Jan 30, 2024, 06:27AM

Night Falls on the American Automobile

No matter who won at the Daytona 24, everyone involved got what they wanted as the world they destroyed crumbles around them.

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If every year in film starts with Sundance, every year in motorsports starts with the 24 Hours of Daytona. Or, as it finished this year, the 23 Hours and 58 Minutes of Daytona. With just under two minutes left on the clock, either by some close call or clerical error from race control, the checkered flag was waved to the GTP leaders before they knew they were on their final lap. No one was celebrating, no one knew it was over. One of the shortest 24 hours in racing history ended with Brazilian Felipe Nasr holding off the British-Swedish driver Tom Blomqvist to the line in the top class of the near 60-car field. But it was really a battle between two Americans: Roger Penske and Jim France.

It opened as anybody’s race in the premiere class of prototype sportscars, but into the river of headlights of the longest stint of night racing in 2024 set in, most of the apparent challengers out front dropped from reasonable competition. The #01 Cadillac that qualified P2 at the hands of the 2014 Daytona winner and 4-time CART champion Sébastien Bourdais (and featured an all-star driver rotation with back-to-back 2019-20 Daytona winner Renger van der Zande, six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, and reigning IndyCar champion Álex Palou) dropped out from a mechanical failure a little over halfway through the race, and the #40 Acura, while fast enough for a podium, fell far away from the leaders. In the final hours, all eyes were on the #7 Porsche Penske in a customer 4.6 L Twin-Turbo V8 powered 963 and the #31 Action Express Cadillac V-Series.R with a beefy, naturally aspirated 5.5L V8. It was a proxy war between two motor racing moguls, fighting each other with wily European engineering and raw American power.

There’s a long twilight falling on the American automobile, starting with the decline of Detroit and ending with the electric motor trying to drive itself. The stuffy industry that ripped apart every city in the country for a bunch of fascists in the suburbs (with the great American highway system just a side-effect) is dying and not replaced by something better but by a bunch of idiots with iPads. Americans don’t make much of anything anymore, and now the old industrialists—those old-school conservatives who slowed down their massive donations to the Republican Party after 2016 when they realized that the beast they created no longer paid them the respect they thought they deserved—are left fighting it out on the infield of a tri-oval in Florida for the last scraps of their declining viewership.

In 2019 Roger Penske, that transportation tycoon whose son and heir has used his wealth to buy up every Hollywood trade publication, purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—home of the Indy 500, America’s jewel on motorsport’s Triple Crown—and with it the whole of IndyCar, the premiere open-wheel racing series in North America. He’d been a racer for life, and just last year Team Penske got their first 500 win since acquiring the speedway, with Josef Newgarden overtaking reigning winner Marcus Ericsson on the last lap after a thrilling (if a bit stage-y) race restart. Newgarden also came in the top spot at Daytona for Penske on Sunday, him and all three of his co-pilots in the #7 Porsche (Felipe Nasr, Dane Cameron, Matt Campbell) taking their first overall victory at the Daytona 24. Right behind them to the line was that #31 Action Express—piloted by Blomqvist, Jack Aitkin, and Pipo Derani—under the ownership of Jim France, son and scion to NASCAR founder “Big Bill” France, Sr. Back in the 1960s, Big Bill was a founding member of International Motorsports Association, a sanctioning body with a long story of sports car racing, which all got bought out by NASCAR in 2012 under Jim France’s CEOship, and in 2014 the Daytona 24 opened the newly unified Grand-Am and Rolex Racing series as the IMSA SportsCar Championship. Penske and France own everything.

It's been 55 years since Penske took overall victory at the Daytona 24, an achievement not unlike that of Ferrari’s 58-year hiatus from the top step at Le Mans ending last year. What isn’t comparable is the endurance of the brands: Enzo is dead, Ferrari lives on. NASCAR fans are an aging demographic, and European motor racing has reached new demographics through smarmy innovations and a Netflix series. The American automobile, on the other hand, is geriatric and stuck in a rut. It never really mattered who crossed the line first on Sunday, Penske or France, both got everything they wanted and it left them driving around in circles as the world they destroyed crumbles around them.


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