The 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan. 28-29, marks a half-century of sports car racing on the high banks and twisting infield of Daytona International Speedway. 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 50 years of a 'round-the-clock classic. We're kicking things off with the Rolex 24 at Daytona's most successful driver, Hurley Haywood...
DAYTONA'S MAGIC ENDURES FOR FIVE-TIME WINNER
When it comes to defining the essence and the challenge of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, few have the insight and experience of Hurley Haywood, the Floridian racing veteran with a record-setting five victories in the 'round-the-clock sports car classic on his résumé.
Haywood made his Daytona debut in 1969 and earned his first win four years later, sharing a Porsche Carrera RSR with Peter Gregg. After that, he made a habit of winning in odd-numbered years, racking up victories number two, three and four in '75, '77 and '79, but would have to wait another dozen years before taking a fifth win in 1991.
He acknowledges that every win has special qualities, but that first one in 1973 (BELOW; all photos by LAT archive) stands out not only for how unexpected it was, but also because of where it took him going forward in his career.
“Our car was entered by Brumos Porsche, and Roger Penske's sister car had Mark Donohue and George Follmer at the wheel,” recalls Haywood. “With a bunch of prototypes from Mirage and Matra heading the field, we never dreamed we could win overall, but things just worked out that way. The prototypes all ran into problems and Penske's Porsche retired, so Gregg and I ended up winning by more than 20 laps.
“I guess people thought it was a fluke, but we backed it up with a win at the 12 Hours of Sebring and that sort of propelled me into the international limelight.”
The 1977 win was particularly special as Haywood did a mammoth eight-hour shift at night! In modern sports car racing, such feats of endurance are no longer allowed, but Haywood just viewed it as the task at hand for that particular 24-hour race.
“My co-drivers didn't like driving at night,” he deadpans...
Haywood has also scored three overall victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1977, '83, '94), so invariably the question arises: which is more difficult to win? Based on the length of the Floridian night in January and the degree of difficulty imposed by a larger starting field on a shorter track, Haywood says Daytona.
“Compared with Le Mans in the middle of June, where the only true darkness is for five or six hours, Daytona has a lot of night-time activity,” he says. “Also, the Daytona banking puts tremendous forces on the car, and there are huge differences in speed and in driver capabilities to contend with, too. Le Mans has stricter regulations, whereas Daytona is more open and has bigger fields. Some years, there's been more than 70 cars out there, whereas Le Mans capped it at 55 starters. With much more traffic, the speed differentials and a smaller track, there are more unknowns at Daytona.”
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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