The 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan. 28-29, marks a half-century of top-level sports car racing on the high banks and twisting infield of Daytona International Speedway. We're counting down to that milestone with a series of stories looking at some of the drivers, marques and stories that have shaped those 50 years. This week, Derek Bell looks back on some fond Daytona memories, including three victories at the Florida enduro classic.
Enduro king's Daytona highs (and a couple of lows)
Derek Bell admits that he sometimes wondered just what he had to do to win the 24 Hours of Daytona. Four times in the early 1980s, just at a time when he was starting to make a habit of winning the Le Mans 24 Hours, he finished second at Daytona International Speedway.
Eventually, he cast the monkey off his back and, during a purple patch in the second half of the '80s, he and the late Al Holbert became the undisputed kings of 24-hour racing. Together they pulled off the Daytona-Le Mans double two years in succession, in 1986-'87, driving for Holbert's eponymous works-backed Porsche team in the U.S. enduro classic and the factory squad from Germany in its European counterpart over in France.
Bell went on to win Daytona again after Holbert's death in late 1988, winning the '89 event with Jim Busby's Porsche squad. That third victory completed a phenomenal run of 24-hour results for Bell that would make him a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. Only once during the '80s did he finish the season without a podium at either Daytona or Le Mans.
The Daytona story for Bell began years before, just as he was starting out on his sports car career. The big break for Bell came when he was picked up to drive a Porsche 917 for John Wyer's factory Porsche JW Automotive squad for 1971 and the 24 Hours was race two on the International Championship of Makes schedule.
Bell got his feet under the table pretty quickly with Wyer, winning first time out with Jo Siffert in Buenos Aires in early January, but it was hardly preparation for racing at Daytona. Forty years on, Bell admits that he was spooked by the 31-degree banking – not so much by driving on it, but watching his teammate do so.
“We were testing at Daytona after Buenos Aires and I'd been told that I would be driving until 10 a.m.,” remembers Bell. “So when I drove onto the track, I went through the infield and over to the banking to have a look.
“As Jo came around, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God.' There was a line painted on the track, and the left-front wheel was below the line and the left rear was above the line. The car was going along at 30 degrees from straight ahead. I thought, ‘Bloody hell, is that what I've got to do?'”
And that, of course, was in the days before the addition of the Bus Stop chicane on the back stretch.
“You were flat all the way around the banking; you flew into Turn 3 at 220mph,” he continues. “Luckily, I didn't have any imagination back then.”
Bell and Siffert retired early from Daytona '71 with engine failure. Engine problems would again spoil the Brit's chances when he returned with Wyer's Gulf-sponsored team, now running its own Cosworth-engined Mirage chassis, two years later. This time, he claimed the pole ahead of grand prix driver Francois Cevert aboard a Matra, but a misfire stymied his chances almost from the start.