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 fraught, but successful Daytona debut for TWR Jaguar in 1988.
Jag wins the hard way
The story begins with the nose section of an IMSA GTP sports prototype racecar being rushed across Central Park on a horse-drawn carriage and ends with half a race team asleep at a restaurant table...
The tale of the TWR Jaguar squad's debut victory in 1988's Rolex 24 at Daytona is one of success in the face of adversity. Few remember that TWR, Inc., the late Tom Walkinshaw's North American operation, didn't even exist four months before the race, and that no way was the new Jaguar XJR-9 expected to beat the hordes of Porsche 962s.
Just six months after its Daytona triumph, Jaguar's win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the achievement most sports car fans probably remember from '88, coming as it did some 31 years after its last triumph at the French classic. Yet it's the marque's first 24-hour triumph with one of its V12-engine prototypes that's etched in the minds of many of TWR's alumni. That includes team stalwarts Martin Brundle and John Nielsen, who anchored the '88 Daytona triumph, and long-serving TWR, Inc. boss Tony Dowe.
For Brundle, that year's Daytona was “the hardest race of my career,” while Dowe calls the four months leading up to Daytona as the “toughest 16 weeks of my life.”
Dowe had to start from scratch when he signed on with Walkinshaw on Oct. 1, 1987 after TWR had been chosen to take over from Bob Tullius' Group 44 squad as Jaguar's representative in IMSA's GTP class. There were any number of bumps along the way, beginning with the launch of the program in New York's Central Park in mid-October. Unfortunately, the first of the new XJR-9s arrived in the U.S. without a nose.
“Somehow the nose had been left on the runway in England,” explains Dowe. “I managed to get it flown over to New York and bribed a union guy to drive it to our downtown hotel strapped to top of his old station wagon. The easiest way I could find to get it to the launch in the park was to rent one of those carriages the tourists ride on.”
There was time for a test program, which included a run at Talladega Speedway to replicate the forces the cars would encounter on the steep banking of the Daytona International Speedway. Even so, new parts were still arriving from Britain after the team set up camp in Daytona for race week.
The three-car “Big Cat” squad was by no stretch of the imagination among the favorites going into Daytona. Don't forget that at this stage of the TWR program, a Jag had finished no better than fifth at Le Mans, and at Daytona the car was ranged against a battle fleet of eight Porsche 962s, a design that that already had a hat-trick of Daytona victories to its name.
The IMSA-spec XJR-9 wasn't quite a match for the Porsche on pace at Daytona, even if Jan Lammers did qualify on the front row with the No. 61 machine. Worse still, it didn't look like it had the reliability to race twice around the clock, either.
Sure enough, the Lammers car (shared with Davy Jones and Danny Sullivan) went out with engine failure with 512 laps in the books, while the No. 66 XJR-9 driven by Eddie Cheever, John Watson and Johnny Dumfries dropped a valve at dawn on Sunday and, running at reduced pace, ended up a distant third at the checker.
Earlier in the race, it had looked like the No. 60 Jag that Brundle and Nielsen shared with Raul Boesel would be the first of the trio to succumb when it lost time with an electrical glitch that fried the fuel pump. The five-minute stop to replace it “dropped us a long way back,” remembers Brundle. But a relentless comeback drive hauled the Jaguar onto the lead lap on Sunday morning.
“We drove it flat out all the way,” says Brundle. “I remember coming up to a gaggle of cars tripping over themselves on the banking and thinking there was no way I getting out of the throttle. I dived down onto the apron and went past them all. It was pure lunacy.”
It was all the more crazy because Brundle and Nielsen were now doing all the driving. Brundle was literally out on his feet at the end.
“I jumped out of the car, strapped the next guy in, told him what the car was doing and stood back,” he explains. “It was only then that I realized that I'd just put Jan [Lammers] in the car.
“I found Tom and started to scream at him. I told him that we had got it that far and could make to the end. He let me have my rant and then told me it was his team and he'd do what he liked. As I spun around and walked off, I collapsed in a heap."
The winning Jaguar finally got to the front in the penultimate hour. Nielsen had been chasing Bob Wollek and then Mauro Baldi in the BFGoodrich-sponsored Jim Busby car. Baldi lost it in the infield – during a pace car interlude, bizarrely – and the resulting repairs allowed Brundle, Nielsen, Boesel and Lammers to claim a first 24-hour victory for a TWR Jaguar prototype.
In his understated way, Brundle describes the race as a “bit of an ordeal,” though it didn't end with the checkered flag.
“Sir John Egan [then boss of Jaguar] insisted that we went out to dinner to celebrate,” he recalls. “I was completely out of it until I had a couple of mouthfuls of what must be the best steak ever.”
Dowe was beyond saving, however. “I'd worked 18-hour days for four months,” he says. “At the restaurant, I just fell asleep in my food.”
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