Monster Energy Cup regulars return to Daytona International Speedway for Rolex 24
Images: Blake Blakely Photography, TJ Majors Nigel Kinrade Photography (x2)
(Daytona Beach, Fla) 27 January 2017— When the green flag flies on the Rolex 24 At Daytona (2:00 PM ET FOX), all eyes will be on the 55 IMSA WeatherTech machines that will go hurling into turn one on the first of hundreds of laps around the 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.
But some of those eyes will be looking through binoculars, as the twice around the clock classic endurance race has seen an influx of spotters who provide the drivers an eye in the sky point of view to get through the traffic safely—and quickly. For Change Racing, the sports car arm of NASCAR squad RAB Racing, their spotters have a lot of experience at Daytona, but in a completely different kind of race.
Change Racing spotters Kevin Hamlin and TJ Majors have day jobs spotting for Kasey Kahne (Hamlin) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Majors) in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series, but made their first ever outings in the Rolex 24 last year as Change Racing debuted the Lamborghini Huracàn GT3.
“I was kind of scared to do it—just with how different it was, how many hours long the race is-that was kind of an intimidating thing for me the first time,” said Hamlin. “TJ (Majors) and I are both friends with Robby (Benton, Change Racing team principal) and figured it’d be fun to give it a shot last year and it worked out.”
Having had a bird’s-eye view for the Super Bowl-sized crowd at the Daytona 500, Hamlin was impressed by both the size and intensity of the Rolex 24 At Daytona crowd.
“TV doesn’t do the race justice—there are so many people in the infield during the whole weekend,” said Hamlin. “They are really passionate. It’s a little crazy—there are so many cool different kinds of cars and the fans are just huge enthusiasts.”
While the NASCAR spotter to-do list includes “…door, bumper, clear!” as well as working on alliances with other spotters and drivers, there are a few extra duties for spotters at the 24, not to mention added hours.
“The GTD cars, a lot of them don’t have center rear view mirrors,” said Hamlin, who raced his way from short tracks in the Northwest and into NASCAR Xfinity competition before focusing on spotting full time in 2010. “So we have to keep one eye out for what our driver is coming up on, and at the same time keep another eye out for what the faster classes are doing. These Prototypes are very, very quick and they come up on you so fast. You have to make sure your driver doesn’t get or cause any surprises and that challenge never really stops during this race.”
Using his background as a racer, Hamlin also focuses on how to keep the driver making forward progress while also avoiding trouble.
“You want to let them know what is going on and do it in a way so that they lose as little time as possible,” said Hamlin. “That’s such a big factor in this race. And another big factor is how dark it gets. They have some lights, but overall the track is so much darker than when we run here at night. It can be tricky (for the spotters) to find your car at night so you really have to stay switched on— especially to be able to pick it out when it is coming at you out of (NASCAR turn) four. Fortunately, the Lamborghini has really different headlights that stand out, so that is a big help.”
Besides having to time bathroom breaks with the caution periods, the 24 comes with its own special challenges for the guys up top.
“The length of the race, that’s the toughest thing,” said Hamlin. “You just don’t get around that-24 hours is a long race! But we’ve set up a good plan I think with our shifts for TJ (Majors) and I so we can get some rest. It’s hard in the middle of the night—you are so amped up from the race, you can’t just turn off and fall asleep. So hopefully the way we’ve broken it up, we can both be as fresh as we can be all the way through.”
Hamlin, who raced for Robby (Benton) at RAB Racing in Xfinity competition, has a much higher level of comfort with the IMSA regulations as he prepares for his second 24.
“The pit stop rules are so different, and the big thing is how to help your driver during the cautions because you can make or break your race if you don’t get that wave-around procedure done right,” said Hamlin. “You really have to be on top of all of that stuff if you are trying to get your laps back, it is so important. Another factor is that for the Change Racing drivers, having a spotter is the rarity, not the rule. So just getting used to having someone calling your race for you is something we’ve been working on because some of these guys had never worked with a spotter. TJ and I call the races similarly- we just do our deal and hope everyone can adapt!”
Besides keeping himself wide awake when he needs to be, what is Hamlin hoping for next weekend?
“Hopefully we get a new watch!” said Hamlin. “This would be cool race to win. TJ has won the Daytona 500 (with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.), and we’ve both won in everything from K&N up to Cup, so it would be awesome to win a sports car race and get a new (Rolex) watch! This is a great team, the shop is run really well, and it is a very good group of guys so hopefully we can pull that off next weekend.”