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, a team owner dreams big and two famous racing families go head to head in 1991.
The Gathering of the Clans
Like many of the best ideas, this one came about in a bar. But having a great idea and successfully pulling it off can be two very different things. Especially when the plan involves getting the foremost names from two great U.S. motorsport dynasties, the Andrettis and the Unsers, to race against each other in a sports car superteam at one of the world's biggest endurance races, the 1991 Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Yeah, good luck on that one…
The architect of this ambitious program was Jochen Dauer, racer, entrant and font of good ideas. (Just three years later, his Dauer Porsche 962 “road car” would win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the hands of the Porsche factory.) The German had already had a couple of Unsers – Al Jr. and cousin Robby – aboard one of his Porsche 962s at Daytona in 1990 and decided, while enjoying a few “adult beverages” one evening, that if you could have two Unsers then you might as well have four.
Dauer claims credit for this initial idea. “We were in a bar near the Nurburgring,” he says. “And it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
The concept was moved on by the team manager at Jochen Dauer Racing, expatriot Briton Steve Charsley, who takes up the story: “After a bottle of champagne or two to celebrate our good idea, I said, ‘We can't do this. It will be rude because it will upset the Andrettis.' So Jochen said, ‘We'll just have to run two cars then, one for the Unsers and one for the Andrettis.'”
Dauer's links with the Unsers and Charsley's with the Andrettis (he'd been crew chief for Mario and Michael during their sports car forays back in 1983) meant contact was quickly made with the two racing families.
“I phoned the Andrettis' manager, Don Henderson, and ran it past him, and that opened up a meeting at Elkhart Lake at the CART event. They verbally signed up there and then. The Andrettis were in and so were the Unsers. It took me just 90 days from the idea to getting all the contracts signed.”
Mario Andretti remembers being immediately attracted by the unusual proposal.
"We always had a friendly rivalry with the Unsers and figured we'd have a bit of fun," he says. "We always like to give each other a bit of needle in a friendly way, so Jochen's idea was very attractive."
Dauer's plan was to run Mario, his sons Michael and Jeff, and, before a clash of sponsorship intervened, nephew John in the Andretti car, with Al Sr. and Jr., Bobby and son Robby in the Unser entry. The next question was to find someone to pay for the ambitious program that, at one stage at least, looked set to include a full IMSA campaign with the younger drivers from each family entered in a car apiece.
“It was a case of ‘build it and they will come,'” says Charsley, who today is North American vp at Lola Cars International. “We believed that we had enough time and that the program was large enough that we could sell the idea.”
Charsley was right. Mario Andretti arranged a meeting with long time backer Texaco, which caught the team by surprise by asking for its Havoline brand to be the primary sponsor on the 1978 Formula 1 World Champion's car.
“Mario said that we needed to talk to Texaco because they wanted an involvement,” recalls Charsley. “I remember going to the hotel lobby while we were at the Laguna Seca CART race. They asked how much it would cost, and I showed them a few options for 30 or 40 grand. They turned around and said, ‘No no, we want to sponsor the whole car.' I wasn't ready for that, so we had to arrange another meeting.”