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.
One year on in 1982, 73 qualified, but again 69 took the start. Then, in '83, with GTP sports prototypes like the March 82G, the Lola T600 and the thunderous Nimrod-Aston Martins beginning to appear, 81 cars qualified and 79 took the start – a new record that would stand for…just one year.
In '84, a staggering 82 cars took the green flag, including 28 GTP cars (among them, a single Porsche 962 making its Daytona debut with Mario and Michael Andretti at the wheel). That remains the all-time record starting field and, aptly, it took the green flag on the longest ever track configuration – the one-year-only 3.87-mile layout that included a chicane on the back straight. In '85, with the International Horseshoe reconfigured, track length was pegged at the current 3.56 miles.
Fields of 76, 66, 69, 76 and 68 cars started between 1985 and '89. Into the '90s, and despite the increasing costs of an arms race among the factory prototype entries, coupled with sanctioning changes and global disruption in the form of the Persian Gulf crisis of '91, fields of 55, 46, 49 and 60 covered the span from 1990 to '93.
GTP prototypes had starred from the mid-'80s through to '93, before open-top prototypes began to populate the race's top class in various guises for the next decade. The 1994 running marked the new World Sports Car class debut, with eight such cars starting in a 62-car field.
As more and more open-top prototypes – WSC, then Can-Am, and then SportsRacer Prototype (SRP) as the decade passed into the 2000s – were built and raced, so the field sizes began to grow again with the continued support of the GT ranks. No year between 1995 and 2002 featured less than 73 starters.
Interest peaked in the race in 1997 (RIGHT), when 101 cars were entered and 80 took the green flag. That field stands second only to 1984's 82 cars, and is a record on the 3.56-mile course.
Broken down, for an 80-car field, the 3.56 miles equates to one car per 234.96ft of track. Given the varying speeds and performance levels of a typical sports car field, that's busy! As a comparison, the Indianapolis 500's traditional 33-car field was set based on an arbitrary ruling that the race could start one car for every 400ft of the 2.5-mile oval's length.
The current Daytona Prototypes were first introduced in 2003. As teams scrambled to build and field the all-new, closed-cockpit DPs, 44 cars started the '03 race, rising to 53 a year later and 62 in '05, including 29 DPs (up from just six in '03).
When the global economy sneezes, they say international motorsports catches a cold, but the Rolex 24 at Daytona is punching back at the current economic crisis that kicked in seriously in the second half of '08 (and isn't quite done yet…) by providing the closest, most intense competition seen in a half-century of endurance racing at the track. While 66 starters began in 2008, the realities of recession capped it at 49 DPs and GTs in 2009, followed by an ultra-competitive 44 and 48 the last two years.
Currently, the signs are strong that the number will easily top 50 for the 50th Anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona, with the third generation DP slated for its debut and a strong number of new cars premiering in GT. And one thing is guaranteed: the racing among the DPs and the GTs is going to be intense, with the winners unlikely to be decided until the final laps.
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