored by Gemstar Communications, Oxy Water, Tycoon magazine and Valvoline, and when the event was over it had finished first in class and 13th overall, recording 600 laps in the 24-hour time span. The overall winners were Ron Fellows of Mississauga, Ontario; Chris Kneifel of Cave Creek, Ariz.; Franck Freon of Linwood, N.J. and Johnny O'Connell of Flowery Brand, Ga., in their GM Goodwrench Corvette.

The #22 was driven by Andrew Davis and Tony Dudek, both of Atlanta; Jeff Clinton of St. Louis and Mike Durand of Boston, with sponsorship from Budweiser. It ended up fifth in class and 47th overall after having a half-shaft break at one point and then spinning, restarting and getting hit by a Camaro that had absolutely no chance of avoiding it. But that's getting ahead of the story. Ten days before the race Lally's car #21 was still in a crate somewhere between England and Georgia.

Race cars aren't like new passenger cars off the showroom floor. Even when they're brand new like this one was, there is still about a month's worth of work to do to get one ready to race. The Archangel team had to take the car apart and put it back together again to ensure that every component was working perfectly. Somehow the crew, led by team owner Mike Johnson, 27, whom Lally used to race against when both were drivers in the U.S. Formula 2000 series, got the job done in only four days.

When the car arrived at Archangel's shop, Johnson and his staff, who won this division's championship last year with drivers Ryan Hampton and Larry Oberto, got right to work. Johnson; engineer Brian Andersen, who has won at Daytona previously; chief mechanics Tucker Merten and Jason Duncan and several other crew members worked 20-hour days to make the miracle happen.

"Five or six guys did 20-hour days. It was unbelievable," Lally says. "Mike [Johnson] called me and said the car was really going to make it here, so I drove down from New York to Georgia. I did go-fer jobs for them while they worked and tried to help out as much as possible. This was a total team effort from start to finish. The crew is what made this happen.

"Tucker was the crew chief for my car, and Jason was the crew chief for the #22," Lally continues. "They led a group of guys who were absolutely dedicated and did an amazing job. It was just short of a miracle to put together a car that performed flawlessly mechanically for the 24 hours.

"Brian [Andersen, the engineer] was an important part of not only getting the car ready but also helping us develop our overall strategies for this race," Lally notes.

As far as team owner Mike Johnson goes, Lally says "I still can't believe he pulled it off. He's a young Chip Ganassi. He has a good sense for where things are going. Given the proper funding, he has an extremely good chance to be an extremely successful team owner."

Even if the effort was at the eleventh hour, so to speak, a great deal of thought went into it. Archangel Motorsports Services may consist of a lot of young people, but they're sharp, talented, enthusiastic and committed.

"Before we showed up for this race, we set a game plan for what we thought was the best way to attack this track, but the word 'attack' is about as far as you can get from the description of what our plan was to win the Rolex 24," Lally notes. "Our first objective was to finish all 24 hours, and we knew that in order to do that we'd have to achieve our second objective, which was to save the equipment. We knew we had to be really careful not to over-tax our gearbox, our engine, our brakes or our clutch, because they're the parts subjected to the most stress in this event.

"We never once the entire weekend drove anywhere near 100 percent of the car's capabilities. We had a 45-minute qualifying session, but we only stayed out 15 minutes in that session because we wanted to save the car. I bedded in brake rotors while I qualified.

"We knew we had to have very smooth gearshifts, and we short-shifted all weekend. The car is a six-speed, but we only used five gears. We did three full stints on one set of our Avon tires. We took everything really easy. Overall we had to be patient. My teammates and I did the best we could to take care of the crew's work, and it paid off."

Although they didn't predict it, the fact that the pace of the race was slowed due to rain throughout the night and into Sunday morning played right into their hand.

Lally ended up driving almost 10 hours of the 24-hour race. He was behind the wheel for both the start and the finish. His first stint was a triple, followed by a little more than two hours at 12:15 a.m. and 5 a.m. and two and a half-hours at 10:30 a.m. Sunday until the checkered waved at 1 p.m.

"I remember the beginning and the end, but the middle is sort of a blur," he admits.

"I took the green flag, and I didn't get out of the car until three hours later," he notes. "When the green flag dropped it was very tempting to start to race, but that wasn't our game plan. I needed a lot of patience to set the lap times we needed to run the entire race. We dropped back from 24th to 38th at the end of hour one. Well, a lot of the teams that went racing at the beginning broke down later," he adds wisely.

"Mentally that was the hardest part," he emphasizes. "You had to have complete, 100-percent focus on the goal. You could never get tempted into going faster than what our initial strategy called for. It was hard, but that's how we ended up conquering everybody else in our class.

"The hardest part physically was around 1 or 2 a.m., because we got caught off guard by a torrential downpour," he adds. "We had just had a fuel stop and we put intermediate Avon tires on. I went out and a couple laps later it started to pour. I just had to do what the car could do, and I was getting passed left and right, and cars were spinning all over the place. We got caught out twice in the rain with slicks on; almost everybody got caught out at least once. Those were the scariest moments. You just had to slow down and circulate, and keep on doing laps. You had to keep your head and keep focused on the goal at hand, which was to be smooth for the entire race and never put any undo stress on the car."

Although he downplays it, when he took his gloves off after that stint he was bleeding from big blisters on both hands.

Due to the rainy weather, the driver sequence was subject to change at any point.

"One time I was in the motor home sound asleep, and one of the guys woke me up," Lally relates. "He said, 'Paul's coming in in five laps, and we need you to drive.' I don't have my suit on, and I'm still so sleepy that I can't even see. I jumped into my suit, ran to the pits, grabbed a couple of bottles of water and poured them down my neck. The only thing that saved me was that when I pulled out onto pit lane a full-course caution came out, so I had five minutes to wake up.

"That happened another time, too," Lally continues. "There was a knock on the motor home door, and it was Nigel. He said, 'Now don't rush, but you've got about five to eight minutes before you have to drive.' "

The radio communication between the driver and the crew broke down late in the race.

"When I got in at 5 a.m. we were in second place in class, about two laps out of the lead," Lally recalls. "When I came in for fuel the next time, Mike leaned in and told me that we had taken the lead. At the same time we lost all radio communication. That was extremely bad because of the weather. I told him the radio was dead and we'd have to watch the lap count through the scoring pylon. I kept checking it when I went through turn four, and then I'd come in when I knew we had to be getting close on fuel. I told Mike that if he wanted me in before that, he'd better get everybody he knew to stand out on pit lane and wave to me, because it was hard to see anything with all the spray from the cars in the rain.

"We did have contact once; somebody drove into a tire wall while I was sleeping and we lost six laps," Lally notes. "We lost some of the front aerodynamics on the left side, as well as the headlight, but the crew made quick repairs and we were back on track quickly."

Somehow they kept going at their methodical pace.

"At 10:30 on Sunday morning I knew we were up on second place by a lot of laps, and if we just kept our easy pace and an eye on the overall leader, no matter what happened we'd have the class win," Lally says. "That was slightly nerve wracking, because we had lost first gear by that point. Just to be safe, when I left pit lane for the last stint I put it in fifth gear and just kept it there. That was pretty wild in the hairpins and the rain.

"Around 11 a.m. I got a little choked up when I finally realized that we could actually win the Rolex 24. Then I had a little reality check when I got a little loose, and I had to calm down and keep it smooth. I knew that the car could break any second. I kept hearing every little thing; I thought I heard noises from the gearbox, tones from the motor, and I thought I felt different things with the brakes. I even thought the throttle cable was stretching; it felt like there were rocks on the end of it. I never went full throttle at all on that last stint.

"But I kept it smooth and we finished. I didn't know we'd actually done it until the checkered came out and I saw the crew jumping around. Then I knew for sure that we'd just won the Rolex 24."

What does this victory mean to his overall goal of being able to make a living as a professional race car driver?

"I just want to drive race cars for a living, whatever it may be," he says with a sigh. "This is definitely a positive achievement, and I think it will probably be helpful in my professional career. As far as my personal life goes, it is surely one of the greatest things I've ever achieved, and something I look forward to trying to do again and again. I want to make a career out of racing cars; I want it more than anything else in the world."

The morning after he won his first Rolex 24, Lally is waiting to hear if NASCAR will approve his application to drive in the AC Delco 200 on Daytona's oval this coming Saturday, the opening race of the 2001 NASCAR Goody's Dash Series. If NASCAR agrees, he'll attempt to qualify Dr. Tom Brewer's 2,900-lb. Pontiac Sunfire stock car for that race on Thursday, and if he makes the field he'll compete in his first stock car race at Daytona this Saturday.

"I talked to them this morning, and they didn't sound too optimistic," Lally relates. "I said that I was really hoping to run the Goody's race while I was down here for the Rolex.

"They said, 'Oh, how did you do in the Rolex?' so I told them, 'Well, we won it.'

"They said that might make a big difference in their decision, since I'd just spent 10 hours running around Daytona's road course at around 175 mph in the rain. Then, a short while after that I got a call that said I'd been approved.

"Now I've got to get busy and make some calls to see if I can raise some more sponsorship for this ride too," Lally says. "Do you know what time it is?

"Oh yes!" he adds in the next breath, with a quick glance down to his wrist and an even quicker smile.

"It's 4 o'clock; now I have a watch!"

-Linda Mansfield

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About this article
Series Grand-Am
Drivers Chris Kneifel , Ron Fellows , Johnny O'Connell , Franck Freon , Jackie Stewart , Andy Lally , Jeff Clinton , Ryan Hampton , Andrew Davis , Larry Oberto , Chip Ganassi , Mike Johnson , Paul Mace , Peter Seldon