DAYTOOONAAAAA, DAYTOOONA, DAYTOONAAAAA….
For men of a certain age it is nearly impossible to read the previous sentence without it turning to song in their head and reminding them of a simpler time. Road Shagger driver Jon Morley is of that age and he also used to be absolutely unbeatable at Daytona, USA when the game first came out.
Last Friday in anything but a “simple time”, Morley, Ernstone and their killer team once again proved to be unbeatable at Daytona, USA.
Only this time, it was no game.
The Michelin Pilot Challenge season always starts early in the year and it starts with a bang, opening with the one race everybody wants to win. Obviously, all teams want to start their season off with a win, but a win at Daytona would be at the top of most people’s list no matter when it occurred in the season. This is especially true for Ernstone, a British expat who has always viewed Daytona as the gold standard of American racing.
So when Road Shagger Racing continued their fine form from 2019 at the Roar Before The 24 a few weeks ago, there was a noticeable uptick in excitement in team communications. Preparation went into overdrive and the team once again showed up at the track knowing that if they executed, they would win.
As with every other Michelin Pilot Challenge race since the dawn of time, the event had a lot of mixed conditions early on and the practice sessions ended up being pretty much useless. This didn’t worry the team though, because they knew what they had once the track dried out.
When it did eventually dry out for qualifying, Ernstone went out in search of a drafting partner. As a one-car team, RSR obviously doesn’t enjoy the luxury of having a teammate to work with at a track like Daytona, where the draft can make a major difference in the lap time. Despite his best effort, Ernstone was never able to find a good match in the session and ended up 11th out of 18th cars.
On the grid, the excitement and nerves were palpable as Ernstone did his best to stay focused. Morley sent him on his way and hoped that in two-hours time he’d be able to jump into an undamaged car and fight for the lead.
Ernstone had a safe and cautious start that saw him quickly fall back to 16th. He remained there for the first few laps, but appeared to be quicker than the cars in front of him once his tires came up to temp.
After a few more laps, he picked off one car for 15th and looked to be finding his stride. Morley decided this was a primo time to head to the bathroom so he would be back in time to watch Ernstone start to move through the field.
When Morley returned, Ernstone was already up to 9th and was the fastest car in the TCR field. Morley wasn’t gone that long either, as he hadn’t even taken his phone to the bathroom with him! For all their preparation, nobody on the team was quite prepared for what came next.
One by one (and at least once one by two) Ernstone picked off his competitors and charged through the entire field and into the lead!
The team was giddy with excitement and Morley’s phone was blowing up with text messages from Road Shagger fans who were watching around the world. Ernstone was in the zone and nobody on track was going to stop him today.
It was fitting then that his biggest threat would materialize off track.
Shortly after the start of the race, the team had been informed that one of the tires on their car scanned in with a different code than what was recorded in qualifying. The team member in charge of the tires knows unequivocally that the car started on the correct tires, but the team’s hands were tied and they had no choice but to accept the penalty and serve a drive-through penalty.
The pit lane at Daytona feels like it’s about 40 miles long when you’re on the pit lane speed limiter, so a drive-through penalty is a truly painful experience. A little more than halfway through his stint Ernstone came in from second place to serve the penalty.
The long crawl through the pits left him half a lap down on the field, turning laps on his own and waiting patiently for another yellow to come out and bunch up the field.
Thankfully, a yellow did come and it came at the right time to change drivers and get Morley in the car. Ernstone came into the pits in 9th and after some solid pit work from the crew, Morley left in 7th.
As the green flag flew for the restart, Morley got a good jump and had a nice run on the way to turn one. He found himself thinking about going 3-wide into turn one, which coincidentally would also be the first corner he’d ever raced in anger at Daytona.
With PTSD from VIR kicking in, Morley thought better of the 3-wide situation and played it safe as he got used to the bruised and battered Audi Ernstone had handed over to him. It wasn’t a bad car, but it wasn’t quite right either.
While he was figuring it out, Mikey Taylor and Stephen Simpson snuck by. He was content to let them go however with so much time remaining in the race.
Gradually, Morley got his head wrapped around the car and started picking off the cars in front of him. He worked his way up to third by the time the crew called him in for his one and only pit stop.
From there it was business as usual, with the Road Shagger crew executing another great stop and releasing Morley at the precise moment needed to get him out ahead of the leader Alexander Premat.
As Morley headed down pit lane with a former Audi factory driver inches off his rear bumper, he mentally prepared for the fight of his life. To his surprise and pleasure though, the moment he turned off his pit lane speed limiter, he left Premat in the dust; most likely due to the mystery shifting issue Premat reported having after the race.
Eventually Premat did get going and was keeping Morley honest by running quick laps a few seconds behind him. By then everyone had pitted for the final time and it looked like it would be a battle between Premat and Morley for the win.
Morley stayed focused and worked hard to maintain the gap, but he was soon relieved to hear that Premat had retired and he now had a 12-second gap to second place.
With a huge gap and 40 minutes left in the race, Morley backed it down and began saving tires and fuel for any potential fight that may develop from a late-race yellow.
As expected, with 14 minutes to go, the flashing yellow light came on in his car and his comfortable lead was wiped out by a full-course caution.
As he drove by the incident in the bus stop for the first time, Morley saw a car on its roof and no less than 8 emergency vehicles on the scene. It looked like it would be a long cleanup, but Morley stayed focused and felt certain he’d have to fight for the win in a one-lap shootout. It felt eerily similar to the end of the race at VIR last year, which you can read about here if you’re into tragedies.
Thankfully the driver of the flipped car, Scott Maxwell, walked away unharmed after this big hit.
Maxwell walking away was really good news. Maxwell effing up the tire barriers so badly the race couldn’t be restarted was great news!
While Morley hates watching races end under yellow as much as any race fan, he’ll quickly tell you he didn’t feel one ounce of guilt in taking his first Daytona victory under a full course yellow.
After taking the white flag, Morley had one more lap to complete at pace car speed before he and the team could celebrate. It was an extremely slow, long and nerve-wracking lap that finally ended with a series of joyous shouts on (and off) the radio.
“It was extremely emotional for me,” said Ernstone. “Daytona is legendary all around the world. We can say we won at Daytona. I was sobbing like a baby. I couldn’t watch the last 45 minutes of the race. (It was certainly) emotional for me, I’m sure for Jon too, it was huge and one of the biggest days of my life for sure.”
“I’m not crying,” said Morley. “You’re crying.”
Safe to say it’s a day none of them will ever forget. I mean… it’s Daytona.
The tape-delayed broadcast of the race will be on NBCSN February 6th from 1 pm – 3 pm EST.
You can also watch the full 4-hour broadcast anytime and stream all our races live if you sign up for the NBC TrackPass. More info on that here.
Next up is Sebring on March 19th.
Many thanks to Race For RP for putting together this cool video celebrating our win.