Porsche’s 911 GT Daytona 24 Hours giant-killing relived

Kevin Buckler’s The Racers Group outfit had won the GT class at Daytona in 2002, aided by two young Porsche factory drivers: Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister.

“2002 was the first time they’d ever been to the US, and it was with us,” says Buckler. “At first, I didn’t really want these Porsche UPS Junior Drivers – but they turned out to be legendary.”

Bernhard and Bergmeister usually didn’t get to talk much during races. They were regular team-mates back in the early 2000s, but during the 2003 race they had the chance to have a chat and set themselves what before the race would have looked like an outlandish target.

That goal was to win the famous event outright aboard a GT class car, and not even an entry from the top category (called GTS back then) for production-based machinery. 

“I’d stepped out of the car just before midnight and it was one of the rare times that I ran into Jorg during a race,” recalls two-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Bernhard. “We were sat in the truck, and we said, ‘You know what, we can do this, we can win this overall.’ I really believed we could do it.”

2003 Daytona 24H winning TRG Porsche makes a pitstop

2003 Daytona 24H winning TRG Porsche makes a pitstop

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Their car had moved into the lead as early as the sixth hour, after which Gentleman driver Michael Schrom, the fourth driver on the team, “did his couple of stints really well” relates Buckler. But their eyes remained focused on the big prize in their blue #66 996-shape GT3-RS.

“It was crazy,” says Buckler. “What I remember of our meeting prior to the race, we’d won [GT] the year before and at Le Mans, and it felt like we had the band back together. We knew the prototypes were fast, but we knew they were fragile, and the same with the GT1 cars.

“We just decided to go all-in from the beginning, none of this ‘95%’ stuff, just to see if we could stay with those guys on the lead lap. Almost six hours went by until the first yellow flag, and Jorg and I did doubles, and when that came out and I saw where we were on the leaderboard, we were right there.”

Timo Bernhard in the GT Porsche passing the GT of Jay Wilton

Timo Bernhard in the GT Porsche passing the GT of Jay Wilton

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Bergmeister adds: “When we got into the lead, the first couple of full course yellows we messed up by pitting right away, which meant we were always losing our lap lead to the guys who were a lap down.

“We had quite some luck along the way, but we had by far the quickest GT car. It was in the good old days when there was no BoP! The pace was really good, no mistakes with the car, the team did a good job, there were no dramas.

“There was a lot of driving for us and with the H-pattern gearbox it was quite a bit harder than it is now. I got a good workout!”

The fragility of the DPs on their debut was only half of story of the freak Daytona result, however. The cars from the GT class were barely much slower than the admittedly low-tech prototypes. A three-second gap in qualifying between the new cars and the proven GTs came down dramatically in the race. 

“They were quicker, but over a stint it was probably only a second or a second and a half a lap,” adds Bernhard. “Jorg and I did most of the driving through the night, and we decided to really push to see what happened.”

TRG's Kevin Buckler

TRG’s Kevin Buckler

Photo by: Richard Sloop

The highlight of the race for Buckler was a “magic morning stint” when he was battling with the remaining prototype at the sharp end: “I could see the Multimatic car [the Ford-powered MDP1 that was dubbed a Focus] in front of me. I just thought ‘I want that son of a bitch so bad’.

“I qualified at a 1m54.9s, and I cranked off ten 1m53s in a row, it was like my magic stint! Michael finished off the race and, oh my God, it changed history for us. As a company, it put us on a great trajectory.”

The quartet ended up winning with a nine-lap advantage at the front of the field, with Schrom taking the checkered flag. The highest-placed prototype, which suffered late dramas, was only fourth.

The Racer's Group Porsche comes to the line to finish the 24 hours

The Racer’s Group Porsche comes to the line to finish the 24 hours

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“We had what I call a proper 911 race: no issues whatsoever,” says Bernard. “It was my first overall victory in one of the big endurance races. I was just 21 at the time and I don’t think I understood the significance. Over time it has come to mean more and more to me.”

Bergmeister recalls: “It was quite a small team but, after the victory, I think Kevin got a lot of new customers. Everybody at Porsche was really happy, they made a poster which I still have in the workshop, one of the only posters I ever kept. It was a big one.

“The watch is still in my safe, it’s never been worn. My first one, I gave to my dad, because he made everything possible for me, but unfortunately I got that one back too soon when he passed away. So that’s even more special.

“We went out a little bit to celebrate, but I think it was after the first year when we went to a club in Daytona and Timo couldn’t get a beer because he wasn’t old enough!”

Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister

Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister

Photo by: ALMS/Rick Dole

Buckler confirms: “I think I got him one beer, but he got a little tipsy because he’s only little. It sure was wonderful driving with those guys.”

After hanging up his helmet to concentrate on running his team in various divisions, as well as his Adobe Road winery business, Buckler celebrated their amazing achievement 20 years on with a lavish reunion party at Daytona’s suite on the shores of Lake Lloyd. Schrom (below) demonstrated the car on track too.

“After I got out of the car, my buzz was running complex programs, so we ran five cars or more, eight years in a row,” says Buckler. “We had 74 entries and 215 drivers, so we did a reunion, so we had 275 people who’ve come back who are associated with the team.

“We had such a great time this weekend at Daytona, just like we did 20 years ago!”

Michael Schrom, TRG Motorsports

Michael Schrom, TRG Motorsports

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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