Tiff's Top Tracks – Daytona International Speedway
The final instalment of Tiff Needell's favourite racing tracks around the world, and we're heading to Florida...
Tiff Needell is a television presenter and former racing driver who competed in Formula 1, British Touring Cars and at Le Mans.
This is a multipart series on Tiff's Top Tracks. Click here to start with the introduction.
And now for something completely different. It’s nothing like as challenging as any of the other of my favourite tracks, yet it’s something so alien to drivers from the rest of the world and brings the unique experience of a 31-degree banked track. It’s Daytona Beach, baby!
Yes, Britain built the first ever permanent racetrack at Brooklands back in 1907 – and that had a 30-degree banking – while Monza offered something of the same, albeit with only 21 degrees. Avus in Berlin had a 41-degree ‘wall of death’. But all those closed to racing a long time ago.
The Daytona road course, albeit with the added Bus Stop chicane that wasn't there when Tiff raced (image: Will Pittenger on Wikipedia.org)
So to head out to Florida back in January 1983 for not just my first race around a banked track but also my first ever visit to the United States was something pretty special. Nimrod Aston Martin boss Robin Hamilton had decided his overweight and already-outdated cars might fare better in the IMSA GTP series rather than the World Group C option, so packed his cars, mechanics and me off to seek fame and fortune.
The fact that Daytona Beach in January back then was a slightly shabby and pretty much deserted off-season resort, and failed to meet my expectations of the glitzy US of A, mattered not. The track was an eye-opener.
’83 was the last year that the Daytona road course ran without a bus stop chicane on the backstretch, and to see this mountain of banking rushing towards me at 200mph, knowing that I should stay flat on the throttle was something my brain knew but my right foot failed to understand.
Tiff in action at Daytona in the Nimrod Aston Martin
Having exited the infield part of the circuit at the entry to Turn 1 of the speedway, you let the car run up to the line below the wall and then stayed there through Turn 2, building speed all the time. What didn’t help was that the Nimrod was right-hand drive so, unlike the NASCAR boys, the concrete flashing past at 200mph felt very close indeed.
When Turn 3 arrived you were tipped on your side in a flash, and pushed down into your seat as the G-force built. You had to look right out of the top of the screen to see as far ahead as possible in case any danger loomed, but at the same time I kept looking down for fear I was creeping up into the wall.
With cars not quite as strong as they are now, I took the advice to stay ‘high’ so that if something did break, the car couldn’t get too out of shape before I slapped the wall.
The banking at Daytona
With the load on the steering building all the time, you had to brace yourself for what used to be a nasty dip just over the tunnel entrance in the middle of Turn 4 and then suddenly you were on to the relatively flat 18-degree bank of the frontstretch, trying to decide just how late you could brake for the entrance to the infield.
The first corner was a deep 180-degree loop and then there was a much longer straight down to the Horseshoe, without the fiddly right-left kink that now protects the pit exit (but also forces cars back into single file just when an overtake is half done).
With the Horseshoe being so much further down, the run back to the fast, left-handed kink was also longer, allowing you to build up a lot more speed and give you no chance of going through it flat. Another hairpin right and then a very bumpy opening left onto the banking completed what is a relatively simple track, yet one that is so refreshingly different.
Action from the 2018 Daytona 24 Hours
When Robin picked up a last minute deal from Pepsi – as part of their Pepsi Challenger promotion – I ended up sharing the car with none other than NASCAR superstar Darrell Waltrip, who’d just picked up his second championship, and the absolute legend that is AJ Foyt.
With 79 starters, in anything from the prototypes to GTU Toyota Celicas, and no lighting on the infield, it was a way more hectic affair than you see now and, although the Nimrod failed early on, it was a race I loved going back to.
Daytona was a much tougher test for both man and machine than Le Mans, and retirements fill my record books more than finishes. But I’ll never forget battling with Silk Cut Jaguars in a Porsche 962 and I remember one stint in the dark, during which we led the race, checking that our number was still on top of the illuminated scoring totem pole every time I exited Turn 4. Happy days.