To continue my lengthy, yet hopefully interesting, story about who I am, where I came from and how I came to be a part of Grand-Am competition, I figured I'd... well, just... continue my story!
So, I left off last week's journal describing how I had just won the 2002 Star Mazda North American Championship and had absolutely no opportunity in front of me to advance in open-wheel racing (click here to read last weeks story). So on New Year's Day, 2003, I packed my bags, loaded up my tiny little Toyota MR2 with all of my driving gear, my rollerblades and as many clothes as I could fit and drove down to Daytona to hang out at the January test days. Obviously my goal was to introduce myself to teams, owners, crew members, drivers and anybody I could shake hands with. I wanted to race the Rolex 24 At Daytona!
I drove non-stop from New York to Daytona to arrive outside of the speedway, in the grass where everyone was parked waiting to get inside. I hadn't slept for 24 hours, which I look back now and realize was good practice for the race - coincidentally - and passed out in my car for a little while. I distinctly remember waking up, getting out of the "Mister Two" for a stretch and bumping into a guy that couldn't stop talking about his love for Porsche's and his excitement to race in GT. His name was Mark Greenberg, and I'll never forget meeting him because every time I see Mark he jokes around about how he caught me sleeping in my car like a canned sardine waiting to get into the speedway. As you could imagine, I asked Mark if he needed another teammate! Although he didn't need one at the time, the speedway opened the gates and I was on my way to meet and greet.
The scene inside once the teams unloaded was pretty interesting. First, Daytona International Speedway is impressive on it's own, and just walking around the place gives you a special feeling. Then, seeing all of these teams in the garages with these wild GT cars and prototypes, with tons of crewmembers scurrying around, was almost overwhelming. The whole experience was considerably different than the paddock of the open-wheel development series that I was used to. But it was cool, and I wanted to be a part of it!
After walking around for a few hours and 'mingling', I bumped into my very good friend and former teammate from Star Mazda, Josh Rehm. Josh was his usual, chipper self, telling stories, cracking wise comments and keeping the atmosphere light, as he did so well, but it was Josh that introduced me to Darius "Dag" Grala - the man himself. Grala was fielding a Daytona Prototype for the category's inaugural season, with John Shapiro at the helm of the team, Cegwa Sport.
Of course there was no convincing Darius to give me a few laps in the Daytona Prototype during practice, but it was certainly a great introduction. I went on to meet a lot of the other teams and staff of Grand-Am, and left with a pretty positive feeling; however no sign of finding a ride for Daytona.
Once the test was over I headed for West Palm Beach to teach at a racing school for a few days when my phone rang. "Hello Darius Grala!" It turns out that Josh had pulled yet another one of his incredible maneuvers... (if any of you knew Josh Rehm you know exactly what I mean - Josh was one of the biggest characters and probably the craziest person I ever met - more stories later). Josh's maneuver was convincing Darius that he needed to have me as part of his team for the 24 and support two open-wheel racing champions in their pursuit of sports car racing stardom - like Josh and myself. Well, Dag agreed! I was on for the 24!!
What a lineup, and what an experience! Darius Grala, Oswaldo Negri, Josh Rehm and Guy Cosmo to drive the Cegwa Sport Toyota Fabcar for the inaugural Rolex 24 for Daytona Prototype. SWEET!! By that time I had hardly driven anything with more than 180hp or weighed more than 1200lbs, and I had never driven at Daytona either! Well, the race weekend rolled around and I can tell you that my first session in the car was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life! 500hp, a big, bulky car, really loud, high-banks of Daytona, bumpy high banks that is, and doing 180mph next to a solid concrete wall with paint stripes all over it. This was a new experience! Did I mention that the first race weekend of the Daytona Prototypes ever running meant that the cars were...well, brand new, undeveloped, and not yet quite driver-friendly? Here I got to see the prowess of Oz Negri and his experience and ability to develop and setup a car, and he did a great job. As did all of us, I have to say - Josh, Dag and I were all on pace and comfortable enough in the car that we were ready to race.
One quote sums it all up: "Not a single blade of grass." Those were the famous words of Darius Grala, in reference to what we weren't allowed to touch with Dag's car. Not even a single blade of grass! Needless to say Dag brainwashed all of us. If we even had thoughts in our heads of trying to go fast during the race, that he would personally kill us. This race was meant for finishing, and this was an undeveloped car that was very likely to break. At least not for 16 hours, before it caught on fire and ended our race. (We officially finished fourth in the Daytona Prototype category.) However, the whole weekend was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I was now a Grand-Am Daytona Prototype Driver.
The experience was invaluable. I was one of very few drivers to now have any experience in a Daytona Prototype, which meant I was invited to test with Dag and the gang to help develop the car in preparation for the other races they were planning to attend. However, what really happened was the following. Josh Rehm decided that it was in his best interest to finish college before diving into sports car racing fulltime, and Josh convinced Dag to have me drive in place of Josh for the remainder of Dag's racing plans that year. Josh's friendship and belief in my ability was evidence enough that Dag agreed.
Unbelievable! It's extremely rare in racing that you'd have a friend that would actually give you a drive instead of steal one from you. Josh was a very giving person. Years later he gave my cats fleas! Not only did he give my cats fleas, my whole apartment became infested with fleas (THAT is a very long story for another time) and I had Josh to thank for that too! Josh also exposed me to a whole new vocabulary that many of us call Rehm-esque or Rehm-ism's.
I'm sorry for the tangent, but I'm telling all of you this because Josh's life was tragically ended in a car accident a few years ago and he was very special to a lot of us in the paddock - and will always remain special. So Josh, if you're reading, we all say hello, we miss you, and I literally owe it all to you, buddy!