Florida, the Sunshine State. Why does it always rain while I'm here? This is my third visit to the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, an event that I look forward to every year. And every year so far, it's rained either leading up to or during the race. This year, the rain threatens to dampen even more than the race experience.
To do things a little differently, Audi flew the attending journalists into Miami, instead of the usual and much closer Orlando. The plan is to spend the night in Miami and drive up to Daytona in the newly refreshed Audi RS7 Performance and the S8 Plus. The route is mostly highway, with some of the closest things Florida has to twisty roads thrown in. We'll stop by another famous racetrack for lunch and end at our host hotel that sits sand-adjacent in Daytona Beach.
The first night, it's raining. We do an informal product presentation outside in the hotel's valet cove. While nature puts the hotel's showers to shame (you don't know heavy rain until you've felt Florida rain), Quattro General Manager Stephan Reil explains the finer details of the two cars. Both are built around Audi's power-dense 4.0L twin turbo V-8. I've used the term power-dense in the past, but let me quantify; both models make 605 hp, incredibly respectable for a small V-8. That's just the peak number, however; this V-8 makes 517 lb-ft of torque from 1,750 to 6,000 rpm. But wait, there's more—an overboost function available in Dynamic Mode bumps the torque peak to 553 lb-ft from 2,500 to 5,500 rpm. The beast of an engine is connected to an eight-speed automatic transmission, meaning the only way you'll ever find this engine out of its powerband is when it's switched off.
The soul of Miami is infused with a Cuban passion for life, with a dash of American optimism all wrapped around a core of tourism-tackiness. The sound of Miami is that same Cuban flavor infused into horrible club music, and it seems to thump and whicky-whicky behind the electronically sampled and looped trumpet and steel drum tracks all night long. All night, even when a group of journalists are trying to sleep before a day of driving 600hp cars on rain-slicked roads. I guess the orange-hued artificially tanned insurance-convention-goers at the nightclub my room overlooks have priority.
I'm normally up at 5 a.m. West Coast time. My alarm at 5 a.m. Florida coast time is an affront to basic human dignity. The Cuban-Club-Muzak has shifted to the kind of drivel you hear on a cruise ship, luckily the dribbly hotel shower drowns it out, mostly. It's 6 a.m. and it's still raining—no, it is dumping down rain by the bucketful.
All the beauty of the intertwined Cuban culture seems to have stopped somewhere short of the breakfast buffet. A cafe con leche with tostada and a bowl of mango is replaced by a mound of oatmeal and cup filled with a liquid that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike coffee—to steal a phrase from one of the greatest.
The RS7 is a sexy car, the fastback four-door coupe drips with style; today, cold rain also runs off its lusty flanks. Damp, dense air makes for good exhaust notes, not that these cars need any help in that area. Darth Vader's Advanced X1 flanked by TIE/LNs swooping down on top of Red Squadron at the beginning of the famous trench scene is the closest thing I can compare to the fleet of gray RS7s and S8s rolling out of the hotel driveway.
Floridians are great drivers—no, I really mean that. At least I have to assume they are and it's just the tourists doing horrendously stupid things on wet roads. The RS7 is as sure footed as cars get. Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system has evolved to a place of near godliness in bad weather. I can tell you from experience, the rear sport differential is moving toward the same destiny, however, the heavy rain is keeping me from driving in a way that can confirm that. As stable as the car is, it's the gooey organic bit located directly behind the steering column that's slowing down the car. The rain is so intense I can barely see 20 feet ahead. This—coupled with the spray from cars blowing by on my left, whose gooey organic bits are obviously equipped with some sort of thermal or ultrasonic imaging system—keeps my speeds at what is considered a crawl in this car.
We drive past roadside accidents, one after another. Again, damn tourists; I'm sure the Floridians, who get rain like this every year, are far too talented and experienced to do anything dangerous in these conditions.
The RS7 is almost too comfortable for a car that a decade ago would be considered a supercar. Remember the Gallardo and f430 from 2006? Yeah, this car will crush both of them. The last RS7 we tested with a measly 560 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque did 0-60 mph in 3.2 seconds and the quarter-mile in 11.6 seconds at 120 mph. The faster of the 2006 duo did 3.8 seconds to 60 and a 12 flat in the quarter. Progress!
I've managed to keep the car out of ditches and more surprisingly out of the way of those on their way into ditches. Lunch is overlooking another site of Audi Motorsport domination, Sebring. In 2014, a rule change essentially banned real prototypes from competing. Up until then, Audi's LMP/WEC team had come and run the 12-hour race, winning 11 times between 2000 and 2013 and then after the race they'd stay and test. Now, Audi can only race R8s in GTD here in Central Florida.
Lunch is incredibly slow, ironic for a location known for speed. My driving partner and I opt for an S8 Plus and hit the road after an almost painful wait for sandwiches.
I'm not a "big car" kinda guy and there is no denying the S8 is a land yacht with a 118-inch wheelbase and total length of 203 inches. A MK7 GTI, for example, is 168 inches in length, which makes the S8 closer in size to my living room than my car. The seats in the S8 are far better than my living room recliner, however. This isn't meant to be a car review, and you will be seeing a full drive test of both cars sooner rather than later, but I will say this: I love the S8. If my financial situation were significantly different than it is now, I would gleefully write the 140-plus thousand dollar check to have my very own.
The rain has let up a little on the North side of Sebring. Although I was tempted to stop a few times because of the rain earlier in the day, I finally do in the afternoon. For safety reasons, it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I wanted a coffee and a dozen Munchkins from Dunkin' Donuts. Maneuvering the S8 through a strip mall full of narrow roads lined with tire-scuffed curbs and careless drivers is without issue. It might take up more parking space than most cars I drive, but getting into and out of one is no more challenging.
The rain has come back with a vengeance, and we finally pull up to our hotel several hours later than we had intended. Daytona feels like a different planet than Miami. My first couple of visits, I didn't really care for it, but it's growing on me. Maybe it's the contrast with Miami, which is basically the Jersey Shore South. The hominess of Daytona Beach feels much more welcoming.
After a quick shower and a change into my grown-up clothes I'm at a group dinner with Brad Kettler. If you read the November 2015 issue of ec you read about Brad, the head of Audi Sport Customer Racing in the U.S. Besides his stories from the beginning of Audi's modern racing dynasty, the most interesting topic was BOP, or Balance of Performance. BOP is what allows everything from naturally aspirated, 4.0L, flat-six engined Porsches to race in the same class as 8.4L V-10-powered Vipers. The theory: IMSA hosts testing in pre-season and counts on manufacturers to run its cars as hard as possible for data gathering. Based on lap times, rates of acceleration, fuel consumption, and top speed, amongst other voodoo, IMSA decides on a minimum weight for the cars, fuel capacity, as well as what size air intake restrictors each team must run on its respective engines. Obviously, every team is completely forthright and wouldn't dream of sandbagging in these tests in order to get a more favorable package for the race. As we all know, cheating, I mean bending the rules, has never existed in racing. Ever.
Brad did, however, point out that any engineer worth his/her weight in carbon fiber would at least mentally explore the possibility of gaming the system. IMSA has warned of strict penalties for anyone found to be cheating the BOP system. The strictest of the punishment would be a 5-minute stop and hold in the pits during the race for every car of that type. To me, a 5-minute penalty doesn't sound like that much in a race of 700+ laps. If you were able to pick up just a couple of seconds a lap and maybe another lap before refueling, that would make all the difference. Plus, you would have the speed advantage if and when it actually came down to racing on track for position and not just pit strategy. It turns out, Brad may not have been the only one to think of that, as we'll see later.
I arrive at the track early Saturday morning. The race doesn't start until 2:40 p.m., so fans have plenty of time to enjoy autograph sessions, walking through the garages, and food served on sticks, most of it deep fried. There's something about Daytona that brings out the best in racers. I have witnessed autograph sessions all over the world at all different types of racing; I'm not sure I have ever seen the drivers so engaged with the fans. The heritage of the race is amplified by the line of drivers being snaked through the display of vintage race cars.
Audi has a suite that sits halfway up the grandstands overlooking the entrance to Turn 1; it's a great place to watch the start. As you would expect, the R8s are a favorite this year having shown both pace and reliability in early testing. This is the first year of the second generation of R8, and the new GTD class regulations are the closest ever to the FIA-GT3 rules the rest of the world uses.
There are also prototypes here; I know, I forget about them, too. The other class of interest is the GTLM, the GT cars that run at Le Mans and include the new Ford GT, 911, Corvette, and Ferrari. Thanks to wet conditions in qualifying, most of the GTLM field, led by two Porsche 911 RSRs, ran faster than any of the prototypes. IMSA moved them all back behind the Prototype grid after further review of predetermined expectations.
The start of the race is frenetic, an explosion of adrenaline, noise, and bombastic cliches. The stands are crowded, for a sports car race, meaning almost 15 percent full. In fairness, this is a track built for NASCAR racin', so a good portion of the fans are standing in the infield mere feet from the action, instead of in the giant, shockingly clean grandstands.
The opening hours of the race are relatively drama free. Somehow, the GTD Lamborghinis have found a considerable amount of speed overnight. Some might say a suspicious amount of speed; the charging bulls are now running right around a second and half faster than the R8s. So, a second a half per lap, times 700 laps. Brad was right, the math works out. Sounds like it would be worth taking the taking the 300-second penalty to get a 1,050-second advantage. I'm not saying they did anything illegal or intentional, I'm just saying that if they did find the speed somehow, it would be worth exploiting to its fullest, instead of trying to hide it.
At the 11th hour, leading a disheartened GTD field, the Lamborghini running second, showing the type of passion we expect from Italians, crashed—into the leading Lamborghini. Cue Pagliacci.
The Porsche of Alex Job Racing now leads. You can feel the energy surge through the GTD field as this is now a race for a win and not just the last step on the podium. Throughout the night and early morning, the lead changes with different pit strategies and cycling through drivers.
Dawn is my favorite time in Daytona. As the sun comes up over the backstretch, it burns away the fatigue of a long Daytona night and the race is reborn. It's also fun to watch still-drunk infield campers try to clip, duct-tape, staple, or use whatever other method imaginable to try and seal that tiny sun-breaching gap in the curtains of their RVs. Although Audi's hospitality buildings are serving the best food in Daytona Beach, I decide to continue my research for my upcoming coffee table book, Breakfast Burritos of the World's Race Tracks. Daytona is way down on the list for both size and taste. The calorie deficit of the burrito is supplemented by the "Fat-Boy Latte" from the infield coffee cart.
I spend a couple of hours in the tiny bleachers outside of Turn 5. The aluminum risers are what you expect to find at a high school track meet, but from here I can see a good portion of the infield in front of me, and if I turn around I can see the cars making their way through NASCAR 1 and 2 on to backstretch. It's a strange community sitting in these small stands at dawn; these are the real fans and I seem to be the only one not wearing a sweatshirt or jacket announcing my participation in local grassroots racing.
As the sun is now defiantly above the horizon, some of the dawn optimism wears off at the realization that we still have another two full sprint races' worth of time remaining. The Audi Sport Experience continues to roll out VIP expert after expert in the infield hospitality center. John Hindhaugh, voice of Radio Le Mans, is interviewing Brad Kettler on stage. At this very moment, this building may contain the densely packed collection of knowledge from the last decade of endurance racing. If Tom Kristensen were to walk in right now, I fear it would create a singularity and the laws of physics would untangle before my eyes.
The sun is at high noon, time to gear up for the final sprint race. Audi serves sushi for lunch. I appreciate the light, healthy meal, not too heavy but totally satisfying for this race to finish and my race to the airport afterward. The Floridian Southerners aren't so impressed with the buffet of what they refer to as "bait." More for me!
Just after 1 p.m. and there are four GTD cars within 18 seconds of the lead. The first three are separated by just 5 seconds with the Magnus Audi R8 in front. It's looking close, but everyone is still unsure of final pit strategy. At quarter past 2, Magnus racing is conserving fuel as much as possible, the R8 turns a lap over 5 seconds off the pace of the GTD competitors in chase. Five minutes later, the Magnus Racing crew is confident they can make it to the end of fumes, or they will die trying. At 2:30 p.m., Rene Rast in the Magnus Audi lets the Konrad Racing Lambo by, hoping that he's sacrificed fuel for pace. It's 2:37 p.m. and we are just about done. The leading Konrad Lamborghini stutters and slows; the cards are on the table and the Magnus Audi runs by with the ace in the gas tank. Or does it? The R8 sputters on the backstretch and makes it around to take the white flag. All of this, you may not have seen as the two Corvettes in GTLM were hamming it up for the cameras and stole the attention from the real drama. Even the Jumbotrons around the track were focused on the two Corvettes, which had earlier shoved the Porsche aside and were mimicking some real racing action to keep the cameras trained on them till the end.
Rene Rast, who has experience in last-lap fuel drama, manages to limp the R8 to the finish line, showing that racing is often won or lost by an engineer with a calculator instead of a driver's perfectly executed pass.
I cringe whenever I hear someone refer to his favorite sports team as "we," but the euphoric contact high being around the Audi team is very real. I've spent so much time around the people who make up the actual team that I appreciate the very literal blood, sweat, and tears that go into a major victory. This is racing at its very pinnacle, and to cross the finish line first is a testament to commitment and sacrifice. Racing isn't like other sports—there really are lives on the line here at times. But above that, there is value here. This is rolling science and technology. The kids who are watching this race are tomorrow's technicians, engineers, and drivers. Amongst all the drama are real human stories of people who put in the time, not only in physical training, but also in learning and discovery. Thank you, Audi; thank you, IMSA; and thank you, Florida. I hope to see you again next year.