DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A 24-hour race at a NASCAR track is nothing new. The Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, one of the crown jewels of the IMSA sports car championship, has been contested at Daytona International Speedway for over a half-century.
But what about a 24-hour race at a NASCAR track … with stock cars.
When Doug Yates, the CEO of the Roush Yates company that builds engines for NASCAR and IMSA teams, stopped by the Peacock Pit Box during the ninth hour Saturday of the 2019 Rolex 24 on NBCSN, NASCAR on NBC broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr. was curious.
“Could NASCAR run a 24-hour race?” Earnhardt asked Yates. “What would you need to do to a NASCAR engine?”
“I’m kind of worried about getting to Atlanta with a tapered 550 package first,” Yates joked in reference to NASCAR’s new reduced horsepower rules for this season.
“But yeah, of course we could do it. That would be an interesting race, of course. Everything in our engine is made to run 501 miles. As crew chiefs and drivers, you guys know, you’re always beating on the engine guy to give you more power. We didn’t want to give you too much margin, right? The thing wasn’t built for a 24-hour race. But we could do that.”
It might require a rethink of the philosophy of NASCAR’s V8 engine, which is based on antiquated architecture with little relevance to modern-era street models.
“This is such a good event because these are production-based engines,” Yates said. “We test them. We push them to their limit, then we turn back and give that technology back to the street cars. The things we learn goes back to Ford Motor Company and making their cars better.”
Sounds like a win-win situation.
Of course, there are the niggling questions about the durability of brakes, rotors and other parts.
As well as what track might work well for holding such an event.
Martinsville? Bristol? The Roval or another road course?
This might be an idea with some serious staying power.
Podcast: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s favorite memories of racing Rolex 24 with his father
When Dale Earnhardt came to Daytona under different circumstances, the preparation remained the same for shepherding the seven-time champion with an enormous fan base.
Corvette Racing manager Doug Fehan recalled arranging security for Earnhardt and his son for getting to and from their motorhomes while they raced the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. It turned out to be mostly unnecessary as they drew large packs of respectful fans but without a mob scene.
“They were very respectful,” Fehan recalled during the second half of a two-part NASCAR on NBC Podcast about the Earnhardts racing the 2001 Rolex. “It was amazing to see.”
Earnhardt was moved by it enough to remark about the sports car atmosphere while having lunch with Fehan.
“(Earnhardt) said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this,’” Fehan said. “‘This has been one of the most rewarding experiences in racing seeing this.’ I said, ‘I want you to enjoy it.’ It’s what racing can be when you’re not running for a million dollars a race. When you put big money on it, it wouldn’t be like this. This is a family. Every team in this paddock is in the same boat paddling. We just have a different oar.
“He loved it. He liked the whole experience. He loved that form of racing. Which led to further conversations about wanting to (race the 24 Hours of) Le Mans. Going to Le Mans was going to be like the pinnacle for him.”
It might have been the first of many post-NASCAR excursions in racing for The Intimidator, who was killed in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 two weeks after the Rolex 24.
“When I think about (the 2001 Rolex 24), sometimes I think about that, and sometimes I don’t,” Earnhardt Jr. said in the podcast. “I just appreciate that we got to do that, before he was taken away from us. Because that was probably one of the first dominoes in a series of things that he might have wanted to do outside this life as a race car driver in NASCAR.
“He may have had other unique things that he had to check off his list. And that was probably the first one because I was real surprised when he came up with the idea to even do it. I didn’t think he was the type of guy who would do these extracurricular things outside of his immense responsibilities. He was a busy, busy man.”
Earnahrdt Jr. said he was “absolutely, 100% sure” that his father would have run Le Mans. Fehan said the logistics already were being formulated for getting Earnhardt to France, and Corvette Racing had a spot in one of its cars.
“We worked out how to fit scheduling for testing and travel,” Fehan said. “I don’t want to say it was 90 percent of the way there, but everybody agreed on doing this. We had the framework and the foundation pretty solidified.
“It was his dream. He was only going to run one more year of Cup. Then he saw himself to be able to compete a number of years. Not just a Le Mans race. He wanted to do more sports car racing.”
After Earnhardt’s death, Corvette honored the NASCAR Hall of Famer with special stripes on its car for a few years. Earnhardt Jr. ran a black-themed bumper on his No. 88 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports as a tribute to the Rolex 24, where the No. 3 Corvette finished second in class and fourth overall.
Earnhardt Jr. also has a street model replica of the No. 3 Corvette. His father was supposed to have a matching version.
“It means more to me now than I ever thought it,” Earnhardt Jr. said of the car. “When we decided to have these cars made, I didn’t know Dad was going to be taken from us just a short time later. It took a while for these cars to get built. The wing on my car came from the second place-finishing Corvette at Le Mans that year. The wing on Dad’s car came from the winning car.
“Dad didn’t want his wing painted. He wanted all the rubber and debris from the race still on the wing. I wanted mine to be painted because I wanted it to match (and) I wanted to drive around town. I wasn’t even thinking or I’d have left it alone. That’s why Dad was so smart! He left his wing dirty.”
Earnhardt Jr. drove the car for several years but doesn’t anymore after replacing the splitter (“because it’s so low to the ground, I don’t want to hurt it”) and re-decaling.
“This is a bit of a symbolic piece for me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Something that we did together at the end of his life.
“I only have a handful of cars to my name, and there’s only one or two that I will never ever get rid of, and this is one of them. I’ll always have this.”
Also in the podcast:
–Earnhardt Jr. discusses whether he will return to the Rolex 24 (“The door is always open to run that race again. I’d never run full time. Never want to really run Le Mans. But the Daytona 24 Hours race having done it before makes it very special to me. The cars are so much fun.”);
–The lasting bonds and friendships formed by the Earnhardts during the Rolex 24;
Their first spins around Sebring International Raceway in sports cars were a little too literal for Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There were some lucrative silver linings from a crash course in learning how to race a Corvette, though.
In preparing for the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, the Earnhardts went to Sebring to learn the nuances of driving a GT car, which have more sophisticated cockpit technology and precision braking and handling than the stock cars of which they were accustomed.
Within his first 15 minutes on track, Earnhardt Jr. had crumpled the back end of the Corvette. Late in the day, his father joined him
“We got a pile of parts sitting there from both of them crashing,” Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan said in a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast (links below). “Dale says, ‘This isn’t really the way we wanted to start.’ I said, ‘I think it was inevitable. End of the day, I’m not sure it wasn’t a good way to start because you both have learned the limits of the car.”
Earnhardt told Fehan he still felt bad about the expense and trouble for the team. Fehan pointed at the pile of parts.
“Don’t worry, you and Junior are going to sign all those, and we’re going to sell them,” Fehan said. “We’re going to get the money back.”
The Earnhardts then grabbed Sharpies and headed to the scrap heap.
Beyond making the best of it with their autographs, Earnhardt Jr. said crashing early “probably was a good thing” in getting acclimated to the Corvettes.
“I’m the guy that everyone looks at and thinks, ‘Man, he’s probably the weakest link,’ ” Earnhardt Jr. said in the podcast. “So I put a ton of pressure on myself right out of the gate to be very fast.
“I mashed the gas, and it just spun out. It had so much power, you could just spin that thing out so easily just by touching the throttle pedal. I backed into a bridge abutment. I thought I had killed this race car.”
Once the car was back in the garage, though, the Corvette team unzipped some large black bags and had the rear end replaced in about 20 minutes.
“‘OK, get back in!’” Earnhardt Jr. recalled the team saying. “I tore this thing to hell, and you’re going to fix it with new stuff and want me to get back in it! You’re not going to let me take a couple of hours to think about what I did, send someone else out there. ‘No! Get back in, you’ve got to learn!’
“I got back in and took a little better care of it the rest of the day.”
It was near the end of the session when his father lost control on a fresh set of tires, and Earnhardt Jr. believes he was partly responsible.
“Dad’s out there, I’m way faster than him,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’m like, ‘Dad, look at me, doing good!’ and he’s like, ‘It’s not important how fast we’re going. We ain’t even racing here. I don’t know what the big deal is.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’
“Well right at the end of the day, I think it was eating away at him a little bit. He wouldn’t admit it. It’s 5 o’clock. It’s time to stop. He’s like, ‘Put me some tires on this!’ One last run, he goes out and is running a lap by the flagstand to start his run. He nosed the car into the tire barrier head first in the last corner.
“I knew he was pushing as hard as he could to match or better my time. So there was some competition between us two that I think he would never admit to. Because I’d be like, not ‘I’m better than you,’ but ‘Look at what I’m doing! Isn’t this cool?’ He’d be like, ‘We don’t even race at Sebring. We race at Daytona! I don’t know why you’re pushing so hard, you’re going to tear it up.’ We had two completely different approaches.”
But there was much common ground for a duo that didn’t always spend much time together at the track. When Earnhardt Jr. was up and coming in Late Models, his father rarely attended his short-track races. They competed together for only one season together in Cup but on separate teams.
The Rolex 24 provided a unique opportunity to work together on a full-time basis.
“This is the closest I’ve ever been to him to be able to do that,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Usually we’re racing on the racetrack and against each other. He might not even see me all day or know what I’m doing. Here we are together, debriefing and talking about the car and changing things on the car together.
“This is a really great opportunity for me to show him just what I thought about race cars and how I communicated.”
Listen to the NASCAR on NBC podcast to hear more stories about the Earnhardts’ run in the 2001 Rolex 24, including:
–How Dale Earnhardt grew close with the Corvette Racing team (“He said I want to be treated like any other guy on this team,” Fehan said. “I don’t want to be treated as Dale Earnhardt. I’m just a driver like anyone else on this race team. Coming from anyone else, I would have thought it was BS. Coming from him, it was genuine. He was serious about it.”)
–The welcoming reception he received in the sports car community (“Dad had a lot of respect for people all across all forms of motorsports. He sort of crossed those lines and boundaries. So I think everybody was like, ‘This is great!’ They weren’t intimated by him from a competitors’ standpoint. He didn’t act like, ‘Boy I’m going to light the world and show you guys. I’m Dale Earnhardt, move out of the way and give me my space.’ He just came in there inquisitive, asking all the right questions. Easy to approach, and people just liked it, man.”
–Why Earnhardt initially believed the team didn’t necessarily need a fourth driver, and the Daytona test that told him otherwise.