Why the Daytona 24 Hours is even harder on cars and drivers than Le Mans
Tiff Needell first took on this epic race back in 1983
If all you ever read is the national press, it would be easy to assume that the only form of motor racing worth writing about is Formula One.
With the start of the season still a good seven weeks away, there is much debate about how ‘slightly wider front wings’ with ‘fewer fiddly bits’ is going to affect the racing and how well our two new British drivers Lando Norris and George Russell are going to fare – or two and a half if you include Thai-British driver Alexander Albon who potentially has the fastest car of the three.
But there is so much more going on outside F1 that it’s a shame such little notice is taken of it.
Before the new Grand Prix cars even hit the test track, we’ve already had the incredible footage of the Dakar racers cresting mountainous dunes amid miles and miles of desert land, and this weekend sees the iconic Monte Carlo rally kick off its new World Championship with Britain’s Kris Meeke back in the fold.
Up and coming single seater stars have headed to New Zealand, India and Asia for experience gaining series but for me the motor racing season really starts on Saturday with The 24 Hours of Daytona.
The 24 Hours of Daytona: from dusk to dawn – and then some
I’ve been fortunate enough to contest this epic race on half a dozen occasions and if I had a sniff of a drive there again I’d be on the plane like a shot. While many Europeans will have heard of the Daytona 500 Stock Car race, few will know why the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 is better known as the ‘Daytona’.
Humiliated by Ford’s 1-2-3 at Le Mans in 1966, Ferrari sent two new P4 models to the Daytona 24 Hours in 1967 and, backed up by a P3 entered by their American importer, retaliated with their own 1-2-3 finish in Ford's backyard. Whether they liked it or not, the next new Ferrari road car launched was quickly dubbed ‘The Daytona’ by the press.
Ferrari's 1-2-3 finish at Daytona in 1967
My first drive there was also my first ever trip to America. I’d spent 1982 racing the Aston Martin Nimrod in the first year of the Group C World Sportscar era – which included playing ping-pong at 200mph with the Mulsanne Straight barriers at Le Mans – but team owner Robin Hamilton couldn’t find the budget to compete in the fast-growing series so decided to head to America with his two-car team and ply his trade in the IMSA Championship which, as always, opened with the Daytona event.
With sponsors and drivers yet to be secured, I headed to Daytona Beach a couple of weeks before the event, flying out with thoughts of arriving in a country bristling with glitz and glamour only to arrive at a slightly sleazy, run down, seaside resort, deserted as it was out of season! Cars rusted by the salt sea breeze and musty smelling hotel rooms didn’t help and this was decidedly not the US of A that I’d expected!
Fortunately it’s been completely transformed over the past thirty years or so – even if it still has some pretty iffy areas – but not everything is progress because the famous beach that saw Malcolm Campbell roar down it at 276.816mph to claim a new World Land Speed Record back in 1935, before rising speeds sent everyone heading for the salt flats of Bonneville, is now closed off at night time so you can no longer test how far you can drive a rental car into the sea before the water gets in.
Testing began about ten days before the race and venturing out onto the legendary thirty-one-degree banking was about as eye opening as it can get! 1983 was to be the last year when the 24 Hour track ran without a ‘Bus Stop’ chicane on the back straight so, having made it out of the infield course into the entry of the oval’s ‘Turn One’ banking you’d shoot out to the wall and stay up high round ‘One’ and ‘Two’ before levelling out for the long run down the ‘straightaway’ to ‘Three’ as the speed climbed towards the 200mph mark.
This video clip shows the course as it was for the 1983 race:
Sitting on the right, with the wall flashing past mere inches away, I now had to convince myself that it would be flat-out through the banking of ‘Three’ and ‘Four’ – but trying to get my right foot to agree with what my brain was telling me was not an easy thing. I think I made it flat on about the sixth attempt and then, with the suspension compressed to its limits, I had to hang on for a very bumpy ride with the infamous dip over the ‘Turn Four’ entrance tunnel threatening to rip the steering out of my grip.
Back then, with car breakages and tyre blowouts a not too uncommon occurrence, most drivers would stay up high on the banking so, if anything did go wrong, the car wouldn’t get too out of shape before colliding with the concrete which would then ‘guide’ you round!
However one thing I hadn’t contemplated was that, when you are on the banking, where you are going is not viewed straight ahead of you but instead it is out of the top of the screen – and with the low sportscar screen that meant you couldn’t see that far ahead should things be going wrong! But then if you kept staring out of the top, looking slightly to the left, you couldn’t help but feel you were creeping ever nearer to the wall on the right. It all comes naturally after a while, but it certainly took time to get used to!
As the week went on, several drivers joined us for the test either offering useful contacts or direct sponsorship. Rising American star Drake Olsen turned up with his Formula Ford still on the trailer behind his van, fast lady Lynne St. James impressed us all with her instant speed and Canadian John Graham brought his Moosehead Beer sponsorship plus a few samples for the crew to enjoy!
With one car sorted, time was running out for the second entry until the Daytona promotors came up with an offer Robin couldn’t refuse. Sponsorship from the famous ‘Pepsi Challenger’ promotion plus US megastars AJ Foyt and reigning NASCAR champion Darrel Waltrip as my teammates!! The green and silver Nimrod was covered in yellow in the blink of an eye.
Tiff at the wheel of his Nimrod
For Waltrip it was his first ever sportscar race and, despite the windscreen and glazed doors, he still pulled on the goggles of his open-faced helmet. He also returned to the pits on one occasion with scars of an encounter with another car. None too pleased by the antics of said car he’d ‘sent him up the hill’.
Foyt was well known for his fiery temperament but fortunately for us treated the weekend as a sort of day off. We’d been experimenting with some very thick brake pads in order to try and get through 24 hours with only one pad change, but it took a very special technique to bed them in and make them work properly.
AJ was due to go out with the new pads installed so Robin asked me to talk him through the process. Fearing Foyt wouldn’t take too kindly to some young English kid telling him what to do, I gingerly began to go through the ‘gentle rub-in … slow heat build-up … burst of power with brakes hard on … then …’ before the Texan drawl interrupted by suggesting I bed in the pads for him! I’ve never felt so honoured bedding in a set of pads.
Sadly the race wouldn’t last long for either Nimrod as somehow the banked cornering forces caused both Aston Martin V8s to dislodge and then consume the aluminium baffles in their dry sump systems to the obvious detriment of the rest of the engine.
American legend AJ Foyt racing the Nimrod at Daytona, before his mid-race switch
Mind you it wouldn’t turn out too badly for Foyt who switched over to Preston Henn’s Porsche 935 team mid-race and promptly won the race!
My returns to Daytona over the next 15 years brought much joy but more frustration in an event that’s much harder on cars and drivers than Le Mans, not only because of the banking but also because almost half the race is in the dark – or at least it was in my day before they flood-lit the infield.
A massive grid of 79 cars took the start back in 1983 and not all had experienced drivers at the helm. Winding through the infield at night you’d suddenly see a pair of headlights heading your way from way off the track and re-starts were complete mayhem as, wherever you were in the long crocodile, as soon as the green flagged waved you could start racing. “Green, green, green,” on the radio translated to “Attack, attack, attack!”
There's plenty of night running at Daytona
One year I spent a glorious stint in the dark, leading in a Porsche 962 and having the satisfaction of looking up at the totem pole showing the running order, as I exited ‘Turn Four’ on each lap, to see my number at the top, but gearbox problems would soon ruin the day. I had that half-expected tyre blow at 200mph while running third in an open topped Kremer K8 Spyder – essentially a Porsche 962 with the roof cut off – and, after a wild ride bouncing off another car and then into the wall, ended up on the grass in front of the pits so at least it was a short walk back.
My final three outings were all in the mighty V12 Lister Storm GT car sponsored by Newcastle United. The first featured in a Top Gear Motorsport story that ended in dramatic style with co-driver Kenneth Acheson being pitched high into the air by a wandering backmarker while the second brought my only finish with a fourth in class in 1997 before a mechanical failure very early on a year later brought my Daytona days to an end.
Tiff tackles Daytona in the V12 Lister Storm GT sponsored by Newcastle United (Pic: Lister/John Brooks)
Sitting pretty much alongside a wailing V12 half roasting you to death might not sound like everyone’s idea of fun but it was magic to me.
Nowadays the 24 Hours is a much more civilised affair not only due to the floodlit infield but also with a field reduced to a much less crowded fifty cars and a more professional driver line-up. Several star names from F1 grace the field, none more so than Fernando Alonso who enjoyed it so much last year that he’s back for a second time.
Juan Pablo Montoya is there and so are Kamui Kobayashi, Rubens Barrichello, Pastor Maldonado, Sebastien Bourdais and super hero Alex Zanardi. British stars that might have once dreamed of F1 are enjoying earning a good living in the series with Mike Conway, Harry Tincknell, and Oliver Jarvis in prototypes hoping for overall victory while Oliver Gavin, James Calado, Richard Westbrook and Nick Tandy feature in factory GT cars, and Katherine Legge, arguably Britain’s fastest woman leads the all-female crew of a GT3 Honda NSX – or Acura as they say over there.
The race starts at 7:40pm in the UK and Eurosport have live coverage of both the beginning and the end while live streaming of the whole event can be found on www.imsa.com – I’ll certainly be there still re-living the dream so why don’t you join me!