For those competing in the 2000 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona International Speedway this was the sign that they wanted to be first to see after the chequered flag had been waved on Sunday afternoon.
Victory Lane after 24 hours of racing, it doesn't get any better than that.
The Sun punched its way West across the Atlantic, for those of us with business at Daytona International Speedway it was time stop admiring the colours over the ocean and head to the track. The weather was forecast to remain dry but it would get cold, even by European standards.
There were three clear contests in prospect, SR1 prototypes would head the field and all things being equal win the race. GTO would be a bar brawl between the Detroit duo but if the boys up front did not watch it the Viper-Vette combo could get close, a podium for the fast and reliable GTs was a distinct possibility. GTU was almost certainly a Porsche walkover, numbers and speed would see to that.
There were, and possibly still are, two schools of thought about how to approach competing in the Rolex 24 Hours. The question is simply, is this a race or an endurance? Flat out racing or stroke it round looking after the car and hope to finish?
Some driven by bitter experience favour the latter approach.
Take Mike Brockman, Paul Newman's teammate in 1995, who was back to help his friend attempt to win again. "I've done this race a lot of times, I led it once for 13 hours, unfortunately it was the first 13 hours. It took me 15 attempts before I won it, and that was in 1995. Jack Roush, who we drove for in 1995 said it best, we were talking in the morning before the race, and we were talking about race strategy, he said, 'there will be no racing here until the sun comes up, and not until I say so. 'If we make it, and the sun comes up, and we're still alive, then we'll talk about racing.'"
Well that's one way of going about things.
The other strategy is go flat out and devil take the hindmost.
James Weaver, who was as hard and fast a driver as ever graced the tracks, expressed it this way.
"The top sports cars, they're more than strong enough to race flat out for 24 hours. There's not much you can do to nurse one of these cars along. If you've got a good driver in it, you might as well drive it as fast as you can because you won't break it. When you've got to race against people like Alex (Caffi), they're going to be going flat out, we'll take the fight to them, and they'll be coming after us. It's just a question of, don't get too hot headed in traffic. That's always the game here."
Anyhow all the planning in the world usually goes out the window as soon as the Green Flag drops and the field of prototypes were soon flat out on the banking. The initial pace was set by the Lista Ferrari 333SP driven hard as ever by Didier Theys. Almost from the start one of the main contenders for victory, the Risi Ferrari, ran into problems, Caffi spinning to the back of the field on lap 2, then within the hour there were transmission issues and fitting a new gearbox was the time consuming cure. Scratch one top prototype from the race.
With 79 cars starting the race, traffic and how the leaders manage it was always going to be a major factor. Given the disparity in speed and performance between the classes especially into the braking zones it was vital that the top drivers balance out ultimate pace with due circumspection. The best drivers really embrace the challenge of threading their way through the maze of cars in front of them.
Once again, James Weaver, explains things in his own, unique way. "Personally, the traffic element at Daytona, I find tremendously exciting and a real challenge. It's like a high-speed video game or racing back from the pub through Picadilly Circus in the rush hour. It's just tremendously exciting. You try to judge all the closing speeds, what the other guy is going to do, see if you can recognize the helmet, determine who it is. When a car goes off line in front of you, you see if it's throwing up dust, so you can tell if you can go off line. There are a thousand and one tricks you can do to make the race work for you."
At the front the battle raged between the Lista Ferrari and the Lola Ford of Konrad Motorsports with the evergreen Jan Lammers leading the charge. This conflict continued for the first three hours until an oil leak delayed the #31 car. The #20 Dyson Riley & Scott took up the challenge shadowed by the leading Cadillac.
The gradual erosion of the lead prototypes propelled the GTO class battle into the the top ten positions overall. The #3 Covette of Ron Fellows, Justin Bell and Chris Kneifel pushing the #91 Viper of Olivier Beretta, Karl Wendlinger and Dominic Dupuy very hard and in case they stumbled there were the three support cars from the the Detroit duo in close attendance.
If there was any sign of weakness in the ORECA camp it was that Olivier Beretta was ill with the after effects of chicken pox, which meant that Wendlinger in particular would have to take up the slack. He rose to the occasion in a champion's style.
GTU was, as predicted, a walk over for the Porsche 911 GT3R armada with the head of the pack being the Barbour Racing example with Lucas Luhr, Bob Wollek and Dirk Muller behind the wheel.
At around 6.00pm, just before sunset the leader slowed up with smoke coming from the engine bay. The Lista Ferrari limped back to the pits but their race was run.
"We had an air box fire," said team manager Kevin Doran. "It's kind of a documented problem with the Ferraris. It's happened six or eight times before with different teams. It happened to us once before, at Portland last year. In a downshift deceleration mode you get an over-run of fuel in the air box, and for some odd reason, you get a backfire out of an air trumpet, and it ignites it, and all that excess fuel burns, and it takes out the injection wiring harness."
The engine had ingested some of the debris so even re-wiring would be in vain as there was damage to the pistons. Didier Theys reflected on a race win that had got away. "The engine caught fire. We had a backfire and the backfire burned the wire harness, it melted a couple of trumpets, it even melted one of the butterflies. Too much fuel was going into the engine. I don't know what happened. We've had one problem like this in the past, but that was after a pit stop. When you do a pit stop and you don't clean up the engine properly, too much fuel goes into the engine and it starts to burn."
The misfortune that had struck the Ferrari entries meant that the #20 Dyson Riley & Scott Ford of James Weaver, Rob Dyson, Eliot Forbes-Robinson and Max Papis took over the lead but the big surprise was the pace of the #5 Cadillac.
Indeed at the 6 hour point the #5 car was at the head of the field with a 30 second advantage over the Dyson Racing Riley & Scott but it was not to last. A series of problems with transmissions, brakes and suspension blunted the Cadillac challenge, but the team just kept repairing the cars, retirement was not even contemplated.
It was not only at the head of the field that problems were found. Porsche was having something of a nightmare with their new GT3Rs. Water pumps and consequently engines were failing and in numbers. This was not the way that Porsche does things, "Excellence was Expected" was something of a company motto right from the early days, so to introduce the first water cooled 911 based racer and then have water pump failures caused red faces throughout the paddock.
Bob Wollek summed up the situation " There was no warning, no light, no temperature going up, it just went 'BANG' on the straight."
The explanation was simple enough, sand that had been used in the engine block casting process had not been fully cleaned out and the residue was clogging the water pumps causing them to seize and then the engines to fail. In short order entries from Barbour Racing, Labre, MAC Racing, Racers Group, Skea, Seikel, MCR, PK Sport. Reiser Callas and Haberthur all retired as a result of engine problems. Not good.
During the long hours of darkness the race stabilised with the Dyson Riley & Scott having a ten lap lead over the chasing pack of Vipers and Vettes.
The 2000 Rolex 24 was run under unusually cold conditions with the temperature hovering just above freezing for most of the night. This put extra strain on the already exhausted crews who would take whatever rest they could between pitstops.
A routine pit stop for the leader EFR out, Rob Dyson in.
Behind the Dyson car and the factory Vipers and Vettes the privateer Chamberlain Vipers ran strongly, moving into the top ten overall as the Porsches failed.
The Corvette #3 ran flat out to keep up the pressure on the leading Vipers but could not quite close the gap. Here Justin Bell heads out for another stint in the dark.
At around 3.00am point the race changed course again. The #20 was 13 laps up on the #93 Viper but trouble was on the way as the leader started to slow. A pitstop to investigate led to the team removing the valve covers in order to find what has become a persistent but slight misfire. No broken rockers or valve springs were discovered but the restriction in pace and the unscheduled time spent in the pits cut the lead over the pack of GTO cars to 8 laps.
Another strong performer was the #6 Cadillac of Butch Leitzinger, Franck Lagorce and Andy Wallace. Early race problems had dropped them down the order to 69th but by 5.00am they were up to second place overall. They were seven laps down on the Dyson lead car and were scrapping with #91 and #93 Vipers. Then problems with the gearbox meant a complete change of transmission which cost them around 30 laps and any chance of victory for Cadillac.
So it was a sick Riley & Scott up against a charging pack of Vipers, would Dyson make it to the finish line and score a second win in the Rolex 24 Hours?
GTU class was firmly in the grasp of the G&W Motorsports GT3R but shortly after 18 hours they too suffered the dreaded Porsche engine failure. Uwe Alzen was not happy, "We were more than 10 laps ahead and the car was running perfectly. The only problems we had were with a broken seat and something wrong with the jacking system."
A surprise at sunrise was to see the Johansson Matthews Reynard still running. Four gearbox changes plus numerous other repairs had seen the crew exhaust themselves. However the warming rays of the Sun gave fresh hope to the survivors still running.
For the Dyson team the agony continued as the leading Viper and Vette chipped away at their lead till they slipped behind with just two hours of the race to go. The team could see this fate coming as they lost around ten seconds a lap to the GTO pursuers. Rob Dyson was philosophical about the situation, "Specifically, what happened was an exhaust valve had a crack in it starting about one in the morning. We had a high-speed misfire that was due to a crack in an exhaust valve, and those things don't heal themselves."
#91 held an advantage over #3 of around a lap but Pratt & Miller were not done yet. There would be a sprint to the finish.
The #3 Corvette got back on to the lead lap with an aggressive pit strategy and was really pushing in the final hour. Ron Fellows rung the neck out of the Vette but Karl Wendlinger was up to the task in hand and was 32.7 seconds in front when the Chequered Flag dropped at 1.00pm Sunday. Victory, the closest margin in the race's history, for Viper and ORECA.
The team had remained calm even during the late onslaught from the #3, "Before I left the pits for the last half hour of the race, I knew the Corvette could be very fast, and that Ron fellows was a very fast driver," said Wendlinger. "But I also knew that throughout the race we'd learned how fast our car could run, and that we could win the race with the pace we'd set."
Celebrations then in Victory Lane for the French team and much later in the Shark Lounge………………….Hughes de Chaunac, Team Principal of ORECA, was ecstatic, "It is hard to imagine you can win a 24-hour race by 36 seconds. The entire ORECA team did a fantastic job all weekend, Dodge gave us a tremendous racecar and it was our job to perform. The Corvette proved to be a tremendous challenge to the Viper and we respect their programme. It sets up in epIc battle for when we race Le Mans."
Beaten by the narrowest of margins, the Corvette team was disappointed but rightly proud of their performance, it was the first of many such displays in the following seasons.
Surviving the carnage in the Porsche GTU ranks was the Haberthur 911 GT3R driven by Fabio Babini, Luca Drudi, Gabrio Rosa and Fabio Rosa. They finished 8th overall and were worthy class winners.
Adding to joy in the Dodge camp was the top ten finish for two of the customer cars run by Chamberlain Motorsport.
The top brass at Chrysler were very pleased, John Fernandez, Director of Engineering and Speciality Vehicles, had this to say. "This is a historical moment. An outright win in one of the world's most prestigious endurance races by a production-based car like the Dodge Viper GTS-R is rare and hard-earned. In fact, the Dodge Viper GTS-R – now a Le Mans and Daytona 24-hour race winner – is remarkably like the Vipers that you can buy from your neighborhood Dodge Dealer. Not only does it look the same, but it uses the same basic engine, chassis, transmission and suspension. If push came to shove and we needed to, we could have gone out to the Viper Owners Club Parking Paddock in the Infield and swapped parts with our customers' cars. The only significant differences are a full roll cage for safety, a carbon fiber body (versus composite plastic bodywork on the street cars), a dry-sump engine and racing slicks. But having a great production car to start with gives us the edge on the track. And conversely, having a great racing car makes our street cars better."
So Grand-Am had kicked off their existence and what a way to start.
Grand-Am President, Roger Edmondson and his team were overjoyed with the first event, " The Rolex 24 at Daytona was not just a great first race for Grand-Am, it was an outstanding motorsport event by any basis of judgement."
Those of us who had shivered our way through the cold Floridian night would agree whole heartedly.
Grand-Am was on its way.