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The Rolex 24 At Daytona In Its Wider Context

Charles Dressing was at Daytona for the Rolex 24 hour race. Here he gives us a personal opinion about the race, its place in the international racing calendar, and its history. As regular readers will know, ‘Chuck’ has a wealth of experience of sportscar racing, which enables him to put things into perspective. Luckily for dailysportscar, he’s prepared to share his insights with us.

The Plant

With two of the world’s classic endurance races in Florida with just one calendar page between them, it seems natural that we’d start calling the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring “the 36 Hours of Florida”. And we did. Years, decades ago.

My state is the global home of world championship sports car racing. Next month Sebring will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the World Sports Car Championship.

The 24 Hours of Daytona is as much anticipated as Sebring or Le Mans. For racers of all stripes, the Rolex 24 marks the end of the off season. But by 2:00 AM Sunday, the cold reality that we’re not even half way home sets in and a sort of mental muscle memory takes over for all hands. With spotters working in the tower like foreman on the factory floor, Daytona is atypical endurance racing. Bill France’s big racing plant has a flavor that is utterly different from either downstate Sebring or far off Le Mans. Le Grand Prix de Vitesse et Endurance has a cruel feminine component. Sebring has a relentless and unforgiving, almost masculine element. Seen from the tower, Daytona seems industrial, especially after dark. Standing on the roof, viewing the whole race, is like watching a giant machine working; all the pieces, mechanical and organic, are visible. Lighting the bowl of the Speedway amplifies that impression.

With the creation of the ALMS in 1999, Sebring found a return of the luster of the World Sports Car and the World Constructors championship eras.  What has not returned is an audience with the passion and interest of the folks who paid to watch the 36 Hours of Florida from the Sixties through the early Seventies. The few of us who remain are easily spotted by our organic credentials; gray hair, wrinkled skin and frequent forgetfulness for most things beyond the speedway.

Sports car/road racing enjoyed a golden era that likely began when the Cobra and the Corvette Sting Ray appeared at Riverside in 1962. The same year Daytona International Speedway hosted the first Daytona Continental – the race that DIS counts as the first Rolex 24.

The 24 Hours of Daytona tripped only once: 1974. Big Bill France called it off. A lack of gasoline got the official blame. Sebring went away too that year. For American road racing 1974 was probably the worst year. The Can-Am fizzled out as well that summer.

The decade had started well. The Trans-Am was at the height of its powers. People were buying pony cars as fast as Detroit could make them. In 1967 David Pearson was deputized into the Bud Moore Cougar Trans-Am team for the Mid-Ohio round because Dan Gurney was in Le Mans. Pearson had to miss a NASCAR race in Montgomery, AL that weekend. No matter. The Trans-Am was the premier stock-bodied racing series in the US. So Bud Moore installed a cigarette lighter in the Silver Fox’s Cougar and David qualified and finished second at Mid-Ohio, a place he’d never seen. The Trans-Am was that important.

Road racing, sports car racing wasn’t an afterthought in 1959 when Bill France created Daytona International Speedway. Realizing that the world might not take his new racing plant and what was going to race on it seriously, the infield section was part of the original design, not some last minute add on. The first sports car races even ran clockwise, just to make sure everyone understood that Bill France & Co understood the realities of international motorsport. Which they did.

France Sr. created ACCUS – the Automobile Competition Committee of the United States – a year before DIS opened to rave reviews. His new Daytona speedway and NASCAR were full-fledged members of the international motorsport community with a seat at the FIA’s big table in Paris. When Bill France went to Le Mans to follow up the inaugural Continental in 1962 with his newly minted Daytona 500 winner Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, he made sure Fireball raced a Ferrari. (He and Bob Grossman were sixth overall in Luigi Chinetti’s GTO.)

Bill France was the promoters’ promoter and possessed 20/20 foresight. What Big Bill would have made of the ALMS/Grand-Am split is beyond my feeble abilities. Best guess? It likely wouldn’t have happened.

By 2003, and the creation of the Daytona Prototype class, American road racing, sports car racing, was in the same leaky boat as the once potent American ChampCar/Indy car racing. The daily sporting press was relieved that there was now just one major league motorsport in America. That it was  populated with nominal English speakers who all said the exactly same things during interviews and raced cars with familiar names was a bonus. Simple. Easy. Uncomplicated.

The rest of the world, the biggest audience for the 24 Hours of Daytona, yawned. The international flavor of the Rolex 24 had been diluted.

Then, a glimmer of recognition. Four years ago, in the rip tide of the 2008 financial meltdown, the winners of the Rolex 24 appeared in victory lane brandishing big flags of their home nations, not bottles of champagne. (That came later.) A new campaign to restore the international component of the race emerged. Concurrently, a resurrection of the multi-discipline diversity of the early 24 Hours (and the Continental) rejoined the mix. It worked.

Having Rolex as the title sponsor certainly didn’t do any harm. The brilliant plan to award each class-winning driver a Rolex Cosmograph became the solid platinum cornerstone of the event’s growing new allure. And it gave Speed TV, radio announcers and daily press scribblers a juicy catch phrase – “Win The Watch” – to drive home the importance each driver attached to the Rolex 24.

The 2012 sale of the ALMS to ISC/Daytona/Grand-Am also brought some much needed clarity to American pro sports car racing.

One look at the entry list for Daytona 2013 made me grin. The ugliness of 1974 and the queasy transition from the 20th to the 21st century were all but banished. The 24 Hours of Daytona seemed important to the world again. The entry list had heft, especially at the bottom. It was historically symmetrical.

Forty years ago a Porsche Carrera RS (entered as a prototype) won the 1973 24 Hours of Daytona. As prelude to the 2013 Rolex 24, arch Porsche enthusiast Ron Thomas built a perfect – right down to Peter Gregg’s signature re-positioning of the windscreen wipers – 1973 Brumos Carrera RS to Daytona. Hurley Haywood, Grand Marshal for this year’s Rolex 24, reprised his ’73 win – his first of five – driving Thomas’ RS replica in the yummy historic exhibition before the 3:30 PM green flag.

Just after 3:30 PM last Sunday they gave out the watches. It was Scott Pruett’s fifth. That tied him with Hurley Haywood for career wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona.

After the flags, the confetti, the champagne and the watches, one of the first people to reach Scott in victory lane was Hurley Haywood, the Grand Marshal of this year’s event. Hurley was all smiles and handshakes and genuinely happy to share his Daytona record.

The 51st running of the race was a GT renaissance for Grand-Am. When Speed TV interviewed Audi’s Wolfgang Ullrich from the Daytona pits, it seemed the muses were strumming all the right chords again.

As RLM’s Joe Bradley would say, “In police work, we call that a clue.” After all, if Audi thought the Rolex was important enough to import Dr. Ullrich, a slew of engineers, plus an international cast of support types, technical staff and a squad of marquee drivers to Florida, then Daytona was obviously a big deal.

As it was four decades ago, GT cars showed the way at Daytona.

Charles Dressing