Daytona 24 Hours

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The United States of America, so the experts say, is the place to visit. It is exceptionally cheap to get there, cheap whilst you are actually there, and there is a whole new world to see. For the motorist there are new rules to grasp, new cars to experience, and stunningly boring and strictly enforced speed limits. Roads wider than the M4, and straighter, are limited to 55 miles an hour. So, if and when you become paranoid about such restrictions, look up your nearest America race track — somewhere around 12 authorised by FISA, and many, many more which host dirt racing, stock cars and tractor pulling! — and take a day out to watch American motorsport. If you’re very lucky you’ll see a round of the NASCAR stock car series — there is literally nothing like it in Europe — but if you want to watch some motorsport which bears more than a passing resemblance to what you see at home then try and see a round of the IMSA Camel GT Championship. You may even see a British driver winning!

The Pepsi Cola Challenge—better known to us as the Daytona 24 Hours — opened the 1981 Camel GT Championship over the last weekend in January. The event also happened to be a round of the revised FISA World Endurance Championship. The latter fact was purely coincidental, the icing on the cake, kudos for Bill France’s mammoth facility which makes anything else we have in Europe pall to insignificance.

This 455 acre site, a hairs breadth from the busy local airport, is the home of NASCAR stock car racing, and once a year they let the Grand Touring car drivers come and play around the 3.84 mile combined banked and road course for 24 hours. The 75,000 capacity main grandstands are virtually empty throughout the long drawn out process of qualifying and practice — (more than nine hours) plus the race itself. However, from Saturday morning through the cool, star strewn Florida night, and the following day the infield is jammed. The official estimate of 60,000 people did seem over optimistic.

They hadn’t come to see the stars in action in the curtain raiser to the six round Endurance Championship for Makers. Those you could count on one hand out of a record 96 car entry. It is doubtful that they had come to watch the stars and also runs of the IMSA Championship. The infield of Daytona during the 24 Hour race takes on a very special atmosphere. It’s one big party, and in time will undoubtedly grow to become to American racing what Le Mans is to France. Not yet though.

Daytona, like Le Mans, could well be better off with counting towards any World series. The organising International Motor Sports Association realises this fact. So much so that IMSA has not accepted the new, perhaps still-borne, FISA Group C regulations and gone ahead and devised its own sports prototype regulations. In essence they differ little from the FISA proposals, except on the matter of engines. FISA require homologation procedures, IMSA simply produces a list of eligible engines — for obvious reasons there is a sprinkling of V8s in that list — which can be fitted to two seater prototype bodies. IMSA is convinced the GTP — Grand Touring Prototype category — will work. They say they are not at war with FISA, (and one gets the impression that the Paris based governing body accepts this point), but are doing what is best for the American promoters, organisers, constructors and public. IMSA feels its disagreement is with the official manufacturers body, the Bureau Permanent de Constructors Internationale d’Automobile (BPICA). IMSA president John Bishop describes the European based association as a “secret society” which he claims has no interest in supporting endurance racing. Politics are not solely the prerogative of the FOCA.

There are, in fact, many analagies between the Grand Prix teams and the Camel GT contenders; except that the contestants in the American sports car championship are not organised into an official body yet inspite of this put on as professional (if not more so) a show in cars which are exceptionally well turned out and presented, with the backing of major sponsors, in a championship which seems to lack many of the bad points of European racing, ie outright greed, avarice, political back-biting and jealousy. The drivers are, however, by and large not as talented.

But an American who contests the Camel GT Championship is not a man who generally sees himself as on a stepping stone to Indianapolis or Grand Prix racing. In this championship we are still witnessing the days of the well-healed driver/entrant. Most of the driver/entrants would be equally at home on the swimming or golf circuits. However it is unlikely that they would achieve the degree of success most do in this branch of racing. It is an ego trip for many, if not most, but those involved are quite aware of this fact, and are also aware of their own limitations. Ergo they are willing to “buy in” established long distance experts — and occasionally GP men — in order to overcome any deficiencies. It helps them, and the championship.

However, one can rightly ask why these invariably self-made men who finance the teams and seek big money sponsors as well as drive are not frightened by the prospect of serious injury. As ever with American racing, driver protection is the major criterion. It is very rare for someone to be seriously injured. If it was not then there is little doubt that the scene would change dramatically . . . insurers of big businessmen don’t particularly like them getting hurt in racing cars.

In this respect one cannot help but wonder if the encouragement of the one-off GTP cars may backfire. Naturally everyone goes to great lengths to ensure a car is safely and correctly built to the letter of the regulations — surely not a too naive thought? — but there is safety in numbers. And the numbers in American GT racing are Porsche — 935 Turbos to be exact. Three-point-two litre twin turbocharged lightweight machines with upwards of 850 horsepower. These are the meat of the championship. All powerful, all dominating, and relatively safe in that the knowledge and standards of preparation are well mapped and versed. Hopefully you get the drift. . . .

On the other hand Porsche in its many guises has dominated long-distance racing in America for very many years. Too long, perhaps, for the eventual good of the category — a point which is a factor in IMSA’s new GTP regulations — and one which probably Porsche would not like to encourage, not with the 935 at least. There were two of the new, off the shelf, 321 horsepower 2-litre 924 Carrera GTs entered at Daytona, but even the presence of Indy winner Rick Mears didn’t overcome the publicity presence of 15 935 Turbos. One Carrera GT retired with engine failure, the other managed 22nd place. Of the fifteen 935s they took first, second, eighth and 14th places from the 27 finishers after 24 hours. Not a particularly stunning average, particularly if you consider expense.

The race was won by the evergreen Brian Redman, now working in America, and forming his own team to contest this championship. First with a Kremer specification 935 Turbo built by acknowledged builder Bob Garretson, and later in the year with a new Lola T600 GTP car with a Chevrolet V8 producing 600 plus horsepower. Garretson, who at 50 plus years shared the Daytona driving with Redman, will also look after the new Lola. Third man in the Daytona Porsche was sometime CanAm, sometime F2, sometime Formula Atlantic driver Bobby Rahal, a charming bespectacled American.

Redman, who had not driven a racing car since last August, and only did eight laps of practice — the Style Auto 935 was 17th fastest — earned the team 12,500 dollars by taking the chequered flag on Sunday afternoon, February 1. That is prize money only. Sponsorship endorsements and trade bonuses will of course add a lot more. It is, however, worth remembering that this prize money is 1,500 dollars short of the price of a single turbocharger unit, and a cool 47,500 dollars “light” on the price of an engine.

Talking of engines, the Redman/Rahal/Garretson car was the only Porsche 935 to use a 3.2-litre twin turbo engine in the race. Generally teams only trust this long-stroke version for practice, switching to “more reliable” 2.8 or 3-litre engines for the race itself. Such is Garretson’s thoroughness and confidence in his work. The only problem was a broken exhaust manifold, changed in 13 minutes.

A “more reliable” 2.8-litre flat-six brought home another British driver to second place, Le Mans winner Derek Bell. Bell finished just over 12 laps behind Redman — Britain’s most successful long distance driver who has won well over 15 endurance races, excepting paradoxically the classic, Le Mans — in a first time drive for company president Bob Akin. Akin, an experienced IMSA competitor himself, shared the driving with Bell along with Craig Siebert, a level-headed gentleman whose previous race experience was confined to Formula Ford.

A British one-two victory for a change! It could have been closer as well. During the long night Bell, Rahal and Rolf Stommelen — a member of last year’s winning crew, and fastest in practice at 134.078 m.p.h. — all went sailing off on a fast left hand bend on the flat, boring infield part of the track. In the darkness the marshals had failed to spot a large oil slick. Rahal and Stommelen escaped damage to themselves and their charges. Bell was less fortunate. After swirling around in the dusty run-off area, the handling of the Coca-Cola backed 935 went off.

“It took ten laps to find out what was wrong,” said Bell. “The car was going down the straights like a crab. We changed tyres, but still it was the same. Then we discovered that the under-tray had been peeled back down on one side. The wind was getting under it, so the car was pulling to one side. A pity. We were only two laps down before then.”

The Redman Porsche in fact led for 19 of the 24 hours, the only interlopers being the similar cars of last year’s winning partners Reinhold Joest and Valter Merl joined this time by Jochen Mass, and IMSA regulars Ted Field and Danny Ongais with Milt Minter, plus reigning IMSA Camel GT Champion John Fitzpatrick, partnered by Bob Wollek and Jim Busby. At the end of the first hour the smartly presented Joest car — used in last year’s German Gp.5 Championship — headed the 935 of reigning Endurance Drivers Champion John Paul with son, Jnr, and Gordon Smiley.

Redman was third, the black Field/Ongais car next.

Soon after, Merl suffered a heart stopping spin on the 1,000 ft. curve, 31 degree banked West corner. A rear tyre blew at somewhere around 190 m.p.h., the explosion tearing off the suspension and sending the 935 into at least five 360 degree spins before coming to rest at the bottom of the banking, miraculously having failed to make contact with any other cars. In those few seconds Merl had been reduced to the role of helpless passenger.

Walsall native John Fitzpatrick was next to head the leader-board at the completion of another hour. Daytona had been a trying time for Fitz, winner of last year’s Camel GT Championship, arguably the most talented regular driver in the series, and now having to run his own team. Last year he drove for Dick Barbour in a Sachs sponsored 935, an arrangement which was to have continued this year. However, in January Barbour announced his withdrawal and Fitz found himself “promoted” to the role of team manager.

It was an experience which, said the popular John, would put him in good stead for the time when he decides to retire. Then he will have his own mechanics and organisation around him to run a team his own way. He seemed to be coping well, despite a fire which destroyed the rear bodywork of the car and more seriously a wheel loss after the team had forgotten to fully tighten any wheels prior to the top ten qualifying session. Fitzpatrick still made third fastest with only ten minutes of qualifying remaining.

In the race the Sachs car’s turn at the head of the field was not for long. The engine went off song, and was changed (under IMSA rules such work is allowed) but before midnight the final stroke came when a driveshaft broke sending Wollek sideways off the course.

The challenge was taken up by that man of few words, but pleasant character, Hawaiian Danny Ongais along with Field/Minter. The beautifully presented Interscope team had qualified two cars, one second fastest, the other tenth. It was this latter “race” car which they chose to start after practice electrical problems had been resolved. After leading in the fifth hour, they were slowed by fuel injection malfunctions. Once rectified Ongais steadily made up ground on the lead Redman Porsche. Then at two in the morning the challenge came to an end. Ongais became involved in an incident with two of the seemingly endless number of objectionably noisy Mazda RX7s and ended up hitting the outside retaining wall on the East banked turn. The car was sideways across the track without lights, but somehow marshals managed to mishandle the remains out of harms way before any other cars made contact.

From this point onwards it was all Redman/Garretson/Rahal, particularly when the consistently fast 935 of Stommelen entered the pits with the rear body section well ablaze after a turbocharger had ignited.

As if by accident Porsche therefore started the World Endurance Championship with 20 manufacturers points, but the Italians also left sunny Florida with a similar tally. Lancia was basically the only team to come to Daytona with a firm commitment to the FISA Championship. Anything anyone else picked up along the way was pure bunce!

It was the reigning champions first visit to the banked track, and the Martini supported organisation sent two diminutive 1.4 litre turbocharged Montecarlos. One for F1 driver Riccardo Patrese with German Hans Heyer and veteran Henri Pescarolo, the other for Italian trio Michele Alboreto/Piercarlo Ghinzani and Beppe Gabbiani. Eddie Cheever and Andrea de Cesaris had originally been nominated but according to team boss Cesare Fiorio their respective Grand Prix teams were not happy about them driving and travelling a week before the South African Formula Libre event.

Both Lancias were basically unchanged from last season — ground effect rear bodywork has been tried and will be used at Mugello — and the 1.4 engines had been “detuned” to deliver around 380 b.h.p. With about 2.5 miles of straights and banked turns in the 3.84 mile endurance circuit, the Italians were hoping to gain on reliability and better fuel consumption. They were well aware that a 175 m.p.h. top speed was around 20 m.p.h. slower than the best Porsches, but new FISA regulations which restrict fuel tank capacity to 31.7 gallons would assist the Italians in reducing the deficit. The thirstier Porsches would have to stop every 55 minutes, the Lancias every 75.

But the odds were enormous, and in typical Italian style a last minute entry was made for a Jolly Club Montecarlo to be driven by Carlo Facetti/Martino Finotto/Emanaule Pirro. Facetti/Finotto had come to Daytona to drive a nerve tingling blood red Ferrari 308, a brand new car which had an amazing 840 b.h.p. available thanks to twin turbocharging of the 3-litre V8 engine. Quite a sight and noise. There were doubts as to whether the transmission could put up with such power, so it was decided that Facetti/Finotto and Pirro should also qualify a hastily prepared, spare, Lancia. It was a wise decision. The Ferrari lasted only four laps before pulling into the pits, apparently suffering “fuel system problems”. It did set fastest lap of the entire race.

Veteran Facetti then joined colleagues Finotto/Pirro who were already at work in the third, Jolly Club Lancia. Surprise, surprise! They went on to be credited with fifth overall, and earn Lancia those 20 points. After a 2 hours 22 minutes halt to repair a broken valve spring, the works (Patrese) car was classified 18th, the sister car of Alboreto being wheeled away to the dead car park with piston failure at nearly one o’clock on Sunday morning following electrical problems and a change of turbocharger.

It was by no means a classic Endurance contest, but the Daytona 24 Hours did manage to encapsulate the gaps between racing in America and Europe. Different life styles, different philosophies and different worlds. — M.R.G.