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, Dyson Racing, seven drivers and a car that refuses to die win the 1997 Rolex 24.
Dyson finally pulls it off
Dyson Racing's No. 20 Riley & Scott Mk III-Ford started the 1997 Rolex 24 at Daytona as an afterthought, but finished the star turn when it ended the team's near-two decade quest for a first win in the Florida endurance classic. The fact that it took just about anybody and everybody in the Dyson pit who owned a driving suit to get it into victory lane – seven in total – just adds to the legend.
For 1997, team owner Rob Dyson had two Riley & Scott Mk III Ford V8s entered, but one looked on paper to have a much better chance of producing a win. The team's lead entry featured full-season championship challengers James Weaver and Butch Leitzinger, with Andy Wallace and John Paul Jr. joining for Daytona.
The second entry was more of a “have fun and see what happens” scenario, with Dyson set to be joined by Elliott Forbes-Robinson and John Schneider.
“How we ended up with Elliott and John Schneider was that Elliott said, ‘I'm putting together a deal to run Daytona, and want you to run the second car,'” Dyson recalls. “‘I've got John Schneider on board, and he wants to do the race.' I didn't know the guy. He was a good pair of hands, not a pro. Reliable, safe and progressive.”
As it turned out, they'd need it.
The relative tortoise to the No. 16 hare, Dyson's No. 20 notched up the laps, but fell behind its leading, sister car and the stunning Ferrari 333SPs fielded by both Andy Evans' Team Scandia and Gianpiero Moretti's MOMO Corse.
At seven hours, Moretti's bullet hit an oil leak that cost the team three laps, and later a fire destroyed the car's electronics. Not long afterward, Dyson's lead entry hit problems when the engine failed. Asked what triggered it, Leitzinger and Wallace both joke that things were fine until Weaver got in the car.
The strategy changed with Dyson's backup car now the only contender. Paul was already scheduled to switch from the No. 16 to the 20 after eight hours, and his co-drivers soon followed.
“Around midnight, leading, the (16's) engine blew to smithereens,” Leitzinger says. “That car had some problems, and JP had switched to the 20 car. Everyone thought it was over; the 16 was out, but JP said, ‘We could still win this.' And everyone else agreed. I thought, ‘I've only driven once.' I went over to (team manager) Pat (Smith) and asked, ‘Can I drive that car?'”
It was an optimistic assessment by Leitzinger, and one that took a moment to register for the rest of the team. But as Dyson recalls, with no rule against it, they figured they might as well go for it.
Almost immediately, the cars in front of them began dropping out like flies.
“I got in after JP,” Leitzinger continues. “Then all of us drove through the night. A few unfortunate things happened. The Scandia Ferrari had some sort of issues, and the MOMO Ferrari might have had gearbox problems. And then Wayne (Taylor) launched a motor really big on the straight.”
“Something happened to George Robinson's car, he fell out, too,” Dyson interjects. “All the other Rileys started falling by the wayside.”