Saturday 3rd February 2001, the 39th edition of the Rolex 24 Hours got underway with the usual pomp and ceremony. The first few hours saw a few cars fall by the wayside but most of the 79 starters were still circulating. Then came the rain.
There is some sort of expectation from those who stay back in Europe while the Rolex 24 takes place, that the whole affair is conducted in Miami South Beach conditions. My experience has been somewhat different, 2000’s race was absolutely freezing, below zero when the wind chill was factored in. 2001 was marginally warmer but the rain was horrible. It was cold, wet and dark prematurely.
Most of the photographers showed good sense and stayed either in the warm, dry Benny Khan media centre or hid under awnings in the pits. Me? Well, Regis Lefebure and I headed out to the back straight, where we spent several hours trying make some sort of acceptable images in the murk. I reckon he got better results than I.
In this sort of dull stuff it is almost impossible to turn Chicken Shit into Chicken Salad. The 2001 Rolex 24 was a personal landmark for me, it was the last race that I shot entirely on film. By the time I crossed the Atlantic again to shoot the ALMS’ season opener at Texas I had acquired a Canon D30. Digital had arrived, that genie had escaped and things would be very different. Photographers would go on to be software operators, mind you the crap ones would still be crap.
The switch from analogue to digital robbed the Daytona Infield spectators of the Grand Prix that would take place at the end of each track session. The Pro and not so Pro photographers would lumber towards their vehicles, jump in and try to beat the others to the Tunnel at NASCAR 4 and across West International Speedway Boulevard to the photo processors, Speedway Photo as I recall. Their service was magic, unlike most of the nonsense that we used to endure back then. The quicker you got to the store, the higher up the queue you would be, though what we were hoping to achieve by this is not clear. Even a small scanned image would takes ages to transmit down those 14.4k phone connections and broadband had not reached the Speedway yet. Still it all seemed very important to us. It showed our competitive spirit, ‘How the West was Won’ sorta thing.
The dubious honour of being the first retirement fell to the TRV Motorsports outfit, five minutes into the race.
The Crawford had transmission problems and despite replacing the entire mechanism, they too fell out early in the proceedings.
The Intersport Lola led during the first hour but hit clutch problems, dropping them down the order. It was a rough Rolex baptism for 17 year old Clint Field.
Another early contender, the Robinson Racing Riley & Scott, was yet one more prototype to have problems, losing an hour behind the Wall trying to sort an engine malady.
So as the light faded it was the Risi Ferrari and the Weaver Riley & Scott scrapping for the lead with #20 Dyson car and the Champion Lola hanging on…………then came #2 Corvette, this one would run and run.
Of course it was not only the front runners that were suffering in the poor conditions. My old pal, Mike Youles, was having his own brand of problems out on track. PK Sport had only just taken delivery of the 996 GT3 R and were not fully prepared for the copious amounts of rain that fell unexpectedly in Volusia County. Somehow the water was all over the inside of the screen, so Mike drove along trying to work out where he was by looking out the side windows.
In addition to this he was driving double and triple stints as co-driver Geoff Lister was unwell. Of course Mike took it all in his stride, “Racing by Braille” he called it at the time. with a big grin on his face. Utter madness but very PK Sport we all agreed, very much the spirit of how they went racing.
Even the Corvettes were having some difficulties. Dale Junior was sent out for his first stint as the conditions got worse, this was not great timing from the team, as he said at the time.
“When I went out there in the car it was a little slick. I spun out a few times trying to get going. The track’s drying up a lot and it’s really gotten quick. Hopefully we can get buckled down here and catch up.”
“I asked them if I could do a double, but they said later on man, save your strength. I’m ready to go when they are.”
“I had zero experience in the wet. I’ve never driven on it, so I was out there learning. But the track dried pretty quick and I felt pretty comfortable and fell into a good rhythm.”
“They kind of saved me from sending me out earlier because it was raining pretty bad. When I got to get out there the track was relatively dry, so I was OK. (On his first lap) The tires were so cold, and your adrenaline’s pumping, and I kind of screwed up. But once I settled down, I felt good.”
Junior had further problems when a half shaft failed, there was a mistake in communication and the whole transmission unit was changed but the #3 was soon back on track only losing around 30 minutes.
The next top runner to hit the rocks was the Champion Lola Porsche, a sudden drop in oil pressure causing engine failure.
The 24 hours of pounding around the Daytona International Speedway is regarded as being tougher than any other similar contest, and that is when the weather is good. The conditions that prevailed in 2001 meant that most folk were clinging on, hoping to see daylight.
Out at the head of the race #12 and #16 continued to swap the lead. Then Risi Competizione took their turn on the wheel of hard fortune. Out on the back straight McNish lost a front wheel due to lug nut seizing. Fixing this problem cost five laps and almost certainly the race was lost. This prognosis was confirmed a few hours later, just before dawn. During a routine pit stop it was noticed the oil temperature was rising rapidly, it was suspected that head gasket had failed in the V12. The Ferrari was reluctantly retired, another leader down and no Rolex for McNish.
The darkness went on and on, as long in Florida as it is short at La Sarthe.
Final Part of this tale of misfortune and endeavour tomorrow.
John Brooks, January 2011