Competing at the 24 Hours of Daytona on a grassroots budget | From the archives

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Jan 24, 2022 | Mitsubishi, Endurance Racing, Daytona International Speedway, 24 Hours of Daytona | Posted in Features | From the May 1995 issue | Never miss an article

[Editor's note: This article originally appeard int he May 1995 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

How many times have you watched a major, international race and thought to yourself: “Hey, I can do that. Just give me a ride, and I'll show that Mario guy the right way around that track.” With the help of several other local race enthusiasts and businesses, a Daytona Beach, Florida-area family got the chance to strut their stuff in front of the world by not only making the field for, but finishing, one of America's premier races—the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

The main characters in our story are the Flis family, a group of racers who have built up an impressive record in IT competition in the Southeast. Behind the wheel of various VW Rabbits, Troy and Todd Flis, ages 23 and 26, have posted many wins at many tracks. Their parents, Stan and Ginny, have supported their sons' racing by prepping their cars to the highest standard, supplying a willing crew and providing a roof over their heads. The Flis family normally runs up to 30 events a year; they can often be found working on the cars at their grandmother's house, conveniently located across the street. They have also run their Rabbits at local oval tracks and logged some seat time in Firehawk competition (not in a Rabbit).

But this season would be different. The family's IT program would be drastically scaled back as they decided to try their hand at the World Series (remember that term?) of motorsports—the 24 Hours of Daytona. The fame and fortune that surrounds the winners is nice, but with limited funds and limited experience, the Flis family's immediate goal was “to get a big learn,” as Troy said.

While the new open-cockpit WSC cars were busy grabbing most of the headlines, the Flises decided to go with a more familiar formula and race a tweaked Firehawk car. Finding a car wasn't too hard, as local Mitsubishi dealer Craig Conway had an outdated, two-wheel-drive 1990 turbo Eclipse sitting around that was no longer competitive for Firehawk competition. The Flis family was very familiar with the car, as they had originally helped convert it into race trim several years ago after the previous owner had a little run-in with a drainage canal. Craig ran the former fish farm for several seasons, eventually updating the body work to 1992 specs, then gracefully let the car retire. In exchange for seat time in the 24 Hours, Craig donated the car to the project. Richard Nisbett, another local driver, would be the fourth driver on the fledgling Spirit of Daytona Endurance Team.

Soon after the Flises began prepping the car for the big race, IMSA, in typical IMSA fashion, changed the rules governing the 24 Hours. IMSA had originally planned to allow the Firehawk cars to compete in an effort to get more privateers into the race, but the unpredictable sanctioning body pulled the plug on that class before the beginning of the event. The class for Firehawk-spec cars would be dropped, thus lumping all small-bore cars into GTS-2 (formerly GTU). For anyone not too familiar with IMSA racing, GTU has been dominated recently by the factory-backed, tube-framed Nissan 240SXs. These cars are very, very fast. And don't forget that the Flis effort would also be sharing the track with the WSC cars which, while usually less expensive than the GTP cars they replaced, still have a price tag in the $300,000 to $999,995 area. A $25,000 Firehawk effort suddenly seemed like pocket change.

Realizing the odds they now faced, the Flises had to adjust their plan of attack. They certainly didn't have the fastest car in the class, but realized, as many of the best in endurance racing have said, “to finish first you first have to finish.” They would continue with the project since they had already made the commitment to themselves; reliability would be their strong suit. “Our goal was to make everything indestructible,” Troy said.

Car preparation was now their biggest concern, as the move up to GTS-2 allowed many more modifications than permitted under Firehawk rules. Suspension specs suddenly became free, "just limited by your pocketbook,” according to Stan. Relocated suspension mounting points would be nice, but a set of GAB struts and cut-down factory springs were more in the budget.

Brakes are always a big concern in an endurance race, so a set of Mitsubishi 3000GT calipers and rotors were mounted to the Eclipse. Quick-change braided steel lines and special pads were also part of the equation.

A dry-break fuel filler leading to a 26 gallon fuel cell was also added, and a Lexan and-metal bulkhead was fashioned to separate them from the driver. To get the car down closer to minimum weight, a lot of unnecessary interior pieces were cut away. Custom-made bumper inserts shed 45 pounds from each end of the car, and a pair of HKS cams from Todd's personal street Eclipse helped the car produce around 285 horsepower. Hella Rallye 3000 driving lights would help the drivers find the wall and apexes at night.

Stan found the IMSA rule book a bit vague in places, so he simply had to hope that all their mods were legal. The SCCA rule books always state exactly the do's and don’ts of racing, he explained, and the Flises have never had a problem in tech with the Rabbits.

To finance the project, the family turned to the local business community for help. The logo of X-1R Friction Eliminator, a Daytona Beach area-based company, soon found a spot on the hood. Gallery 92, a local art dealer, helped with the catchy paint job— which they applied in only 24 hours because of the tight schedule in preparing the car. Other area companies like Daytona Auto Dealers Exchange, S2 Advertising, American Industrial Plastics, R.C. Hills Specialty Vehicles, AlumaShield Industries, Classic Soft Trim Leather Specialists and Stereo Masters all pitched in to give the home team a better shot. To help fuel the crew, Shakey Jake's restaurant supplied lots of munchies. In all, the Flises raised about $25,000 to fund their effort. In comparison, last year's Rocketsports Olds team spent $750,000 to field a three-car team for the same race.

A lot of local racers and mechanics also donated their time, forming a volunteer crew. All brought different experiences to the team: some came from the road racing ranks of the SCCA, while others had backgrounds in circle track and even bicycle racing. Some had more experience in banking or other non-car-related fields, but they were still eager and willing to lend a hand. The crew worked from 5:00 every evening until midnight—even longer as the race approached. Most would also serve as the pit crew at the race, so pit stops had to be practiced and rehearsed before race day.

Since IMSA requires Nomex fire suits for all crew members, the Flises had to look towards others for help supplying a small army of various shapes and sizes with Nomex. When the local pool became exhausted, they had to widen their search. The boys kidded Ginny about her idea of calling Simpson and asking for help, telling her that a big company like that wouldn't be interested in a small effort like theirs. Undaunted, Ginny called Simpson anyway, and a few days later some loaner suits arrived via FedEx.

Grandmas' garage became a race shop again as preparations moved along. Work moved along according to plan, and in the days before they headed out to the track only minor tuning remained. Brake ducts still needed to be fabricated, the fuel filler needed adjustment and they wanted to bleed the brakes one last time. After midnight, with less than 48 hours before tech, Stan lay on the cold concrete floor by himself fabricating an aluminum rear pan.

The night before tech, they re-torqued every nut on the car and loaded up the car, tools, spare parts and lots of tires. Goodyear had donated several sets of GS-CS Showroom Stock tires, and they weren't going to magically jump into the trailer all by themselves.

The Flises knew that a lot of fast GTS-2 cars were going to show, and that the odds were slanted against them. The factory BMW GTS2 M3 team featuring David Donohue and Boris Said III made news by breaking the two-minute barrier in testing and qualifying. The Flises would post lap times about 30 seconds back, qualifying 76th out of a 76-car field.

They knew that the other teams would have faster cars, but more than 200 miles of pre-race testing had shown that the Eclipse was reliable—something that would be a major factor in a twice-around-the-clock race.

At 3:00 Saturday afternoon, the green flag was thrown, starting one of the world's most prestigious races. As expected, the three factory-backed Ferraris took an early and commanding lead; they had lapped the Spirit of Daytona team by the fifth lap of the race.

The Flises knew from the start that they would be out-powered and out-moneyed, but they also knew their preparations would pay off in the long run. Even in the first few hours, a few heavy-hitters became spectators. The Dyson WSC team lunched an engine in the early goings, and the Steve Millen-led Nissan 300ZX GTS-1 team suffered an early-race engine fire.

While not setting any lap records, the Spirit of Daytona team kept chugging on, passing the better-backed teams that littered the sidelines. When one of the leading WSC Ferraris spun, the ESPN on-board camera showed the Flises motoring by the stalled, million-dollar machine. The event-winning Kremer Porsche also spun, and ESPN's camera again caught the local David sneaking by the stalled Goliath.

As night fell and other teams scrambled to repair and rebuild their mounts, the Daytona team kept the same pace they had maintained since the beginning of the race, each lap a reprint of the previous one. A problem with the fuel cell meant they had to stop for gas more often then expected, but otherwise the car had not experienced one bit of trouble. By the six-hour mark, the team had moved up more than 30 positions. “The’re dropping like flies,” Stan said of the other competitors. Meanwhile, darkness surrounded the track and it became cold, very cold. For once, drivers and crew actually seemed happy to wear their driving suits.

Life at the 24 Hours becomes a bit surreal after midnight. Many of the spectators have either crawled into their bunks or passed our from consuming too much liquid refreshment. But on the track, the cars and the race take on a new look as nose sections are crunched, paint is traded and headlights knocked out. Several cars cut through the night with only one headlight still burning.

Sometime during that bleary gray zone between midnight and sunrise, one Nissan 240SX was seen circling the track dragging its entire rear bodywork, trying to make the trip back to the pits under its own power for repairs. In the paddock, many cars were up on jacks as crews frantically tried to get their drivers back on the track. Even the dominant M3 team had problems. Both of their cars sat in their garage; one M3 was definitely out with a blown engine, and the other car sat next to it. The second car would rejoin the race for a few hours, but would not finish. As crews and fans circled the broken BMWs, a loud roar grabbed some attention: the wounded Callaway Corvette pulled into their garage, and everyone knew that another giant had fallen.

Through all the chaos of the night, the Daytona team's Mitsubishi soldiered on, looking no different then it had that morning. The only changes to the car came when it was time to swap tires, as a set of chrome aftermarket wheels replaced the aluminum gray factory pieces.

Members of their all-volunteer team bundled up against the cold and windy night and tried to get some sleep in the folding chairs spread out behind their pit. They looked more like refugees from a faraway conflict than a pit crew at an endurance race. Most were too excited to sleep, they admitted, so they just sat and waited.

As the sun started to peak around from behind the grandstands, the temperatures started to rise and the Eclipse kept its diligent pace. A run-in with a piece of debris tore off its front airdam, but otherwise the car looked and behaved perfectly. As this $25,000 24-Hour effort kept circling the track, more than three million dollars worth of Ferraris sat in their transporters, stopped cold from mechanical failures.

Before the start of the race, the team had one major goal: make it to sunrise. With that goal now behind them, they moved their sights higher and aimed at finishing the race. A few hours later their goal became a reality as Craig brought the Eclipse home, crossing the finish line a few lengths behind the winning Porsche. The Porsche was many laps ahead, but that didn't matter at this point. The Spirit of Daytona Endurance Team had just completed one of the most grueling events in motorsports, finishing 12th in class and 24th overall.

The race is now only a couple of months behind them, but the Flises are already looking towards next year's event. They recently moved their preparation facilities out from their grandmother's house to a proper (as in much bigger) race shop located just down the street from GRM world headquarters. They're psyched to try the 24 Hours again, but they realize that the Eclipse is just not fast enough to hang with the leaders and will need to be replaced with a much faster car. Exactly what car that will be is still unknown, but if anyone out there has a spare GTS-1 car lying around….

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Comments
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David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/21/22 12:18 p.m.

With the Rolex At Daytona coming on up, a little something from the archives. 

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
1/21/22 12:33 p.m.

Very cool; I have a friend who did a similar thing back in the early 80s. Always great to see club racers taking on a monumental task.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/21/22 12:43 p.m.

The latest chapter in the family's motorsports endeavors: Flis Performance, the firm building the Mazda MX-5 Cup cars. 

hybridmomentspass
hybridmomentspass HalfDork
1/21/22 12:49 p.m.

Is this the same Spirit of Daytona that ran (runs?) with the DP class?

 

Wow, what a story. I know yall ran a story a year or two ago about an audi that ran the 24, I wish this was more common. I wish the dream were a little closer for many folks. Even with inflation, it's "only" 46 grand today. That sounds awesome. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/21/22 12:50 p.m.

In reply to hybridmomentspass :

Yup, same family that ran the DP cars.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/21/22 12:52 p.m.

And here's that recent piece about the lower-buck IMSA effort:

Running in an IMSA race on a grassroots budget

hybridmomentspass
hybridmomentspass HalfDork
1/21/22 3:00 p.m.

That's the article I remember. 

And thank you for confirming same family that ran the DP cars...wow, what a change from an 'old' eclipse to a DP class!  Makes me want to find some of my hero cards from that team

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/21/22 9:23 p.m.

"Old" Eclipse? Hey, that car was new at the time. :)

JW Everse
JW Everse
1/23/22 3:12 p.m.

Good friend finished the Rolex 24 in 1998 in this car (different livery).  Made it on the podium with a volunteer crew of friends and family.  Can't imagine what's involved until you actual do it.

hybridmomentspass
hybridmomentspass HalfDork
1/23/22 9:31 p.m.
JW Everse said:

Good friend finished the Rolex 24 in 1998 in this car (different livery).  Made it on the podium with a volunteer crew of friends and family.  Can't imagine what's involved until you actual do it.

What's up with those wheels/hubs?

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/23/22 10:02 p.m.

Wide-fives. And when I do an image search, I get a photo that I took of JG next to a Somerset. :)

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/23/22 10:04 p.m.

And some history on wide-fives here on Wilwood's site. 

racerfink
racerfink UltraDork
1/24/22 12:39 a.m.
hybridmomentspass said:
JW Everse said:

Good friend finished the Rolex 24 in 1998 in this car (different livery).  Made it on the podium with a volunteer crew of friends and family.  Can't imagine what's involved until you actual do it.

What's up with those wheels/hubs?

Thanks for making me feel old.

hybridmomentspass
hybridmomentspass HalfDork
1/24/22 8:43 a.m.

Just never seen those before, or not noticed if I had. 

red_stapler
red_stapler SuperDork
1/24/22 9:36 a.m.
JW Everse said:

Good friend finished the Rolex 24 in 1998 in this car (different livery).  Made it on the podium with a volunteer crew of friends and family.  Can't imagine what's involved until you actual do it.

I think that might have been 1999 when they had the GTT class.

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