Of course, Daytona has evolved over the years, with better lighting and better reliability from the cars. As a result, says Haywood, the challenge has shifted from simply surviving to going all out for the whole 24 hours.
“The track itself has changed for the better,” he says. “It used to be completely black, other than the lights from the campers and backfires from the cars. You had to rely on your headlights. Now, you can pretty much drive around with no headlights at all – well, you could if you had to. Add in how reliable the cars are now and that's why the racing is so much more intense today. Nobody wants to watch a car win a race by a lap – they want it to win by inches.”
When Haywood won his first two 24-hour races at Daytona, it was with only one co-driver, the late Peter Gregg, sharing the load. The number increased to three drivers in '77 and '79, and hit five in '91. In hindsight, doing a full 24-hour distance with only two drivers was nothing short of staggering…and slightly baffling.
“Back then, the cars weren't quite as physical to drive,” he says. “Still, when I look back, I don't know how we did it! You hardly got any sleep. You had to always be in the pits in case you were needed in a hurry and, if your co-driver didn't feel well or whatever, you had to be up, alert and ready.
“Now, four or five guys share the driving and you have a squad of doctors, dieticians and cooks to keep them all on top of their game. It might look as though the new generation of drivers are super spoiled, but the cars are much more difficult to drive. We used to win those races by several laps, by 30 or 40 miles sometimes. The race complexity and the intensity of it all has changed dramatically.”
The 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona was supposed to be his last but didn't turn out that way. One year later, he was back behind the wheel, business as usual, when Brumos returned to its roots with a Porsche GT3 Cup car. But even that might not be Haywood's curtain call in an event that defines him as a driver and provides an ongoing theme in his long and storied career, and one has to wonder if he could ever close the door on competing there completely.
“Will I be back?” he muses. “I'll leave it open. First and foremost, I never want to be a drag on the performance of the team. I drove this year and was fine, but sometime there's a point when you have to draw a line in the sand. I'd say there's a 50-50 chance I'd do one more stint, for the heck of it, but I'm not going to do it if I'm not up to speed.”
If Haywood does decide that 2011 was his last shot at taking on time and the high banks, you can be sure that he'll still be there at the track and around the Brumos Porsche team that's been a big part of so much of his success there.
For him, it's not just the racing itself that sets Daytona apart, it's also the unique atmosphere that surrounds it. On race morning, before it all explodes into life and dozens of cars and hundreds of drivers and team members hit the high revs for 24 grueling, non-stop hours, he loves the feeling of serenity and quiet anticipation – the calm before the storm, if you will.
“I love getting to Daytona before anyone wakes up, early in the morning just as the sun comes up,” he says. “It's dead quiet, with only pigeons and seagulls for company, and the mist rising off the grass and the lake. It's a cool time of the morning to be there.
“Then, all of a sudden, the switch flips. Bam! It's wall-to-wall people and madness and noise and there's no letting up on the intensity for a whole day.
More than four decades on from his Daytona debut, Haywood still recalls the emotions he felt when he entered the massive speedway and then drove on its high banks for the first time.
“I remember driving through the tunnel into the infield and popping up on the other side thinking it's exciting and scary at the same time,” he says. “The first time through the banking was really cool, too – you don't forget it in a hurry. It's one of those places where I've had so much success, I still love going there. Yeah, Daytona for me is a magical place.”
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