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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Inside the 170-mph alarm clock of an Audi R8 race car at Daytona

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Racing the Classic 24 Hours of Daytona in an Audi R8 GT3
 
Four o’clock in the morning sucks. It’s dark, often cold, and the only souls stupid enough to be awake are burglars and lousy radio hosts. So why, then, am I hopping with excitement at such an ungodly hour of the day?

Perhaps it’s the glorious howl of a 1988
Porsche 962 powering through the darkness? Or maybe it’s the gaggle of Ford GT40s racing so ferociously that one of them tore off the other’s left-rear fender in a desperate attempt to claim victory?

In all fairness, it may have a lot to do with the matte-black
Audi R8 LMS Ultra sitting on pit lane. And the fact that a mechanic is ushering me to don my helmet and climb aboard.

The inaugural Classic 24 Hours at Daytona boasted every vintage race car you’ve ever dreamed of. Witnessing them all in the depth of the night, headlamps blazing a beam as striking as Vader’s lightsaber, is beyond evocative. It’s why I fell in love with the automobile as a child.
My R8 isn’t particularly “vintage.” It did, in fact, finish third at the proper 24 Hours of Daytona just 12 months earlier, and since then has finished second in the Pirelli World Challenge. But that’s OK, because the Classic 24 isn’t merely for old cars—everyone’s welcome, for the most part. The event is split into six groups; you don’t race for 24 hours straight, you run in four separate hour-long segments throughout the duration of the event.
This helps contain costs and allows the more aged machines a fighting chance at completing the distance. And for the spectators, well, there’s a constant flow of race cars navigating Daytona’s legendary banking, and each hour, a different era of machines take to the track.

Our group is filled with GT3-spec cars like the R8, but it also includes a handful of modern-day Daytona Prototypes and a few LMP1 racers as well, such as sports-car ace Andy Wallace in a 2005 Le Mans-winning Audi. We’re placed in classes within our group, so we’re all racing cars with similar performance (except for the Maserati MC12 GT1 that snuck its way into our class.) But after lapping 5 seconds faster than us in qualifying, they were quickly booted back out again.

I’m sharing the
Hawk Performance R8 with Mike Skeen, the guy who damn-near won the Pirelli World Challenge GT title this year. The car, run by CRP Racing, is his baby, and my plan is to run as fast as I can and, most importantly, hand it over to him in one piece.
To avoid suspense, I do that. In fact, we both run lap times averaging over one second faster than anyone else in our class, and we finish first in three of the four hour-long segments. The problem was the second stint, and the cumulative time we lost fixing an issue on the right-front suspension. There, we lose around ten laps, and with it, all hope of victory.
But in “vintage” racing, winning isn’t everything. It is, in fact, merely the deciding factor that necessitates who purchases the evening’s beers. In this case, we get the “tough luck, have a beer on us,” treatment. It’s not all bad.
But what about the car? What’s it like driving a high downforce GT3-spec Audi R8 around a road course as famous as Daytona’s—a venue that’s crowned champions such as Hurley Haywood and A.J. Foyt?

In a word, spectacular.

Full disclosure: I’ve raced the proper Rolex 24 at Daytona twice, and been fortunate to compete with teams where we’ve led the overall for many hours, falling short of victory only due to a few mechanical gremlins (my best finish was fifth in 2009 with Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti). So for me, I’m pretty well versed in the scene and know how a car should respond. Genuinely, the R8 blew me away.

I’ve
written about this at length before, but the R8 LMS Ultra shares 50 percent of its parts with the production R8. It arrives off the same assembly line and features the stock V-10 motor. It’s then restricted for competition, so it “only” pushes around 500 hp. But with 817 lbs. of weight shed — including the removal of its all-wheel-drive system for rear-power only, a 6-speed sequential racing gearbox and a beefy aero package — the car is transformed.

What’s impressive is how forgiving the car remains. You can lean on the tires heavily, and all movements of yaw are slow and predictable. The brakes, still in steel, are magnificent. There’s also an adjustable ABS system allowing you to tweak how much it intervenes. Then there’s the traction control (yes, GT3 cars can utilize TC) and its minute adjustments to fine-tune. Set it right and the intervention is minimal, but it’s enough to give you extra confidence on power down — helpful in the cold nights that often befall Daytona this time of year.

One thing that took a while to adjust to was the quick steering. It darts ferociously with a small degree of lock. At first this is a bit disconcerting, especially in rapid changes of direction like at turn two or the fast bus-stop chicane. After a few laps, however, you adjust and it becomes normal.

A massive front splitter and rear wing ensure high-speed corners are planted. For instance, the fast left hand turn four in the infield was easy flat in fifth gear, even on old tires. I also drove a few laps in a Corvette Z06 that competed in the same class as the R8 in the Pirelli World Challenge, and that required a lift of around 50 percent throttle.

There’s something special about navigating Daytona’s 31-degree banked turns at over 170 mph; it’s so steep that, at pace-car speeds, you feel like you might fall down. The track’s recent repaving means it’s far smoother on the banking than I remember, but this part of the track isn't particularly tricky anyway. Sure, it may look challenging, but it’s full power without thought. Still, tearing around the banked NASCAR oval is one of coolest experiences you can have behind the wheel.

At night, your headlights are barely needed due to the bright lights shining from above the grandstands. It’s an eerie feeling, one almost of serenity. The noise of the R8 engulfs you, and yet it isn’t brazenly loud. It’s refined, much like the car—effortlessly quick.

As I exit the R8 having completed my stint, the sun soon begins to peek from beyond the horizon. It’s a sign that daytime is here, and you’ve made it through the night—hopefully unscathed. In just a few hours, you’ll be able to taste the finish. And a few hours after that, you’ll be able to sleep.

That is, without question, a huge relief, but for those lucky enough to be behind the wheel, it also signifies the end of a magical period of motoring. Nothing comes close to racing at night—the lights, the sounds, the stars, the relative calm. It’s just you and your machine as one singular unit, which I guess is how it always is. But somehow, in the deepest, darkest depths of the night, it feels incredibly moving. It's what we live for.
Here, 4 o’clock doesn’t suck at all.