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 looking at some of the more “out there” cars to grace the track in recent years.
Lobsters, Raptors and Cannibals
Sports cars come in all shapes and sizes, so it's no surprise that the Rolex 24 at Daytona has had its fair share of the weird and wonderful down through the years. Some have been successful, while others have failed to trouble timing and scoring – although, as far as the teams running them were concerned, it was mission accomplished. Fact is, they got to compete on the high banks of the Daytona International Speedway in one of the world's most prestigious endurance races. Job done.
Take the Cannibal-Chevrolet of the late-1990s. This front-engined, open-top prototype (LEFT) was bizarrely fashioned from an ex-Trans-Am Oldsmobile Cutlass to take advantage of the new World Sports Car rules. Car owner Bruce Trenery came up with the idea when he spotted a window of opportunity for a low-budget WSC project in the early years of the new category.
“I've been around racing long enough to know that at the start of a new formula a lot of people aren't ready,” explains Trenery. “But we weren't in a position to afford one, given that we were just doing it for fun.” So he built one out of what he had.
Trenery, the owner of the Fantasy Junction exotic car emporium in California, had bought the Tommy Riggins-built Trans-Am Olds the previous year, and had already raced it at Daytona in the GTS class. He commissioned Jack Kampney, who'd had a hand in the bodywork of the Greenwood Chevrolet Corvettes of the 1970s, to produce a design, and Scott Flatt, who looked after the car, to turn the tubeframe coupe into an open-top prototype.
“Jack came up with this fairly beautiful design,” remembers Trenery, “but we'd never seen the car before it turned up at Daytona in 1995. Inevitably, the car had been late and we didn't make the pre-race test.”
Trenery and teammate Jeffrey Pattinson were in for a surprise when they opened the back of the truck at the racetrack.
“The rear end of this thing was staring at us, and it was ugliest thing I'd ever seen,” recalls Trenery. “Jeffrey and I were laughing so much we were crying. Maybe you could just about see the resemblance from the drawings, but the reality didn't look like the conception.”
The Cannibal had an ugly time of it out on the track, too.
“The hood kept blowing off, for a start,” says Trenery. “The other problem was that no one had envisaged a front-engined WSC car, so the rules said the exhausts had to exit out the back of the car. At our first pit stop, some fuel got spilt and caught alight on the hot exhausts. We got the thing to the finish line, but it was kind of an ordeal.”
The Cannibal's second start in the 24 Hours a year later yielded a much better result. The car, driven by Trenery and Brits Pattinson, Nigel Smith and Grahame Bryant, ended up 24th overall. That was an impressive sixth in class, albeit 159 laps behind the winning Riley & Scott.
The Cannibal notched up another Daytona start – and finish – two years later (RIGHT), and also raced at Sebring and completed a partial U.S. sports car season in 1997. On that basis, Trenery chalks up the project as a success.
“In terms of points per dollar spent, I reckon we were ahead of everyone,” he says. “When we bought the car prepped for Daytona with a trailer and all the spares, it was $50,000. A lot of people made fun out of it, but we had a lot of fun in it. That car finished Daytona every time, and I can tell you that never once in practice, qualifying or the race did that car ever have one new tire on it. We always bought other team's cast-offs.”
The Cannibal shared the grid with another odd-looking machine in 1998. Financier Warren Mosler had been building sports cars, firstly under the Consulier name since the early 1990s, and buoyed by success in the World Challenge series, he decided to take on the Rolex 24 with the Chevrolet-powered car known as the Mosler Intruder. Or that was the original plan. By the time it turned up for the big race, it had undergone some major revisions that drastically altered its look.
The Intruder had become the Raptor (ABOVE), courtesy of a bizarre twin-windshield design and giant roof-mounted air scoop. The inspiration for the strange design came from the boatyard next to Mosler's composite shop in Florida, or at least that's what Shane Lewis, the team's lead driver at the time, believes.
“Warren had told me that we were going to take the car in which I'd won races in the World Challenge to Daytona, but when I turned up at the workshop, the guys were looking at me kind of funny,” recalls Lewis. “Then they showed me the car, which suddenly had this pointy windscreen.
“Someone had seen Warren staring at this boat and the next day he comes up with the idea for the windscreen. Look at the front of the boat and turn it upside down, and you've got the front of the Raptor. His thinking was if it can get through the water that well, it can get through the air, too.”
And Mosler's logic wasn't too far off. The Raptor, named after a small, predatory dinosaur from Jurassic Park, flew around the banking at Daytona.
“Warren wanted a big number, a high top speed, so we trimmed and trimmed the thing,” recalls Lewis. “I remember flying across the start-finish line at more than 200mph, so maybe it proved that windshield configuration was pretty good after all.”
The Mosler far from disgraced itself, qualifying just three tenths slower than another strange, but certainly better funded, Daytona contender in the GT1 class, the Lister Storm GTL. The Chevy-engined Raptor didn't make the finish, however, with overheating problems putting it out shortly before midnight.
Unconventional-looking machinery can be successful, very successful. Witness the early GTP contenders from British racecar constructor March.
The March 82G of 1982 had its roots in a car commissioned by BMW for a North American campaign in 1981, the GTP class M1 lookalike known as the M1C. The aerodynamics that gave both cars their radical look came from the mind of Frenchman Max Sardou and featured what Graham Humphrys, who was responsible for the rest of the 82G, calls “the world's biggest splitter.”
“The start of the nose was the splitter or the leading edge of the undertray,” explains Humphrys, who would subsequently design the 1999 Le Mans-winning BMW V12 LMR. “The aerodynamics were based on the combination of a position and length-adjustable splitter, a variable slot gap between the rear of the splitter and the undertray, and the air intake for the radiators.”
The March 82G was far from a flop. Bobby Rahal claimed a first-time-out pole at Daytona for a Chevrolet-engined version of the car run by Bob Garretson, and that entry, plus another with BMW power run by Dave Cowart's Red Lobster Racing Team, both notched up second-place finishes over the remainder of the season.
It was only when one of the bright young minds at March, a certain Adrian Newey, revised the aerodynamics for 1983 that the car became a winner, however. The Briton, who had briefly tasted the world of grand prix racing with the Fittipaldi team, but was still some years away from starting his Formula 1 career in earnest, reworked Sardou's avant garde thinking and did away with the vacuous open front end.
“There was probably too much going on at the front with the original car,” reckons Humphrys. “Adrian watered down Max's ideas and came up with a much more conventional design.”
Newey's work on the March suggested that he was a star of the future. The 83G claimed the IMSA GTP title with Al Holbert, who ran with both Chevrolet V8 and Porsche turbo power over the course of the season, and went on to win the following year's Daytona 24 Hours (LEFT) in the hands of an all-South African driver lineup under the banner of Kreepy Krauly (a kind of robot for cleaning swimming pools, no less).
The Red Lobster team continued with an updated car – now with Porsche power – into 1983 and came up with a livery that made it look every bit as dramatic as its predecessor. The shape of those March prototypes, with their giant front pontoons, might have been tailor-made for the team's sponsor.
“Everyone had been calling the car the lobster claw anyway,” says Humphrys, “so it really was the perfect sponsor.”
For tickets to the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, CLICK HERE.
And for the latest news and stories from Grand-Am Road Racing and the Rolex Sports Car Series, CLICK HERE.