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First-timer’s experience of the Rolex 24 at Daytona


Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The baptism was over, and all I wanted to do was crawl into bed.

Working the Rolex 24 at Daytona as a researcher for NBC Sports promised to deliver a memorable experience, as it was my first sports car event and my first visit to one of the world’s great race tracks.

It did just that, but I was in no mood to celebrate afterwards. I was too chilled to the bone. My clothes were too soaked by the torrential rain that turned the race into a chaotic mess. And I could feel a head cold coming on.

I had to tell my grandparents down the road in Edgewater that I was too tired to see them one last time before heading back to Connecticut (they didn’t need to drive in the downpour to see me, anyway). My post-race dinner was Lean Cuisine chicken alfredo and a Sprite from the mini-market inside the hotel lobby. I promptly went to sleep after that, and when I got back home on Monday, I snoozed away the afternoon.

I don’t write this to scare you off seeing the Rolex 24 for yourself. Far from it. But if you do go to next year’s running, plan to lay low the day after. As I learned the hard way, that’s a given.

Also a given? You’ll have a really good time.

Sports car racing attracts a unique crowd. Well-heeled types bring their prized four-wheel possessions - a Corvette here, a Porsche 911 there - and show them off in massive car corrals. But there’s plenty of blue-collar folks as well, and they’re loving the experience just as much. IMSA’s long line of manufacturers know this, and they set up impressive hospitality and display areas to hock their latest models.

Even cooler is the access that fans get to the team garages and, before the race, pit lane. A crushing mass of humanity made it tough for yours truly to get to the Peacock Pit Box for work, but as a fan, this open access is pretty great. You’ll never get a better chance to get a selfie with a world-class driver or watch one of these highly technological, highly expensive race cars being prepared for battle.

What’s special about these cars is that they all have personality. Each manufacturer has its own distinct growl to playfully tickle or brutally pulverize your ears. Either way, you find yourself attracted to the sound as much as their looks. The Corvettes and Ford GTs from the GT Le Mans class deliver raw, uncensored screams from their American muscle - don’t bother trying to talk to the person next to you when you’re near them. On the other hand, the Lamborghini Huracan from the GT Daytona class has a futuristic-sounding ‘whistle’ sitting on top of its natural roar. Hang around this world long enough, and you’ll learn to recognize cars on their sound alone (and perhaps win a few infield bets).

But while the cars are fantastic, it’s still very much a human sport. More than 170 drivers took part in the Rolex 24, and while some of them had a bigger presence than others, they all had the dream of winning and taking home a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona timepiece.

We tried to showcase some of their stories on the Peacock Pit Box, welcoming drivers fresh off or preparing for a stint in the car. We even had a handful of legends join us, like 5-time Rolex 24 champs Scott Pruett and Hurley Haywood, as well as Indy 500 icon Bobby Rahal, whose #25 BMW squad took the class win in GTLM.

From the perspective of my job, I produced race recaps at certain intervals for the crew on the Pit Box and also gave them information on our guests before they arrived. With this being our first Rolex 24 and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race, we really wanted to make a great first impression with everyone - drivers, teams, and most importantly, the fans. As a researcher, you do that by finding accurate information and entertaining stories that can make people care about the subject as a person, not just an athlete. Not to brag, but I believe we did well on this front; the largely positive social media reaction to our broadcast bore that out.

It’s just a pity that Mother Nature had such an impact on the final outcome. They say this was some of the worst weather ever seen at a Rolex 24, and I’ll take their word for it. The rain kept coming, and so did the carnage. Understandably, only one word seemed to be on drivers’ lips through it all: Insane. When the checkered flag finally flew, 10 minutes away from the traditional 24-hour distance, it was, quite frankly, a relief.

But even with that, and being wet and shivering when it was all over, I still discovered why the Rolex 24 is such a special event. It’s a legendary test of human and machine, a massive auto show, and a raging party rolled into one. You don’t have to be a race fan to get the appeal of this global gathering.

Just make sure to ask for the following Monday off. You’ll need it.