MILES: "FAST ENOUGH TO WIN, SLOW ENOUGH TO FINISH"
For more than a decade the heavyweight champion of sports-car racing has been the Ferrari of Italy. Perennial winner of France's 24-hour race at Le Mans—an event rivaled in world stature only by the Indianapolis 500—the Ferrari stands for all that is swift, virile and enduring in auto racing. Needless to say, the manufacturer who beats Ferrari can claim no little speed of his own, and the manufacturer who covets that distinction most ardently is Henry Ford II. This is the showdown year between Ford and his Italian antagonist. It began brilliantly for the American last weekend as the latest Ford racing cars, the Mark IIs, swept the first three places in the new 24-hour race at Daytona Beach, Fla. It remains to be seen whether Ford can repeat that triumph in next month's Sebring 12 Hours and—most important—at Le Mans in June, when Ferrari will roll out his most sophisticated racers of the year. But for Ford, Daytona was a very sweet opener.
The weather may have been arctic and the crowd but a fraction of the 300,000 that annually converges on Le Mans but, ah, the field of cars! There were no fewer than nine Fords and 12 Ferraris; there was a new and exceedingly fast, though fragile, Chaparral from the stable of that inventive Texan, Jim Hall; and among the middleweights and lightweights to fill out the roster of 60 cars there were rapid new models from Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Sunbeam, Triumph and MG. To drive them were assembled at Daytona most of the world's best drivers.
What Daytona lacked was tradition, and no wonder. Le Mans, first run in 1923, took 10 years to get rolling. The 12-hour race at Sebring will be 15 years old. Bill France, the president of Daytona's speedway and founder of the stock-car racing organization NASCAR, gave Daytona the 24 hours between Saturday and Sunday afternoons to make some instant Le Mans-style history. He set himself a considerable task, because a 24-hour sports-car race on the Daytona track did not fill an aching need either of the drivers or of the audience closest to the proceedings. Daytona is stock-car country. The Daytona 500 for stock cars later this month will have the speedway's 44,000 seats filled and the community of Daytona Beach in a perfect uproar.
Last weekend the presence of a million dollars' worth of sports cars and all but a few of the great international drivers left Daytona unmoved. Up and down the 23 miles of Daytona's raunchy strip of motels there were neon vacancy signs and additional signs that did not say, WELCOME, WORLD'S BEST SPORTS CAR DRIVERS but instead said: WELCOME, DALE AND ROY ROGERS, HI, ROY AND DALE, SING ALONG WITH HARRY SKAN, COMING SOON HYPNOTIST ROBERT STAR and, in one case, CONGRATULATIONS, RUSS BEEKMAN. Who Russ Beekman may be and what he did have not been determined to date.
As for the world's best drivers, who deplore endurance races as energetically as they struggle to win them, they were in loud and almost unanimous voice at Daytona. "I find it a ridiculous form of racing," Joakim Bonnier of Sweden and Switzerland said on Thursday, with an air of mingled gloom and outrage. "It doesn't prove a thing. It has nothing to do with motor racing, really. Le Mans is bad enough, but at least it's a sort of four-minute lap or a three-and-three-quarter-minute lap, not a two-minute lap, and Le Mans is an institution. Here it is just a question of car reliability."
Bonnier was driving that cynosure of all eyes, Jim Hall's new Chaparral II, with the veteran Grand Prix driver and triple Le Mans and Sebring winner Phil Hill. Hill temperately agreed with Bonnier when asked what 24 hours on the Daytona track would prove, and summed it up: "It proves that a car will last 24 hours. Or it won't."
What Bonnier and Hill ultimately proved was that the Chaparral needs more testing. Beset by new-car bugs, it retired on the 318th lap after leading on only one lap—the first. However, don't write off the Chaparral—when it was functioning it appeared capable of out-running most of the cars on the track.
On Friday, the day before the race, the world's finest went about preparing to risk their lives with an appealing lack of panache. Chaparral's Hill and Bonnier qualified second with a fastest lap of 116.237 mph, and then sat around in a Chevy, Hill reading a newspaper, Bonnier staring out the window. Pedro Rodriguez of Mexico boiled around the track in a 365 Ferrari prototype for the fourth-fastest time and came back to the pits to sit on his father's lap and discuss the whole thing with him in rapid Spanish.
The fastest qualifier, Ken Miles, who drove a record 116.434-mph lap in one of the factory seven-liter Ford Mark IIs managed by Carroll Shelby, stalked about in a worn, hooded, camel-colored coat. At 47, Miles has the narrow build of a boy, a bony, long-nosed face and an expression of continuous, unexplained manic glee. Peering out of the hood of the camel coat he looked like a disreputable monk in racing shoes. He and Lloyd Ruby, his co-driver last weekend, won the fourth Daytona Continental last year (when it was a 2,000-kilometer race) in an earlier Ford. An engineer, Miles has lived for 15 years now in Hollywood, but he was born in Sutton Coldfield, England, where he started with motorcycles and drag racing in his youth. "Drag racing in England isn't much of a sport," he observed, perched on a stack of tires in the Ford garage, struggling to make himself heard above the clangor. "Just something you do when there isn't anything better to do—just something to tide you over the bad weather."