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 and, in the coming weeks, we'll be 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, it's…
The 24 Hour Races That Weren't…
In 1962, Bill France brought international sports car racing to Daytona International Speedway. For the first two years, the event ran to a three-hour format, followed by a pair of 2,000km (1,243 miles) races in '64 and '65. But for 1966, inspired by the event's popularity and wanting to create an endurance classic to rival Le Mans and Sebring, France made it a 24-hour race.
Since then, it's always been a twice-'round-the-dial marathon, right? Well, no actually. Here's the story of the two Daytona 24-hour races that…weren't.
1972: 24 Becomes Six
After switching to its 24-hour format, Daytona quickly grew to become the opening leg of an unofficial, but highly prized triple crown of endurance racing, along with the 12 Hours of Sebring and the granddaddy of them all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And like Sebring and Le Mans, it was also a round of the World Sports Car Championship, sanctioned by the international governing body of racing, the FIA.
For 1972, the FIA had switched from the five-liter formula, which had been the epic stage for such amazing machinery as the Porsche 917, Ford GT40 and Ferrari 512 (RIGHT), and adopted a three-liter set of rules based on Formula 1 engines, the logic being that manufacturers involved in F1 could easily add a sports car racing program to their roster.
However, concerned that the new breed of high-revving, highly stressed motors wouldn't have the reliability to make the jump from a couple hours of grand prix racing to a full day of sports car competition, the FIA limited every race except Le Mans to six hours.
It wasn't a move that Bill France was particularly happy with, but he went along with it, feeling that the loss of the big Porsches and Ferraris might be offset by a shorter, sharper race format that could perhaps still lure in the crowds. Still, France's promotional savvy meant he didn't want to lose the cachet of the 24 Hours of Daytona name altogether, so despite the main event being a quarter its usual duration, he contrived that its support races occurred over the remaining 18 hours.
By the time Daytona rolled around, there was still a healthy amount of manufacturer interest in sports car racing. Early February, three factory-entered V12-powered Ferrari 312PBs and three V8-powered Alfa Romeo TT33/3s built to the new three-liter rules arrived at the Florida track, along with a handful of other three-liter cars and a supporting cast of smaller capacity prototypes and GT and Touring class cars, which added up to a 55-car starting field. Although the race only lasted for six hours, it still provided plenty of interest and drama for a crowd still reported to be in excess of 26,000.
Co-driving with Jacky Ickx in one of the Ferraris, Mario Andretti had a fraught start to the race after first losing a cylinder, thanks to a dead spark plug and lead. The setback dropped the Ferrari down about 800-900rpm from its usual 11,000rpm max, and some 14mph in top speed.
Luck also deserted another of the works Ferraris when early race leader Clay Regazzoni had a deflating tire finally blow out just in front of Reine Wisell's three-liter Lola-Ford T280. The explosion launched the rear bodywork off the Ferrari, narrowly missing Wisell, who had been closing in on the limping machine. Wisell avoided injury from the impact, but the debris destroyed the Lola front end right after he took the race lead.
In the closing stages, the Ickx/Andretti Ferrari, now with Ickx behind the wheel, passed the third Ferrari driven by Tim Schenken (sharing with Ronnie Peterson) as Schenken's clutch began to glitch. That move confirmed the win for Andretti and Ickx (No. 2, RIGHT), even though a scoring discrepancy beforehand said their Ferrari already had a two-lap lead.
So, six hours of drama and a pretty decent crowd. But France asked for – and received – permission to go back to a 24-hour race in 1973. That '73 event saw Hurley Haywood and Peter Gregg take their Brumos Porsche 911 Carrera RS to victory – the first of Haywood's record-setting five wins. But the duo would have to wait a while to defend their win. Two years, in fact, thanks to…
1974: The Zero Hours of Daytona
By the end of 1973, the OPEC-initiated oil embargo began to take its toll on international motor racing, if not threaten to cancel much of it altogether. Rallies across Europe were cut, fuel limitations enforced and certain events trimmed down.
Escalating gas prices and fuel shortages led to the initial cancellation of the 1974 24 Hours of Daytona but, as the OPEC nations eased their grip on supply and the crisis seemed to be lifting in the closing weeks of 1973, efforts started up to keep the race on the calendar.
Bill France was focused on guiding North American motorsports through the turbulence, and was applauded for his efforts in the Dec. 6, 1973 edition of Autosport magazine.
“A lot of boardroom work by ACCUS and, in particular, NASCAR's Bill France seems to have gone a long way toward putting American motorsport on a sound footing in the face of the energy crisis,” said the magazine's editorial. “The matter of banning motorsport came up in the U.S. Senate a few weeks ago and it seems that France was on hand with some timely figures relating to the fuel consumption by spectators attending sports and other entertainments in America.
“France was able to get the necessary figures into the hands of enough senators to at least stall any immediate efforts at banning motorsport.”
The 1972 numbers he presented to the politicians seemed to validate his argument: 2.3 million barrels of oil used for motor and horse racing in a single year (that's fans driving to events, not just fuel burned by the racers themselves, of course…), compared to 5.6 million barrels for basketball, 13.4 million for football, 17.8 million for drive-in movies and 128.9 million for family holidays.
Still, it was too late for the 24 Hours of Daytona to take its usual early February slot and the race was tentatively postponed until July, rather than outright canceled, and perhaps running as a 12-hour race.
However, the biggest hurdle to overcome was getting FIA approval for the date change. Traditionally, the next year's dates are approved toward the end of the prior year – in this case, confirmation of the 1974 24 Hours of Daytona took place in the fall of 1973, prior to the postponement. But, as 1974 progressed, it became increasingly unlikely that the FIA would allow a date change and, in the end, Daytona had a year off of sports car racing.
Its other banner event, NASCAR's Daytona 500, took place as planned, but was reduced by 50 miles to 450. An International Race of Champions event took place in February, too (with Mark Donohue victorious, ABOVE LEFT), leaving the 24-hour race the only casualty.
Thankfully, things were back to normal for the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1975 (when Gregg and Haywood would win again), and have continued uninterrupted at the twice-‘round-the-clock duration ever since.
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