There were other, more subtle changes. Where last year the Porsche-works team lined up all its tires and wrenches and micrometers in perfect order this year the tools of the trade were heaped casually hither and yon. One grease monkey actually kicked a wrench out from under a Porsche tire as the car moved into the track, at which Molly Putz, the traditional German Hausfrau and order-lover, must have rolled over in her grave.
So there was the Wyer bunch: the new Porsches (three closed-cockpit 4.5-liter 917s) driven by competents like Vic Elford and Kurt Ahrens, Jo Siffert and Brian Redman, Finnish rallyist Leo Kinnunen and Mexico's Pedro Rodriguez. Pedro Rodriguez in a Porsche? Yes, speed freaks, the man who drove Ferraris for all those years had turned his coat, but he was the same cool, young-old Pedro who always told you, through the corners and the straights and the shunts, that he could do it.
The rain of qualifying day gave way to a bright, breezy race day with temperatures in the 40s, causing spectators to huddle deep within their gaudy jackets but pleasing the drivers immensely. There would be little of the near-suffocation in the cockpits that marked last year's Daytona, and the cool air was good for speed. Right off the green flag, which fell at 3 o'clock Saturday afternoon, it was clear that this would be a flat-out race—at least as far as the quick cars could last. Jo Siffert's Porsche jumped into the lead on the first lap, with Rodriguez and Andretti close on his pipes. The single Lola in the race—a red monster driven by George Eaton of Canada—was the first contender to fail. It smoked badly on the first seven laps and then retired.
As the sun sloped down toward the pine slashings west of the speedway, Siffert's Porsche blew a tire, which in turn tore up his brake mechanism. This cost a precious nine minutes in the pits and gave Rodriguez' Porsche the lead, which he held all through the night. Andretti still was in there, but as darkness fell it became clear that Mario's taillights weren't working. The race officials black-flagged him into the pits, and during a quick stop the fault was remedied.
The blazing pace continued through the night. At the 200-lap mark, nearly nine hours into the race, the leader's speed was averaging over 119 mph—fully 6½ mph faster than at the same time last year. Hot as the cars ran, it was frigid for the watchers in the infield. "It's now 40 below," read a sign. "If you don't believe it, you're drunk." Many were.
Minor but time-consuming electrical problems vexed the Matras—first a distributor in the Beltoise car, then toward dawn the starting motor in Brabham's machine. Still, with the race three-quarters run, the French cars held fifth and 14th places and could not be counted out just yet.
When the sun rose on the noisy oval a shaft of light illuminated a procession of five Ferraris in series as they whipped past the pits. It was like a touch of mechanical Michelangelo, and the Italian mechanics must have felt that someone was on their side. But by midmorning Andretti's rear suspension had cracked and the Italians began scrambling wildly for a welding torch. That evened out the bad luck dogging the Porsche driven by Siffert, which had developed clutch problems. For a moment John Wyer gave up on the car and had it wheeled behind the pit wall. Then he stiffened up, changed his mind and had the clutch replaced. Some of that pluck must have communicated itself the length of the pits, for down at the far end the Ferrari welders completed the job in jig time, and Andretti's 512 was soon back on the course, turning 120-mph laps in his second-place position some 60 miles behind Rodriguez' Porsche.
But by the 650th lap—with nearly two hours left to run—Siffert was running on the same lap with Andretti. And in 10 more laps Siffert got past him. In the meantime, Matra was melting. The Beltoise car was running in 10th place when the ignition system finally cashed in; Brabham's Matra just managed to hold on to the end, finishing in 10th place. Maybe it was simply a case of mind over Matra—and Ferrari. Wyer's mind.
To be sure, the Englishman had another scare or two. With an hour left the duel for second place intensified as Siffert pitted for five minutes and 50 seconds with a recurrence of the electrical problem. During the halt Andretti chewed away at the margin between them. In the pits and on the PA the false impression grew that Mario had taken second place, and six minutes from the end when Siffert whipped past the Ferrari on the backstretch, cheers rose over the engine roar.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez was establishing a new Daytona record: by the end of 678 laps Pedro had eclipsed the mark of 2,580.75 miles set in 1966 by Lloyd Ruby and the late Ken Miles in a Ford Mark II. By the time he took the checkered flag Pedro had covered 2,757.44 miles—or the distance between Daytona Beach and a point well seaward of Catalina Island off Los Angeles. The average speed of 114.866 mph was more than seven mph faster than any earlier finish and Rodriguez was nearly 200 miles ahead of his teammate, Siffert, who ultimately beat Andretti by three laps in the best driving performance of the race.