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Inside look before Ford GT takes on the Rolex 24

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Daytona Beach, Florida — One day before he’ll strap himself inside the No. 66 Ford GT at the Rolex 24, Joey Hand appreciates his place in history.

The 36-year-old American driver has an impressive motorsports resume, including a win at Daytona in 2011 driving a BMW prototype, but Hand said piloting a vehicle bearing the Blue Oval is special. It’s the GT’s first race since 1969, and it’s been a half-century since Ford earned iconic victories at Daytona and Le Mans.

“This race is a big deal, having Ford come back 50 years later and all the history behind it,” Hand told The Detroit News Friday. “It makes me proud to be part of such a big deal to such a big company.”

Hand has some experience with the Dearborn automaker — his first car was a Ford Ranger midsize pickup — and for a driver who wears an American flag pattern on his helmet, driving for a domestic company is important. Hand, along with Frechman Sebastien Bourdais and German Dirk Muller, will drive three hour to four hour stints in the GT, which he calls “one of the coolest cars” he’s ever seen.

Navigating the 3.56-mile long track will be grueling. Hand’s No. 66 car will join No. 67 GT and 52 other vehicles, many speeding up to 180 miles-per-hour on the straightaway and swerving around tight corners just inches from each other.

But 24 hours before the day-long endurance race was set to begin, Hand was trying to stay relaxed. His Friday included a morning practice and media session and afternoon driver meeting before a relatively open evening.

“The preparation for me is about relaxing and resting,” he said. “What gets me in the right frame of mind is about having a good time and enjoying it. As soon as you get uptight, that’s when your muscles get uptight and you make mistakes.”

Ford GT is back to race at Rolex 24 at Daytona

The drivers will be able to catch only about two hours of sleep in between their driving stints. Hand said once he gets out of the car, he’ll run to his bus, take a shower, head straight to the kitchen for a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich or pasta and chicken, get a massage to soothe his stiff arms and legs, then take a nap.

“You just have to think differently in these races,” he said.

The drivers have it easy compared to the pit crew.

While the drivers can nap in their spacious buses — Andy Priaulx, who drives one of Ford’s prototype cars, uses an old Bon Jovi tour bus — roughly 40 men and women will be tasked with taking care of the two GTs during the race, and they’ll all be there for the full 24 hours.

The supercars will each make 30 to 35 pit stops to change tires, brakes, drivers and to refuel. A full tank of gas lasts about 45 minutes, and in between fill-ups the crew will grab some catered food and try to catch a few seconds of sleep on a pile of tires or wherever they can find room.

“They can have their helmet and fire-proof gear on, sit down, even with 54 cars running, and instantly fall asleep,” said Mike O’Gara, the Chip Ganassi Racing team manager in charge of the GTs. “You’ll see them nod off but when I call on the radio to the drivers to pit, they pop up and are ready; they’re like robots.”

The crew is able to change four tires, refuel and trade drivers in about 20 seconds. Brakes take about two minutes to change.

Crewmembers spent most of Friday testing parts, tightening bolts and making sure there were no loose hoses, clips or anything else that could fall off the car. Since October, the team has been working 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, to make sure things run smoothly.

“The fastest car rarely wins here,” O’Gara said. “It’s the car that doesn’t have troubles, or has a team that can recover when something happens.”

The crew has to monitor everything from tire pressure on the car to how the rising or setting sun changes the temperature of the track.

“You can pick up a hot dog wrapper in the grille, and it can ruin your race,” O’Gara said. “It’s things as small as that that you have to be aware of.”

If the practices are any indication, the Ford GTs will be competitive.

Ford posted the best time in the second practice Thursday, and the two GTs placed 10th and 11th in their class in Friday’s final practice run.

Hand said one of the keys to success is about compromise between all three drivers.

“It’s about the seating position in the car, your steering wheel position, every single thing,” he said. “When you have a group of guys ... outside of the car we all get along really well, and that goes a long way. If the respect isn’t there you’re not going to compromise for the other guy. We just have a really good expect level for everybody.”

Hand said expectations are high.

“This is our first and only shot before Le Mans to do a proper 24-hour race, but by no means are we going to tip-toe around and get lapped by people if we can help it,” Hand said. “We’re going to drive this thing.”

mmartinez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2401

Twitter.com/MikeMartinez_DN