Mechanic Greg Dilione knows about the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Not only has Dilione worked as a mechanic for the Alex Job Racing team for the past 22 years and for almost that many twice-around-the-clock races, but team owner Alex Job doesn’t believe in relief crews, which means the same guys who start a 24-hour race in the AJR pits are the same guys working on the car all night and right through to the last pit stop.
This puts a lot of emphasis on preparation, because if the car breaks it’s the crew that will have to repair it. “You put more worry in before a 24-hour race,” said Dilione, a stocky blond whose tanned, open face is only slightly weathered from the rigors of a race mechanic’s life. “You worry if you have everything you need to make it through the race, all the back-up stuff.”
During a conversation prior to this year’s race, team owner Alex Job pointed to Dilione as if to mark how far the team had come since it was started in the two-car garage at his house in Orlando 25 years ago. “In the early 1990s, we went all over the country racing full time, and it was just the three of us on the crew,” said Job. “Myself, Greg and my wife Holly.”
Despite close-cropped gray hair and gold-framed glasses, the lanky Job, a former driver, is a seemingly ageless member of the paddock at Daytona. “I’ve always had a love affair with this race,” said Job, who grew up in Florida and now has shops in nearby Tavares. His feeling for the Rolex 24 guides Job’s choice of crew members. He only wants those who live for the demands of a 24-hour. “Anybody who can stay with a car that long will do it,” he said. “And love doing it.”
It has been a winning formula. Coming into this year’s race, the Job team had won its class at Daytona and twice at Le Mans, not to mention eight class victories at Sebring and four at the Petit Le Mans, all in Porsche 911s.
It’s a team that knows endurance racing. That’s why two days before this year’s Rolex, the AJR team’s brow was collectively furrowed. One of the quickest Porsches and GT class entries in testing and practice, the Weather Tech-sponsored Porsche went into a nose dive once the weather took an unexpected warm turn. On a balmy Thursday, veteran Porsche pilot Jeroen Bleekemolen qualified 15th for a race where the Ferraris and Audis figured to be fast in addition to the usual bevy of well-prepped Porsches.
By the time the lone night practice that followed qualifying ended, the Job team had lost a full day with a car that was not responding to changes in the chassis designed to catch up with the increasingly slippery Daytona asphalt.
To make matters worse for the Porsche crew, Job, who worked at Porsche-Audi dealerships in Florida for two decades before making his foray into race-team ownership, had added an Audi entry for the 24-hour. Audi Sport had called him with an offer to campaign an R8 Grand Am with the help of factory mechanics during race prep. It was an offer made to three teams, but it was the Job team’s #24 Audi that qualified fastest among the R8s — in sixth position, well ahead of the #23 Porsche.
After night practice and lots of head scratching, the new Porsche RSR transmission was disengaged and quickly carried by the team’s pit truck to the trailer manned by Porsche’s transmission specialist for a quick examination before the garage closed. The pre-load in the differential, which determines how the limited slip responds, was not set to what the team had ordered when it bought the new transmission. Problem solved — except no equipment, budget, driver experience or mechanical knowledge could replace a missed day of practice after other contenders had already begun successfully adjusting and fine-tuning for the higher ambient temperatures.
The AJR team played catch-up on Friday, but it remained to be seen how things would go on Saturday once the race started under sunny skies with temperatures in the mid 70s. “With the Porsches, you start with the pre-load in the differential for the set-up,” said crew chief Phil Pierce, standing on the grid less than an hour before the start. “All the rest of the suspension settings are done based on what pre-load you have in the car.”
“We lost a ton of practice time,” he continued. “The car is close. We’ll have to wait and see until the race starts.” Pierce knew he could rely on a veteran crew behind the wheel to at least keep the Job Porsche in the running. The team had arguably two of the best Porsche 911 drivers in the world in Dutchman Bleekemolen and Irishman Damien Faulkner. Young Porsche factory driver Marco Holzer, age 24, and 20-year-old Cooper McNeil, the GTC champion last year in the ALMS, filled out the line-up.
In aggregate, this quartet had run 39 professional-caliber 24-hour races and lacked nothing in the confidence department. “It’s fair to say we were disappointed by what happened in qualifying, but we weren’t disillusioned,” said Faulkner. “There’s a depth of knowledge with this team that we can rely on.”
McNeil, whose father David owns the team’s sponsoring company Weather Tech, suffered more than the other drivers by virtue of less seat time — occasioned by the need to recover some speed with the veterans on board. In his third Daytona 24-hour, McNeil attends the University of Colorado at Boulder when he’s not racing. Understandably, he’d have preferred more seat time at the Daytona branch of the University of Porsche.
Once the green flag dropped, it was clear the Job Porsche would not be dictating the pace and thereby testing others’ endurance. The #23 was consistent on the Continental spec tires and got excellent fuel mileage, but its pace was half a second off from the Porsches of Magnus and TRG, the Ferraris of AIM Autosport and Corsa Michelotto. Despite a bevy of pre-race complaints about being down on power, the Audis of Job, Rum Bum Racing and APR were also quicker, in part due to better consistency on tires.
Bleekemolen quickly resorted to drafting to the front with the Momo Porsche of NGT Motorsports, which had qualified on the front row but was found to have a minor infraction with its rear wing and had started at the back before rapidly moving up the order. Driven by Sean Edwards, with whom Bleekemolen had co-driven to victory in the 24-hour at Dubai, the Momo Porsche seemed to be the perfect tandem drafting partner — until a bump loosened up the rear bodywork on the left rear corner of the AJR Porsche. Once the rivets vibrated out, the bumper section behind the wheel began flapping in the breeze.
Ultimately, the decision came down to a choice of re-gaining a tenth or two with an aerodynamically proper bumper on the banking or sticking to the lead lap. Given the deficit on lap times already in place due to a blistering pace, the decision was taken to rip off the flapping bodywork during Bleekemolen’s second stop under a caution.“You don’t have to be pushing all the way,” said Pierce. “The last six to eight hours is when you push. We’re set up for consistent lap times and for having the tires work for the entire stint.” But when Faulkner got out after his opening stints, he acknowledged, “For sure it’s slower in a straight line without the bodywork.”
During the night, the struggle to stay on the lead lap manifested itself with another decision. After an opening double stint, which included a penalty for speeding on the pit road, McNeil would miss his next turn behind the wheel to keep the veteran Porsche drivers in the seat. It was a decision made up and down the pit road among Daytona Prototype and GT teams alike when it came to narrowing the driving line-up from four drivers to three as the long night progressed. (Charlie Kimball of Chip Ganassi’s winning DP team, for instance, drove only two stints.) Job had said before the race that the ideal line-up is three drivers — but four is better in case one gets sick.
McNeil, who had been training at high elevation in the Rockies and was in the peak of physical condition, was sick with temporary heartbreak. “I was here sitting and they kept putting other drivers in. Then around 3 a.m. I just left the pits.” He would return to support the team in the daylight hours, but still the call to drive didn’t come.
Driver rotation strategy is a crucial element at Daytona. Once Holzer had dragooned around during the 34-lap caution for early morning fog, which enabled the team to replace the brake pads and repair a front splitter battered in the ongoing battle to stay off the curbs, the Job team’s race came down to Bleekemolen, the ever-fresh Dutchman, and Faulkner, the gallant Irishman.
As anticipated by Pierce, opportunity knocked during the final six hours as Daytona’s high-banked speed bowl became a roaring witches’ brew once the temperatures began to climb under sunny skies. The leading AIM and Michelotto Ferraris conspired to take one another out at Turn 1. The #24 Audi was penalized for avoidable contact with the AIM Ferrari and lost a lap. The very fast Momo Porsche had already disappeared into the night when the right front suspension collapsed, likely from too much curb-hopping.
With two and a half hours left, Bleekemolen was in first place because he was the last car among the GT leaders to pit. Once rejoining after his stop, the Dutchman was 29 seconds behind leader Andy Lally in the Magnus Porsche, an express train on the banking. Shortly after Faulkner got in for the final push, the Job Porsche team got a big break. The race’s 15th caution fell with 92 minutes remaining. Given the Job team’s pit stop schedule, it would definitely be able to run the race with one more pit stop. Was it possible the team might win on a fuel gambit?
Alas, the cautions give and the cautions take. The same safety period enabled the #24 Audi to return to the lead lap after its penalty. And then the race’s 16th and final caution fell with just over 60 minutes remaining. After 23 hours of at-the-limit racing, all the leading GT crews were faced with a decision about fuel strategy that would decide the race.
Having huddled with the data acquisition engineer, Pierce knew what he wanted to do. The team was lying sixth. The green would fall with approximately 50 minutes remaining. The right pace might allow the #23 Porsche to run to the finish. By now, everybody in the Job pits — including the #24 side of the tent — was in full alert despite a night of forty winks for crew members. McNeil, Bleekemolen and Holzer watched intently as Pierce discussed the options with the data engineer.
“What it came down to was we knew where we were going to finish,” Pierce would say later, “so we tried something and took a gamble to try to move up.”
A parade of different strategies played out among the leaders. During the safety car period, the Michellotto Ferrari took fuel, tires and brake pads. The Rum Bum Audi took fuel and tires. With an eye on track position, only the #24 Audi and the #23 Porsche of Job took just fuel during the safety car period. “There were no team orders,” Job would say afterward. “Each team managed its own strategy.”
When the green fell, the Magnus Porsche pitted right away for fuel only, hoping to go to the finish but was unable to run the remaining distance flat out. Next, the APR Audi and the Ferraris pitted for fuel. Suddenly, the Job Audi and the Job Porsche were leading and running nose-to-tail with 40 minutes remaining. Plus, the Job team knew its sister car had to pit for a splash of fuel. Would a mileage gambit work after all?
In a maddening development, the Grand-Am’s timing and scoring periodically went on the blink. It was nearly impossible to track the pace of the trailing competitors who had more fuel and judge the lap times needed for Faulkner to stay in the lead without running out of fuel.
Meanwhile, the Job Porsche mechanics were the least active onlookers in the team’s pit, soldiers with a cause but little remaining duty. Dilione alternately joked and smiled with other crew members to break the tension. His back toward the track, occasionally he stood with eyes closed, bone tired and reconciled to the outcome.
Running flat out, the #24 Audi’s Felipe Albuquerque sought to build a gap, turning laps in the 1:49 range. Faulkner initially turned laps of 1:50 to conserve fuel, hoping to run to the finish. With 35 minutes left, he switched to Map 1 on the ignition to reduce consumption.
With 13 minutes to go, the Audi led by 39 seconds and Faulkner by now was turning laps of 1:56, desperately trying to save fuel and on worn tires. Behind him, the APR Audi, on fresh tires, was gaining. With ten minutes to go, the fuel strategy was doomed. The Job Porsche could not make the finish on fuel while staying ahead of those who had sacrificed track position when pitting later under green.
It was only a question of whether the #24 Audi could get a splash of fuel and retain the lead. With ten minutes remaining, Albuquerque pitted and returned to the track in front. The APR Audi gave chase on fresher tires as the Rum Bum R8 balked and eventually stopped, out of fuel. The #24 Job Audi had the margin and legs to get to the finish first among the GTs. Faulkner, meanwhile, made the race’s final pit stop one minute from the finish. The gambit to move up from sixth had left the Job Porsche back in…sixth place, last on the GT class lead lap.
The post-mortems varied, but the long faces on the Porsche side of the Job tent as they watched the #24 team celebrate its victory told a universal tale. Job himself was elated but as usual was politic except for describing Grand-Am’s scoring as crappy. “The only thing better would have been to finish first and second,” he said.
Bleekemolen, who will join McNeil in the GTC ranks of the ALMS this year, thought the team should have pursued the same strategy as the #24 car, pushing to the splash-and-dash finish. “We should have kept fighting,” he said. Faulkner, who had soldiered through despite the Grand-Am’s scoring problems, was almost dazed by the turn of fortunes when he got out. “To be in the hunt at the finish says a lot about this team. But we didn’t know where we were. I didn’t know how hard I had to go. Nobody could give me the lap times.”
Ultimately, the same fate that was kind to the Job Audi was unkind to the Porsche players. While packing up equipment, Dilione summed up the mechanic’s perspective. “That’s why,” he said, “there’s always next year.”
Daytona GX Champ
Napleton’s Cayman takes the inaugural race in a new Grand Am class
This year’s Rolex 24 almost marked the first time a Porsche hasn’t made the podium in any class in many a year. Fortunately for me, and a few other diehard Porsche fans, the strange, new and misunderstood GX class kept Porsche’s streak alive, with Caymans sweeping the podium.
Napleton Racing built and entered our specially built 3.8-liter Cayman. Napleton’s claim to fame in motorsports is the creation of the Cayman Interseries. I have done one Interseries race, at the last Rennsport Reunion at Laguna Seca, and I have to say it was the most fun I’ve had behind the wheel in a very long time.
This year’s Daytona ride came about due to Ron Barnaba, Napleton Porsche’s GM, who convinced Ed Napleton (owner, of course) on November 2 that the Rolex 24 was something they should do. Somehow they built a car in about six weeks, just in time for the January test days, and then refined it further for the race a few weeks later. Using the knowledge gained from their Interseries experience, they created a car that was not only the fastest in the class but also the most reliable. It was the reliability we weren’t sure of until it was over and really was the most nerve-wracking aspect of the whole experience. I was constantly worrying about what/when it was going to break.
The race was also like a reunion for me. Ron was a friend from when I had started with Brumos Racing back in 2002. At the time, he was Brumos Porsche’s GM. While building his successful Cayman Interseries concept at Napleton, he had hired Isaac Fritsche as his crew chief (also crew chief on this Rolex win). Isaac was also on my first Daytona Prototype crew. And finally, for this project they brought in the experience of Michael Colucci, who was the manager of that same early Brumos DP program up until about 2010. It was sort of like getting the band back together for me.
The driver lineup was strong, too. Shane Lewis was involved from the beginning and started this race a week after his Dubai 24-hour win. Jim Norman had been in the Rolex Series GT ranks through 2012, and we had met when our paths crossed in airports more than anywhere else. I hadn’t met Nelson Canache before this program, but he proved himself on the track (even if we couldn’t get him to meetings on time).
More than ever, the drivers had it very easy for this race. The team did all the heavy lifting in November through to the race start. And remember that big flu outbreak? It hit the shop hard, affecting everyone just before or after the January test, but they persevered and arrived well prepared. Surprisingly, they hadn’t all done a 24-hour race, let alone as one unit. Mike and Isaac’s experience and sense of calm resonated through the team, and it was more or less like clockwork…right to the checkered flag with a ten-lap advantage over second place.
This felt more like my 1998 Le Mans win than my last Rolex 24 win. It was a crew’s race: They did the hard work, and it showed with domination. I almost feel guilty holding on to my new fine Rolex timepiece…almost.