It is as coveted as the Stanley Cup or the Lombardi Trophy.
It is the top honor in a sport where success is measured in hours, and the difference between winning and losing is often a matter of seconds.
The Rolex Daytona Cosomograph watch goes to the winning drivers in the worlds premier sports car endurance races, the 24 hours of Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Today, the fraternity that wears the Rolex Daytona watch now includes the CORE Autosport team of Rock Hill. CORE not only won the prototype challenge division in this years race, but it prepared and managed the race for the winning 911 Porsche factory car in the GT Le Mans class. The double win for one racing organization is unheard of in modern Daytona history, said race officials.
It tingles, CORE driver and team owner Jon Bennett said at the post-race news conference Sunday after CORE set a high standard for itself and Porsche North America for the rest of the Tudor United Sports Car championships. This is a great day in my life and a great day in our teams history.
Yet the countdown to 2014 Daytona, the 52nd running of the 24 hours, started 25 years ago, just months before Colin Braun, COREs premier driver, was even born.
Twenty-five years ago James and Jeff Braun arrived at Daytona. The father-son duo tried twice to win the 24-hour race without success. Jeff Braun was forever hooked, however, returning to Daytona each year as an engineer and race strategist for various teams.
In 1989, Jeff Braun brought his 4-month old son Colin to his first Daytona race. Like his father, Colin Braun hasnt missed a 24-hour Daytona since. This was his tenth year competing at the track; he started driving there at 16. In 2006, Colin Braun won the Brumos Porsche 250 race at Daytona. In 2013 he set a single-lap speed record at the Daytona oval, hitting 222.9 miles per hour in a prototype car.
Expectations for the 2014 race were high as Colin, who now lives in Charlotte, had been the lead driver during COREs three consecutive prototype challenge championships in the American Le Mans series. He had fast laps in practice, but more importantly, he had fast laps in qualifying, putting COREs Oreca on the pole for its division. Jeff Braun was the engineer/strategist for the Level 5 Motorsports Ferrrari 458 Italia, competing in the GT-Daytona class.
When the green flag dropped Saturday, COREs Oreca, with Bennett behind the wheel, was 14th overall, driving a tight line around the oval, just above the double-yellow lines on the track.
Seconds later, Bennett was driving backwards after being spun off course in the third turn by a GT-Le Mans car. In those brief seconds, everyone on the CORE team held their breath.
They waited for the crunch that usually accompanies a spin, the signal that the race could be over after it had barely begun.
Fortunately, no one hit Bennett. With the field of 66 cars forging ahead, Bennett started COREs task of making up time.
CORE lead engineer Tom Brown used a flawless pit strategy to help CORE make up time and regain a lost lap. Five hours into the race, Braun had the Oreca back in the division lead. Drivers Mark Wilkins, in his 11th Daytona start, and James Gue, who four weeks ago didnt even have a Daytona ride, kept the CORE car at, or near the top, of its division.
At the core of success
As the sun rose over Daytona on Sunday, Bennett surveyed the field. The Oreca was consistently leading the Prototype Challenge division. The Porsche cars, No. 911 and No. 912, were running first and second in their GT division.
Bennett watched as one of the Porsche cars came into the pits. The crew went over the wall, fueling the car and changing tires. The speed and precision of the pit crew impressed Bennett. He wasnt sure who was on the crew, whether it was CORE employees or those from Porsche North America.
Those are our guys, CORE he was told. The pit work, Bennett said, was a high-water mark for his organization.
So,too, was the race preparation done in the winter in Rock Hill, Colin Braun said.
We worked really really hard to come up with a plan that we wanted to stick with, he said. We executed our plan.
Time stands still
As the race entered its 23rd hour, time seemed to stand still. Its agonizing, Bennett said.
Except for Bennetts first lap bobble, CORE had run a near flawless race. But as the time slowly counted down, Bennett knew failure was only a mechanical malfunction, a drivers mistake, or another racers miscue away.
You go over your rituals, Bennett said. Do you cross your fingers, dont cross your fingers? Get your hopes high, dont get our hopes high? You cant relax.
Hard work is not always rewarded with results, Bennett said.
On the track the same things were going through Colin Brauns mind. One mistake could be fatal. One of Colins greatest skills is his ability to drive consistently, know when, and when not, to push, said his dad. That skill was put to the test over the final minutes.
Over the final 30 minutes Colin Braun dueled with former teammate Tom Kimber-Smith, now driving for the 8StarMotorsports.
COREs pit strategy helped decide the race. When Braun pitted, CORE changed tires and added gas. The 8StarMotorsports team decided just to add gas a lap later. Even though there was a race caution with 20 minutes remaining, Braun maintained the lead for the win.
The checkered flag
Christian Fittipaldi in Action Express Racings Corvette-Daytona prototype took the overall checkered flag Sunday afternoon, his second Daytona victory in 10 years.
The 911 Porsche, with Patrick Pilet at the wheel, crossed the line sixth, less than a minute behind Fittipaldi, but most importantly, 2.8 seconds ahead of the BMW team. It was back-to-back endurance victories for team Porsche as it had won the 24 hours of Le Mans in in 2013.
With Braun at the wheel, CORE completed its historical sweep. The Oreca finished ninth overall.
In the Level 5 Motorsports pits, Jeff Braun was ready to celebrate as their Ferrari had dueled the Flying Lizard Audi for more than six hours to take the GT-Daytona division win.
When Colin crossed the finish line, Jeff Braun remembers thinking, my dad finally got his Daytona win through his grandchild, and Jeffs team had won too.
Thirty second later, however, a race official penalized the Ferrari for avoidable contact, awarding the division win to the Flying Lizard team.
Jeff Braun didnt have time to celebrate Colins win. I started doing my job as team strategist. Who could we protest this to?
A protest wasnt allowed. But four hours after the checkered flag, race officials reversed the penalty. At 7:30 Sunday night, the Level 5 Motorsports team wheeled its Ferrari into the victory lane for a private celebration.
It wasnt until the next morning that father congratulated his son.
COREs Oreca and the two factory Porches are now back in the teams garage in Rock Hills Tech Park. They are being completely rebuilt. Twenty-four hours of racing takes a lot out of a car. The next race is March 12 at Sebring, Fla. That race is just 12 hours long.
Braun is back on the track, testing and preparing cars for some of the sports biggest teams including those in NASCAR. With his brand new Rolex, hopefully I wont be late now. More than likely, however, he will keep the prized possession locked in a safe.
Bennett got his watch, too. Its his second Rolex Daytona Cosomograph. He purchased the first to celebrate the success of his business, Composite Resources. The latest has the engraving that can only be earned, not purchased. It says Rolex 24 Daytona winner.
Its a reminder to me, dont sell yourself short, Bennett said. The lesson, never give up on a dream, never apologize for dreaming big.
Don Worthington • 803-329-4066