A Non-driver Walks Into Daytona

Photo: Courtesy of the Iron Dames

When I entered my 30s, something terrible happened: Not knowing how to drive became an issue. What was once a quirky personality trait (I’m a New Yawker! I’m walkin’ here!) is now an annoying inconvenience. But you know what’s more inconvenient? Dying. At this point, I’m convinced that’s what will happen if I get behind the wheel, though the people who are sick of driving me around say I’m being dramatic. They tell me it’s time to face my fears, and, unfortunately, I think they might be right.

So, in search of a little immersion therapy that isn’t driver’s ed, I flew down to Florida last month to experience firsthand my literal nightmare: the 24 Hours of Daytona, an annual speed-car endurance race that spans the length of an entire day. I wanted to speak to one team in particular: the Iron Dames, the only all-female endurance-racing team in the FIA World Endurance Championship, who’ve been beating boys since 2018. Last year at Daytona, they finished 18th in their class. They were also the first all-female team to win the championship in Bahrain, and they took home the Gold Cup at the 24 Hours of Spa in 2022. I figured that talking to some professional drivers — specifically, women who are really, really good at going really, really fast — might help me understand how anyone in their right mind could possibly enjoy doing such a thing.

Here’s how 24 Hours of Daytona works: The best teams fly into the International Speedway, the same site where the Daytona 500 just wrapped, from all over the world. They then proceed to drive their fancy cars — Porsche, Cadillac, Acura, BMW, Ferrari, and, in the Iron Dames’ case, Lamborghini — around and around a 3.5-mile track as speedily as they can for as long as they can without crashing. Each team has four drivers, who tap in and out every few hours depending on their state and that of the car, which can become so hot that the engine and brakes glow. The team that goes the farthest in 24 hours wins.

There to cheer them on are hundreds of fans, many of whom set up camp for the weekend, and this year, Brad Pitt. He happened to be at the Speedway filming his new Formula 1 movie, although, according to one of my Uber drivers, who claimed to have picked up the actor’s private chef from the airport, Pitt spent his downtime on a yacht nearby.

From left: Photo: Emilia PetrarcaPhoto: Emilia Petrarca
From left: Photo: Emilia PetrarcaPhoto: Emilia Petrarca

This may explain why, when I arrived in Daytona the day before the race began, I did not immediately see Brad. But I did see a crowd of shirtless men standing atop an RV the size of my apartment. The energy was that of an endless American football tailgate, complete with beer pong, collapsible lawn furniture, and at least one fart machine. I saw a few Trump signs, one advertising a 24-hour happy hour (“RACE? WHAT RACE?”), and an official placard banning Confederate flags — something NASCAR didn’t do until 2020.

The first Dame I met was Rahel Frey, a seasoned Swiss racer. She was joined by Michelle Gatting, a Danish driver who describes her style on the track as “aggressive.” (“I’m not the one taking care of my tires or braking soft,” she explains.) Then there’s Sarah Bovy, a jolly Belgian who keeps spirits high, and Doriane Pin, a small-but-serious French wunderkind — the only 20-something in a team of 30-somethings, all of whom are blonde.

Each Dame has her own ambitions and driving style, but endurance racing requires them to put aside their egos and compromise. As Bovy observes, “Motorsport is particular in that you are always alone in the car, but you can do nothing alone.” For starters, the car itself must be outfitted for four different body types and preferences. (Every time the drivers switch, they install their own booster seat.) A pit crew of handsome Italian mechanics helps them make it across the finish line, plus a small army of engineers, strategists, mental coaches, physical trainers, and a personal chef. Together, they all face enormous challenges. But their shared goal is actually simple: Stay awake and keep the car on the road.

From left: Michelle Gatting, Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey, Doriane Pin. Photo: Courtesy of the Iron Dames

Although racing is a historically masculine sport with mostly male fans, the Dames and their hot-pink Lambo drew crowds of women to their garage ahead of the race. Stephanie Meyer, who has been following the team for years, wore her Iron Dames baseball cap and silk logo scarf, plus a neon-pink blazer. “Representation matters,” she said. “Coming to a race and seeing a women’s team out here … I’m too old to become a racer now, but if I were a young woman, I would be like, I could do this. And maybe I would have a different career path than I do now.”

Gisela Ponce, a Mexican endurance racer, came to cheer on the Dames with her 2-year-old daughter. For them, Ponce explained, the Dames are “icons,” sending the message that women and girls “can make our dreams a reality. We only need to work hard, be patient, and focus.”

Photo: Courtesy of the Iron Dames

Other women I spoke to were just happy to have someone to root for. “Until there’s somebody like you in the seat, you don’t pay as much attention,” said Tera, who attends the race every year with her husband.

As they suited up, some Dames sang along to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” blasting over the loudspeakers. Frey hopped behind the wheel for the 1:40 p.m. starting horn, getting the team to ninth place in their class in the first hour. By hour three, they’d fallen back to 15th. Still, the variance didn’t stress Frey, who took a long view. In a race like this, she explained, “A lot of time management is required. A driver who is a bit more patient has a little advantage in the end.”

Although driving in circles for hours may sound monotonous, when there’s a carrot dangling in your face and someone on your tail at 120 mph — plus engineers, spotters, and strategists yelling incessantly in your ear — your mind doesn’t really have the opportunity to wander. “This is a mental sport,” says Gatting. “If you’re not there 100 percent, you will not be fast enough.”

Photo: Courtesy of the Iron Dames

For Gatting, it’s best to solely think about the car in front of you, and just drive. In Bahrain last year, she took the Dames’ Porsche over the finish line in the last two hours of an eight-hour race, beating an Aston Martin driver by 5.5 seconds. “I had no clue what was happening around me, which was good,” she said. “If I looked in my mirrors too much, I would have been like, shit, shit, shit he’s coming closer. But I never felt how close he was; I had to see the race on TV afterward to realize. If I could be in that mental state all the time, it would be amazing.”

Watching cars zoom endlessly around the same track can be a similarly hypnotizing experience, like a big fly buzzing unflappably around your head in the heat. In hour six, I got a jolt of energy when I basically collided with Brad Pitt outside the Porsche garage, where he was filming in a tight white racing suit. (I was quickly told to “keep it moving.”) But by hour nine, I decided to pack it in for the night, returning to my hotel while the Dames continued their infinite loop.

The next day at the Speedway was like the morning after a wedding: Everyone was bleary-eyed and dehydrated but in good spirits. Most were running on adrenaline, having stayed awake the whole time. “People think [driving] is just sitting around, but it’s actually very physical,” said Bovy, who, like everyone else on the team, was caked in sweat and did stretches and jumping jacks to stay alert.

The author. Photo: Emilia Petrarca

As the sun rose, Gatting took the Dames up to third place, and when I arrived at hour 19, the car was still intact — a feat in and of itself. By hour 23, the Dames had fallen to eighth place. Even after all that time, the first two cars in their class, Mercedes-AMG and Ferrari, were mere tenths of a second apart, but in the end, Mercedes-AMG took first place. With a final push from Gatting, the Dames scooted up to sixth — a significant improvement from last year, and one Frey sees as its own victory. It’s only “a matter of time” before more women take the Formula 1 podium, she said. “I strongly believe it will happen — and hopefully, it will happen in pink colors. This is what we’re working towards.”

“We’re getting closer to the best guys out there,” said Gatting. To me, that was as good a reason as any to hit the gas. But as sweet as victory tastes, I can also understand the appeal of escaping the world and getting out of your head for a few hours — or maybe even 24.

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A Non-driver Walks Into Daytona