The record book shows that Andy Lally finished 33rd in his one and only Daytona 500 start back in 2011. And it was one of the best days of his life.
“It’s the best time I’ve ever had being completely miserable,” Lally says. “It sounds odd to say, but it’s the thing that I’ve wanted to do the most in my life. It’s the biggest race that I’ve ever had a desire to do. It was a childhood dream come true to walk out on pit lane that day and see my car sitting on the grid of the Daytona 500.
“I am very rarely ever nervous or overexcited in a race, and I had butterflies before pulling off pit lane. When we were four-wide going down the back straightaway on Lap 2, I think I experienced the highest adrenaline rush of my entire life.”
That’s saying something.
Lally is a five-time class winner in the Rolex 24 At Daytona and a two-time IMSA champion. He’s also a former street luge champion who these days spends time when he’s not at a racetrack either navigating skate parks or on a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu mat.
It was shortly after Lally’s third Rolex 24 victory when he learned he’d be returning to Daytona for his first attempt at the Daytona 500. He would be driving the No. 71 TRG Chevrolet.
“It was maybe the next week that I was told I was going to get the ride full time in the 71 and be able to race the Daytona 500,” he remembers. “I was so excited. It didn’t matter what budget we had or what stage the car was going to be in or whatever. It didn’t matter.
“I was getting a chance to step up to the plate at Yankee Stadium, and it didn’t matter if I was given a wiffle ball bat or a twig, I was going to take a swing at the pitch and try and knock it out of the park. No matter how realistic that was going to be, I was going to give it my all and give it a shot.”
He and the No. 71 team faced relatively long odds to make the big show. There were 48 entries for a 43-car starting field, and they were one of the “Go or Go Home” teams vying for one of only eight non-guaranteed spots.
“We were a teeny-tiny team and we had one speedway car and a backup that was pretty much a shell of something that wasn’t at all complete or would have been able to actually compete. So, we did limited practice. We did limited drafting. We did not have a big engine program or a big wind-tunnel program or anything like that.
“That car had never been in a (wind) tunnel, never did anything. We were basically going to just chill, rely on the draft, try to log some laps and see what I learned along the way. It was a pretty amazing experience.”
The conservative approach paid off for Lally and the team in the 150-mile qualifying race on Thursday before the Daytona 500.
“Daytona 500 qualifying by times only takes first and second place and then after that, you race your way in,” Lally explains. “We just sat at the back of the field. Once the first wreck happens, it doesn’t matter. You’re in and you just sit there. We weren’t even that quick anyway.”
In 2011, the “tandem draft” was prevalent. Two cars would link up with each other nose-to-tail and push each other around the racetrack and every few laps, they’d switch positions.
“My tandem partner for the qualifying race was actually Michael McDowell [another driver who made his way from sports car racing into NASCAR],” Lally said. “We got about halfway into the race and I was pushing Michael. Going down the back straightaway, his motor exploded all over the place.
“So, I was then left without a drafting partner for the rest of the race and we finished in the back of that. Just through other people crashing and doing dumb stuff, we ended up qualifying 37th.”
But 37th was more than enough to get him into the field for the Daytona 500. And once the green flag dropped, Lally quickly realized that anything could happen.
“Probably in the first five or six laps, just through the craziness of being three- and four-wide and getting lucky and picking the right line here and there, we moved up about 10 spots,” he says. “And then we moved up about another 10 spots after the first caution. I can’t remember if we just took gas or something, but we hopped a bunch of people on pit road and came out 13th and restarted there.
“We were running around 20th, but everybody was starting to move around and find their drafting partners. At that point in time, the tandem draft was still in its progress of evolution, but you absolutely knew that you could only be to the right of center of your drafting partner. So, for me, whoever I had that I was trying to push, I would line up my eyes with the dead center of their spoiler, with the spoiler tape that runs down the split of the spoiler and the gussets of the rear spoiler.
“You would drive absolutely blind. The spoiler was too tall to see through, so you were absolutely just trusting – with only peripheral vision – the direction that your guy wanted to go. Unfortunately, two teammates spun themselves out – (David) Reutimann spun out (Michael) Waltrip or vice-versa – coming through Turn 4 and that was the ‘Big One’ that year at Daytona.”
For the uninitiated, the “Big One” is when several cars are involved in the same crash in a NASCAR superspeedway race. Lally was officially initiated on Lap 30 of the 2011 Daytona 500.
“When it started to happen and everybody checked up, I saw the direction everybody was going and I shot for the apron,” Lally remembers. “I thought I was through it, but then somebody crashing from the top came down. I think it was (Greg) Biffle in the (No.) 16 or it was (Joe) Nemechek.
“One of those two were right behind me and just tagged me in the right rear and it brought me right back up the banking and I went into the wall. We spent 20 minutes in the garage banging stuff out, and unfortunately, that was the end of the exciting part of my Daytona 500. So, my Daytona 500 was really more like the Daytona 100 and we, unfortunately, didn’t get too far.”
Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable experience.
“There were a number of really neat moments throughout Speedweeks that were noteworthy,” Lally said. “Little things that you’ve thought about as a young racer that you wanted to see and achieve and do. Whether that’s little things like walking by Richard Petty in the garage and getting a little wave to seeing your car roll out of the trailer for the first time, to seeing your name on the entry list, to seeing your number up on the scoring pylon, to seeing your name on the roof of the car.
“There were a lot of those, ‘Holy cow, this is really cool’ moments, but none compared to actually taking the green flag and being side-by-side with many drivers, many of the veterans that I had been a fan of, literally, since my childhood, and knowing that my parents were in the stands watching me race the Daytona 500.”
Lally continued to race in the NASCAR Cup Series for most of the 2011 season, earning Rookie of the Year honors at year’s end. He returned to sports car racing the following year, going on to win two more Rolex 24s and other prestigious victories such as the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts, Motul Petit Le Mans, Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen and the inaugural IMSA race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2012.
When the opportunity presents itself, Lally still jumps in for the occasional NASCAR road course race. Most recently, he competed in NASCAR Xfinity Series races at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Road America and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval in 2018.
Like many of us, he’ll be watching this Sunday’s Daytona 500, which starts at 2:30 p.m. But unlike most of us, he’ll also remember what it was like to be out there, mixing it up in the draft.
“It’s the most excitement and best time I’ve ever had being that miserable,” he says. “I wouldn’t have traded the experience at all.”
Lally’s next race in the WeatherTech Championship is the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts on Saturday, March 21. The race starts at 10:40 a.m. on CNBC. It can also be streamed on the NBC App with authentication and TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. IMSA Radio will have coverage available at IMSARadio.com, RadioLeMans.com and Sirius XM.