Charles Dressing on Daytona’s magic
Once we raced Daytona’s roval backward. Every now and then, I stumble across a photo taken when Dwight Eisenhower was President, the year Aston Martin won Le Mans and Daytona’s sports cars went ‘round clockwise.
Those ancient Daytona photos have a peculiar quality. The cars look dated though the track, especially the banking, looked much like it does now. But the cars are headed the wrong way – like a negative printed in reverse. It seemed unnatural. That didn’t last long.
Sometimes such thoughts surface while standing on the roof at Daytona, enjoying the curvature of the earth and thumbing my nose at winter. The arrival of the Rolex 24 brings the same sort of happy relief that must have visited medieval people each December 22. The Rolex 24 is my Saturnalia; a genuine celebration of the end of winter’s persistent night and the return of Sol Invictus, the “contriver of light” The Roman poet Catullus called the Saturnalia celebration “the best of days”, (which it is, at least for me, standing on the roof at Daytona where I can almost see the Equinox just over the horizon).
While many of us see the 24 Hours of Daytona as the symbolic end of the relentless dark, Rolex 24 nights are still long and sometimes downright arctic. Daytona stays dark for more than 12 hours. Then there’s the dread of the unsettling “transition”; that evil mongrel slice of time between day and night. The “transition” that lingers at Le Mans falls hard at Daytona, but one still must drive into the sun setting on the west banking. Then it’s dark (and cold) for a long time.
That’s one of the harsh components that make the Rolex 24 the difficult, unyielding, uncompromising, unforgiving and glorious event it remains after a half-century for everyone involved. Starting the season with the biggest, most important race on the schedule sets the tone for the season. It worked for the FIA, IMSA, Grand-Am and drives home the point that what we’re doing is demanding and important.
Within 15 months Daytona and Sebring will again cozy up on the new NSNH (New Series Name Here) calendar. Sadly, they’re no longer World Championship races – the Rolex 24 and Sebring were on the FIA’s championship calendar during the Cold War (speaking of Ike) – but it’s good to have them together again. Now Mark Raffauf’s sage words can live again.
No one ever explained the difficulty of “the 36 Hours of Florida” better than Mark did a few years ago: “At Daytona you destroy your engine and transmission, then go to Sebring and kill the rest of your car.. And there you have it. Words from American sports car racing’s classic days when a pal of mine admitted that he would sometimes, when shooting pictures of the big prototypes working Daytona’s back straight, hold his breath (involuntarily) when the Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s slashed onto the east banking at speeds most of us associate with NHRA fuel cars or low flying multi-engine aircraft.
More than a few pals are having a hard time comprehending the reality that America’s round of the WEC in 2013 is now slated for a brand new hyper-modern 21st century facility that has history shallower than Facebook or Twitter.
Lately, I’ve been nagged by the notion that our World Championship races ought to be at Daytona and Sebring, or perhaps Watkins Glen: places with layers of history and heritage; courses that challenge people and their cars over long distances in, ahem, challenging conditions. After all, this is supposed to be endurance racing. Still, it’s easy to imagine international whining 60 years ago when the FIA’s World Sports Car Championship made its intergalactic debut at an airfield in remote – then – Highlands County, Fla., and was won by (horrors) an American car driven by two Americans.
Fast-forward to 2013 and one American sports car champ is in position to make further Daytona history by tying the extraordinary record of another. Scott Pruett owns four Rolex Daytona Cosmographs. Hurley Haywood won the first of his five Daytona 24 Hours 40 years ago – long before the free-Rolex tradition seized the imagination of the Daytona and Rolex marketing mavens.
The final Sunday afternoon in January could indeed see yet more Daytona history made. This certainly occurred to the folks at Daytona when they named Hurley as Grand Marshal of the 51st Rolex 24. Having Hurley present Scott with his fifth Rolex must be the sort of thing motorsport marketing and PR folks dream about.
Four decades ago Hurley and Peter Gregg followed up their Daytona 24 Hours win with victory in the 12 Hours of Sebring. That got everyone’s attention. “It gave me an international reputation,” said Haywood, years later.
No doubt. Big, long, difficult races are important to the people who make the cars, their systems and components. They’re important to the people who drive the cars and the talented folks who go without rest, comfort and sleep to tend and care for them. And for those brave souls in white who put themselves in harm’s way to keep the races on track and racers safe. We all keep careful count of our participation at places like Daytona and Sebring, placing them in our memories like precious keepsakes.
The trip from Daytona to Sebring is as right and natural as racing clockwise into the dark at Sebring and counterclockwise toward Sunday afternoon at Daytona. Later this month, when the familiar voice of Grand-Am’s new race director Paul Walter gives the command to wave green flag over the 51st Rolex 24, we’ll all be going the right way again.
Charles Dressing is one of sports car racing’s foremost historians and is a walking, talking encyclopedia on the sport. Part of the ALMS broadcast and production crew, his blog appears every other Wednesday.