DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When it rains it pours, but never has a potential racing classic been so dampened by the washout that turned Daytona International Speedway into a 3.56-mile flood plain Sunday.
The 2019 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona will be remembered less for what it was – a maddeningly tantalizing endurance race that concluded in fits and starts that lasted nearly nine hours – than for what it could have been.
That is, one of the all-time greatest showcases of talent and showdowns at the World Center of Racing.
Think of all the deliciously riveting storylines entering this event and then think about how they were living up to the hype through an extremely chippy first half of the 24-hour race.
–Fernando Alonso, making his second consecutive start in the Rolex 24 but in a championship-caliber car, put his gargantuan talent on full display by charging to big leads in his No. 10 Cadillac DPI.
–Juan Pablo Montoya, the two-time Indianapolis 500 whose aggression and verve always makes for beguiling drives at Daytona, engaged in a fierce battle with Kamui Kobayashi, Alonso’s accomplished and versatile teammate. It led to JPM hinting (with his trademark moxie) at playing rough later in the race.
— Montoya, Alexander Rossi and Helio Castroneves – three sublime talents with six Indianapolis 500 victories between them – had Team Penske’s two Acuras humming with the approval of motorsports magnate namesake Roger Penske, who was atop the pit box with no plans to sleep for 24 consecutive hours for the second year in a row.
And we have yet to mention Alex Zanardi, the immensely popular star whose return to American racing for the first time in nearly two decades drew the majority of the prerace headlines.
His team had initial problems with the specially modified steering wheel designed to allow Zanardi (who lost his legs in a 2001 crash) to pilot his BMW M8 at 180-plus mph with only his hands. But his spirits remained unbowed, and the race at least held the flicker of an unbelievably happy ending that would have dovetailed with his amazing life story.
Until shortly before daybreak.
At roughly 6 a.m., the heavy stuff began to arrive, and all of the action and accompanying subplots came to a screeching halt.
Alonso’s historic win with Wayne Taylor Racing at least offered a consolation postscript to a Daytona race that was unprecedented for all the wrong reasons.
“I’ve been around a long time,” Zanardi, 52, said, “but this was definitely one of the toughest conditions I’ve ever experienced in my racing career.”
The rain is nothing new for Central Florida. NASCAR fans are well aware of the clockwork summer thunderstorms that annually delay Cup races here around the Fourth of July weekend.
But this was inclement weather on a demoralizingly next level for Daytona: Borderline tropical storm-esque conditions that progressively worsened through the day.
As the wind kicked up, and the raindrops intensified, it became impossible to have the track in any sort of raceable form. Sports cars are built to run in the wet with specially constructed rain tires. But new supplier Michelin had no hope of building rubber that could match the untenable circumstances.
“You’re just standing in water up to your ankles in some of the puddles,” Rossi said after exiting his third-place No. 7 Acura for the final time. “They’re not racing conditions, unfortunately, which is a shame. It was an amazing race across all the classes before the weather started.”
This was not the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.
Call it the 16 Hours of a Riveting Rolex Followed by 8 Hours of Incessant Rain That Wrecked The Last Third of a Sports Car Spectacle.
That was enough to even stun Penske, who extraordinarily was left searching for context from his 81 years and a career spanning 17 Indianapolis 500 wins and championships across several series.
“I’ve never seen a race like this,” The Captain told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast. “Have you?”
It’s unlikely any of the fans who have been coming for this festival of speed for more than a half-century had seen anything like it, either.
At least there were the traditional fireworks, the Ferris wheel and the fairgrounds-style layout of fast cars and funnel cakes to enjoy and peruse Saturday night, because there was no fun to be had in their second run around the clock.
By late Sunday afternoon, the infield was a ghost town of mud bogs and flapping pup tents abandoned by fans who apparently had made a hasty and wise departure from the premises long before darkness fell.
The first red flag fell at 7:22 a.m. and lasted an hour and 45 minutes. After a brief attempt at green, the race went back under yellow for other 90 minutes – so long it left Penske’s Ricky Taylor needing to climb out of his car because he’d fallen ill.
The race went green again at 10:48 a.m., but the incessant spins and detours through the grass inevitably resulted in another yellow flag – and then a red flag at 12:39 p.m. that effectively ended the race.
It’s certainly fair to have a slight quibble with how IMSA handled the finish. After a promised 2 p.m. announcement that passed without news, series and race officials left everyone hanging for 25 minutes before announcing the race had been deemed official 10 minutes short of the 24-hour mark under “some of the most extreme weather conditions ever seen at Daytona International Speedway.”
With rain falling at nearly an inch per hour, there was no saving this race.
GTD driver Daniel Morad, whose No. 29 Audi was among the last casualties, said “it got a little bit dangerous” when drivers were flying through the Bus Stop section with no control. “It’s not worth people’s safety to go back green if it’s going to be this dangerous,” he said.
Said Eric Curran, whose Whelen Engineering Racing team finished second to Alonso: “I don’t want to see a bunch of cars get wrecked, and I don’t want to see anyone get hurt. It’s just about keeping the thing on the track and trying not to hurt yourself and everyone around you. It’s just miserable. You’re so focused just on yourself and keeping the car on the track more so than you are racing the guy next to you.”
Winning car owner Wayne Taylor realized things had become untenable through the radio transmissions of Alonso, the two-time Formula One champion who also has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win and will go for an Indianapolis 500 win in May.
When he watched the pace car ahead of him nearly lose it under the final yellow, Alonso radioed he was fearful of the conditions.
“When I heard him come on the radio, talking fear, I suddenly realized, ‘This is not safe,’ ” Taylor said. “This is really not good when a guy like that is telling you that.”
The numbers bore out that gravity.
It was the first time in Rolex 24 history that the event was marred by two red flags (and only the seventh and eighth times there’d been a stoppage).
Of the 593 laps, 126 – or 21 percent – were run under yellow, and it wreaked havoc on the flow and fortunes of teams in the race.
Alonso took the lead for the final time because sports car ace Felipe Nasr blew the Turn 1 corner shortly before the last yellow.
In the GT Le Mans class, defending winner Richard Westbrook pitted his Chip Ganassi Racing Ford from the lead just before the final red.
“I’ve driven in many, many conditions in my life ‑‑ in the fog, in the rain, but nothing like that,” said Westbrook, whose team had rallied from five laps down. “It was ridiculous. But then to throw the red when they did is just really … it’s like a real kick in the (genitals).”
The feeling probably was similar for fans who were teased with the possibility of some big-name heavyweights slugging it out for a crown jewel but instead didn’t even get the satisfaction of Alonso’s No. 10 DPI crossing the finish line beneath the checkered flag.
Not that it bothered the Spaniard, whose team exquisitely executed its strategy of blending conservatism with occasionally blistering speed, playing the long game by sacrificing pace in dry conditions.
“I think it was perfect like that,” Alonso said when asked if he would have rather raced for the win. “I love it, you know.
“Every time that I jump in the car I felt good. I felt competitive, and in the last moment to cross the line, or not crossing the line, I think the car No. 10 was dominating the whole 24 hours. So happy to win in whatever way.”
Hard to argue with that: One of the best drivers in the world won in one of the race’s best cars.
That at least offered some comfort at the end of a miserable half-day that offered only one true blameless conclusion: It was just one of those days.
“Today it rained like hell, and this is nobody’s fault,” Zanardi said. “Just the good Lord that was not very keen with us.”
It’s always smart to heed the advice of the inspirational Italian. So with that, let’s say a prayer for the Rolex 24.
Surely, it wouldn’t hurt to have some divine intervention ensuring a debacle like Sunday’s never happens again.