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 look at number of starters over the years – including some fairly staggering field sizes!
If you organize it, they will come
In the 49 previous incarnations (including 3 hours, 12 hours and, of course, 24 hours) of the season-starting sports car enduro at Daytona International Speedway, more than 3,000 cars have rolled off the Turn 4 banking to take the green flag. Check out the graph at the bottom of this page to chart all the ebbs and flows.
Unlike the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which is limited to a set number of starters (typically 55, but not always), the Rolex 24 at Daytona doesn't put a strict cap on entries. That means the number of cars racing each year comes down to factors like the state of the economy, or the availability and cost of cars under whatever the current technical regulations and class structures are.
Over the years, while never less than healthy and robust, the size of the entry has fluctuated with a randomness that would flummox a Wall Street trader, with change the only constant.
The inaugural Daytona 3-Hour Continental, back in 1962, attracted a stout 50 starters for a race eventually won by Dan Gurney's Lotus-Climax 19B. That number remained the benchmark until the first 24-hour race in '66 drew 59 starters. Field sizes surged from that '66 race through 1970, hitting a new high of 65 starters in 1970 – the same year that the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 Group 5 supercars made their Daytona debuts.
The five-liter formula ended in 1972, rendering the 917s and 512s obsolete as a new three-liter formula took center stage. The FIA also wanted to make Le Mans its only 24-hour race, so Daytona dropped to six hours for a year. Nevertheless, there were 55 starters for the Floridian classic.
Despite the international fuel crisis that canceled the 1974 race, fields weren't greatly affected by the time the race resumed again in '75, back to its traditional 24-hour length. IMSA – in its original guise – took over sanctioning for the first time and the race doubled as a round of IMSA's Camel GT Series and the FIA World Championship of Makes, with 51 cars starting.
A year later, for America's Bicentennial, the event had its single biggest year-on-year spike, with the field swelling by 21 cars, making a total of 72. That race not only featured traditional IMSA and FIA classes, but also a Grand International class for NASCAR Winston Cup entries. Members of the Allison and Pearson clans, Richard Childress, James Hylton, Buddy Baker and Hershel McGriff were among those driving the stock cars. The 72-car field stood as a record for a further seven years.
A 57-car field took the start in 1977, with either 67 or 69 rumbling past the green flag for the next five. Incidentally, the 67 starters in each of 1978, '79 and '80 is the longest stretch where the field size remained constant – three consecutive years! The 1980 entry also included an additional five cars that didn't start. Had they, it would have equaled 1976's record field.
A year later in '81, the organizers received an enormous 97 entries, of which 71 actually qualified, but only 69 started.