Among its many superlatives, the U.S. can boast the highest population of retired folks and the largest number of fast automobiles in the world. Nowhere are these opposites of the American character more obvious than in Daytona Beach, Fla., a verdant seaside town of 50,000 where speed and senility coexist, windswept cheek by withered jowl. For most of the year Daytona is the essence of senior citizenship: the aged dine frugally in clean, well-lighted restaurants; they doze fitfully in the auction-and-bingo parlors along Seabreeze Boulevard; they toss bread to the soaring gulls on the beaches or merely contemplate the zinnias outside the venerable Princess Issena Hotel. Daytona talks in a whisper. Then, like a sudden shout, come Speedweeks.
Last week the young in their gleaming sports cars descended on Daytona and the snaky 3.81-mile Daytona International Speedway, site of the first big road race of the year, The 24 Hours of Daytona. In the flash of a spark plug, the town was transformed. Quiet avenues echoed to the vroom-vroom of lightly muffled engines—Lancias and Ferraris, Mustangs and Camaros, Cobras and Corvettes. There were sunburns and sideburns and lovely girls in falls and pants suits. There were the racers: the Ford GT-40s, the Lola-Chevys and the lean, long-tailed Porsche 908s. They had come to Daytona to renew their rivalry for the world manufacturers' championship, a seven-month, 10-race battle of speed and reliability that begins at Daytona and ends in Austria in August. Last year, after Porsche opened the series with a 1-2-3 sweep at Daytona, Ford came back to win both Le Mans and the championship by a narrow margin, 45 points to 42. This year there would be other contenders as well: the new, royal-blue Lolas with their husky five-liter Chevrolet engines, a china-blue-and-green Matra financed by the French government, and possibly a team of Ferraris returning after a year's absence from the circuit with a new three-liter prototype. (Unfortunately for the gate at Daytona—only 20,000 spectators turned up—Enzo Ferrari was unable to get his new cars to the first race, but they were promised for next month's 12-hour event at Sebring.)
To the considerable astonishment of Daytona's mod visitors and senior citizens alike, the Porsches perished, the Fords folded and the fast but historically fragile Lolas came out on top. America's Mark Donohue and his emergency co-driver, Chuck Parsons, were in the winning car. Implausibly in second place was a trouble-prone Lola entered by the film actor, Jim Garner.
As in most European-type road races, there was nearly as much thunder in the preparation for the race as in the event itself. Early in the week the hardware began arriving, the owners' trailers encamping on the grassy infield like the medieval pavilions of the joust. Trailers and cars displayed the contemporary equivalents of a great lady's favor: signs endorsing the virtues of Goodyear or Firestone tires, Pure or Sunoco gasoline, Bosch or Champion spark plugs. In the garages the mechanics tinkered like armorers while the drivers lolled in their modern suits of mail, woven of space-age, fireproof Beta yarn, carrying plastic helmets duded up with national banners.
February 10, 1969
After the hardware and the mechanics and the drivers came the camp followers: chicks in tight pants and cutout mini-dresses, guys in leather cowboy hats and shades. The scene would have warmed the heart of Marshall McLuhan, for a road race is the epitome of a nonlinear event. Sounds clashed with images in mind-bending discontinuity—the fighter-plane whine of the Porsches punctuated by the gutturals of Camaros and Sting Rays as the cars practiced; the public-address system muttering in total un-intelligibility over the din.
In the pits the tone of each camp quickly became clear. Toward the head of the pit area stood the two Ford GT-40s entered by JW Automotive Engineering Ltd. of London. JW stands for John Wyer, the gaunt, laconic English engineer who once directed the Aston Martin racing teams and now has cast his lot with Ford. After an FIA rule change in 1967 eliminated Ford's big Mark IV cars from world manufacturers' contention, Wyer fell back on his own (and Gulf Oil's) resources. Low-slung and discreet in sky-blue and orange, his cars would be driven by some of Europe's best young drivers.
In No. 1 were Belgium's Jackie Ickx and Britain's Jack Oliver. Ickx, 24 and the son of a Belgian motor sportswriter, is an unlikely sight on the circuit. He is small, slim and has an alabaster complexion that would better suit a Camay commercial than a Ford ad. He shakes his black ringlets with soft-spoken elusiveness when asked about the speed of his car. "Is quick enough," he says, then looks around vaguely and continues, "This is lovely country you got here." Despite his appearance, Ickx is quite a driver. Last year, his first on the trying Formula I circuit, he placed fourth in such company as Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Denis Hulme. Oliver, a tough-talking veteran of Formula II and Formula I campaigns, was driving for the first time at Daytona in the heavier sports cars.
Down the line stood the broad-shouldered, steep-sterned Lolas, two of them entered by Garner's American International Racing Company, one by Sports-car Unlimited of Switzerland and a fourth by ex-Driver Roger Penske. His car was clearly the favorite among the Lolas, and Roger had wrapped both it and himself in an air of mystery. He showed up at midweek, perhaps arriving late in an attempt to psych the other teams, and stood around not saying much but looking dapper in a turtleneck sweater, his close-cropped black hair grizzled with gentility about the temples, while Driver Donohue qualified the car in record-breaking time (121.704 mph, bettering Ickx's qualifying mark—set last year—by more than two mph). Penske's second driver, Californian Ronnie Bucknum, was unable to compete; he had broken his right index finger in a fall from a motorcycle. Enter Chuck Parsons.
If the Lolas were just about the quickest of the challengers, the French Matra was the prettiest. Slimmer even than the Porsches and graced with a throaty Gallic voice—Edith Piaf in chromed steel—it lanced around the circuit with a panache that spelled speed, if only the car could endure. "Kvick it iss," said Porsche Driver Rolf Stommelen, "but it cannot last." Driven by French Driver "Johnny" Servoz-Gavin, a hawk-nosed veteran who favors a Prince Valiant hairdo and a sinuous girl friend, the Matra performed briefly but impressively. Then, in its first night practice, the second driver, bearded Henri Pescarolo, slipped into a ruinous shimmy at high speed, flipped the car onto its blue-and-green bonnet and was run over by a Porsche 911. Pescarolo emerged from the wreck with minor bruises, but the Matra was totaled. Next morning at breakfast the Matra team was as sad a group of beautiful people as could be found in the Americas. Pouf! Two hundred thousand new francs down the Seine.
There were small, tight grins in the Porsche pits, whose five entries differed from last year's early Porsches only in their larger engines (up from 2.2 liters to three) and in their more sophisticated airfoils, or spoilers, added to hold the cars steady while cornering at speed. Everyone believed the Porsches could last and, when England's Vic Elford won the pole at 122.246 mph, it seemed that they were the "kvickest" as well.
As the 63 starters rolled away on Saturday afternoon, the 20-yard-long Porsche pit gleamed with surgically clean tools. Down the pit wall little could be seen of the Penske team in its modest, tarp-enclosed area. The start was as reverberant as any at Indy—the Porsches moving out ahead except for a brief but prophetic surge into the lead by Jo Bonnier's Swiss Lola-Chevy after 18 laps.
By sunset it looked like a Porsche blitzkrieg. Penske's No. 6 Lola was having serious fuel pickup problems and, with only 20 gallons of its 37-gallon-tank capacity available at each pit stop, was having to pull in every 40 to 45 minutes. The Fords, possibly lying back deliberately to ease the strain on their engines, were in the second flight of cars.
Under the setting sun—which looked like a giant ad for Minute Maid—fires glowed in the infield as fans prepared their dinners. The smoke drifted to the high east bank of the track, confusing inexperienced drivers and lending an oddly barbaric tone to the race.
And as the sun went down more trouble began. An Alfa Romeo crashed and went up in flames. Bonnier's Lola creamed the wall. The mighty Porsches began leaking exhaust fumes into their closed cockpits and the drivers pulled into the pits nearly asphyxiated, clutching their throats, their tongues protruding as they gasped for air.
Viewing the Porsches in jeopardy, John Wyer sipped tea laced with brandy in his homey Ford GT-40 pit. By one o'clock Sunday morning he was able to light up a confident cigar, for his Fords were running 1-2. Though Porsche had done some fast patching on the exhaust menace, two of the 908s had broken down and another was soon to go.
Under his tarp Penske was suffering in silence. His Lola had a cracked exhaust pipe requiring welding, a desperately hasty job that still took an hour and 19 minutes. Pro that he is—owner of last season's top Trans-American and U.S. Road Racing Championship cars—Penske conceded himself a gambler's chance to win it all. "I told my boys there were 15 hours left," he said later, "and that if we could get the car fixed we'd still be in there." Back on the track in the Florida night, No. 6 streamed a brilliant blue-white exhaust.
And then the race came back to Roger. Of the two remaining Porsches, one blew its engine at 5:40 a.m. Snip-cut went the GT-40s—Jackie Ickx's into the wall and David Hobbs's out with a cracked cylinder head. Which left the No. 53 Porsche of Gerhard Mitter an insurmountable 50 laps ahead of the Penske Lola. As Sunday's sun arched up in the sky, that last obstacle between Penske and glorious upset fell. It was an intermediate shaft in the Porsche, "a little part between the camshaft and the crankshaft," in Team Manager Rico Steinemann's words, which blew.
When Chuck Parsons wheeled the big Lola under the checkered flag—he and Donohue having driven 2,383.75 miles at 99.268 mph—Penske permitted himself a small grin. Likewise Donohue, who is called "Mr. Clean" for his gentlemanly and efficient racing approach.
He and Parsons had cleaned up $15,000 for their 24-hour journey, Penske had cleaned the clocks of the teams that couldn't be beat, and all the visitors had struck a blow at bingo.