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, we're putting the miles in on some record-breaking runs.
The Long and Winding Road
Here's how you win a Rolex 24 at Daytona: You cover more miles of the Daytona International Speedway road/oval course in 24 hours than anybody else. It's that simple – while being extraordinarily complex and difficult, too, of course.
Although time remains a constant, the number of laps and miles the winning car clicks off can, and often does, vary significantly from year to year. Weather, caution periods, mechanical problems, tweaks to the track layout, and the type of cars competing for the overall win all play their part, as does the skill, commitment and strategy of the guys behind the wheel.
Set at 2,760.86 miles in 1982, the Rolex 24 at Daytona distance record has stood for 30 years. That effort finally eclipsed the 2,758.44 miles covered in 1970 and has remained the benchmark up until the present day, despite the best efforts of some of the fastest, most spectacular sports cars on the planet in the three decades following it.
Here's a look back at those record-breaking milestones, plus some “close but no cigar” moments since.
1970: 2,758.44 miles
The Group 5 supercars took center stage, with Porsche's 917 and the Ferrari 512 undoubtedly the class of the field.
A perfect combination of reliability and speed, plus misfortune for their rivals, propelled the No. 2 John Wyer Racing-entered, Gulf-sponsored 917 to the overall victory, with primary drivers Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen, joined by Brian Redman in a cameo role, driving flawlessly throughout.
Running untroubled and having the luxury of setting its own (very rapid) pace, the lead 917 ran 724 laps and 2,758.44 miles on what was then a 3.81-mile track layout, and had a cushion at the end of some 45 laps over its No. 1 sister car in second.
The winning 917's average speed of 114.866 mph shattered the previous record of 107.388 mph, set by Lloyd Ruby and Ken Miles in the first 24-hour race at Daytona, back in 1966.
Redman was sharing the team's No. 1 car with Jo Siffert, but never had a realistic shot at victory in it after suffering a cut tire in the third hour that tore the brake line, then losing another 90 minutes to change the clutch in the early morning hours. It was during that clutch change that Wyer put Redman in the No. 2 car for a stint, having been unable to convince Kinnunen (who spoke little English) that it might be a good idea to ease the pace and conserve the car a little.
When Redman returned to the No. 1 car, he worked his way from fourth to second with two hours remaining, but brushed the wall and lost five minutes for hasty repairs. That put Mario Andretti's Ferrari 512 into second, until a stunning charge from Siffert saw the place change again with just four minutes of the 24 hours remaining.
That 1970 win was Rodriguez's third at Daytona, but his first in the 24-hour era. He would add a fourth a year later, sharing with Jackie Oliver in another 917, the duo completing only 688 laps and 2,621.28 miles, after overcoming the sort of mechanical issues that are so much a part of taking on and beating the clock.
1982: 2,760.86 miles
A dozen years later, the Rodriguez/Kinnunen/Redman triumph of 1970 still held the Daytona distance record. That was until another Porsche, this time an iteration of the ultra-successful 935, came through to trump it in the hands of Rolf Stommelen and John Paul Sr. and Jr.
The previous two years had seen the record come close to being broken. The original 3.81-mile course configuration had been lengthened slightly to 3.84 in 1976 and by the beginning of the 1980s, teams and cars were homing in on the elusive 2,758.44-mile benchmark.
In 1980, Stommelen co-drove the winning Porsche 935 with Reinhold Joest and Volkert Merl, completing 715 laps and 2,745.6 miles – less than 13 miles short of the record. A year later, the 935 of that man Redman, Bobby Rahal and Bob Garretson came up just shy, too, posting 2,718.72 miles and 708 laps.
In 1982, it all came right in the fifth straight overall triumph for a 935 at Daytona. Although Paul Jr. was making his Daytona 24 debut, he was by no means lacking for pace, and lead driver Stommelen wasn't lacking for confidence.
“Before the race I asked Rolf, ‘Who's the team to beat here?'” Paul Jr. said. “He answered, ‘We are.' He was incredibly cocky, but he was very good.”
Once two of their closest rivals, also in 935s, fell by the wayside, the path was sealed for a record run. The Paul Sr.-entered Porsche led from two hours into the race all the way to the finish, with its only ailment en route a cut tire from driving over a bottle on the track. The oil was never topped up, the hood never even lifted as the trio ran an extraordinarily clean and fast 24 hours to post a record 2,760.86 miles (adding up to 719 laps of the slightly longer track, compared to 1970's 724 on the original configuration).
Near misses in the GTP era
After making its Daytona debut in 1984, it seemed Porsche's awesome 962 might stand the best chance of beating its predecessors, the 917 and 935, as the outright distance record-holder at Daytona. But, although the 962 won five of seven Daytona 24s from '85 to '91, it never beat the '82 mark. The '87 winning car set the 962's best mark in a 24-hour race at Daytona, covering 2,680.68 miles.
In 1992, the record was almost broken, by the factory Nissan R91CP driven by Japanese shoes Masahiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki. Nissan had five cars entered – three from the U.S. and two from Japan – and was the outright favorite under new regulations introduced that year.
The Nissans suffered minimal mechanical ailments compared to the aging 962s and the Japanese trio completed 762 laps of the current 3.56-mile circuit (the most of any configuration), and a total distance of 2,712.72 miles at 112.897 mph average speed – a record for the 3.56-mile circuit, but 48 miles short of the outright record.
Chasing the record
In the current era of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Daytona Prototypes have come very close to beating the outright mileage record on a couple occasions. The way the race has evolved in recent years, with multiple cars vying for the lead at near-sprint-race speeds, it's not surprising that the record might be in sight, given good weather, few cautions and decent reliability.
In 2010, the Action Express Porsche-powered Riley (LEFT), with its unusual Porsche Cayenne SUV-based 5-liter V8, built by the Lozano Brothers, ran 755 laps in the hands of Joao Barbosa, Terry Borcheller, Ryan Dalziel and Mike Rockenfeller. That number is the highest in the DP period and the third-most laps ever completed by a winning car, and equates to 2688.14 miles.
And just this past year, although the winning Scott Pruett/Memo Rojas/Joey Hand/Graham Rahal Ganassi BMW-powered Riley ran 721 laps and covered 2563.53 miles, a near three-hour caution for fog blighted the record charge. With four cars on the lead lap once again after 24 hours, it served further proof that anyone in the current era could potentially establish a new record distance traveled if the cards fall right.
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