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Record attendance, an excellent fan experience, and close racing don’t happen by accident. IMSA has been planning this from the start.

2024 Daytona 24 2024 Daytona 24

Formula 1, this. Drive to Survive, that.” It’s all so monotonous.

The dominance of an incredibly talented Dutch 20-something feels suffocating, enabled by an unbeatable car built by a man called Adrian. F1 creates new fans almost by accident, despite its best efforts to alienate them, governed as it is by the serially dysfunctional FIA. Motorsport fans are searching for a better high-octane high, but it’s always been right in front of us. It’s always been IMSA, and the 2024 Rolex 24 at Daytona proves it.

OK, I’ll get right in front of it. Yes, it was the 23 hours and 58 minutes of Daytona this year. As Tom Blomqvist thundered his Cadillac V.Series-R up to Felipe Nasr’s Porsche 963 in the closing laps, the checkered flag fell in error. The finish was already a nail-biter, and the mishap added intrigue. But if we’re being frank, the Cadillac didn’t have the pace to snatch the podium’s top step without an act of god.

Despite that, a record crowd attended Daytona International Speedway to watch the 24-hour-long racing event. Race attendance has grown steadily, tracking with the increase in motorsports interest since F1’s stateside explosion in popularity. As they say, rising tides raise all ships. But it’s no mistake. IMSA has been planning for this since the beginning.

Not The FIA

By hour nine of the Daytona 24, it’s chaos in every corner, a wall of mixed sounds. As I ventured up to the top of Daytona’s labyrinthine pit building, the echoes of V10-powered Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evos split the shriek of Oreca LMP2 cars. Cadillac’s cross-plane V8 GTP cars add a dash of NASCAR flavor to a lush, brutal soundscape, full of flat-plane eights with tones modulated by the high-pitched whistle of turbochargers.

My destination was the heart of IMSA’s race day operations: race control. For most fans it’s a place of mystery, high above the bustle, faceless and authoritative. But it has a clear mandate along with flagging, officiating, and stewarding the race: Keep it entertaining.

This is where the differences between IMSA and the FIA become clearer. Whereas the FIA’s top-flight series (F1, the World Endurance Championship) are merely sanctioned by the FIA, IMSA sanctions, runs, and promotes its own series, and owns several of the tracks that it runs on, including Daytona. And IMSA is honest with its goals and intentions. It knows that entertainment is its product, and that close, hard racing is the way to keep people engaged.

Deep within Daytona’s pit building, a library-like hush muffles the roar. In a nondescript hallway, the doors bear names like “Penske” and “France” (like Bill France) until finally, one door says “Race Control.” Inside, a cramped network of rooms and hallways contain everything officials need to survive 24 hours–food, bunks, and equipment storage–but one room is the most important. It’s two-tiered and dim, illuminated by dozens of screens playing raw video feeds, timing, live track data, and a large digital clock. On the far end, floor-to-ceiling windows render a stunning view of the speedway. Down below, IMSA staff work on video production. Up top is where the business of controlling the race is conducted.

IMSA’s Senior Director of Race Operations Mark Raffauf led me up the stairs for an inside look at some of the most important processes of a race weekend. Raffauf is a 50-year veteran of IMSA and has been around since the very start.

“I remember when we did this with pencil and paper,” Raffauf joked, as he ushered me behind a V-shaped desk staffed by five people, all staring at a dizzying array of raw video feeds. The V formation is the heart of race control, and where all of the shots are called.

“We have a dedicated staff of people–the same people–for every event,” Raffauf explained. “Everything you see here gets packed up and taken to every single IMSA event across the country in trucks. It’s nice here,” he gestures toward the view of Daytona, “But we normally set up in the basement for Long Beach.”

Along the chain of command, starting with the race director and working its way down through various liaisons for flaggers, track safety, and team communications, video production is patched in early. IMSA isn’t shy about this.

“Entertainment is our business, racing is the product,” Raffauf said. It’s critical that races are entertaining and clear, which is why IMSA handles yellow flag periods the way it does, bunching the field up then pulling the pin. It’s how GTP was a near photo finish. And it’s how they keep a 24 hour race entertaining most of the way through.

That’s not to say IMSA isn’t a sporting body, because it is. The competition is fair, with the infamous Balance of Performance suffocating or liberating the teams, depending on who you ask. Of course, that balance is tied to considerable live scrutineering for each car. IMSA can read data in real-time throughout the race, monitoring parameters like boost pressure, torque output at the axles, electric energy deployment, and tire pressures. If it’s on the car during the race, IMSA can monitor it.

Where F1 and the FIA shy away from each other—one is an entertainment business and the other a sporting body—IMSA combines both. It removes the political tension, improves the product, and minimizes confusion for the fans. Everyone at IMSA pulls in the same direction: Entertaining, fair racing.

Record-breaking Attendance

Early in the morning hours, after a long night of racing, a blaze of Florida sunshine peeked through scattered clouds. Despite it being hour 16 of the race, race fans were up and roaming through Daytona’s dense paddock.

Going to an IMSA race doesn’t feel like a typical top-tier motorsport. There aren’t many barriers or mysterious passes needed to access the good stuff. It’s like Forza Horizon: Whatever you see, you can go to. The only places I was ever checked for access were the inner sanctums of the GTP and GTD teams, but fans can still walk right up to their heroes and talk to team members with a free ear. The atmosphere is welcoming and friendly, where folks are encouraged to roam and see the cars, find new places to watch from, and experience the race in their own way. It’s the opposite of the give us your cash and get to the grandstands attitude of an F1 race.

To drive the point further, an F1 race costs at least hundreds of dollars to attend, more likely in the thousands after you factor gouged hotel pricing. A basic ticket will get you an assigned grandstand seat. Toss in a lot more cash if you want to experience anything related to the paddock or walk the grid. F1 will even sell you a world-class catering experience, but it costs deep into the four figures. Oh, and you can’t really go that many places to see the cars, as most viewing points are blocked off or ticket-sensitive.

A two-day ticket to the Daytona 24 starts at $75. The grid walk is open to everybody. You can sit where you’d like. There are jumbo-sized screens everywhere to keep track of the race. And the track food is relatively cheap. For a race fan, this is everything. Sure, you don’t get the glitz and prestige of being at an F1 race, which, who gives a shit. It’s about being there and feeling the thump of racing in your chest.

With GTP, IMSA has finally gathered some of this star-studded relevance. Thanks to its unification with the FIA LMDh ruleset, it allows teams to run both IMSA and WEC without needing to develop two specific cars. This allows automakers to market their cars more broadly. With marketing comes budget. Budget makes for a more-competitive, engaging field. Manufacturer support, for better or worse, brings the big bucks that racing series need to thrive. The rest is up to IMSA, and its quest to bring fans into the fold.

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