With half an hour to go to the finish of last weekend's SunBank 24 hours of Daytona, Hurley Haywood sat in the sun behind the Joest Racing team pit and allowed himself, finally, to rest. "A few years ago, you could lay back and wait in a race like this and still win," said Haywood, who was minutes away from winning a record fifth Daytona 24-hour race. "Not anymore. There are so many good teams now, you have to run as hard as you can all the way."
Or almost all the way. Out on the track one of Haywood's codrivers, John Winter of Germany, was at last taking it easy on the white number 7 Joest Porsche 962C, nursing it—and a whopping, if hard-earned, 18-lap lead—through the closing minutes to the checkered flag. The victory was the 18th for Porsche in the 24-year history of the 24-hour race, and it was an eloquent reminder that, in endurance racing at least, experience can often count for more than cutting-edge technical firepower—more, too, than marquee drivers.
Going into Daytona, the first event of the 1991 International Motor Sports Association 14-race season, the various Porsche entries, despite their illustrious heritage, seemed decidedly outgunned. Arrayed against them were three powerful teams: two V-12 Jaguars, entered by Britain's Tom Walkinshaw, nearly identical to the cars that finished one-two in the 24 hours last year; Dan Gurney's Toyota Eagles, winners of four IMSA races in '90; and, most intriguingly, three Nissan R90Cs. These last racers, developed under European prototype specifications to be raced at Le Mans, were eligible at Daytona this year for the first time. Called Group C cars, they are lighter than the normal IMSA racer and more powerful because they can run with unrestricted turbocharging. "They are staggeringly fast down the straightaway," was the way one impressed Porsche driver, James Weaver of Dyson Racing, put it.
In a complicated effort to keep the race on the 10-turn, 3.56-mile Daytona road circuit even, IMSA slapped the Group C entries with a 2,600-liter (614.5-gallon) fuel limit as well as a rule requiring the cars to refuel at an excruciatingly slow one-liter-per-second rate.
For the average fan Daytona offered a much less subtle attraction: racing's two premier families—the Unsers and the Andrettis—dueling side by side in identical cars. This high-octane Family Feud (between clans that had accounted for eight Indy 500 wins and 10 Indy Car championships) was the idea of team owner Jochen Dauer, who's a rich German entrepreneur. Dauer fielded two brand-new Porsche 962Cs, a white one (number 0) driven by Al and Bobby Unser, along with their sons, Al Jr. and Robby; and a black one (number 00) piloted by Mario Andretti and his sons, Michael and Jeff. Dauer even had a Christmas card made up featuring the two families facing off in chariots, Ben Hur-style. Yet, for all the talk about just having fun, the Unsers and the Andrettis clearly took the race seriously. "Getting the family name in the record book is the incentive," said Mario.
Amid such distractions the Joest cars, a pair of year-old 962Cs, were far from the center of attention. But former sports car driver Reinhold Joest had assembled a team of well-seasoned, if lesser known, drivers. The number 7 car was driven by Haywood (who has two Le Mans victories to go with his four at Daytona), Winter (a 1985 Le Mans winner), Henri Pescarolo of France (four Le Mans titles) and Frank Jelinski of Germany (third at Le Mans in '88). Chief driver of the number 6 car was France's Bob Wollek, a three-time Daytona champ. At 47, the bespectacled Wollek was eager to show that he was still competitive in the big leagues.
Wollek got his chance in Thursday's qualifying session, held under a low, slategray sky and in a steady drizzle. The Nissans—ineligible by IMSA rules for the pole—turned in the fastest times, led by the car of last year's Indy 500 winner, Arie Luyendyk, in 1:49.864. Among the IMSA-specification cars, however, Wollek was fastest. His 1:50.870 gave him the third Daytona pole of his career.
The Unsers and Andrettis, meanwhile, had big problems. Their cars—held up in delivery because of the Persian Gulf crisis—had arrived from Germany too late for any development work. "We're not worried about the driving," said Bobby Unser with a shrug. "Just about getting enough time in the car." Still sorting things out during qualifying (as they would later in the race itself), the Andrettis wound up sixth, the Unsers ninth.
After hints of sun, a light rain began to fall across the Speedway just before the 46 starters set off with a howl at 3:30 Saturday afternoon. Despite the weather, the pace was swift from the start. By the four-hour mark, Nissans were running one-two (in a bit of big-bucks gamesmanship, the third Nissan started the race only to break in tires for the other two), a Jaguar with them. (The second Jaguar crashed in qualifying and did not start.) Wollek was in the same pack, often leading it, with the twin Joest car a lap behind. The Unsers held eighth, while the Andrettis, after an infield excursion by Mario to avoid a spinning car, were struggling 16 laps down.
Then, in the long, misty night, bad things began to happen. The Unser effort ended at 1:20 a.m., when Robby suddenly lost the use of his headlights just as he was about to come off the flat infield portion of the circuit and onto the 33-degree banking. Blind, he ran off the road, scattering pieces of the car's bodywork across the track and damaging the suspension. Forty minutes later the Jaguar disappeared in a cloud of steam, victim of a broken water pump. The Toyotas never were a factor, both retiring with engine failures. At 3:30, the Wollek car packed it in because of overheating problems. Wollek, still full of drive, switched to the other team car. "Those guys were tired," he said with a smile after his first stint behind the wheel of number 7. "They needed a young man to help them out."
In fact he had already helped, as he revealed later. The Joest strategy had been to run the number 6 car hard from the start—with number 7 hanging on—in an effort to break the Nissans and the Jag.
It worked. By 6 a.m., the number 7 Porsche had taken the lead, and the Nissans were darting in and out of the pits with a series of problems. But as dawn broke over the backstretch—bright, clear and mercifully dry—an unexpected challenge developed. Once as low as 33rd place, a full 17 laps behind, the Andretti car had climbed to within a lap of the lead. At 9:15, Michael screamed into first.
With just over six hours remaining, the stage seemed set for a classic dogfight, but it never materialized. The Andrettis' car lost fourth gear and could no longer keep up whenever it entered the high-speed parts of the track. Then at 10:28, when Mario brought the car in for a routine stop, it wouldn't restart. He spent an hour and a quarter in the pit, the crew working frantically to replace a shattered starter motor. The car went back out only to return again and again. In the final hour Mario was reduced to dueling for fourth place with a GTO-division Mustang driven by Robby Gordon. Gordon came out on top, and with 13 minutes to go, Mario parked the Porsche. "Overheating," read the official results sheet—perhaps describing the former world champion and not the car.
By that time the leading Joest Porsche was on cruise control, having left the remaining Nissan far behind. The only scare in the closing stages came with 20 minutes left. Monitoring the car from the pits by means of a computer telemetry system, the crew noted a "hot spot" on the left side of the engine, similar to the one that had led to its mate's overheating almost half a day earlier. Winter brought the number 7 in for an insurance stop, the crew sealed a small coolant leak, and out he went again.
In the Joest pit, Haywood shook hands with Wollek, then rested an arm on his teammate's shoulder: "Congratulations, and thanks," said Haywood, a 42-year-old Midwesterner who left a family-owned agricultural business to move to Florida and race cars. Wollek, looking quite youthful, smiled. Together, they joined Pescarolo, Jelinski and a crowd of grimy but beaming mechanics at the pit wall to watch the finish. By 3:30, number 7 had covered 719 laps (2,559.64 miles) at an average speed of 106.663 mph. The Nissan of Geoff Brabham, Chip Robinson and Derek Daly was second.
Said Haywood, "Every win I've had here—every big-distance win—has been in a Porsche. It's the best long-distance car in the world."
For another 24 hours, at least.