Stars celebrate the 'Big 50'

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I though I’d seen it all before. In hindsight I should have known better. This was something special: my first visit to Daytona, and on the 50th anniversary of international sports car racing around this sensational Speedway.

Just to get the juices flowing, and to remind us of the heritage, a parade of previous winning cars preceded the big race on Saturday morning. Out into the Florida sunshine came a Ford GT40, Porsche 917, Lola T70, Porsche 935 and a BMW CSL among others. Sadly, however no sign of a Ferrari 330P4, but no matter Dario Franchitti, fired up in the Gulf-liveried Porsche 917, banished any further disappointment. Indycar legend Bobby Rahal squeezed into Hurley Haywood’s overalls to drive the 935, pitting after a lap when the tight fit of the suit prevented safe steering or changing of gears.

Back in today’s world there was much talk of Grand-Am’s new equivalency formula, which has been created to produce close racing. Yes, a sports car series designed specifically to promote racing at close quarters, in cars that look and sound the business. On the half-century anniversary, though, it would be Ford engines that beat the ‘equivalency’, powering the top three finishers into the record books.

“Drivers start your engines,” called Sir Jackie Stewart, who somehow never raced at Daytona, and the ‘Big One’ was underway. A huge crowd was held entranced throughout, distracted only by a blitz of a fireworks display in the middle of the night. The anniversary victory margin was five seconds after 24 hours; that’s how thrilling it was in 2012.

Sadly, the anniversary Grand Marshal AJ Foyt was too unwell to attend but Stewart and Derek Bell stepped in to entertain sponsor Rolex and their VIP guests at dinner on the Friday night. A fitting fallback since, over the decades, the Brits have conquered the speedway on numerous occasions. And so it was, with perfect timing, that Justin Wilson, Ryan Dalziel, and Allan McNish all made the podium on Sunday afternoon.

The new look of the Daytona Prototypes also provided cause for celebration. Gone are the derided ‘garden shed’ cockpits, replaced by a far sleeker, and more pleasing, bodywork design. What Grand-Am really wanted was a memorable race on its 50th birthday and without a doubt this one was a thriller.

Perched high above the speedway in their Champions’ Tower those who have carried the torch for Bill France could survey their kingdom and feel satisfied that, after 50 years, all the plates are spinning at once for Daytona and its world-famous motor race.