Daytona 24h personal crew report

Mazda at Daytona February 1 - 2, 1997 My experience with the Downing/Atlanta crew, Mazda-Kudzu WSC ...

Mazda at Daytona February 1 - 2, 1997

My experience with the Downing/Atlanta crew, Mazda-Kudzu WSC #63

By Mike Fuller

I first went to the 24 hours of Daytona in 1988. I was 13. I guess I was predisposed to like sports car racing, considering that I have never been to a NASCAR event there! In a cliche sort of way I fell in love with the cars, the atmosphere (the way the big Jaguar V12's exhaust cascaded off the banking as I watched it gobble up my lovely Porsche 962s on the straight), the excitement (nothing beats the 1992 start when Arie Luyendyk blasted through traffic, weaving this way and that, in the Nissan Group C car!). There was so much variety. From different types of cars (turbo Porsches to Small Block Detroit iron), to your favorite drivers (Andretti through Wolleck--couldn't think of any X, Ys, or Zs). Sports car racing really has something for everyone, it is, 'eclectic'. That is what draws me to it.

Thursday, January 30--

I have always entertained somewhat of the dream of wanting to experience racing from the opposite side of the spectator fence. This year I had my chance. I showed up at the track early Thursday morning, I make my commute from Orlando Florida, which is about 45 minutes away from the Daytona International Speedway. I picked up my credentials and drove through the tunnel into the infield. The weather looked as if it was going to cooperate, the weather man had said there was the possibility of rain, though, for race weekend it looked clear. But who wants to sit through practice in the rain anyway? Regardless, it was clear and cool, if not somewhat humid.

I ran into Dave Lynn (designer of the Mazda-Kudzu DLM and friend) in the paddock and helped him carry some equipment to our stall that was located across from the Tech. Inspection area in the paddock. Most of the crew was there. Rich, Ed, Jim G, Steve and Francesco were not coming in until Friday. Bruce was sick and was going to try to make it whenever he could. Dennis had team sweatshirts with our names on them and hats made up for everyone. I excitedly put mine on and spent most of the morning parading around the paddock area showing off my sweatshirt (see, it's got my name on it...I'm official!--yes, I am 22, but I still get excited by small things like that!). And despite the rag-taggish nature of some of the crew (Dave, Scott, Wayne, Rick), we all looked pretty sharp in our "team uniform."

Thursday's activities were pretty straightforward. An hour-and-a-half practice session in the late morning, with a 20 minute qualifying session in the afternoon. Grid positions one and two were set in the Thursday afternoon qualifying session. Starting at 6:00pm was a 2 hour night acclimatization session. Practice was spent giving each driver some seat time. Our drivers for the race were to be Jim Downing, Tim McAdam, Yojiro Terada, and Joe Castellano. After practice the crew set about making changes to the set up. There were concerns about an understeer characteristic the car was exhibiting, and also of the pedal positions. The understeer was most likely being induced by the new, stiffer rear wing in place on the car. It was apparently producing more downforce at the rear causing the front end to not want to turn in. This was solved by taking off the new rear wing and putting the older one on. It was felt that it would be better for qualifying to work with the car in a set up that we knew how to deal with. We didn't want to add too many unknown elements to the mix.

To be honest, the Kudzu wasn't going to sit on the pole. Obviously. And in endurance racing, starting position isn't the most important thing, though it isn't unimportant. You don't want to be buried mid-field with the possibility of being caught up in any overexuberances that could occur at the start. Jim was going to drive the qualifying session, try and set a time that would keep us away from the riff-raff, and, if possible (we only had 20 minutes), hand the car over for some of the other drivers to get some more time and to practice a driver change. Jim's times went like this...

Lap 1-- Out lap Lap 2-- 1:57.27 Lap 3-- 1:49.61 Lap 4-- 1:48.68 Lap 5-- 1:49.30<---headlight cover off Lap 6-- 1:49.74 Lap 7-- 1:49.90 Lap 8-- 1:48.98

As Jim passed the pits on the start of lap 5, we noticed that the front left (driver's left) headlight cover had been hit by debris and a very large hole punched in it. It's interesting to note the effect it had on the lap times. With such a big hole in the front of the car, it definitely wasn't doing any good to the aerodynamics. We ended up 12th on the day. But there still was Friday's qualifying session. Fermin Velez's Ferrari 333SP was on pole with a time of 1:40.456 (127.57mph--new track record), next to him, the MOMO Ferrari with a time of 1:41.017 (126.86mph).

Being 12th was a little disappointing. The car had run a 1:46 at the test session a few weeks earlier. That would have put us 10th for the day. And it would also have been interesting to see how fast the little Kudzu could go.

Back at the paddock, we found that the headlight cover damage was a little more extensive than initially assessed, for not only had the debris punched a hole in the lens cover, but it had also taken out the two front headlamps. They had been stripped out as if they never were there and now were on the track somewhere! Wayne and I set about replacing the broken lens cover and patching the bodywork (the debris had gone through with such force that it had damaged the bodywork around the headlights). And the rest of the crew fussed over the headlights and made further adjustments to the car.

Night practice went off without a hitch, and then we parted ways at about 9:00pm (having been kicked out of the paddock by IMSA!). I headed back to Orlando for some sleep, and looked forward to the next morning.

Friday, January 31--

Friday morning I got to the track at about 8:00am. I was a little early, and things were somewhat quiet, so I took this time to peruse the paddock and check out the competition. There were a record 99 cars entered for the race, of which only 80 would start.

I was a little disappointed that the URD-BMW WSC didn't make it back for the race. They had run well at the test session, and their car was a neat little package.

The Ferrari 333SPs were running in the same trim as they had at the test session. Both the MOMO and Scandia cars using the single element Le Mans wing, the Scandia car having full Le Mans body work.

A Chevy powered R&S MKIII was entered and running well driven by Danny Sullivan, Ross Bentley, Robbie Buhl, and Jeff Jones. Wayne Taylor's clutch of Olds R&Ss were sporting rear body infills, filling the bodywork that forms the spoiler at the rear of the car. I mentioned this to Dave and he recalled that they had run with the infills at Le Mans last year. I guess this is as close to a "low drag" package as the R&S gets.

Friday's schedule was same as Thursday's. Morning practice with an afternoon qualifying session. Practice was nearly flawless except for one driver indiscretion. Joe Castellano had a little "incident" at the bus-stop chicane, taking out the cones that were in place to indicate the limits of the track. Jim piped in saying "Well, in previous years they weren't permanent. And I guess they aren't now either!". Damage was really minimal (the front left Katayama lip had been torn away), but there was some damage to the undertray. It was non-structural, but would have to be patched just in case. I was sequestered along with Dennis to fix the damage. After talking to Rich, our pseudo crew chief, Dennis and I decided not to make a carbon composite patch since we really wouldn't have time for the resin to cure before the car would be out next. Dennis fashioned a homemade aluminum patch that we used to rivet the cracked undertray together with. We mixed up plenty of 5-minute epoxy as well and dabbled it into the cracked area to give it further strength. Some of the holes for the Katayama lip had to be redrilled, but once that was done and the Katayama splitter in place, our repair job was done. A very satisfying piece of work (I had to get a photograph of it I was so proud!)!

We were a little late in getting out for the 2nd qualifying session and just got in a few laps. We were 5th overall on the day (not as many cars went out as had Thursday), but hadn't improved upon our Thursday time. We ended up gridded in 13th spot, the #94 Viper GTSR GT1 car having slid in front of us and bumping us back one row to row 7.

Scott, Rich, Rick, Dennis and Wayne set about changing the engine for race day. The engine we had in the car had run Le Mans and the 3 hour October IMSA Daytona finale, plus all the practice and qualifying sessions to this point. So, it was decided that it would be nice to have a fresh engine for the race. I headed out early to run some errands for Jim (we needed some information boards for the pits) and also to get some more rest. I was suspecting that I would need it for the coming race!

Race Days, February 1-2--

I ran into traffic on the way in. I had been amazed at the number of people that had been in the paddock on Friday, and knew that today would be crazy! I wasn't let down. IMSA is the only racing where fans can really get close to the action. I mean close! You can be in the paddock working on the car and they get in the way (of course, I myself have been that fan getting in the way so I won't bemoan the fact further!)!

I was running late and the rest of the guys had gotten there early to finish the engine change and turn the engine over to make sure everything was running properly. The morning was spent getting equipment to our pit stall and setting up. The weather was looking beautiful. In fact, I was wishing for a bit of sun screen.

Around 9:30 there was a 30 minute warm up session, then back to the paddock to make all final preparations. Amazingly, things seemed quite calm. I had envisioned building tension the closer it came to put the car on the grid. As a fan I had always been more excited, but then again, race day was the first glimpse I had of the cars since the previous year. I had been with this car since Thursday and put in some hours at the track, so my excitement was tempered to say the least.

At noon the call was made to get the car onto pit road, and at 12:30 to get the car into position on the grid. We shared row 7 with the #75 Oldsmobile Aurora GT1 car. Tim McAdam would be our starting driver. Our prospects of making it to turn one with out losing position looked bleak given the torque advantage of the Olds. Aurora next to us and the Lister Storm behind us. All this meant was that Tim would have to be careful into turn one and begin to pick them off once into the infield. The "gentlemen start your engines" request came and signaled time to get the hell off pit road! It is much easier to appreciate the intense sound that erupts out of the cars from the stands than it was from pit road, alas, this year, I didn't have goose bumps.

The Start--

The green came out, and 80 cars made their way past the start finish line. Tim was beaten to turn one by both the Aurora and the Lister, but picked them off in the infield and didn't lose position for the first lap. The clock was finally ticking. 23 hours, 59 minutes to go. Tim settled down and started running times in the 1:50-55 bracket. I was back up timing and occasionally put a watch on the leading Ferrari which was running in the 1:48-1:52 bracket. The first two hours were status quo. Tim came in at the 50 minute mark, and Yojiro got in. The car was fueled, the tires were looked at, but not changed, the Kudzu going easy on the Goodyears. A gurney flap was added to the radiator cooler exit to improve the coolant cooling as the water temps. were a little on the high side (this took about 30 seconds with a power screw driver and some screws). At the end of his stint, Yojiro (who had run laps in the 1:53-2:00 bracket) changed over to Joe. That's when things got exciting. Joe came back in after his 2nd lap, and Scott and Rich immediately pushed the car to go behind the wall. We grabbed the pit cart and the gearbox spares box and set to work on the car. Apparently 4th gear was gone. Scott, gearbox guru, had the task of taking the rear end of the 'box off and making the repairs. I tried to stay out of the way and offer help when possible. Wayne inspected the car and found that the front right headlight lens was cracked. If not for the helicopter tape covering the lens, there may have been a large hole such as the one we had in qualifying. Since the car wasn't going anywhere for awhile, Wayne grabbed a spare lens cover, and we fixed this one as before. After nearly an hour, Scott had the gearbox back together, and Jim jumped into the car and got it out on the track. It turns out the 4th gear dog ring had shattered (it was in four pieces). Regardless, we found ourselves way back in 46th place overall. That was a little discouraging. Here we had a strong first two hours, in fact, between some of the leaders pit stops, we actually had led a lap, and now we were an hour behind in 47th place. But endurance racing is about patience. And I knew that we would work our way back up the charts.

As the 9:00 o'clock hour rolled around, everything settled down. The car had been back out for four hours or so with out any problems. The lap times were the same as before the incident, the car having not suffered any residual effect. At this time pit Crew A took off for rest, and Crew B took station. I was the fire bottle holder for Team B, Dave was the refueler, Rich the timer/crew chief/car raiser/tire changer, Ed and Jim G tire changers (Jim G also doubled as the tire wrangler, he went back and forth to Goodyear getting new tires, tires rebalanced, and checking wear rates on the ones taken off the car), Francesco was responsible for helping the drivers with the changes, and Rick was the deadman (how fitting, he, he, he).

Now, to put this in perspective, I had only a few times before actually witnessed live, from the pits, a stop. I had never before actually partaken in a pit stop. Suffice to say, I was a bit nervous as I craned my neck looking for the Kudzu's headlights coming down pit road. As the fire bottle person, I was not allowed to help with the maintenance of the car whatsoever. I couldn't even pick up a tire that had been taken off and put it back over the wall. My job was to cover Dave as he refueled the car, and then, when he was done, to take position where I could oversee the rest of the stop. But the first thing I had to remember was to wait until the car had stopped before going over the wall. Finally we could see Jim coming down the pits. Trying not to be blinded by the cars' lights as I watched him aim for our position, I got ready to go. Jim came to a halt, and over the top we went. Dave hooked up the fuel rig, and the gas started pumping. I could see the fuel vapor pouring off into the night.

Suddenly Ed, who is on the right rear tire checking brakes and tire wear, yells 'fire!' Holy shit! I see light smoke coming out of the vents in the engine deck as Ed takes off the engine cover and pokes around, my only concern being to position myself so that I can get the nozzle to point where we think the fire is. I think Ed noticed my jumpiness and cautioned me to hold for a minute while he investigated (last thing we wanted to do was clean up chemical residue because of a false alarm). Dave finishes refueling, and jumps out of the way, I start looking at the rear of the car, we can still see smoke. Ed and Rich see that the fire is underneath the exhaust manifold, probably caused by tire rubber build up and igniting. Fortunately it is on the opposite side of the car to where Dave was refueling. It really isn't much of a danger (whew!), and Rich takes a metal ruler and stamps it out. Damn, that was exciting! Lets do that again! Everyone kept their cool (some less than others) and the stop went off without a hitch.

And so the stops went like clock work: every 50 minutes or so the car would come in for fuel, a check of the tires (we went through very few tires, only a couple of times were all 4 changed at once, the right rear tire underwent the most wear), and possibly a driver change. Everything was perfect, and the car slowly was making its way back up the standings. At the 12 hour mark we were in 29th place (having completed 296 laps to 343 of the leading Olds R&S), our fastest lap in the race being a 1:50.223. The fastest lap by anyone so far was a 1:44.667 set by the #30 MOMO Ferrari 333SP.

The night was getting colder, and everyone was getting tired. Around 2:00am, I curled up in a couple of chairs and dosed off for a bit of a cat nap. The next thing I know I am being shaken out of the chair by Dave, nearly falling to the floor. "Yellow flag, Jim's coming in!". Man, I was dead asleep, and immediately I find myself on the pit wall with the fire extinguisher in hand looking for the car coming down pit lane. The only word to describe it is surreal. I felt like I was dreaming. I looked at my watch and told myself to remember 2:30am! This is just too fun!

Team B's shift was over at 4:00am, at that time Team A would take over till 11:00am, when we got the last 2 hours of the race. The Team A guys were slowly making their way in from the hotel. The car came in for its last pitstop of our shift, we did the service on the car, I can't remember who was the driver, regardless, I think we had a driver change. The car went back down on the jacks and the air hose to one of the air guns got caught on the jack as the driver pulled away accelerating down pit road! In a way, it was humorous. The car is going down pit lane, and this air hose is stretching like you wouldn't believe. The hose is playing out, playing out, playing out, I can see sparks coming off the gun as it bounces on the tarmac. Finally, the hose just breaks, and the sound of blasting air screams out of the broken hose as it slithers around like an injured worm, kicking up dust and particles. I think it was Scott, who was coming back from a lovely rest, who commented something like, "Great, did all you guy's stops go like that?". Sarcasm at 4:00am is difficult to appreciate.

At 4:18am, 15 hours, thirteen minutes into the race, the Kudzu was 22nd overall. We had completed 385 laps, and were 2 laps down on 21st place, the #94 Dodge Viper GTSR. Wayne Taylor et al still led in the #1 Olds R&S and had just completed 427 laps.

Ed, Rich, Francesco, and I drove back to the hotel for some rest. I really had wanted to stay up for the race, maybe take a stroll in the infield and see who was still awake, but I was just too exhausted. Off went the fire suit, and into bed.

Back awake at 9:30am, quick shower, quick breakfast, and off to the track. We found out on the way back to the track that our car had been as high as 13th place. Where it was now we weren't sure. I was absolutely dying to get back to the track.

I got back into the pits only to find our car behind the wall. Wayne said it had been there for about 45 minutes. Scott had the gearbox off and was fixing the rear end. Here's the scene. The car is behind the pits, body work off, wing off, and gearbox off. There is a HUGE crowd surrounding the car watching Scott and Dennis take the gearbox apart piece by piece. You could never get this close as a fan if you were at a CART or NASCAR race!

So much for high finishes. There wasn't much for me to do except try to help out when I could fetch tools, look for things to fix on the car) and stay out of the way when I couldn't. I noticed a huge buildup of tire rubber around the front headlights and removed that (the front tires would sling tire rubber into the headlight wells despite the sealing). The front left headlight lens also had a medium-sized triangular hole in it, which I patched with racer tape. Rich and Ed took this time to inspect the front brakes and decided to change the discs (about a 5 minute job). Scott worked his butt off getting the 'box back together. I watched him I don't know how many times, get it all together, and then take it back apart, something wasn't fitting right. Finally after getting a file out and filling the input shaft (I think it was the input shaft), it went together. Then on with the wing, on with the body work. Wayne and I ran ahead of the car to get the crowd out of the way as Jim navigated it through the back of the pits and onto the track. And away he went. Time spent still behind pit road: about 2 hours.

By the time the car was back out on the track and circulating there was less than an hour left in the race. Butch Leitzinger was trying to keep his leading #20 Ford powered Riley and Scott together as Fermin Velez tried to hunt him down in the #3 Ferrari. The previously leading #1 Oldsmobile R&S had dropped out in the early hours of the morning with a connecting rod through the undertray. Talk about catastrophic engine failure! Butch's car was now smoking consistently, and the Dyson crew was worried if the car would make the finish. Fermin had managed to get on the same lap as Butch, but fell back again when he came in for fuel and driver change. Scandia team boss Andy Evans would take it to the checker. All the while the Kudzu was circulating, Jim was out enjoying himself. There wasn't anything we could do. We were 26th, 30+ laps behind 25th. So we relaxed. I took this time to head to turn one and snap some pictures, I had brought tons of film thinking I would have time to shoot it, but hadn't since we gridded the car! After nearly 24 hours of racing the Lister Storm was still glowing its brakes into turn one. The Viper too! I watched the Lister come into the pits for their final stop. The Beast was belching steam as the crew topped off the coolant tank! It would make the finish yet!

I finally sauntered back to our pits, where Dennis had stripped down the "Downing/Atlanta #63" sign and was having the crew sign it. He came over to me and said, "Come on Mike, sign it fancy like, like a race car driver!". This guy Dennis still had the enthusiasm of a 15 year old even after 24 hours of racing! I got our drivers to sign my Downing/Atlanta hat, Terada, McAdam, and Joe Castellano. I'd have to wait for Jim's, he was thrashing out on the course bringing our Kudzu home!

The white flag came out for the field, and Jim brought our car to the checker. Endurance racing isn't about quitting. We had our share of troubles, but we were there to race. And we did. The Dyson crew took a deserved win and everyone clapped as Butch brought the car past our pits to Victory Lane. They hadn't quit either.

Jim drove the car into our pits, parked it and silenced it for the first time in 24 hours (well, of course, excluding the down time to fix the 'box). He hops out, and the first thing out of his mouth after he gets his helmet off is, "That was great! Gang, that was one hell of an effort!". Hell, we didn't have to win for me to have been touched by that.

We all gathered around to get team photos. Everyone who made it happen, from the drivers and the crew, to Connie and Susan who kept us fed through out the whole weekend. If those two hadn't been there, Dave wouldn't have lasted the first hour, he would have been searching around in the infield for something to eat from one of the vendors!

It was nice being able to hang around the car after the race. Pit road was swamped with fans. I ran into a few guys from my alma matter (Auburn University) and spent some time chatting with a couple of pleasant blokes from England. Racing brings people together. It's nice.

After lunch the car and equipment were packed up, and we went our separate ways again. This is something I have always wanted to do, finally doing it just makes me long for it even more. The whole experience is even more satisfactory by being able to share it. Thanks.

Mike Fuller...

Copyright (c)1997 Mike Fuller SPORTSCAR WORLD

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About this article
Series IMSA Others
Drivers Arie Luyendyk , Yojiro Terada , Jim Downing