Apart from the Dakar and Monte Carlo rallies, and AUTOSPORT International of course, there's not much to see or do in January - unless you make the pilgrimage to Daytona for the Grand-Am opener, its showpiece 24 Hours.
I'd been to Daytona for both the 500 and the July NASCAR night race plenty of times, but this was my first 24 - so I didn't know what to expect. I figured my boredom threshold would be breached at some point during the 24 hours. How wrong I was.
The weekend started promisingly... in the bar. As Matt James from Motorsport News and myself were doing our cultural duty by sampling the local beers on offer at the hotel's watering hole, in walked Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell - hotfoot from the track with tales of practice and qualifying. Why trek to the circuit when it comes to you?
When we did make it to the track, the pre-event photocall was a great opportunity to doorstep some star names. As I was chatting to Dario Franchitti, along came Jimmie Johnson to see his old mate. "So, they've rewritten the points system to try and stop your winning streak?" asked Dario. I'll keep Johnson's response to myself, to save him from the massive fine he'd get if it got into print!
Following a lap of the track with Hurley Haywood (see video above) and some fun chilling with Richard Westbrook on his team's prat-perch - marvelling at some truly strange individuals wandering around on the pre-race grid - I wandered around the packed-out infield to watch the start. After reckoning I'd grow weary of it within an hour or so, in fact I stayed trackside until well after dark!
There were some great battles going on, especially a fierce duel between Franchitti and Blundell at twilight that went on for lap after lap. Part of my posse included MIA chief Chris Aylett, who invited me to join him on the roof, a hundred or so feet above the start/finish-line, as the race entered the midnight hour. The view was truly magical.
The view from the roof at midnight. Fabulous!
After interviewing Lyn St James for a 'Race of my Life' piece, I spent the final hour of the event in the company of Grand-Am top brass Dave Spitzer and Mark Raffauf in race control. They were literally on yellow alert as a long green-flag period had strung the race out, and there was a tangible sense of relief when, finally, a Porsche blew a tyre and littered its carcass across the back stretch, meaning a full-course caution could bunch the field for an exciting sprint to the finish.
While under caution, Raffauf spun some great yarns about 24 Hours past, like the contaminated-fuel episode in 1976 when the leaders broke down one by one. Or his scariest-ever moment, when Claude Ballot-Lena mowed down the catchfencing on the front-stretch in his Courage in the early hours. From out of nowhere, a small army of Japanese spectators ran to his aid (what was left of the tub was now upside-down in the grandstand) and, with an impenetrable language barrier between them, they turned it over just as he popped his belts, and - in a barrage of profanity - the previously-uninjured Frenchman fell out of the side of his cocoon to a painful destiny on the concrete floor below.
There were no such dramas this year, just a cracking race. And, thanks to the France family, I even got the chance to celebrate with the winners in Victory Lane. What a great way to start the year.
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