That sound you hear is the dozen-plus members of the Black Swan Racing team, who earned at least a week of uninterrupted sleep after forgoing rest for most of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, starting to rustle and wake.
A chassis-destroying crash by Trenton Estep during the opening practice session sent team owner Tim Pappas and his hearty Porsche 911 GT3 R crew into four straight days of a zombie-like existence where building up a new chassis and then going racing for 24 straight hours tested their fortitude.
The end result was worth the effort, as the No. 54 Porsche shared between Pappas, Estep, Jeroen Bleekemolen, and Sven Muller climbed from the back of the deep GT Daytona field to finish fifth in class. Each year, the Rolex 24 tends to nominate one team for an agonizing experience, and this time, Black Swan was tagged as the recipient.
As usual, the story behind the misery and eventual reward was remarkable, starting with the team owner whose driving career was called into question after suffering a nasty crash at the Bathurst 12 Hours in February of 2019.
“My own personal journey on it was long and interesting just because it included a long year of recovery and a lot of physical therapy, and a lot of training, and a lot of heavy mental and physical discipline to get myself in shape to do the race,” Pappas told RACER.
Primed for his long-awaited IMSA return, Pappas watched as the 20-year-old Estep made the error of driving across a painted section of the damp Daytona circuit, which sent the 911 GT3 R into a calamitous crash, and wondered if he tempted fate in the process.
“You just couldn’t help but feel really dejected after Trenton’s off,” he said. “That was sort of funny because [pit reporter] Jamie [Howe] came in to interview me in the pits, and she’s like, ‘Do you have a second?’ I was like, ‘I don’t really want to talk to you. I feel like this is going to jinx us.’ I was like, ‘All right, just be optimistic.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’m just excited to be here,’ or whatever. She walks out of our pit box and three seconds later, Trenton crashes.”
Black Swan’s original Rolex 24 plans ended after the twisted chassis came to a rest and Estep climbed from the Porsche without injury. Pappas ran through a series of options, which included packing up and licking their wounds.
“At that moment we started a new journey, which was at first initially, we were considering buying a new car,” he said. “Then I just really caught myself, and decided that that was not the smartest thing to do, getting a brand-new car, even though we could have. Porsche had one in Atlanta. I just thought, ‘No, that’s a really financially irresponsible thing to do. I really want to be in the show, but I don’t want it that badly.’ Which is also, for a lot of people outside of the sport, talking about financial discretion in a sport that doesn’t make any sense at all, maybe sounds a little bit ridiculous.
“But, leaving that aside for a moment, we just felt like, OK, we’re done. Not going to buy a new car, and there’s no way to fix the one we’ve got. So, we’re done. I spent about an hour thanking the guys, texted my assistant back in my office in Boston to get me a flight to get me home. Really, just before I was about leave the track, Porsche came in and said, ‘Well, there’s one other option that’s come up.’ I went, ‘Oh God, I should have left. What are you doing to me?’ They proposed the idea that [fellow Porsche GTD team Wright [Motorsports] had a car that was bought right after VIR last year.”
“The offer was, we buy our own brand-new chassis, which we would have to do anyway, and we give it to them [after the race]. In the meantime, we take their roller, strip it down to a bare chassis, rebuild it with our own parts and drive line, and cover the cost of Wright doing their own [build] in the future, which I would have spent on my own guys.”
Fantasies of rest and watching the Rolex 24 from home quickly gave way to an epic thrash where Black Swan camped out in their garage while turning Wright’s backup Porsche shell into the new No. 54 911 GT3 R.
“I just thought, ‘Well geez, that’s a really unbelievably fair and amazing offer. Are you sure you guys really want to do this?’” Pappas asked. “They also were incredibly nervous about what was going to happen to them. We didn’t really, actually get to go ahead to do that until they were safely through qualifying. We didn’t start the process of stripping the two cars that had to be stripped, in order to build one new one until after qualifying. Normally, Porsche would tell you that [building up] a bare shell is a 120-hour job. We had eight guys at the track, and they did it in 10 hours. But that included stripping the two cars and building one new one.”