Daytona Prototypes – A Personal View
Mark Howson has been a regular at the Daytona 24 Hours for many years – but he missed the 2003 and 2004 races. Here he provides a personal view of his first experience of the Rolex 24, DP-style.

In a sport as controversial (within its own circle) as sportscar racing, few things have stirred up more debate, and indeed anger, than the Daytona Prototypes. Depending on your point of view, the DPs are either the Second Coming, or the Antichrist: very few neutral opinions appear to exist. My personal instincts tended towards the latter viewpoint, but I was unwilling to condemn the new cars outright until I had seen them in action first-hand. The 2005 Rolex 24 at Daytona afforded me that opportunity.

Truth be told, I had a blast at the race. The weather was fine (if a smidge too cold at night) and my wife and I spent 16 hours in the grandstands, in the midst of a group of American fans who meet every year to watch the race – some having shovelled four feet of snow off of their driveways before starting the long drive south.

dailysportscar.comThree of this group have been friends of ours for a number of years. I met Brian Burns at PLM in 1998 and his brother Kevin and Kevin’s wife Meg at Daytona in 1999. They are all long time sportscar fans and have attended many races over the years. Incidentally, Kevin and Meg’s granddaughter, Olive, was attending her second Rolex 24, despite not yet attaining the grand old age of two.

Obviously, it wasn’t long before we were discussing the DPs, and this group’s comments were interesting. In addition to the Rolex, both Brian and Kevin (independently) attended Grand-Am races in 2004 and came away impressed; “You didn’t know who was going to win until the end. Much better than ‘which Audi will it be this time?’” was one that stood out.

My first thought on seeing the cars (during Thursday qualifying) was that they appeared to be a couple of feet too short. Nor did watching them from the infield horseshoe initially dispel my innate prejudice, as no car could exactly be described as spectacular through this slow and awkward bend.

However, on Saturday during the race, a rather disturbing thing happened – I started to warm to them.

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One of the dsc editor’s criticisms of the DPs was that they were too slow. I honestly didn’t get that impression from the grandstand. It had been three years since I last attended the race and I couldn’t tell the speed differential between the DPs and prototypes of ‘old’. In fact, it wasn’t long before I was relaxing back in the seat, supping a bottle of Black & Tan (allowed into the grandstand by a genial gate inspector, despite the ban on glass bottles – I obviously don’t conform to the English Hooligan stereotype) and allowing the sights and sounds to wash over me. The hours flew by.

But something was troubling me. Something wasn’t right; and it’s taken me a couple of weeks to work it out.

It wasn’t the yellow flags; Daytona has always had those by the bucket load. It wasn’t the ‘NASCAR conspiracy theory’ – the place was more relaxed than I’d known it before, and the facilities for the fans were impressive; there was no sense of a cynical manipulation by the France regime. It wasn’t the engine sounds, which lacked the variety of a traditional sportscar field. It wasn’t even that the World Centre Of Racing appeared to have shut up shop at 11pm, save for the race taking place.

It was the leader board.

I had never seen a board like it, and can only compare it to a pack of cards being constantly shuffled. Whenever a car pitted, it would plummet down the positions. And so would the next car to stop; and so on.

But surely this is a good thing? Does it not demonstrate that the cars are so evenly matched that there is a constant jostling for the lead? Well, yes, and therein lies the problem for me.

The cars are too evenly matched. There were forty-plus lead changes in the race, but where was the excitement? Indeed, why bother getting excited when you know that the car you have just cheered for is virtually guaranteed to drop down the field the next time it stops?

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The X-factor that exists in traditional endurance racing, and which hooked me so fully to the sport, is simply missing from the DPs. There is no chance of a great and heroic climb-back from adversity and misfortune with DPs; there will be no gawping at an Audi-like innovation with DPs; there will be no epic clash-of-the-titans with DPs.

Perhaps I am looking at ‘my’ sportscar racing through those famous rose-tinted specs. But I don’t need fifty meaningless lead changes in a race, followed by ten cars dashing to the flag. For that, I’ll watch NASCAR. I need to know that there is a chase on, even though that chase may be futile. All I want is the possibility of one significant lead-change, and to know that it has been achieved through sheer endeavour.

Daytona Prototypes aren’t the Antichrist – hell, they’re almost fun (and there were times when the Andy Wallace Crawford reminded me fondly of the Toyota GT1). It’s the format that bothers me.
Mark Howson

 

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