This year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona was the most demanding race of our careers.
The lead up to this year’s twice-around-the-clock classic saw some major changes in the paddock.
One of the most changes of the offseason was WTR and MSR taking over the Acura DPi program.
This meant in the matter of two months, the teams would have to take possession of the cars directly from the Sebring 12 Hour and rebuild them into bullet proof, race-ready 24 -hour race cars.
Modern-day prototypes are incredibly intricate and detailed machines that require a daunting amount of knowledge on how to run them effectively but also on how to bulletproof them to complete a 24-hour race without issues.
If there is even the smallest of weaknesses, a 24-hour race will bring them out.
This challenge was too great to be done alone and took amazing teamwork and partnership from everyone at WTR, HPD and ORECA to share their knowledge to bring everyone to the highest level of familiarity possible with this new car-team-manufacturer relationship.
Over a month-and-a-half at the shop with countless 14-plus hour days, the guys worked to get two cars built up from scratch.
With the tight turn around time to get the cars back on track at the Roar before the 24, the decision was made to bypass any off-season testing and to rather build up two race-winning quality cars.
After winning three out of last four Rolex 24 races, WTR had proven they knew what it takes to win long distance races. But this level of confidence and trust in the plan was so impressive.
HPD and ORECA brought knowledge and experience with the cars while WTR added their experience in endurance racing, car preparation as well as a new process for getting the cars to the grid of the Rolex 24.
When the car finally rolled off the truck at the Rolex 24, everyone knew that it was a special effort just to get to this point. But with one of the most grueling races in the world still ahead, the guys all knew the job wasn’t finished.
Aside from relearning a new car, there was an entirely new driver lineup as well as a new working relationship between HPD, ORECA and WTR who had never raced together.
So, communication, Zoom meetings, processes and protocols were all still being learned through the Roar weekend.
Following the Roar we did not feel like we had the pace of the Cadillacs. They showed so much speed and we were racing against time to try close the gap in practice, making as many changes as possible to balance our car and hopefully find some speed.
When the race started, it was apparent that the 01 was going to be the car to beat.
We settled into our race and stuck to our plan of getting to the end of the race cleanly with track position to race to the end.
Normally it is assumed that the intensity will lower after the opening laps so the drivers and teams can lower the intensity to settle in.
However, the race intensity stayed so high that if anyone was to try to simply stay clean and out of trouble, the race could easily get away from them with how high the pace was.
Watching the opening three stints from the timing stand, it looked like the final two hours of the race and not the first two. Everyone was giving it everything to get to the front, and in today’s racing, track position is incredibly important.
I have never seen a 24-hour race before where people were making decisions based on track position with 12 hours of racing still left.
The urgency to be at the front was something that made each stint so much more meaningful that the constant stress tended to take a toll after the hours ticked past.
The feeling was that if you dropped out of the top-five, the worry was that you may not be able to get those positions back with how strong the field was and how difficult it was to make just up just one position.
Helio, Alex and Filipe did an amazing job and I woke up Sunday morning to an insane battle for the lead that saw Kevin Magnussen in the 01 attacking Alex and Alex doing a superhuman job of holding him off.
Filipe was next in. The track was getting hot and the wind had shifted and picked up to a level we hadn’t seen before in the two weeks at Daytona.
The track conditions were incredibly difficult and with the wind, the drivers had to be incredibly precise with how they placed the car everywhere on track.
What would normally be a minor mistake of missing an apex by inches could turn into a major mistake and the car running very wide, blown away by the wind. The mental stress was extremely high.
Filipe got out of the car after holding the lead for his entire stint, handing the car to me. During my second stint, the team asked if I could go to the end (three stints, another 1 hour 40 minutes).
Given the situation and how precise and straining the race was, let alone the pressure from the 01, 55 and 48 cars, I was confident I could do one or two more stints but not confident of when the fall off would come.
Filipe knew the track and had been doing an amazing job in the car just prior. He was the man to finish the race.
I handed the car off with 1 hour and 30 minutes to go and he had a mammoth of a job to hold off the 01 car.
The Ganassi 01 car was the strongest car in the race and had overcome a penalty and a flat tire to still be putting the pressure on the front of the race. Filipe never hesitated and never put a wheel wrong.
The minutes and seconds were just creeping by, watching from the timing stand. With eight minutes to go, the 01 encountered a flat tire, taking the pressure off of us into the final few minutes.
Crossing the line was such an amazing relief. Firstly, to overcome the pressure from the Cadillacs, then to the amazing realization that we had won the Rolex 24 Hours for the first time out with the Acura ARX-05 with WTR, and as bold of a plan as it was, it paid off and everyone was rewarded for their incredible efforts.
It was a proud feeling for what my dad has done in his life to build such an amazing crew of people.
Lastly, along with Filipe, to win with my “7 car teammates” Alex and Helio, after never winning a race as a trio, we were able to finally share a race win. None of us will ever forget it.
Everyone did an incredible job all race.
The field was the strongest ever and we did not have a single weak link. Any driver could be placed in any situation and done the job. It was an amazing team and something I was proud to be a part of.