Lunch with Hurley Haywood

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He’d never raced abroad before, but he won first time at Le Mans. Now considered the US’s top endurance driver, he says it’s all due to Porsche  

Writer Simon Taylor | Photographer Jensen Hande

Statistics are never the whole story. But they are often a good place to start, so here’s a man who won the Le Mans 24 Hours at his first attempt and went on to be victorious there in three different decades. He also won the Daytona 24 Hours five times, and the Sebring 12 Hours twice. During a racing career lasting a remarkable 43 years – the majority of it in Porsches – he scored more than 40 wins in major sports car races.

In his homeland, Hurley Haywood is renowned as the greatest endurance racer America has ever produced. Elsewhere this quiet, self-contained man is less well known. So when we both found ourselves as judges at the recent Amelia Island concours d’élégance, that was an excellent opportunity for me to fly out to Florida a day early and persuade him to sit down to lunch.

We meet at the Jacksonville Porsche dealership that has been central to his entire working life on and off the track, and repair to a sun-warmed table outside JJ’s Bistro, along the Atlantic shoreline on Ponte Vedra Beach. A spare, fit 68, Hurley chooses gazpacho, a chicken salad croissant and iced tea, unsweetened. 

He hails originally from Chicago. “I spent most of my vacations on my grandmother’s farm west of the city. When you’re a kid with a lot of land to roam in you learn how to drive very young, in any car that happens to be lying around. By the time I was 12 I knew all about understeer – not the terminology, perhaps, but I’d learned that if you go into a corner too fast you’re not going to get around it. 

“I came to college down here, and I had a Corvette I used to race in local autocrosses.” In the USA autocross means not racing on grass, as it does in the UK, but slalom sprinting. “I was pretty much unbeatable, but one day I did an event laid out in a supermarket parking lot and the guy who owned Brumos, the Jacksonville Porsche dealership, turned up. He was a well-established endurance racer with 904s and Carrera Sixes, and he’d brought an immaculately prepared 911 and a whole race team to support him. 

“Well, we tied for FTD, so there was a run-off, and I beat him. He came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You must be pretty good to beat me. Why don’t you come back to my place, my wife’s cooking a barbecue.’ That was how I met Peter Gregg.  

“After that he took me to the Savannah Raceway to give me my first run in a proper race car, a 911S. By the end of the day I was faster than him, and he said, ‘Looks like I’m not going to teach you anything about driving, but what I can teach you is the mind-set of a professional racing driver. And you and I are going to do the Watkins Glen Six Hours next month.’ That was a round of the World Sports Car Championship, with works Porsches, Matras and Mirages, Siffert, Rodriguez, Ickx, Elford. I said, ‘I can’t possibly, I haven’t even got a regional racing licence.’ Peter said, ‘That’s no problem. We’ll get you a NASCAR licence. For that you just fill in a form and send $20 through the mail. On the back of that we’ll apply to the FIA and get you an international licence.’ When we turned up at Watkins Glen the SCCA freaked out: ‘Where did this guy come from?’ Peter told them, ‘Don’t worry, he’s fine.’ And fortunately I didn’t screw up.” He didn’t: their 911S won the class and finished eighth overall. 

***

A month after the Watkins Glen success Uncle Sam intervened with the arrival of Hurley’s draft papers. “Soon I was on a plane to Vietnam. I was stationed 100 miles south of Hanoi, and my senior officer knew I was into racing. About 20 years later a guy came up to me at a race in Atlanta and said. ‘I bet you don’t know who I am.’ I said, ‘I know exactly who you are…’

“When you go into a combat theatre you have to grow up in a big hurry. I went out as a 21-year-old kid and I came back having learned the protocol of when and where to do what, and how to be very efficient with my time and my energies. There had been a lot of lessons that I would use in racing. After that it was just listening to Peter, taking his advice, and practising what he was famous for, which was perfection. He was known as Peter Perfect. Everything had to be right, everything had to be immaculate, everything had to be ready for any eventuality. Nothing was taken for granted. 

“From the start he’d established the Brumos team colours – white with two broad stripes, one red, one blue – and the shades of the red and blue paint had to be a very specific colour code. The cars were brought to the track in the biggest hauler in the paddock, immaculate in the team colours of course. All his mechanics wore spotless matching uniforms, at a time when nobody did stuff like that. And the Brumos cars almost invariably ran as number 59. Back when Peter was in naval intelligence he was flying a fixed-wing aircraft over an aircraft carrier one day, and the number on the front of it was 59. He decided he liked the way the numbers hung together, so that’s what had to be on his cars.

“Peter was very short on compliments: he expected excellence from everyone as a matter of course. And if you didn’t perform to his standards you were in the shithouse.” The team motto was hung on the race shop wall: kein Vergleich – literally, no comparison. For Peter, Brumos had to be in a different league.

It was 1971 before Hurley was home from Vietnam, and at once there was a job for him at Brumos. “I was put through the wringer: workshop, parts, showroom. And I was racing with Peter. He was now running the Porsche 914/6 GT, because the 914 was what Joe Hoppen [Porsche North America’s Motorsport director] wanted to promote at that time. Peter and I had a lot of success with it and were IMSA champions, and the next season I was IMSA champion again with a 911. In 1973 we had the 911RS, which evolved into the RSR, and things really started to go well.” Sensationally the Haywood/Gregg 911 beat all the big works cars to win the Daytona 24 Hours outright. Seven weeks later they repeated the feat in the Sebring 12 Hours. 

Hurley’s reputation in the USA was mushrooming, and Vasek Polak, who had bought one of the fearsome 917/10 Porsches for the Can-Am Series, signed Hurley to drive it. “Peter was always happy to release me to other people, because he encouraged you to drive anything you could, get outside your comfort zone, learn about the strong and weak points of different cars and different teams. So I drove a Ferrari Daytona at Sebring, I drove one of Tony di Lorenzo’s Corvettes which was crude and very fast and I later I drove a Ferrari F40 for somebody. Horrible thing, it would always blow up or something would break, not Porsche philosophy at all. The only plus point was the team used to serve great food.

“With that 917/10 Can-Am car I went from 300bhp with the 911 to 1200bhp. It was a monster, very difficult to control. At Edmonton in the wet I had brake failure, went over the bank and upside down. If it hadn’t been for Mark Donohue I would never have been able to get my hands around that car. Mark, driving for Roger Penske, had the longer-wheelbase 917/30 that was easier to handle, but he helped me a lot with sorting out the 917/10. He and I became close friends.

“In 1976 Peter fell out with Porsche over money. He was a businessman and he’d won them Daytona, Sebring and plenty else, and he’d done a lot for the standing of Porsche in North America. He said, ‘If you won’t give me what I want I’m going to run with BMW.’ They never thought he’d do it, but he did: so we had a one-year deal racing the 3.0 CSL, which was a great car, and Brumos also became a BMW dealer. But not for long: after his year racing with them Peter hated them, didn’t find them nice to deal with. Meanwhile I carried on driving Porsches for other teams, like Vasek Polak’s 934 in the Trans-Am. 

“In 1977 I scored my third Daytona 24 Hours win in five years. After that Jo Hoppen told me, ‘You need to call Stuttgart. They want you to drive for them at Le Mans.’ Well, I had to pick myself up off the floor. I’d read about Le Mans, I’d seen the McQueen movie, but I’d never done a race outside North America, I’d never even been to Europe. So I fly to Paris, land the Tuesday before the race, hire a car at the airport, get completely lost getting out of Paris. Somehow I make my way in the general direction of Le Mans, but of course I don’t speak a word of French, and all I have is a piece of paper with the name of a village where the Porsche team hotel is. 

“It’s the middle of the night, and I’ve no idea where I’m going. Then, driving along this silent country lane, my headlights pick up a guy walking along in the dark with Porsche written on the back of his jacket. I stop and wave my piece of paper at him, and he says, ‘Ah, Herr Haywood, we are waiting for you. Come and meet the boys.’ 

“It was race engineer Klaus Bischof, and he took me to this bar. I hadn’t slept since leaving Florida two days before, and they got me completely plastered. Klaus got me to bed at 2am. Next morning I’m woken by this banging on the window, and it’s the Porsche media chief, Manfred Jankte, saying in excellent English: ‘Where the f*** have you been?’ That was my introduction to being a works driver for Porsche.

“We go to another village, Teloché, where Porsche has taken over the local garage to prepare the cars. Back then the teams weren’t based in the paddock, they were scattered around in different villages, and all the race cars were driven on the road to the track each day. We walk into this little workshop and there are the most beautiful cars I’ve ever laid eyes on: a pair of white Porsche 936s, with the red and blue stripes of Martini running from headlights to tail. There was my co-driver, Jürgen Barth, whom I’d never met: he was a lot bigger than me, but we managed to sort the seat out OK. In the other car were Jacky Ickx and Henri Pescarolo. Jacky was like a god to me, I was just this young brat.” 

Wednesday’s qualifying was torrentially wet, but it was dry for Thursday evening. Ickx in Porsche No3 qualified third among the very fast Renaults, Hurley and Barth qualified seventh. “After that they say to me, ‘Haywood, you will drive the car from the start.’ 

“So the race starts, we take off, this huge traffic jam of 55 cars rushes under the Dunlop Bridge and down the other side – and my throttle jams wide open. Oh shit. There was a little bar to kill the engine, so I hit that, try to keep out of everybody’s way, and I get it stopped on the verge coming out of Arnage. I get the rear bodywork off, get the throttle unstuck, get the body back on, drive it back to the pits. That was fixed and away we went, now a lap and a half behind everybody else.”

After a couple of hours the Haywood/Barth Porsche lost more time – a fat 24 minutes – to replace a broken injector pump. Gradually they moved back up the order: and then just before 8pm Pescarolo blew the engine in the No1 936. “That’s when they said, ‘OK, Jacky will drive with you guys now.’ 

“Jacky was brilliant at night, especially when it rained around dawn and the conditions were horrible, and he maintained amazing pace. Gradually we climbed up the field, and by 10am on Sunday we were in the lead.” From then on Ickx stood down, and Hurley and Barth reeled off the final hours. Right at the end the car suffered a major engine malady, but Barth was able to limp to the chequered flag. Ickx had won his fourth Le Mans, and his third on the trot; Hurley had won Le Mans at his first attempt.

Hurley drove Porsches at Le Mans for the next six years, finishing on the podium three times: two thirds, and then in 1983 another victory with Vern Schuppan and countryman Al Holbert. There had also been two more Daytona 24 Hours wins. But meanwhile there had been cataclysmic changes at Brumos.

***

Peter Gregg’s relentless hunt for perfection could not hide, and in fact was evidence of, his very complex character. “Peter had a multitude of problems. He was a manic-depressive, and mental health issues of that sort were much less well understood then than they are now. He was married to Jennifer, who was part of the Johnson & Johnson medical supplies family, and they had two sons. But that marriage eventually failed. His personality swings made him like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was a Harvard graduate and a naval officer, and he could be a dreadful snob: sometimes, if you didn’t have the right education and the right money, he’d treat you like shit. Another day he’d befriend some down-and-out in the street and say, ‘You and I have a lot in common. Let’s sit down and talk about it.’ One day he’d tell me what a great guy I was, the next he’d throw me out of his office. But our relationship carried on working because I accepted all this. I knew that was Peter.

“Something which must have been tied up in his torment was the terrible thing that had happened in his childhood. On his seventh birthday his mother went out to buy him a birthday cake. Coming home on the subway she carefully put the cake down on the platform and jumped in front of a train. 

“Peter lived inside a sort of cloak. As long as he took his medication he was fine. But he was so clever, so highly educated, that at times he’d decide he was strong enough and smart enough not to have to be managed by medicine. When that happened you never knew which direction he’d go.” 

Gregg’s own motor racing achievements were substantial. He was IMSA GT champion six times in nine years, and had showed well at Le Mans. In 1977, while Hurley was scoring his first win, he finished a fine third in a 935. In ’78 he was in the third-placed works 936 with Hurley and Reinhold Joest. In 1979 he took a drive in a French Ferrari BB, which didn’t finish, but for 1980 he was given a drive in one of three works 924 Carrera GTs.

“Before qualifying he was on his way from his hotel to the track, with his then girlfriend and the American abstract painter Frank Stella in the car with him. A tractor and farm trailer pulled out in front of them. Peter swerved, and they went into the ditch and turned over. All of them seemed physically OK, but at the track Peter failed the pre-race medical because his eyesight seemed to have been affected. After the race we flew back to the States together, and three weeks later we were due to do the Paul Revere night-time race at Daytona in a Brumos 935. Peter said, ‘I’m not feeling great. You set the car up and qualify it, and in the race I’ll stand by to take over if you need me.’ I put it on pole, and it was hotter than hell that night, and with half an hour to go I was exhausted and running out of speed. I came in and he took the car out – and in that half-hour we lost two laps, although we still finished third.

“After that Peter blamed me for making him look bad. We’d been racing together and working together for more than a decade, but now he told me he didn’t want to see me on the Brumos property any more. So I was effectively thrown out. Our homes were close to each other, but I never saw him, I kept away – and then more than five months later, one Sunday in December, he called me up as though nothing had happened. He’d met a girl called Deborah and had married her very quickly, a few days before. He said she was cooking lunch and why didn’t I come over. 

“It was a total surprise. I went over, everything was totally cordial, I met Deborah, and we had a really nice lunch. Peter was full of plans for the future. He was planning to go Indy racing with me as the driver, he had it all mapped out. Next morning he went to a shop, bought a gun, walked onto the beach and shot himself.   

“He left an almost illegible note, addressed to his wife of nine days, saying he wanted to leave the entire business to the general manager Bob Snodgrass, to his race crew chief Jack Atkinson, and to Sigmund, his service chief. Deborah said she wasn’t going to let that happen, and of course the scribbled, unwitnessed note would never have stood up in court. Bob continued to steer the business for her: with her lack of experience the manufacturers would never have let her be in sole charge without him, and he’d already been running the dealership for Peter since 1972. But she did make changes that severely compromised what Brumos was doing: like she changed the famous colour scheme, she started to race Mustangs instead of Porsches. 

“Then in 1991 a major car dealer entrepreneur, Dan Davis, came along, and he and Bob Snodgrass bought her out. It was like those 10 years had vanished and all the original philosophy was back, with those unmistakable racing colours of white with the broad red and blue stripes, which just said Brumos to everybody.” 

***

After Gregg’s death Hurley’s racing continued for other Porsche teams, notably those of multi-millionaire Seattle refuse disposal king Bruce Leven and Bob Hagestad, a Porsche dealer from Denver. “Plus the Whittington brothers, Bill, Don and Dale. There was a weird bunch of guys. Back in the day more than one big team was fuelled by drug money: that’s just the way it was. The Whittingtons always treated me very nicely, but they were very strong-willed. It was their way or no way, and no discussion. They would always pay on time, but it came in used notes in a brown paper bag. In the end Bill and Don got busted and both went to jail: I think Bill got 15 years.”

A bad accident in 1983 was responsible for Hurley changing his allegiance from Porsche to Jaguar for four seasons. “I was in a 935 in the Mosport Six Hours. In the last hour I was lapping a car that didn’t see me and moved over on me. I got on wet grass, and hit the bank. The way the car angled into the wall shattered all the bones in my left leg from my ankle to my knee. I didn’t race again for the rest of that season. Come Daytona the next February in Bruce Leven’s 935 I simply could not push down the clutch pedal without screaming in pain. Then Bob Tullius asked me to do a test in the Group 44 Jaguar XJR-5. 

“Now unlike the Porsches, which had synchronised gearboxes, the Jaguars used straight-cut Hewlands, and once you’d got it out of the pits you could shift without using the clutch. When Bob saw this guy sitting in his car with his leg in a cast he said to himself. ‘God, what have I done?’ But straight away my lap times were right on the money, and that was it. Over the next three seasons Brian Redman and I did more than 40 IMSA races together in Bob’s XJR-5s and XJR-7s. Driving with Brian was great: he is very competitive, of course, but always a perfect gentlemen. Our times were comparable, and there was mutual respect.

“For Le Mans in 1986 Brian and I got summoned by Tom Walkinshaw to join the Silk Cut works operation with the XJR-6s. The money was really good, but the whole thing was a nightmare. As soon as Brian and I get there Walkinshaw lines us up and says, ‘I’m the boss, you’re going to do exactly as I say, and we’re going to win this race. From the start I want my cars to be running 1-2-3.’ I said, ‘Tom, surely that’s the wrong mindset. What matters is the last lap, not the first.’ He said, ‘Don’t tell me what to do, it’s my team.’ Well, the car I was in with Brian and Hans Heyer stopped after barely three hours, fuel pump failure, so they moved me across to the Win Percy car. Win was great to drive with, I really liked him. But a driveshaft went in the early hours of the morning. The other car retired too, so at the end Porsches filled the first seven places…”

***

Hurley spent the next two years in Audis, first in the big four-door 200 turbo quattro with which he scooped the Trans-Am Championship outright. The SCCA responded by making the Trans-Am for two-wheel drive cars with American engines only, so Audi switched to IMSA with the Audi 90 quattro, a 720bhp 4WD spaceframe and carbon fibre silhouette car. “The Audi engineers weren’t sure this car would last the 12-hour and 24-hour races, so we missed Daytona and Sebring. That cost us the championship, because we won seven of the remaining 11 rounds.”

Hurley had had an uninterrupted attendance at Le Mans from 1977 to 1987, apart from 1984 because of the leg injury. Then after the two Audi years he was back, driving Porsches of different hues up until 1994 – when, having won his first Le Mans, he won his last. “In its way that was the most rewarding of my three Le Mans wins. The ACO had changed the regulations to try to equalise the Group C and GT1 categories, and [Porsche competitions boss] Norbert Singer worked out that we could take the Dauer-built 962 road car and run it as a GT.” The GTs had more weight and narrower tyres, but put out about 100bhp more – and could run larger fuel tanks and therefore stop less often. “It was like a 962 without the ground effects. We did a lot of testing at Paul Ricard, and the cars ended up really good. 

“I was down to drive the number 1 car with Hans Stuck and Danny Sullivan, but we had seat problems because they were taller than me. Plus Thierry Boutsen didn’t fit well with Yannick Dalmas and Mauro Baldi in the number 2 car. So we swapped and I went with Yannick and Mauro. We were delayed by a broken driveshaft but we came back to win from the fastest Toyota, while Hans, Danny and Thierry finished third.

“Norbert was a genius. If you were in the Porsche family he was like your father, and he never got excited – even when panic mode might have been justified. He was always calm, always matter of fact, making calculations, taking sensible decisions. And that transmitted down through the rest of the team. Everything was very controlled, very disciplined. But afterwards, if the race had gone well, you’d celebrate, and the team dinner was mandatory. After my first win in 1977 Martini, who were the sponsors, threw a party first, and we didn’t get to dinner until about 11pm. Of course I hadn’t been to bed since Friday night, and I was drowning in my soup. But with a victory to celebrate you just get this surge of adrenaline from somewhere. They were all there, from Professor Porsche down to all the mechanics who’d played such a major part in the win. Everybody knew everybody, it was like a family gathering. Each year there was the Le Mans dinner, to celebrate the successes and mourn the failures.

“When I started with Porsche it was a really intense learning process. I was like a sponge soaking up information. Sitting in the briefings listening to people like Hans Stuck and Bob Wollek talking to Norbert, and listening to Norbert quizzing them, it was a lesson in how a driver should communicate with an engineer. It was something that Peter always told me: when you come in, be very succinct: describe what the car is doing, but don’t tell them how to fix it. Don’t say, I think we should try more wing at the back. It’s your job to tell them how the car behaves, it’s the engineer’s job to decide what to do about it. After they’ve done it you assess how it has changed, and tell the engineer if it’s better. 

“Bob Wollek was a wonderful guy and a great Porsche racer. Very early on he said to me: ‘If you want to have a long career with Porsche you’ll do two things. You’ll drive as fast as you know how to go, and you’ll keep your mouth shut.’ We were together at Le Mans in 1979, but that year we didn’t finish. We started from pole and ran at the front until an electrical problem stopped us.

“Bob was mad about cycling. He had bikes everywhere, usually he’d have one brought to each event with the race cars, and he’d bike between the track and where he was staying. I said to him once, ‘You want to be careful, you’re going to be riding through some real redneck places, somebody’s going to knock you off into the bushes.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about me, I ride in lots of different countries, thousands of miles a year.’ In 2001, after Friday practice for the Sebring 12 Hours, he was on his way back to his motel and an old guy in a motorhome passed too close. The motorhome’s door mirror hit him on the head, killed him.

“When people asked me who was my favourite team-mate, I’d say Al Holbert. And to drive against, too, because he was fierce but fair. He would never deliberately put you in harm’s way, or bang into you like they do today. If you did that with a 962 or a 935 you’d probably need a pitstop. Now the cars are so strong, you’ll probably get away with it. They need to make the penalty for that type of driving into something that really hurts, not just a fine. 

“I knew Al before he became a born-again Christian. Back then he was a hell-raiser, he’d drink and party with the best of them. Then overnight he got religion, and the whole framework of his life changed. But he never lost that intensity in the cockpit. It was a tragedy when he died in his plane in 1988.” Flying home after the IMSA Columbus street race, the door on Holbert’s Piper PA-60 came open just after take-off. He was able to divert the crashing aircraft away from a stretch of houses before it hit the ground.

***

Not all of Hurley’s racing was in sports cars. “When Lindsay Hopkins asked me to drive for him in Indycar, it was an instant ‘Yes’. As a kid I’d sat in the Indy 500 stands with my dad. I wouldn’t say it was enjoyable, but it was challenging. You have to go so close to the wall, and the banking is only seven or eight degrees. Back then, if you hit the wall you were going to hurt yourself. 

“In the Hopkins Lightning in the 1980 Indianapolis 500 I was the first to run the Chevy V6 engine, and top brass from GM came to watch. It was a good engine, but there was a problem with a valve in the refuelling system, and every time I came into the pits it would catch fire. Methanol burns with an invisible flame, and all of a sudden you’d feel kinda hot. I began to dread the summons saying it was time for my next stop. In the end, when the fire damage got too bad, that’s what stopped us – we called it a day at about two-thirds distance, but I think we were classified 18th.

“My professional career lasted until my last Daytona 24 Hours in 2012, 43 years after that first Watkins Glen with Peter. In all I did Daytona 40 times, won five of them. One of the best was 2009, which was my last race in a prototype. Brumos had two Rileys with Porsche engines, and Chip Ganassi had Juan Pablo Montoya in a Riley with a Lexus V8. After the full 24 hours we were so close you could have put a blanket over us, David Donohue, Montoya and me 1-2-3. I was nearly 61 then. 

“I did my last Daytona in a GT3 Cup car in 2012, and with Marc Lieb as one of our drivers we led the GT category for much of the race. Then we had a few problems, but still finished third in class. Then I thought, maybe it’s time to stop. 

“I was still vice-president of Brumos. That whole wonderful business is Peter’s memorial. He built it, and you can’t measure how much it has done for Porsche over the years. It’s been an integral part of the brand’s progress in America. A Mercedes-Benz or a Lexus dealership is like printing money, because of the breadth of their ranges, but being a Porsche dealer doesn’t make you tons of money. It’s the prestige that counts. 

“Actually Dan Davis has just sold the dealership, and it has become Porsche Jacksonville. The Brumos name and its racing enterprises, and the Brumos private car collection, have remained with Dan. I’ve agreed to stay on for a while and help the new guys forge their relationship with Porsche Cars North America, and with the Brumos customer base. I still do stuff for Porsche’s media people, and I’m very busy as chief instructor at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama:
I do 40 days a year there. I now live south of here at St Augustine. I spent a lot of time developing the plans for my house there, getting all the details right. And I have a new Chris Craft yacht that looks like an old Chris Craft, a 28-footer, 5.7-litre V8, all electronic, all the bells and whistles.

“Working with Peter from the start of my career, I quickly understood three key ingredients in the recipe for making a successful racing driver. First, you must really, really want to finish first. Lots of people go into racing not expecting to win, they’re just doing it because they enjoy it. I couldn’t be like that. I was in it to make a name for myself and make a living, and I wasn’t going to do that by just loping around.  

“The second key ingredient I learned was that you have to drive for a really great team. And the third: you need to drive a Porsche.”