Golden days (and nights) at Daytona

Florida’s sports car classic celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2012. Out of some great finishes during that half-century, we pick 10 stand-out races

The origins of the Daytona 24 Hours can be found in the name of the track that this month celebrates the 50th birthday of the event. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr had christened the giant facility that emerged from the Florida scrub in 1958 the Daytona International Speedway (DIS). It was most definitely a speedway – witness its 31-degree banking – but international it wasn’t. The idea of a long-distance sports car race was conceived half a century ago to change that.

“There wasn’t a whole lot international about NASCAR in those days,” says Jim France, Bill’s second son and today the boss of NASCAR. “It was just the good ol’ boys from the south. That’s why he came up with the idea of a sports car race.”

France points out that DIS was built to be much more than a replacement for the Daytona Beach road course. It hosted an Indycar event in its inaugural season in ’59, while the infield road course section was in place from the word go.

France’s plan to put Daytona on the racing map involved inviting the great and the good from North America, Europe and beyond to his new event.

The first long-distance enduro, the Daytona Three-Hour Continental of 1962, had an all-star grid. Fireball Roberts and AJ Foyt were on the entry, and so too was Roger Penske and Grand Prix drivers Jim Clark, Stirling Moss and Innes Ireland.

Dan Gurney was the winner of the first race aboard a Frank Arciero-entered Lotus-Climax 19B. The race increased in duration to 2000 miles in 1964 and then to 24 hours in ’66. France remembers that his brother, Bill Jr, was responsible for the race morphing into a twice-around-the-clock classic.

The Daytona enduro has had its highs and lows since then, running to any number of rule books. In today’s Grand-Am it stands aloof from the world order of sports car racing, but just like in 1962, it still attracts big-name drivers from all over the world. What follows are some of the best battles from a classic race.

'67: Ferrari's revenge

This was a grudge match. Ferrari was out for revenge after the beating it received at the hands of Ford at Le Mans in 1966. The result was one of its all-time classic sports car designs, the 330 P4, and a clear-cut victory in its big rival’s backyard at Daytona in ’67.

Chris Amon, who shared the winning car with Lorenzo Bandini, has no doubts that his new employer had upped the ante.

“I got a very distinct impression that they wanted revenge,” says the Kiwi, who had been signed up by Ferrari for ’67 as a result of his part in Ford’s first Le Mans triumph. “I think more effort went into the P4 than had gone into their long-distance cars over the previous few years.”

Ferrari dominated the Daytona 24 Hours that year: the second P4 driven by Mike Parkes and Ludovico Scarfiotti finished second and the North American Racing Team’s old P3 came home third in the hands of Pedro Rodríguez and Jean Guichet. And Ford? Its bid for a third straight victory in one of the 24-hour enduros disappeared, quite literally, in a cloud of oil smoke – gearbox oil smoke.

Ferrari was on top all the way apart from an early cameo from the untried seven-litre Chaparral 2F.

“We had the upper hand from the start,” says Amon. “You could drive the door handles off the P4 for 24 hours and the chances were it would keep going. It was bulletproof, but you had to look after the Ford.”

The Fords were in trouble early on. Six GT40 Mk2s were on the entry, and between them they underwent nine changes of the latest Kar Kraft gearbox until there were no spares left. The only car to make the finish, the Shelby entry driven by Bruce McLaren and Lucien Bianchi, came home a distant seventh after reverting to the previous year’s ’box.

The final indignity for Ford came after the race when its hero from ’66 was asked to draw comparison between the GT40 and his Daytona-winning P4: “I think I made some comment to suggest that the Ford was like a truck compared with the Ferrari.”

'70: The first big one for the 917

No one wanted to drive the Porsche 917 in 1969, yet by the following year it was the car to have. The instability problem that had made it such a monster had been cured and after a winter’s worth of development it was reliable, too. That combination allowed one of the all-time great racing cars to notch up its first victory in one of the classic enduros at Daytona in 1970.

“We knew the handling was good and that it was reliable,” says Brian Redman, “and we’d already been testing at Daytona. That car was so fast there; we were lapping tail-enders on lap three.”

The JW team dominated once the Ferrari challenge had fallen by the wayside, but it wasn’t plain sailing. The 917K Redman shared with Jo Siffert was hit by a myriad of problems, although the sister car driven by Pedro Rodríguez and Leo Kinnunen ran without delay to claim a 45-lap victory.

Redman, who lost time with a tyre blowout and collapsed rear suspension, thought that he and Siffert weren’t going to see the finish.

“The clutch went early in the morning,” he recalls. “I don’t think the JW crew had ever changed a clutch before, and I thought that was it. At that point, David Yorke [JW’s team manager] said he wanted me to do a stint in the lead car because they couldn’t get Leo to stick to the pace they wanted. I went out and near the end of that stint who should come hurtling by me on the banking past the pits but Seppi.”

The JW team had been told that a clutch change would take 90 minutes, but despite their lack of experience managed to complete its replacement in 80. That enabled Redman and Siffert to get back up to a distant second and complete a Porsche 1-2.

'73: Reputations were built on this

It was the first of four for Peter Gregg, the first of five for Hurley Haywood and the first of 10 for the eternal Porsche 911 shape. Daytona ’73 was a year of firsts and will always have a special place in the history of US endurance racing.

Haywood knows just how important that victory was with Gregg, Brumos Racing and the brand-new Porsche 911 Carrera RSR. It put the team and its drivers on the map, not least because to seal the victory they had to overcome the might of Penske Racing with equal machinery.

“That was the race which put my name up in bright lights,” he says today. “Peter and I had a real desire to beat a team of the stature of Penske and the quality drivers it had in Mark Donohue and George Follmer.

“That gave us the confidence that we were good enough to take on the best America had to offer and compete on an international stage. And, of course, we backed it up with another victory at Sebring in March.”

Penske and Brumos were each armed with a brand-new ‘ducktail’ Carrera RSR delivered straight from the factory. They weren’t supposed to challenge for outright honours, but when the last prototype standing – the Matra driven by François Cevert, Henri Pescarolo and Jean-Pierre Beltoise – stopped during the night, the race became a straight battle between the two 911s.

There was little to choose between two cars that were never separated by more than a couple of laps until five o’clock on Sunday morning. The Penske car’s engine failed, and now it was up to Gregg and Haywood to get their flat-six home, with a little help from a certain famed Porsche engineer.

“Norbert Singer was there to work with us and Penske,” remembers Haywood. “He was really concerned that we weren’t slowing down enough and I distinctly remember a pit signal reading, ‘Singer says slow’.”

Haywood can’t remember if he really did obey the command, but the 911 went on to take its first overall victory in one of the blue-riband 24-hour races.

The 911 and its derivatives would go on to win all the major enduros and notch up a further nine victories at Daytona.

'83: Super-sub Foyt makes the headlines

"Who the f*** is AJ Foyt?” Those words were uttered live on TV by the late Bob Wollek in 1983. The Frenchman was never one to pull his punches and certainly wasn’t about to do so after manhandling an 800bhp Porsche 935 around Daytona for two hours. He’d just realised that an extra member had been drafted into the team with which he was leading the 24 Hours and wasn’t best pleased. When an intrepid pitlane reporter asked what he thought of having a bona fide US racing legend on the squad, the expletives flowed.

Wollek had just jumped out of Preston Henn’s Swap Shop 935L he thought he was sharing with the team owner and Claude Ballot-Lena and strapped the next driver in. Only there were Henn and his fellow Frenchman standing at the wall.

Kevin Jeannette, Henn’s crew chief, takes up the story: “I don’t exactly remember what happened, except Wollek saying, ‘Who’s in the car?’ I said it was Foyt, and you could tell he was livid.”

Before Wollek could collect his thoughts, a microphone was thrust in his face. “So Bob, what do you think of AJ Foyt joining the team?” came the question. The Frenchman’s famous response followed.

Wollek wasn’t the only one to doubt Foyt’s abilities in a sports car, even if he had been a Le Mans 24 Hours winner 16 years before. Jeannette had argued against team boss Henn when he had suggested bringing in the Indycar star, pointing out that Foyt was being drafted in to a strange car mid-race after the retirement of the Aston Martin Nimrod in which he’d started the event.

Foyt’s preparations for taking the controls of Henn’s 935L extended to sitting in a 935 that had already retired and asking what he calls today a “few stupid questions”.

“AJ said, ‘What’s the shift pattern?’” remembers Jeannette. “I said, ‘It’s just like a Volkswagen, except that reverse is over and forward.’ His reply was: ‘First of all, do you think I’ve ever driven a Volkswagen? And second, why would I need reverse?’”

Wollek, Henn, Ballot-Lena and now Foyt went on to win the race by four laps, with the Indy legend playing his part. Jeannette recalls him being quickest of all in the wet.

That gained a begrudging respect from Wollek and the pair became firm friends.

“He was one of the best co-drivers I ever shared a car with,” says Foyt today. “I thought a lot of Bob, and I think he thought a lot of me.”

'87: Racing legends slug it out

Daytona ’87 was one of the hottest in years. And in more ways that one. In unseasonably high temperatures, a pair of Porsche teams entered by two legends of US motor sport fought out the race at a red-hot pace, a battle that lasted from the green flag to almost within sight of the chequered flag.

There was history between AJ Foyt and Al Holbert Jr, whose Porsche 962s contested the 20th running of the 24 Hours. Foyt, then driving with long-time sports car entrant Preston Henn’s squad, had come from behind to triumph in 1985 and notch up the first victory in the Daytona enduro for Porsche’s all-conquering 962. Twelve months later, the roles were reversed and it was Holbert’s squad that came through to pinch the victory laurels from Henn’s Swap Shop team.

This time both Holbert and Foyt’s cars ran without significant delay until the final stages. There was little to choose between either of the two Porsches, the Holbert car driven by Derek Bell, Chip Robinson and Al Unser Jr, Foyt’s own entry by the team boss, Danny Sullivan and Al Unser Sr. So much so that during the night Little Al and Sullivan came together as they battled for the lead.

The Holbert crew eked out a narrow lead on Sunday morning, but all three drivers were in trouble after the team’s strategy of punching out a side window during the night to get some cool air into the car backfired.

“The air backed up in front of the intercoolers and went straight through the window,” explains crew chief Kevin Doran. “Once the sun came up we were toast.”

Almost literally, as Bell explains.

“It was so hot our lips were burning,” he says. “I remember finishing a stint on Sunday and struggling to get my overalls off. I was finished.”

Holbert, who had opted to concentrate on team management duties that year, had no choice but to take the wheel to help out, though it was Bell who climbed back in for the finish.

The Briton, the elder statesman of the Holbert line-up, never had to find out how much he had left in the tank. The Foyt car’s engine went pop in the final hour.

'88: The XJR's first 24-hour victory

It’s easy to overlook TWR-Jaguar’s triumph at Daytona ’88. And for good reason. Less than six months later Tom Walkinshaw’s organisation would give Jaguar its first Le Mans 24 Hours victory for more than 30 years. But for many involved in the team’s successes over the next five seasons, it is the American race which will forever be etched in their memories.

For Tony Dowe, who was brought in to set up TWR’s US operation, the race was the successful culmination of the “toughest 16 weeks of my life”. And Martin Brundle, part of the winning driver line-up, describes it as the “hardest race of my career”.

It was hard for Dowe and his crew because TWR Inc didn’t even exist the previous October after Jaguar made a very late decision for Walkinshaw’s organisation to take over its IMSA GTP campaign from Bob Tullius’s Group 44 squad. Dowe had to magic a team from scratch: there were no premises, no staff and no cars.

It was hard for the drivers, too. The Jaguar XJR-9 wasn’t the fastest car around Daytona and it didn’t make it through the race without technical problems. That’s why there was never any let-up for Brundle and his co-drivers.

An electrical glitch early on put the car three laps down, but a combination of hard work (courtesy of Brundle and team-mates John Nielsen and Raul Boesel) and pitwork (thanks to race engineer Ian Reed) brought the car back onto the lead lap.

The race boiled down to a straight fight between the winning XJR-9 and Jim Busby’s Porsche 962 driven by Bob Wollek, Brian Redman and Mauro Baldi, which was only settled in Jaguar’s favour when the latter went off behind the safety car.

“We drove it flat out all the way,” says Brundle. “I remember coming up to a gaggle of cars on the banking and thinking there was no way I was getting out of the throttle. I dived down onto the apron and went past them all. It was pure lunacy.”

So hard had Brundle, Nielsen and Boesel driven that Walkinshaw opted to bring in Jan Lammers from one of the other two Jags for one stint on Sunday morning.

Like Wollek five years before him, Brundle didn’t think any help was required.

“I found Tom and started to scream at him. He let me have my rant and then told me it was his team and he’d do what he liked. As I spun around and walked off, I collapsed in a heap.”

'96: Max goes mad for it

History and a reputation were made at Daytona in ’96. The flamboyant pursuit of the ailing Riley & Scott out front by a Formula 1 refugee resulted in what was then the closest finish in the race’s history. That chase was also the making of Massimiliano Papis.

The Italian lost out on victory in the Doran-run Momo Ferrari 333SP by just over a minute. What he gained was the ‘Mad Max’ moniker and a new-found career momentum that carried him back into frontline single-seaters in CART.

The Ferrari, co-driven by car owner Giampiero Moretti, Didier Theys and Bob Wollek, had been playing catch-up for the final two-thirds of the race, its pursuit aided by an AWOL second gear on the leading Riley & Scott. That chase was further interrupted by ECU and gearbox problems, and then with two hours to go, a collision with a backmarker.

That should have been the end of it, only for a new problem for the works Riley-Oldsmobile, a fuel pick-up issue. The R&S in the hands of Wayne Taylor was going slower and slower, the Ferrari, now driven by Papis, faster and faster.

“I was driving over the limit every corner of every lap,” says Papis. “I was taking so many risks passing slower cars, and I was having to hold the gearbox in third and fourth.”

Papis brought the Ferrari back onto the lead lap, but a late stop for fuel and tyres left him with too much to do. Taylor and team-mates Scott Sharp and Jim Pace took the victory, but Papis took the plaudits.

“When I arrived in Daytona, no one knew how to spell my name,” he says. “I left after meeting Jim France and speaking to Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo on the phone. Without that race I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

'98: Ferrari ends its drought

Ferrari’s 333SP was a lot of things. It was the Italian marque’s first prototype in 20 years and the saviour of IMSA’s new World Sports Car class. It was also successful, phenomenally so. From its winning debut at Road Atlanta in 1994, it triumphed in 18 IMSA races over four years before its ’98 Daytona success, a tally that included two victories in the Sebring 12 Hours. But there was one thing it wasn’t: a 24-hour car.

The 333SP, the brainchild of Piero Lardi Ferrari and long-time sports car entrant Giampiero Moretti, wasn’t conceived for the rigours of around-the-clock racing. It was aimed squarely at the sprints that made up the bulk of the IMSA WSC schedule.

“It was seen very much as a sprint car,” says Tony Southgate, who joined Ferrari as a consultant engineer in the latter stages of the design process. “It was certainly never engineered as a 24-hour car.”

That much became apparent on its 24-hour debut at Daytona in 1995. Engine problems resulted in three of four cars entered that year going out.

There were near-misses in 1996 and ’97 before the 333SP finally came good in ’98. Fittingly, it was the cigar-toting Moretti at the wheel when the flag fell to end the Italian manufacturer’s 31-year drought at the 24 Hours.

Moretti shrugged off the victory with the joke that he could have bought 1000 Rolex watches (one of the coveted timepieces that are awarded to class winners) with the amount he’d spent trying to win the race since his first attempt in 1970. Yet those around him know that victory meant something special.

“He was truly elated,” reckons Kevin Doran, who ran Moretti’s cars from 1993. “I think he’d resigned himself to never winning at Daytona, but to finally do it with the Ferrari so late in his career was special.”

'00: Vipers bite

Daytona 2000 was both a race of attrition and a flat-out dogfight to the line. And that’s no contradiction. Sure, the French ORECA squad won with its GTO class Dodge Viper because the faster prototypes hit trouble, but it had to fight tooth and nail all the way for the victory with the factory Chevrolet Corvette squad.

The best of the ORECA Viper GTS-Rs, driven by Olivier Beretta, Karl Wendlinger and Dominique Dupuy, led the class battle for much of the duration, yet never by much. Only very briefly did the car have a lap worth of breathing space on its pursuers on the way to victory by a scant 31sec.

Outright victory was never on the agenda for ORECA. The French squad had only been told it was doing the race the previous November after a successful campaign in the US in 1999, and winning the GTO class was its first priority. But team boss Hugues de Chaunac did have higher aspirations.

“The important thing was to win the class,” he remembers, “but we thought a podium was maybe possible.”

Yet such was the rate of attrition among the prototypes that the Viper was up to second overall just 10 hours into the race. Another 10 hours into the race, and victory for a GTO car looked assured. Dyson Racing’s Riley & Scott MkIII lapsed onto seven cylinders and could only limp to the flag.

Which marque of GTO car, a Dodge or a Chevrolet, would win remained in doubt into the final hour. The battle had been nip and tuck all the way.

The Corvette C5-R driven by Andy Pilgrim, Franck Freon and Kelly Collins was the thorn in the Viper’s side until gearbox problems on Sunday morning. It was at this point that the second ’Vette, in which Ron Fellows was joined by Justin Bell and Chris Kneifel, moved into the equation after minor delays early on.

It wasn’t plain sailing for the Viper, though. Its drivers had been nursing fifth gear over the final two hours.

“We had to push hard but at the same time carefully manage each gearchange when we went into fifth,” remembers Beretta, who had to overcome his own battle with chickenpox. “The Corvette was pushing us so hard. That’s what makes it such an important victory for me, and I think for Hugues.”

'09: The closest ever

The cumulative margin of victory over the past three years at the Daytona 24 Hours is less than a minute, so an ultra-close finish is almost expected. The 2009 race started the trend and remains the closest finish in the event’s history.

Four cars were on the lead lap at the start of the final hour and two of them were still battling hard as they crossed the line for the final time. Chip Ganassi driver Juan Pablo Montoya trailed David Donohue’s Brumos Racing entry by six tenths of a second at the start of the final lap and failed to catch him by just 0.167sec at the end of a thrilling sprint from the last round of pitstops.

Donohue’s Porsche-powered Riley, shared with Darren Law, Antonio García and Buddy Rice, had tailed Montoya’s Lexus-powered example after the stops prior to getting a run on the NASCAR star out of Bus Stop chicane with 35 minutes to go. The roles were now reversed, Montoya looking for a way past Donohue for the remainder of the race.

The Ganassi drivers – Montoya, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas – subsequently bleated about the new four-litre Porsche engine having a power advantage, but Donohue reckons the cars were evenly matched. “I couldn’t pass him on the straights, but I could draft alongside,” he remembers. “I was just trying to annoy him to see what happened.

“Everyone said I played the traffic perfectly to make the pass, but I’d tried that a dozen times. It’s just that when I got it wrong, no one noticed.”

Donohue reckons that Brumos ran the perfect race in ’09 and that every man on the crew played his part. “There were so many little things that won us that race,” he says. “Where the pit sign went out at the last stop was crucial, because we had to clear our team-mates ahead of us. We changed drivers and they didn’t, but we still got out in front.

“I got to wave the flag as it were, but what made it special was doing something for the guys. I made them smile and you can’t buy that.”