One more unbelievably long, hair-raising sprint up the opposite bank later and the hot lap comes to an end. In just those few minutes, however, paying spectators started populating the massive multi-colored grandstands, filtering into the pits and loitering as close as possible to the cars, drivers, and teams. Daytona’s announcers repeatedly boasted this year’s record-setting attendance of over 50,000 and I begin to see why: The prospect of climbing up that steep embankment, signing the start-finish line, peeking into racecar cockpits, and miming the positions of drivers slipped in tight, pretending to fiddle with steering wheel controls—everything brings out the imaginations of children and adults alike.
As the crowd swelled, five-time Daytona winner Hurley Haywood joined us for a quick tour of the pits and shared many of the ways that racecars, racers, and racing in general have evolved since his years on the track.
“When I was racing, we didn’t have any of this stuff,” Haywood laughed. “Things were pretty simple. The driver had to do everything. We now have sequential shifting, power steering, ABS brakes, and traction control that’s very sophisticated. So, as the car goes into the corner, the traction control is alerted and retards the engine so the guys can get back on full power after threshold braking.”
The next generation of professional drivers already spends far more time using simulations to train for all the computer inputs, buttons, sensors, and systems that racing now requires. But nothing can prepare the body for the physical effort of a 24-hour endurance test like Daytona.
“I love the feeling of going through the day and the night and back to the day,” Grosjean told me when I asked about the differences between F1 and his current task at hand. “You want to be rested before the race, for sure, but you want to be able to rest when you finish your stint, too, which is not always easy when you’re full of adrenaline.”