A blue Ferrari? The very idea seemed a bit sacrilegious to those denizens of the sports car world gathered at Daytona last week for the annual 24-hour racing rite. But blue it was—and very, very quick. The Ferrari was prepared by Roger Penske and co-driven by Mark Donohue and David Hobbs, and for a while, at least, it seemed that they might get away with their blatant flouting of tradition while lesser Ferraris attired in the customary Italian racing red lurched and spluttered in their wake. In the process the blue Ferrari became the central element in the closest, most exciting Daytona 24 yet run.
Penske is not a man to leave matters of victory or defeat in the hands of tradition. A meticulous craftsman and a cagey strategist, he came to Daytona this year with every imaginable contingency considered, every precaution taken. Hanging in his garage area was a color photograph of the Ferrari as it looked when he bought it last November. Then it wore the hallowed red, but it was a bit battered about the body. "We took it all the way down to the tubes," he explained. "Then we put it back together." The Traco boys of Culver City, Calif. totally rebuilt the engine. Their Indy-wise touch beefed its horsepower to 640—far more than the 605 available in a factory model. Lujie Lesovsky, the Indianapolis body artist, honed down, reshaped and refurbished the chassis, adding a number of clever Penske touches: fast-filling fuel cells that permitted nine-second gas stops; a vacuum-operated brake-pad replacement device; simpler, more accessible wiring built around circuit breakers and modeled after aircraft electrical systems. Roger's nose wrinkled in slight distaste as he extolled the new electrical system: "Now we don't have to mess with that incredible Italian wiring."
Not content with mere mechanical excellence, Penske drilled his pit crew to Prussian precision. "Racing is like a ruler," Roger philosophized. "Most racing people concentrate on the first 10 inches. Those last two inches—pit performance—they often leave to chance. But that's free time. I want it to be mine. I figure I can gain four laps on pit stops alone."
But mere excellence in preparation, mere superhuman dedication to detail cannot guarantee victory in any endurance race. Penske himself learned that lesson two years ago at Daytona, when a splendidly prepared Porsche factory team faded out of contention during the dark and Penske's own obsolescent Lola—which had spent some two hours in the pits during the race—ultimately won on sheer persistence (and a touch of good luck).
This year there were no official factory Porsches to contend with. Indeed, there were no factory teams as such in the race. Matra, the French outfit whose lithe, blue-green cars had heightened interest and competition in the world manufacturers' championship during the past two seasons, stayed away from Daytona. One of its two cars had been totaled early last month at Buenos Aires in an accident that took the life of Ferrari's Ignazio Giunti. Alfa Romeo was not on hand and the prestige of the Master of Modena—Enzo Ferrari—was not really on the line.
Porsche, winner of the manufacturers' championship for the past two years—quite handily last season—was represented by two teams. A pair of Porsche 917s entered by Martini & Rossi, the hangover people, arrived late from Argentina, delayed in U.S. Customs. These were last year's models and sported only 4.5-liter engines. The two blue and orange 917Ks entered by England's famed John Wyer were new five-liter jobs and clearly the cars to beat. All during qualifying week it seemed that Penske was the man to beat them.
Roger hoped to qualify his car as early as possible, winning the pole if he could but not dallying late into the week in order to do so. "I want to qualify fast, then pull this engine and put in a fresh one," he said. "There's a very sensible saying in this kind of racing: 'In order to finish first, first you have to finish.' I want as little wear on this machine as possible."
Mark Donohue, Penske's alter ego, was in total agreement. "Mr. Clean," as he is known around the racecourses of America, had changed his image a bit since last season. His quarter-inch crew cut had given way to long hair—well, long by Donohue's standards. It must have measured nearly an inch, and hippies kept coming up to slap him on the back and offer friendly words of encouragement.
The new mop didn't get into Mark's eyes when he went out to qualify on Thursday afternoon. Snapping around the 3.81-mile course like a blue and gold flicker of lightning, he registered a speed of 133.919 miles an hour—fully 11 mph faster than the lap record set last year by Mario Andretti in a Ferrari. Wyer's Porsches were not far behind and, after all, the unflappable Englishman had two cars running to Penske's one. "In a test of this stripe," said Wyer, "redundancy is a very big plus."
After a week of chilly but clear weather, race day broke with every promise of heat—both racewise and weatherwise. A stiff west wind wreathed the track in dust, and as the Ferrari- Porsche duel progressed the sun seemed to shrink and wither in the tan sky like a sun-scorched orange. Right from the start it was a two-car race. In the quicker of the two Wyer Porsches last year's Daytona winner, Pedro Rodriguez of Mexico and his teammate, England's Jackie Oliver, stayed right on Donohue's tailpipes. Then the Penske Ferrari popped an alternator just before sundown, and Pedro surged to the front—a lead he was to maintain all through the long, bleak night. Penske's car hung in there, though, once repairs were made, and as Saturday night whined on toward Sunday morning it looked like the combination of a quicker engine and the quickest pit crew might give Donohue the lead again sometime before dawn.