The Daytona 500 is the biggest race.
The July Fourth Firecracker 400 is the biggest party.
The Bud Shootout is the most confusing, and the Gatorade Duels require the most math.
But when it comes to events at the World Center of Racing, the hands-down most difficult is the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Where do you sleep or do you sleep at all? What do you eat or do you eat at all? And what in the world does everyone smell like when it's over?
What? You thought we were talking about the drivers?
The true warriors of the 24 Hours are the men and women who coexist on pit road for the green flag Saturday afternoon and the checkered flag 1,440 minutes later.
"Actually, that number's not entirely accurate," said engineer Dave Cooper of Childress-Howard Motorsports as he thrashed on the Gentleman Jack Pontiac during race morning. "We've already been at work six hours today and we're two hours from the green flag. The 36 Hours of Daytona is more like it."
The No. 2 Pontiac-Crawford was one of the highest-profile entries in the 49-car field. Why? Because it was co-driven by three-time 24 champ Andy Wallace, sports car vet Rob Finlay, Sprint Cup racer Casey Mears, and a little woman you may have heard of named Danica Patrick. What's more, the car was co-owned by Mears' new NASCAR boss, Richard Childress. (Hence Childress-Howard Motorsports try to keep up.)
But while Patrick and Mears ran through a gauntlet of interviews and hot laps, the 20-person team living beneath the big white tent over Pit Stall 8 was working to keep their ride running 'round the clock.
We set up camp in that tent to see how (not to mention why) a Rolex 24 crew survives two days, one night, 600-plus laps, and too many pit stops to count. And no, it wasn't by continuously drinking Gentleman Jack at least not until the race was over.
Saturday, 3:31 p.m.
As the field comes to take the green flag, the GJ crew is already exhausted. On Thursday it blew an engine with such force that it smashed a fist-sized hole in the engine block. The scramble relegated it to a starting position of 18th.
"In a race like this, that's not a huge deal," says chassis engineer David Wagener. "The goal is find a groove, take care of the car, and keep your nose clean. Doing all of that is half the battle."
As he says it, the crew tests its air wrenches, though the first pit stop is nearly an hour away. Crew chief Katie Wallace -- who also happens to be driver Andy's wife -- does a lap of the GJ tent and wishes everyone luck as her sister, team general manager Trudie Crawford Capece, helps distribute box lunches to the team.
Wallace hammers by as the green flag waves, drawing a light round of applause from the team and co-drivers Finlay, Mears and Patrick, who will take the wheel in that order. A potential strategy is to do double driving shifts, which means that each driver will spend about four hours in the car for their first turn. That explains why Patrick disappears as soon as the big green Rolex clock starts rolling.
"Gotta rest and gotta eat," she says as she signs autographs on the move. "See you tonight."
We have a McDreamy sighting. All weekend long there has been a running competition for largest fan horde between Danica, reigning Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, and actor Patrick Dempsey. Danica has drawn slightly larger crowds today, but the Prettiest Hair Award for the weekend goes to the Made of Honor, hands down.
The No. 2 car has settled into a groove and Wallace is cruising in 12th place.
"Not great, but safe," his wife says as she monitors no less than a dozen computer screens and three televisions. Unlike NASCAR, live telemetry can be beamed back to the pits for constant consumption and analysis by Wallace and her team.
Back in the media center, the writers are already in "save your tires" mode, listening to grand marshal and three-time 24 Hours winner Brian Redman carry on with cockney stories that no one understands.
The sun begins to set over the Turn 2 grandstand, which triggers two simultaneous reactions. First, the temperatures will drop 10 degrees in 10 minutes. Up and down pit road it becomes pretty easy to spot the folks from southern climes -- they're the ones pulling on parkas and skull caps despite the fact it's still in the mid-60s.
The GJ ride comes in for its second pit stop right on schedule and Finlay replaces Wallace. Finlay is the lesser known of the four drivers, but he is also the largest, which means the tiny seat that fits Wallace, Casey and Patrick has to be replaced to make room for Finlay. The team loses time in the pits making the switch, "But it's OK," Wagener is quick to remind. "It's a long night."
The good news: The pit tent is well-stocked with cereal bars, vitamin C energy packs, and even a small Walgreen's worth of medicines in case exhaustion leads to infection.
The bad news: The pit tent is also totally void of human beings. They are all half a mile away in garage No. 18, chasing an electrical problem that has the headlights blinking, windshield wipers whipping, and the fuel pump sputtering.
Finally, after 45 minutes, they get it solved, finding a wire that was likely frayed during all those engine changes. Unfortunately, they are now more than 30 laps down to the leader, the No. 16 Porsche of Penske Racing.
"What did I tell you?" Wagener says again.
Yeah, yeah, we know, it's a long night.
Mears appears in the tent in his fire suit and ready to go, though his shift is still about 20 minutes away. Since the start of the race he's been chilling in his motor coach, but couldn't sit still any longer and showed up. His appearance -- not to mention his legendary father, Roger -- pumps up the crew but not as much as the golf cart full of steak sandwiches, fruit, cheese and chocolate chip cookies.
"See what these guys are doing," Mears says with a smile. "Come back here at 4 a.m. and they'll be doing the same thing."
Thanks, dude, we'll see for ourselves while you're asleep back in the RV. If you want, we'll come wake you up so you can see, too
"No thanks, I'm good."
As Mears cranks out some of the team's fastest lap times of the night, the GJ crew starts pointing at the TVs mounted overhead. The lead car, the No. 6 driven by another NASCAR refugee, AJ Allmendinger, has come to a stop on the track and is being towed to the garage.
"That's why we work on these cars as hard as we do even when we are dozens of laps down," Andy Wallace says as he heads off for some R&R. "If we had trouble, then so will everyone else."
"We're still 23 laps back," says Mrs. Wallace. "But Casey just ran a lap over 121 mph, which is very quick at this stage. And his demeanor over the radio is, 'Let's have fun!' That's good for all of us during a tough night."
And now it becomes apparent why they call this an endurance race. No less than a dozen cars are back in the garage -- including the heavy favorite 01 Lexus of Juan Montoya, Scott Dixon and Scott Pruett -- with only nine of the 49 cars still on the lead lap.
The crew is polite to Patrick, despite the fact that she forgot her seat insert and forced teammate Mears to stay out an extra half-hour. In a bizarre three-minute stretch at 10 p.m., Mears pits and swaps out for Patrick, a gigantic fireworks display erupts over the track, and Speed Channel goes off the air, which means that until the network goes back on the air at 7 a.m. Sunday, the team will have to go old school and eyeball the car as it whips by every two minutes or so.
Mears is sound asleep in his motor coach. Years ago he used to stay awake between shifts (the 2004 Indy 500 champ said he'll stay up playing Wii), but decided that sleep deprivation at 150 mph is bad.
Back in Pit Stall 8, there are no Wii-motes or king-size beds, just folding chairs and cereal bars.
At 11:30 p.m. we have officially moved into the late-night bizarro zone.
There's a very large man singing karaoke in the Daytona Fan Zone -- "Summer Loving" from the Grease soundtrack to be exact. Meanwhile, a drunken girl has burned her hand on a heat lamp in the same Fan Zone, and a guy named Roy "Zee" Ogletree has entered the eighth consecutive hour of riding his Jet Ski in Lake Lloyd, which runs adjacent to the backstretch. Ogletree began running laps when the green flag flew and intends to run nonstop for the 24 hours to put his name in the Guinness Book of World Records.
In addition, the team pitting next to Childress-Howard is Team Sahlen's, whose mascot is a 5-year-old-ish kid named Hot Dog Boy, whose picture is splashed all over its tent and who, according to the team's official press kit, "shoots mustard from his fingers" to ward off his enemies.
Bizarro zone and there are 16 hours to go.
Patrick's two-hour stint behind the wheel ends as roughly as it began when she pits one lap later than expected under caution. As she and crew chief Katie Wallace have a little heart-to-heart, Capece helps distribute meal No. 3 -- this time it's barbecue.
"I won't go to bed for a couple of more hours," the New Zealander says with a smile as she holds up a pair of food tongs. "We need to make sure these guys eat and we want to get some reclining chairs out here so that they can try to get some sleep. My job as general manager is to make sure everything is where it is supposed to be when it's supposed to be there."
And make sure everyone knows where the tongs are.
With Andy Wallace back behind the wheel, Gentleman Jack's Pontiac is slowly crawling back up the standings, now running 26th of 49, 27 laps down but the field coming back to GJ with only five cars left on the lead lap.
In the competitor RV lots, sweat-soaked fire suits hang in plain view while off-shift drivers snooze until their next turn. Wanna know which drivers are international champions and which ones are hobby racers? It's easy. Giant carbon fiber motor coach = Jimmie Johnson. Tiny chrome Airstream camper = hobby guy.
OK, now it's cold. Temps are flirting with 50 and it's a humid Florida 50, which feels like 40. Thankfully the GJ car is much quicker in the cold. Unfortunately, good handling doesn't keep the crews warm.
Lined along the chain-link fence that separates pit road from the infield are dozens of reclining chairs with dozens of crew members sacked out.
One frustrated member of the Penske Racing team suddenly sits up and screams at the speaker above him, from which the speedway PA announcers drone on and on to a grandstand that contains perhaps two dozen fans.
"SHUT THE HELL UP!"
In the Gentleman Jack pits, crew chief Wallace doesn't even notice as her sister puts out meal No. 4 -- chicken. Instead she, as always, sits diligently at her laptop.
And she's totally asleep.
As we pass the halfway point at 3:30 a.m., PR man extraordinaire Dave Hart and I decide to stop pestering the team and see what's happening in the infield via golf cart. In Turn 4 they're gathered around the bonfire telling lies. In Turn 2 endless teenagers wander through the darkness (paging Mom and Dad). And wrapped around the International Horseshoe are the hardest of the hard-core fans, some of whom are also asleep sitting up.
The sand man has cast such a spell over the speedway that our visit to Lake Lloyd reveals that even Zee Ogletree has decided to park his Jet Ski. We boo him mightily.
The GJ Pontiac is finally back in the top 20 with Finlay behind the wheel for his second go-round. With no race coverage on the air and whispers about rain showers in the area, the Gentleman Jack crew has the pit TVs tuned to the Weather Channel and what's that? Last week's episode of "Lost" on TiVo? "We have to go back to the island, Kate!"
The writer has nothing to report here because he was asleep in his rental car. However, reports indicate that Meal 4 was delivered around 5 a.m. -- deli sandwiches.
Mmmm, deli sandwiches.
Mears took the nap he'd promised and got the results he'd hoped for, wheeling the Gentleman Jack ride to the cusp of the top 15 and an unlikely return to the scoring pylon despite looping the car during his first run. Damn those cold tires.
Right now is when prior Rolex 24 experience pays off. And we're not talking about Mears. Prior to this year's event, the longtime pit vets instructed the newbies to pack the following crucial items: one pair of fresh socks, one pair of fresh underwear, and a toothbrush.
Without a doubt, those who took the advice are the ones who at least look like they've attempted to bathe, which is pretty obvious because they're changing and brushing out on pit road. The ones who didn't can be identified as the ones with a halo of zero people around their stinky selves.
In an instant, the Gentleman Jack crew is revitalized, thanks to the simultaneous arrival of live TV coverage, a well-rested Patrick, meal No. 5 -- cereal, fruit, juice, milk -- and, wait, what is that bright light coming out of Turn 3 is that yes the sun!
This time Patrick's transition into the car still isn't smooth, but better. Hey, cut the dudes some slack. They went from dead asleep to straight over the wall.
FINALLY, the No. 2 Pontiac is in the top 15 and on the big infield pylon. The rejuvenated crew members cheer through the yawns as they scarf down their cereal, and leader Andy Wallace crackles over the radio that he's thinking about a top 10 or better. "We've still got seven hours," he tells his crew chief/wife. "A lot can happen yet."
In an unrelated note, Ogletree is back on his Jet Ski doing laps toward his Guinness World Record. Clearly he thought no one was paying attention at 3:30 in the morning when he'd parked it but we were, Zee.
Wallace is up to 12th now, nothing short of a miracle considering this car was 42nd three hours in. The team can sense that top-10 that Andy promised and the crew decides it will keep its ace in the cockpit as long as the rules will allow. Grand Am Series regulations state that a driver can be behind the wheel for no more than 3.5 continuous hours, no more than 14 hours total and must rest for at least one hour after each shift.
No one argues with those rules, especially in the 18th hour. But Andy will be in there until they make him come out.
Remember all that energy that came rushing into the tent two hours ago. It's gone, victim of exhaustion overcoming adrenaline. Fact is, there is still five freaking hours left in this race and everyone is getting tired of being cooped up in a space that measures about 20 square yards in other words, one-tenth the size of one of Patrick Dempsey's shoe closets.
Right on cue, crew member David Woodhouse whips out a retractable massage table and goes to work beneath the grandstands behind the pits.
"I'm a licensed chiropractor back in England," Woodhouse says as he pops his adjuster tool into his pocket and sends a team member back into the tent. "Andy brings me in for the longer races. They need my services throughout the event, but especially at this stage of the race."
Yes, the been-up-all-night-changing-out-tires-and-brakes-and-trying-to-sleep-while-sitting-on-top-of-a-tire stage of the race.
Wallace stays in the pits long enough to check in with wife/crew chief Katie ("There are things you shouldn't say over the radio, especially when your crew hasn't slept in two days") and long enough to watch his banzai driving partner Finlay hurtle their machine into the 10th position with four hours to go.
He describes the ongoing electrical short to writers in the media center, explaining that it is causing the sensors to repeatedly tell him that the car isn't working properly but obviously it is working just fine. And so is his wrenched back after a 10-minute round of treatment from Woodhouse in the pits and a rubdown from his masseuse back in the motor home.
The Gentleman Jack crew members jump out of their seats and go nuts just past the three-hours-to-go mark, as leaders Scott Pruett and Buddy Rice nearly wreck each other out battling at the point.
"Did you see that?!"
True, that pair is 32 laps ahead of Finlay in 10th, but should they both wreck with this much time left, a top-10 finish might suddenly turn into a top-3 finish. Another reminder of just how long this day still is. Nearly lost in the excitement is the fact that Finlay has moved into ninth.
"Here's how long this race is," Mears says as he gears up for his last ride with Gentleman Jack. "We think we're almost done, but we have almost a whole Sprint Cup race left to run."
A lithe, little woman in blue jeans and a gray T-shirt slides under the ropes and into the GJ tent like she owns the place. One by one she pats each member of the crew on the back and then sits down on the pit wall to chat with Katie and Andy Wallace.
"Dude," one man says to his buddy. "Is that Danica?"
Indeed it is. And after a goodbye to Finlay and a sendoff of new driver Mears, she vanishes. Moments later, the No. 2 car slides into the eighth spot. The crew barely notices. Why? Because meal No. 6 is in the tent. Prime rib!
The one-hour-to-go mark brings the car into the pits for the final stop of the event hopefully.
As Mears pulls away, he's still eighth on the charts, a full two laps ahead of the ninth-place car, but on the track he trails only the top four cars, which are putting on perhaps the best show in the Daytona 24's nearly five-decade history.
But in the Gentleman Jack pits, Mears' declaration that he has the best seat in the house is rained on with one simple sentence from Katie Wallace:
"We're going to be pretty close on fuel "
No rest for weary, the entire team starts calculating fuel mileage then they do it again and again and sink into their seats to ask for a miracle.
THREE TWO ONE 24 HOURS! CHECKERED FLAG!
The Childress-Howard Motorsports team didn't earn Andy Wallace his fourth win in the 24 Hours of Daytona, but by his own admission they provided him with "certainly one of [most] the exciting, hard-working, nerve-racking runs I've had here. It was fun. But man, am I exhausted."
The team overcame two engine changes and a potentially devastating electrical problem to rally from 42nd place to an eighth-place finish. The overworked, overtired team of 20 never stopped and delivered its four drivers into the most improbable top-10 finish of the event.
Along the way, they completed 702 laps, 2,499 miles and 24 pit stops (maybe 25, the engineers were so tired they lost count), and consumed six meals and several dozen cartons of snack bars, energy drinks and lots and lots of fruit.
While the Brumos Porsche team celebrates in Victory Lane, the Gentleman Jack crew has one last hour of work ahead -- clean up and load up -- followed by an eight-hour drive back to Denver, N.C.
"The entire experience is just 24 hours of excruciating emotion," Katie Wallace says with tears in her eyes as she accepts the hugs of her coworkers. "We are all so exhausted, but I guarantee when I finally get in the bed I will just lay there questioning what I may have done to cost us a shot at the win. It's hard to let yourself relax. But it's always a relief when it's over."
"I don't know how they do it in the pits," Andy Wallace says with a smile. "But I'm glad they do. I think I'll stick to my job so I don't have to do theirs."
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.