The classic endurance races—Daytona, Le Mans and Sebring—remain the highest-profile and most prestigious challenges in their respective series. But with the 2013 running of the 24 Hours of Daytona around the corner, the motorsport landscape is drastically different from when long-distance racing began, roughly 90 years ago.
This raises a question: In an era dominated by major manufacturers, huge sponsor investments, and an array of technologies far advanced from anything on the road, does endurance racing still matter?
Until the 1970s, long-distance races were contested mostly by small companies in the business of building sports cars. They raced what they sold because racing was advertising, and they relied heavily on their customers for success. You could buy a car from Aston Martin, Ferrari, Jaguar, or a score of other manufacturers now largely forgotten, check your tire pressure, tape a number on your door, and go racing. There were no roll bars, seatbelts, or racing suits—hell, Phil Hill once drove Sebring in a short-sleeved Lacoste shirt. Telemetry and computers were likewise absent, and timing was performed largely by wives and girlfriends with handheld Heuers. There were no swoopy paint jobs or high-profile advertisements.
What was there was a sense of adventure, a feeling that racing was inventing itself, and that you were part of the process. Today, mainstream manufacturers like GM and Audi muster armies to crew: The factory-backed Corvette GT team brings twenty-five crew members, four powertrain experts, a medical team, cooks, and technicians from both Michelin and Bosch. These crews are triage experts, able to bring a badly wounded car back to life and get it back on the track—a far cry from the sport's genesis, when the mere presence of spare parts was a rare occurrence.
The early days of long-distance racing centered on this sense of preservation, and special techniques were employed just to give the car a chance at finishing. To reduce engine stress, many drivers feathered the throttle on upshifts and paused for a moment between gears. At the end of any long straight, you'd begin braking hundreds of yards before you had to, easing onto the pedal and using the engine to do some of the braking. It was about driving slowly, but as fast as possible. There was an odd grace to operating far below a car's potential; you could achieve a rhythm, the car a spectral presence on what was, toward the end of the race, a nearly empty track.
While the old tactics called for caution, and drivers were instructed not to compete with one another (we did anyway, of course), today's strategy is to get one guy in there and have him go like hell... then get the next guy in and have him go like hell, too. Jon Fogarty drives his Daytona Prototype at qualifying speed every lap, while Corvette's Doug Fehan says their pace at —where one lap is more than eight miles long—is less than two seconds off their optimum speed. Save the brakes? Forget about it. Shift slowly? Only if you plan on being left behind.
Outside the car, the differences are just as pronounced. When a driver has finished his turn at the wheel now, he can truly relax: The moment he leaves the car, he's whisked to a private tent resembling a first-class spa. Chefs prepare him a nutritionist-approved meal as he watches live coverage of the event; he can take a shower, get a massage, and change into a fresh suit—even step into a hyperbaric chamber for maximum muscular recovery. Me, I slept in motorhomes and little trailers, wrapped in the same clammy, sweat-soaked driving suit the entire time. It was strange, too: In a place crowded with thousands of people, drivers often had no one to talk to. This was before in-car radios, so you were alone in the car, and communication with your co-driver was limited to the changeovers—ten seconds of cryptic phrases, maybe a couple of shrugs. Rather than rest, I mostly just worried: Did I miss the car coming around? Was something wrong? Would the kid who was supposed to wake me up forget?
As the hours went by, fatigue became a cloak you couldn't shake off. But the culture of long-distance racing was, and remains, masochistic. That self-punishment reached its extremes at Daytona, which was the toughest—the longest, coldest night; the most noise; the dread of knowing that, very soon, I'd have to go back out and tackle that banking.
Daytona has changed very little; it's still the most punishing of the three. Sebring has been shortened, but the original atmosphere endures: Florida flatness, the smell of orange blossoms mixing with engine oil, and spring-break girls in string bikinis downing beer and cultivating sunburns. Le Mans remains that breathtaking rush along country roads that open to the public just minutes after the race ends.
That's the takeaway: These races are events that transcend mere contests of speed—not just stops on a circuit but seasons unto themselves. And while modern speed and safety would be unfathomable in decades past, Daytona, Le Mans, and Sebring remain the domain of obsessive men exploring the bleeding edge of physical and mechanical possibility, whether that means nursing a 36-hp 1952 Monopole Panhard twice around the clock or going nearly flat-out for twenty-four hours in a diesel-hybrid Audi with fifteen times the power.
Endurance racing sounds an epic note, and competitors understand that significance. Based on the enduring popularity of the major long-distance contests, fans know it too. That's what keeps them coming back.