It was 2007, and we – Wayne Taylor, Max Angelelli, Jan Magnussen and I – had just finished third in my first 24 Hours of Daytona. The 2007 season-opening endurance race marked the first start for Wayne Taylor Racing, but the finish left us all a little bit disappointed. We wanted the win. We wanted the tireless efforts of the team to be rewarded. We wanted the Rolexes presented to the winning drivers to be the spoils of our victory.
I hadn't won a championship in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 2001, and I knew to battle for another title all my focus would need to be on the NASCAR side – so I told Wayne I hoped to get another shot at the 24 Hours once my NASCAR days were over. Even though another championship wasn't achieved, I am proud knowing I was fully committed to the efforts and stayed competitive all the way through my final NASCAR race.
I “retired” (at least from full-time racing!) at the end of 2015 and, shortly after the new year, Wayne called with exciting news about a new class in the IMSA series set to debut in 2017 and the return of Cadillac to sports car racing. Wayne Taylor Racing was spearheading Cadillac’s return and Max was in Italy working with Cadillac and Dallara on the design and performance. Wayne wanted to schedule a trip to Charlotte to present the program to me. Since its inception in 2007, Wayne Taylor Racing had come agonizingly close to a 24 Hours of Daytona victory on numerous occasions but had never won IMSA’s crown jewel event.
In May as we gathered at the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation offices to discuss, I could sense their excitement about this program. Wayne’s sons Ricky and Jordan would battle for the 2017 WeatherTech championship in the new car with Max scheduled to drive alongside them in the 24 Hours. Would I be interested in joining them? Absolutely. Their excitement about the new program was infectious, and winning the 24 Hours was now considered “unfinished business” for Wayne Taylor Racing and me.
While the 2017 event was going to be my return to racing, that obviously took a back seat when Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., was forced to the sidelines due to a concussion and I was asked to fill in for a handful of races – along with Alex Bowman – to close out the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. My focus was on the No. 88 program in Earnhardt’s absence, but once those obligations were completed in November, I got a chance to drive the new No. 10 Cadillac on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course.
At Charlotte, I was able to meet the team (some crew members remained from the 2007 event), get fitted in the car and turn some laps to get accustomed to this spectacular piece of machinery. Braking, accelerating and cornering in the Cadillac is only comparable to my experience in 2003 when I drove the Williams F1 car. I also got to spend more time with Ricky and Jordan at the test. I had met them previously in 2007 prior to them becoming professional race drivers and followed their careers once they began racing full-time. I was impressed by what they had accomplished since we met, but I was even more impressed after spending that day at the track with them. They are both great people, super-talented and they both have a lot of success ahead of them. And Max was still the same Max I came to know back in 2007 – very fast behind the wheel.
During a scheduled trip to Indianapolis in December, I stayed over to drive the Dallara simulator to learn more about the handling characteristics of the car and to get reacquainted with the Daytona International Speedway road course. I also learned a valuable lesson from Jordan that day:
When around Jordan, be prepared.
There was another test scheduled – this one at Daytona – in the middle of December. I quickly was reminded that with advanced technology comes the chance of a technical issue, which we had while downloading a software update into the car. Late in the first day we finally turned some laps with Ricky at the wheel and, with less than 30 minutes to go, I took a turn and finished out the session. I was a little slower than Ricky but was pretty happy with my overall pace. The following day, all the drivers took turns in the car and I was able to log more laps and find even more speed.
We returned to Daytona in January for the ‘Roar before the 24,’ and I was able to turn laps in dry and wet conditions. In 2007, I struggled in the rain during the race – so this was an important session for me to get some laps in tough conditions ahead of this year’s race.
I also felt I got the better of Rodney Sandstorm…I mean Jordan…at this test!
I left this test battered and bruised. We did a series of driver changes (also an area I wanted to improve on from my previous experience in 2007), and I caught my elbow and back on different parts of the car and seat while entering and exiting. But we needed to improve in this area, so we scheduled a late trip to Wayne Taylor Racing in Indiana to work solely on driver exchanges.
I was also left with one final task before the race – to come up with a lighthearted fake tattoo that we could use as motivation during race weekend. The 2017 24 Hours of Daytona would be about settling unfinished business and finally collecting those incredible Rolex watches awarded to the winners, so what better motivator than a fake one to wear on our wrists. And the dials on the watch face included images of Ricky, Jordan, Max and me.
While Ricky, Jordan, Max and I wanted the weekend to be fun, there was a seriousness and determination in this group, as well. We wanted that win. We felt pole position was in our grasps on Thursday afternoon, but ultimately we ended up qualifying fourth.
On Friday night after our final practice, Wayne and all the drivers attended a Konica-Minolta dinner with executives and guests. But before dinner, all of the drivers had a last-minute conference call with Wayne Taylor Racing race engineer Brian Pillar. Brian had been studying the weather forecast and had come up with a backup plan that included rain possibilities – a rain plan that included fewer driving stints for me. I had no issues with this plan since I did not have much experience in those conditions or on a slick track with rain tires, and I understood the goal was to win the race. However, I would still need to complete a minimum of two hours in the car based on series regulations – rain or shine.
Raceday finally arrived and it was a hectic one. After several sponsor meet and greets in the garage area which included all of the top Cadillac executives (a reminder to us how important this race is to the car manufacturers), we attended the drivers meeting and participated in an autograph session with the fans. After a quick bite to eat and a team meeting, I unveiled our “watches” for the race.
Ingrid, Ella and Leo arrived before the race and joined me (among thousands of fans which was great to see) on pit road. Ella lost her tooth that day and asked me to run the race with it in my pocket for good luck (at least until the tooth fairy arrived).
But attention quickly turned to the race. I was scheduled for the fourth stint – Ricky was starting the car but driving a triple-stint – and I would be the second driver. Ricky had a great run and turned the car over to me during a caution with us in the lead. But the restart did not go as planned!
I was the leader coming to the green but we were lined up behind some cars from other classes (four different classes with varying speeds compete in the race). I went to the outside but got stuck behind some slower cars as the second-place driver went to the apron and passed me for the lead. As we entered Turn 3 of the road course, I locked up the tires – which were new and “cold” (probably the toughest part of driving this style of car) – and made contact with a car leaving the pits.
Certainly not the way I wanted my first green-flag lap behind the wheel to start. Luckily, the damage was very limited and only cosmetic, and I recovered quickly and got into a groove. I completed a double-stint – nearly 90 minutes of my minimum required time of two hours in the car – and was replaced by Max a little under four hours into the race.
As I prepared for my next stint in the car, it began to rain. But Jordan, who was now driving the No. 10 Cadillac, said something over the team radio that really put my mind at ease. “Tell Jeff the track conditions are very similar to what he drove here in January.” He also talked me through an entire lap over the radio while he was racing under green-flag conditions, which was very helpful – and very impressive!
While the conditions may have been the same, the visibility wasn't. I'm still amazed at how difficult it is to see in rain conditions at night, yet how fast the car is capable of going. But I was able to drive through the conditions and visibility – in what may have been the most mentally straining of my career – to pit for a driver change with our car in the lead.
I had now reached my required minimum time driving the car and, with the rain now coming down harder, the plan was to keep swapping Ricky, Jordan and Max through the driver rotation and hope the rain would stop sooner than predicted. I was ready if needed or if the track dried, but rain continued throughout the night and into the morning hours (probably my only regret of the event was not getting to make more laps in dry conditions through the 24 hours of racing). As we approached the closing stages of the race, I knew this was now in the hands of the experienced sports car drivers.
I made my way from the motorcoach, where I had been glued to the TV throughout the night (it's so hard to fall asleep after you've been in the race car and the race is going so well), to the pit box a few hours from the end of the race. Wayne had won the 24 Hours before as a driver, but his kids had not and his team had not. As you can imagine, Wayne was all nerves as Ricky took over the driving duties in the race to the checkered flag. There was a late restart with about 15 minutes to go with Ricky running second chasing Felipe Albuquerque for the victory. Felipe drove in too deep and ran wide allowing Ricky to make a move on the inside in Turn 1 that nearly worked, but Albuquerque got the run off the corner to keep the lead.
With about three laps remaining, Ricky made a late-braking inside move in Turn 1 catching Felipe off guard and was alongside when Albuquerque tried blocking the move. The two made contact that sent the No. 5 car spinning.
Ricky continued on as the leader (originally I was very excited about the fact that Ricky was able to keep his car under control and take the lead) but we all anxiously awaited a ruling when we heard IMSA was reviewing the contact. After a few tense minutes that seemed like 15, IMSA ruled no penalties for the incident. And, of course, everyone on the team erupted in excitement.
As you are all aware, Ricky steadied himself in the closing minutes and drove the car to victory. I watched the checkered flag wave next to a happy team owner – but an even prouder father of two. All that this team and family had been through over the years with finishing second so many times, the emotions and reality of what just happened was spreading quickly throughout the WTR pit area.
For those who watched the race on TV, you had the same view of the incident I did. The more and more I watch the replay, the more I believe Ricky made an incredible move that the leader didn't anticipate – and the leader’s reaction to shut the door occurred too late. And with that move, Ricky made sure there was no more unfinished business. I couldn't be more proud of him and the entire team for being a part of this amazing victory.