Thursday, January 26, 2012
The 50th anniversary of the Rolex 24 at Daytona (back then it was a three-hour race called the Daytona Continental) is being held this weekend with A. J. Foyt serving as the grand marshal. Foyt is a two-time winner of the 24 and was also the fastest qualifier and opening lap leader of that very first race in -- of all things -- a Pontiac Tempest.
The story of Foyt’s win in 1983 is well known. How he left his father’s hospital bedside at his dad’s urging to “go have some fun.” How his first car broke down and he climbed into a Porsche, having never driven one before, and only after practicing the shift pattern on another Porsche already knocked out of the race. He then went out and set the fastest race lap – at night and in the rain.
I remember the ’83 race well, but not for Foyt’s accomplishments – and they were truly amazing. It was raining hard when it was announced in the press box that Foyt had run the fastest race lap, to the disbelief of all still present. It wasn't until several people started timing Foyt that we believed what IMSA was telling us.
I was at the race on the behalf of Toyota. Dan Gurney’s All American Racers were running three Celicas in the GTU class and I was on hand to provide public relations support. It was a good story. Dan had assembled a team of drivers with the sons of several of his contemporaries, including Wally Dallenbach, Jr., and Al Unser, Jr., along with Willy T. Ribbs and Michael Chandler, heir to the Chandler newspaper family, which included the L.A. Times. Actor Gene Hackman was paired with a couple of Japanese drivers in a third car. The cars were numbered 97, 98 and 99.
At one point during the night I went back to a tent the team had set up to grab a short nap. But it’s hard to sleep on a cold, rainy night at Daytona with race cars going by 100 yards away. So it wasn’t long before I was walking back across the dark infield to the pits. I glanced up at the scoring pylon and was stunned to see 98 on top.
Unbelievable. We were leading the race. I started to walk a little faster. I looked again and 99 was on top. Our cars were battling for the lead! I started to run. But how could that be? We were running in the GTU class, the slowest of three classes and the fastest of our cars had qualified 39th. I stopped to look at the pylon again. It read 100. How could I have been so stupid? The number on top of the pylon was the lap, not a car number.
Looking forward to the race this weekend. I’m always amazed at how much of the race I watch on TV. Maybe it’s because it’s the first race of the year. This year I’m also looking forward to seeing the new cars, especially the Corvettes.
Have a good race.