Oliver Gavin

Wake up! How Rolex 24 drivers stay alert working the graveyard shift

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There are many ways – a hot shower, a steaming espresso, a soothing massage – to awaken from a midrace nap for a post-midnight stint in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Or you could try just staying up for 24 consecutive hours.

Having regretfully tried that in his 2006 debut, A.J. Allmendinger advises getting some rest.

“I drank like 14 Red Bulls during the night – not great for hydration by the way — so I didn’t sleep the whole time,” said Allmendinger, whose Michael Shank Racing team finished second in his first endurance race. “I wasn’t right for three days after that. So as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to kind of pace myself. I still don’t sleep a lot because especially when it’s going well, I’m so amped up. I’m always afraid if I close my eyes, I’m going to wake up and we’ll be out of the race for some reason.

“But I do try to stay off my feet when I’m not in the car and just rest. Because it’s 24 hours for a reason, so you really have to pace yourself.”

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Every driver seems to have their own method for finding the necessary jolt of adrenaline to stay alert and engaged while whipping around Daytona’s road course at 180 mph at 3 a.m.

Rolex 24 rookie Kyle Busch joked that he simply would skip signing up for the graveyard shift. But with stints generally in the 45-minute range, and the race split between three to four drivers per car, the middle-of-the-night knock on the motorhome door is unavoidable.

“I always say I hate driving between 2 and 4 in the morning and 90 percent of the time, I end up driving there,” Acura Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya said with a laugh. “I like trying to get a bit of a nap, but it is hard. We only do three drivers. If you do a double stint, that is an hour and a half. You get out of the car, and by the time you get a massage and go eat, they will be calling you in 40 minutes.”

Montoya’s routine is usually a massage, a meal, another massage and a shower.

“Then I get in my underwear that I am going to drive in, lay my uniform down on the floor and close the door, lights out,” he said. “I do not psyche myself up or do any of that. I just get in and drive the car. All my life I have been like that.”

Cars streak past the Ferris wheel in the horseshoe (courtesy of IMSA).

Staying habitual is important. Montoya repeats his routine whether exiting his car at 4 in the afternoon or 4 in the morning. His teammate Helio Castroneves said he got the same advice from sports car veteran Allan McNish to “do your due diligence” after every stint.

Sometimes, getting to sleep can be the hard part, “particularly when your number is near the top of the scoring pylon,” Corvette Racing’s Jordan Taylor said.

Teammate Oliver Gavin said disconnecting from the event and electronic devices (except maybe some noise-canceling headphones) also is useful.

“You’re trying to work on all the different things you can just to switch off,” Gavin said. “Put your phone away, stop looking at timing and scoring, take the radio off, put that away. You’ve really got to separate yourself away from the race, to try and get that hour, two hours, three hours of sleep so you then can come back refreshed to then jump back in the car”

Crew members often are napping in the pits during a Rolex 24 at Daytona (Marc Serota/Getty Images).

But it still can be difficult to arise from a deep sleep on a cozy bed.

“You know you’ve got to get up and get ready to go out there and drive almost 200 mph on the banking and get right to work,” LMP2 driver Colin Braun said. “You’re trying to get woken back up and get in gear so I try to get in a little bit of physical activity. I always carry a jump rope with me and kind of just warm up to get kind of the muscles going and the blood flowing. It’s always kind of fun and also painful to try to get going.”

Alexander Rossi has an old reliable: caffeine. Though it still doesn’t entirely do the trick when rising from a 1 a.m. slumber.

“I have an espresso, get my stuff on, get in the car, and it’s not really until I’m kind of idling down pit lane where you kind of wake up,” said Rossi, who will make his second start with Penske this year. “You’re still a little bit out of it just because it’s weird, right? You shouldn’t be doing this at 2 o’clock in the morning.

“And by the time you kind of get to the end of pit lane, and you take the pit speed limiter off, there’s enough adrenaline that you just kind of default back to the mode that you were last in and that’s the cool part about this race. Throughout the process you’re like ‘Why’d I do this? Why are we here? This is so long. This is such a pain,’ and then you know at the end you’re kind of like, ‘OK, can’t wait for next year.’

“It’s that race that always pulls you back, and it’s that challenge — especially during the middle of the night — that makes it so special.”

A prototype race car is silhouetted by the headlights of other cars while racing at night during the 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona (Brian Cleary/Getty Images).