While most IMSA teams and drivers have been preparing for the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca next weekend, others were forced to plan last week for one of the strongest storms in history.
After developing into the second-strongest Atlantic hurricane by wind speed (185 mph) on record, Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean, moving north across the southeastern region of the United States. The state of Florida took the brunt of the hit.
Irma was the first major hurricane to make landfall in Florida since Wilma in 2005, and for perspective, the Orlando Utilities Commission expects the future utility restoration and rebuild project to potentially be the largest in the history of the United States.
“It was like everyone was preparing for Armageddon,” said IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driver Jordan Taylor, describing how gas stations ran out of fuel and stores were out of water, coal and propane.
Taylor, an Orlando native and resident, planned to stay alone at his house with his dog, Fonzie, as he had experienced a few hurricanes in the past.
“At about 8 p.m., I peeked out the back side of my house, and was watching my metal awning rip apart from the wind,” Taylor said.
“I was looking up towards the top of it when, all of a sudden, two huge bangs and flashes happened simultaneously. All the lights go out, and I call my Dad to see if he has any power.
“So my Dad, being the tough guy that he is, decides to drive over to my house to get me. As I look outside my front door and I see my neighbor’s massive tree has fallen across the street, taking the power lines with it.
“I see my Dad on the other side, obviously blocked in, in a little sedan. He calls me, and it sounds like we’re in a war zone. I tell him not to worry about it, and he responds with a something along the lines of ‘I never leave a man behind!’”
Wayne Taylor was true to his word. He managed to get to his son and Fonzie, and brought the two back to his home for the remainder of the evening.
“My house lost three trees and the awning, and my neighbor said that he saw a tornado come down our street which wiped out the main tree,” Taylor explained. “It’s been great to see how the neighborhood came together to help each other.
“I’ve met so many people on my street that I never knew. We’ve been breaking down trees and fallen branches for three days now, and still, have more cleanup to do. There’s a long road to rebuilding, but we’ve had a good start to it.”
WeatherTech Championship Prototype team Visit Florida Racing, headquartered in Daytona Beach, Florida, will have a rebuild ahead of it as well. The team’s race shop flooded, leaving two feet of water in the shop and a foot in its front offices.
“All my crew guys stayed here in town,” said team owner Troy Flis. “Everyone faired pretty well at home – some of them have trees down but nothing major. Some still don’t have power. We won’t have power here at the shop for likely a week.”
As for the race equipment, Flis explained that it would be a wait-and-see process.
“Most of the race equipment is okay,” Flis said on Wednesday. “It looks like our lift gate got water in it – so that killed the motor and our generator for the track was under water. We have two days to figure out what’s working and what isn’t – you don’t know until you go to use something.
“We went to use the forklift, and it was under water so now it won’t run. We tried to move everything up higher before the storm, but there’s only so much you can move higher.”
The team will be paddocked next to Michael Shank Racing at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and Shank has already offered his team’s truck to Flis for power, should the need arise.
“It is going to be awhile before we get through everything,” Flis said. “Right now, we are just getting through the essentials.”
Because of Irma’s unpredictability – it was initially expected to go up the east coast of Florida before moving west — Tequila Patron ESM, another WeatherTech Championship Prototype team and located in Riviera Beach, near West Palm Beach, was expecting severe damage, but escaped the most destructive part of the storm.
“ESM decided on Monday before the hurricane that we would start loading for Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and get the trucks on the road by Thursday in anticipation of the possibility of a near direct hit from Irma,” team manager Erin Gahagan said.
“The crew, as usual, worked hard and quickly to get the truck drivers on the road and ahead of the traffic. This gave our crew time to prepare their houses and evacuate if needed as well.
“We are fortunate that the shop and homes of the crew were spared any damage when Irma decided to go west,” Gahagan said.
“We now have a lot of work to do to finish the cars once we get to Laguna Seca, but the crew is ready to go, and hopefully we can finish the year on the podium in the last two races.”
Of the three IMSA tracks that experienced damage from Hurricane Irma – Daytona International Speedway, Sebring International Raceway and Road Atlanta – Sebring took the hardest hit, being only 20 miles east of the storm’s eye, and remains without power four days later.
Despite the damage, which appears to be more severe than when three hurricanes hit the area in 2004, Sebring resumed operations within two days.
Daytona also resumed operations on Wednesday and ahead of the storm, offered its space for Florida Power & Light restoration crews. The track suffered moderate, cosmetic damage from the storm, while Road Atlanta suffered minor damage as well.
According to a statement, Road Atlanta is working diligently to clean up the aftermath and ensure they are fully operational for the season-ending Motul Petit Le Mans on Oct. 4-7.