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The Way It Is/ How Duncan Dayton created a winning ALMS team

by Gordon Kirby
Many people were surprised when Duncan Dayton's Highcroft team was selected by Honda/Acura to run one of its LMP2 cars in the American Le Mans Series. There was a similar, if more restrained level of surprise when Acura confirmed in Detroit a few weeks ago that Highcroft will join Gil de Ferran's new team to race two new Acura ARX-02a P1 cars in next year's American Le Mans Series.

In the space of three years Highcroft's owner Duncan Dayton has gone from being a hobbyist vintage racer to a professional team owner involved in one of American racing's most serious, factory-backed racing and development programs. How did it happen?

A real estate developer based in Danbury, Connecticut, Dayton already had an established vintage race car and restoration shop for his own use and a handful of customers. In 2004, Dayton set to work building a new, professional racing shop which he opened in '05.

"We started out with some of our core guys from the vintage side, primarily Dave Luckett, Glen Taylor and a couple of other of our vintage guys," Dayton commented. "We bought Dyson's Lola-MG in 2005 and campaigned it with Andy Wallace and won a series race in 2006. We used that as an opportunity to build the team and figure out what it meant to be a good entrant. We had to learn how you went about it, what you did to prepare the car, and what the schedules and turnaround times were like. And then we ramped it up from there."

After signing his contract with Acura and HPD, Dayton took a few months to hire the right people. Dayton's operation is far from Indianapolis or Charlotte where many American race teams are based so it wasn't an easy task.

"We spent a fair amount of time thinking about who to hire and who was available," Dayton said. "Frankly, it was very difficult to attract people to Danbury, Connecticut, for an unknown, unproven team. It's not like Indianapolis where if you don't like the team you can roll your toolbox across the alley and join another team.

"One of the first guys we were able to attract and secure in the fall of 2006 was Rob Hill and we started ramping up from there. We went from six people to twenty-six in four months and we had to buy a new transporter and equipment and pit carts. So we went on a pretty heavy shopping spree in the fall of '06 and a lot of the stuff came just before Sebring in '07, or shortly thereafter, and we've been building ever since."

Highcroft won't have to expand very much to handle its new P1 program. "We'll need to add some personnel and some facilities although really, we're in pretty good shape on that front," Dayton remarked. "But until we see the car--and I have not seen a rendering of the car--and until we really see what it looks like and get a sense of how much bodywork it has and how we're going to accomodate it from a space standpoint, we'll have to figure that out.

"The biggest thing we've done of late is ramping up the front office as far as accounting and processing and data work because it's gotten to be a fairly big business. The amount of data collection and analysis we're doing is getting pretty staggering. So we've ramped up those two areas."

Dayton brought Brian MacDonald in last April to be Highcroft's chief operating and financial officer. "Brian's been a huge benefit because the team consumes more hours than there are in the day. I have something like 1,200 unread e-mails on my computer. They come over the barrel head like you can't believe. I'm a real estate developer by profession and my real estate development activities are almost zero. This is a 200 mph, three-dimensional chess game that you've got to keep your fingers on the pulse of everything."

Dayton has been compelled to seriously reduce his vintage racing this year.

"Vintage racing still really appeals to me. In the past I would do fifteen, eighteen or twenty races a year, but if I do four now, it's a lot, just because of the time required."

Dayton wanted to race his P2 car on a regular basis but Robert Clarke told him he couldn't be a primary driver.

"It was a bitter blow to me," Dayton related. "But Robert said we're not making any compromises in this program and we think you would be a compromise to the driving team. He said I could be a third driver at Sebring and Petit Le Mans, but I couldn't be a primary driver."

Dayton had to admit that he couldn't run as consistently fast as guys like Brabham and Johansson. Then last fall, he broke his neck in a swimming pool accident.

"I was able to run a single lap as quick or sometimes quicker than David and Stefan," Dayton observed. "So I think I surprised some poeple, but truth be told the average lap time for those guys was quicker than my average lap time. Three-tenths of a second a lap over a long race adds up to a significant amount of time.

"I originally planned on doing Petit Le Mans last year but when I broke my neck that was out of the question. It's just become increasingly apparent to me that to compete at this level when guys like Herta and Fittipaldi and Sascha Massen are getting fired because they're not getting the job done, who am I kidding?"

It took some time for Dayton to come to terms with the fact that he's a professional team owner rather than driver.

"It was a bit of a slap in the face, but I hope I dealt with it graciously and didn't go kicking and screaming too hard," he remarked. "It took me a while, but over the course of the last few months I've very much found my rhythm as a team owner and manager. I very much enjoy the strategy side and calling the race, and the collaborative effort with everyone on the timing stand. I've come to enjoy the team owner role almost as much as driving. It's a different challenge and something that's probably appropriate for me in my life and my career."

Danny Sullivan is an old friend of Dayton and the 1985 Indy 500 winner worked with Dayton in Connecticut from the fall of '06 through February of '07 to get Highcroft organized for its P2 and P1 adventure.

"Danny is a good friend, a dear friend, and he made the introduction to Robert Clarke and (American Honda president) John Mendel," Dayton said. "So I owe a lot to him."

Dayton's story of how Sullivan and he sold themselves to Acura is entertaining and instructive.

"We walked into the conference room at American Honda and I said, 'You don't know me from Adam and there's no reason you should. But I'm telling you right now I'm going to win Le Mans and I hope it's with you. If not, then we'll shake hands and wish each other luck. A lot of guys will probably tell you that, but I mean it.'

"We talked for a while and then we got up and left. Danny and I were talking in the parking lot and we said, 'Well, there ain't a hope in hell we're going to get that deal.' And a couple of days later I got a phone call from Robert asking us to submit a proposal."

But Clarke told Dayton he was very late in the process. Clarke wanted Dayton's proposal on his desk in two days.

"Danny and I spent thirty-six hours putting together a sixty-page document with photographs. We were just about to ship it off and took a final read through it, and we both looked at each other and said, 'This is complete flim-flam. They've seen hundreds of proposals like this. If we can see through it, they're going to see through it.'

"So we threw it in the trash and wrote Robert a two paragraph letter. I said I've never negotiated with an OEM before and I'm at a loss for words. I wrote that I didn't know what they were looking for. To use an old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words, so we sent him a large photograph of the shop along with the letter, and it was different than anything else he received. He called and said he'd be there in two days and to get ready.

"So we buffed everything up and Robert and Steve Erickson and three other HPD guys showed up at the shop. We gave them a quick tour and they asked us how we would run this deal if they gave it to us. I said, 'If you want somebody to execute your program with the same attention to detail that you see in those radiator covers that we make, then I'm your man.'

"A little while later they came back and told us they were going to take a flier on us. They said the power of dreams is Honda's moniker and you've got a dream and we think you've got the ability to do it. They said, 'You're young and you're hungry.' They compared us to Steve Horne and the Tasman team in the early days of Honda's CART program."

About six weeks after writing his original letter, Dayton signed a contract with Acura.

"We were able to convince them we were the guys for them. And as I wrote in a letter to Robert when he retired last winter, the trust he instilled in us motivates me every day when I get up to not let him down.

"When it was announced everybody asked, who the heck is Highcroft and how did they get this deal? Well, we put our noses to the grindstone and paid attention to the small details and huge credit goes to Dave Luckett and Rob Hill and everybody in the shop. They've done a tremendous job."

Stefan Johansson co-drove with David Brabham last year with Scott Sharp taking Johansson's place this year in company with sponsor Patron Tequila.

"Obviously, David and Stefan were a great combination last year," Dayton said. "Then it was great to attract Scott and Patron and have a legitimate sponsor who's putting serious money into the program because they like what we're doing."

Dayton is delighted that Brabham and Sharp have been able to win four times this year.

"Last year, everyone had different equipment, but this year, we've all got the same stuff. So it's especially rewarding and satisfying to be able to beat Andretti-Green and Fernandez and now de Ferran, too--guys with vastly more experience than we have. But at the end of the day it's like Roger Penske said, 'The harder you work, the luckier you get.'.

"We worked a four hundred man-hour day at Sebring this year. At every race, our guys are there working four or five hours longer every night than anyone else doing every little thing to make a difference. Sometimes it doesn't show. In fact, most times it doesn't show, but there will be a race at some point where something will break on other cars, but it didn't break on our car because of the attention to detail."

With two races to go in this year's American Le Mans Series, Brabham, Sharp and Highcroft are inthe thick of the battle for the P2 championship.

"To think that we're in a position to fight for a championship in only our second year is pretty staggering. The four races we've won this year have all been in the last lap or two. It's great for the series because it's exciting to watch, and great for the team. We've been on the podium in seven of nine races and won four of them. That's a pretty good track record."

Dayton knows he and his team will face an even bigger test with the P1 program.

"We've got to motivate each and every one of us to do better, to work harder, to be smarter and to exceed the expectations of everyone involved," he comments. "If we do that, we'll be successful. It's a relentless pursuit of perfection and as soon as you start believing your own hype, or start believing your own luck and start thinking you've got it figured-out, it's all going to evaporate."

Duncan Dayton is both a dreamer and a realist and it will be interesting to see if Highcroft Racing can continue to perform in the P1 category as well as it has in P2. Then there's the great longterm dream Dayton shares with Acura of tackling and winning the Le Mans 24 Hours. And he knows the only way to pave the path toward that chimerical goal is by achieving repeated success over the next two or three years in the American Le Mans Series.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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