At 6:12 p.m. last Saturday, two hours and 42 minutes after the start of the Sun-Bank 24 Hours of Daytona, the moon rolled over into Gemini. Any astrologer worth his chart can tell you what happens then. Gemini is the sign that's ruled by the planet Mercury, which, well, next time your car won't start, blame Mercury.
Fifty-five of the world's fastest and most expensive sports cars started the race. But when the moon made its move, mysterious malfunctions developed, and by the end of the race, a night and most of a day later, no cars had been spared. And that includes the first-and second-place finishers, a pair of Jaguar XJR-12s whose six drivers had to sweat out overheating engines under the midday sun a few hours before the finish.
When it was over, though, the two Jaguars had avoided the worst of the planetary ill will and outlasted the other 11 cars—eight Porsche 962s and three Nissans—in the prototype field. The winning Jag, which averaged a race-record 112.857 mph over 761 laps, was driven by Davy Jones of Cortland, N.Y., Jan Lammers of the Netherlands and veteran Andy Wallace of England. The runner-up was equally international. Its drivers were Price Cobb of Evergreen, Colo., Martin Brundle of England and John Nielsen of Denmark. The Jaguar team is owned by Scotland's Tom Walkinshaw, but it's based in Valparaiso, Ind., a town so corn-fed it sprouted Orville Redenbacher.
Many of the contenders began fading even before the sun did. Foremost among them was the Porsche shared by Bob Wollek, Sarel van der Merwe and Dominic Dobson. Wollek, a former French downhill ski racer and a defending Daytona champion, had put his machine on the pole with a record-setting qualifying speed of 131 mph around the 3.56-mile, 11-turn course. One hour into the race he had built a narrow lead before being relieved by van der Merwe, who eight laps later whapped a slow-moving Camaro while passing on the twisty infield portion of the course. The rear wing on the Porsche was damaged, costing the car three laps while repairs were made. The next heavyweight to fall was the Porsche entered by the West German Joest Racing team, which had qualified fourth. After dropping out temporarily with a broken suspension while leading in the early going, the car fell by the wayside for good after completing 145 laps.
February 12, 1990
Despite the big moon hanging over the track, a less cosmic explanation for the breakdowns came from Englishman Derek Bell, a three-time winner of this race and a five-time Le Mans champion. Bell blamed the attrition on the sun—both its glare and the 85° heat it generated. But Bell was slated to be moonstruck. At about 9:20 p.m., he found himself eerily floating along upside down in the darkness at 180 mph.
He had come off Turn 4 of the banking when something on the right rear side of his Porsche's suspension collapsed. "The car came down on its roof and slid along and along and along," said Bell. "I'm terrified of fire, and I felt fuel spilling on me, so I switched on the fire extinguisher. When the car finally stopped sliding, I realized the engine was running, so I shut it off. But between the chemicals from the fire bottle and the fuel fumes, I almost passed out. It felt like a bad dream. I could hear cars racing by me but no one coming for me. When the rescue workers came, I heard their voices, and I realized it was no dream." Stuck in his seat, Bell was yanked out by the emergency crew, badly shaken but unscathed except for a fat lip and sore neck.
By midnight two screaming V-12 Jaguars and one whistling turbocharged Nissan V-6 were setting the pace. But it was the big cats, those nocturnal creatures, that seized the day in the dark. "At night, you have the biggest problem of going around a slow car and then finding the racetrack again," said Lammers before the race. "It's the slow cars that endanger you. Literally, dark horses show up every now and then." That said, Lammers went out in the night and broke the single-lap record by a remarkable three miles per hour with a time of 129.985 mph.
When daybreak arrived, the duplicate Jags—Gemini, the twins—were two laps apart and the last of the Nissans had parked for good. The nearest Porsche was 17 laps—60.52 miles—behind the leader. That was the Wollekvan der Merwe-Dobson car, which had run away from the other 962s largely because of Wollek's never-say-lift attempt to get back into contention.
What made the Jaguars' lead all the more astounding was that Walkinshaw had planned a conservative race. His cars had qualified only ninth and 10th, their crews not even bothering to fit them with special soft qualifying tires. The tires would have made them faster, but the short-lived "gumballs" would have complicated the mechanics' work because they would have required that the suspension setups be changed again before the race.
Actually the Jaguar men had little choice but to plan a conservative race. The Jags were down on power to their prototype class competition, although the tractable V-12 engines made them quicker on the infield part of the course, and easier to drive. Said Jones, shortly before climbing into his car for his final hitch, "We knew we weren't going to win this race on speed. If we win, it will be on preparation and teamwork—in the pits."
By contrast the Nissan ace, IMSA champion Geoff Brabham, winner of nine races in 1989, had announced that his two-car team intended to treat the 24 Hours of Daytona as a sprint. "We're going to come out with our guns blazing and see who's left at the end," he said. He did, and it wasn't Brabham; both of his Nissans were out of the race by 2 a.m. The third Nissan, entered by Jim Busby, the owner of last year's winning car, and driven by Kevin Cogan, John Paul Jr. and Mauro Baldi, lasted until 5:45 a.m. before its exotic engine also expired.
When both Jaguars began overheating around noon on Sunday, Walkinshaw ordered a slower pace. Even so, the winning car was six laps ahead of the third-place Wollek & Co. Porsche, while the second-place Jag held a two-lap cushion. "I'd say the race went about as we expected," said Walkinshaw. "Except we thought it would take about 16 hours for the other cars to wear down and for the ebb and flow to turn our way. I don't think I've ever seen so many good cars falter all at once."
One might say that under a Gemini moon, Jaguars eclipsed the field.