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Any South African national sports team goes by the name Springboks. Those small, sprightly antelopes are best known for their incredible vaulting ability. In a standing high jump, a springbok can leap clear over a marauding cheetah. At the Daytona International Speedway last weekend, a three-man team of bipedal Springboks demonstrated the automotive equivalent of that skill. Soaring clear over such lead-footed lions as A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti to end up on the pinnacle of American endurance racing, they won the grueling, attrition-ridden, overcrowded SunBank 24—the current name for the 24 Hours of Daytona.
Whipping their impeccably prepared March- Porsche through the 12 sinuous, sometimes sinister corners and around the steep banking of the 3.87-mile course, Sarel Van der Merwe, Tony Martin and Graham Duxbury held off the combined challenge of three turbo-charged Porsches and a pair of (how fitting) Jaguars to triumph in the premier race on the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) calendar. They bobbled only twice, and then not seriously. On Saturday evening Martin ran out of fuel on the infield road section, and Duxbury had to lug a can of gas about a mile from the pits—only drivers can give such on-course assistance in endurance racing. Then, at about 9 a.m. Sunday, Martin mistakenly thought a black flag, used in racing to call in cars that look mechanically unsound, was meant for him, and pitted unnecessarily. But these errors didn't prevent the South Africans from winning by almost 20 minutes. Their March 83G, powered by a single-turbine Porsche engine of the same displacement as the perennially successful dual-turbo Porsche 935, was sponsored by Kreepy Krauly, a South Africa-based firm. A Kreepy Krauly, for those who don't know, is a robot cleaning machine that chugs its way around the insides of swimming pools. The four-wheel variety on evidence last week didn't chug a bit—it just plain hummed.
The prerace favorite of the record 60,000 spectators who jammed Daytona's infield (but only sparsely studded its grandstands) was Andretti, the 1978 Formula I world driving champion. Mario was teamed with his oldest son, Michael, 21, a speedy scion who bids fair to equal his dad in all sorts of racing. Another son, Jeff, 19, was entered in a slower Porsche 911. Mario and Michael first teamed up last year at Le Mans and finished third overall in a Porsche, and for this race they had an untried factory Porsche 962 prototype. Conceding from 60 to 80 horsepower to the older Porsches but blessed with aerodynamic advantages, the 962 won the pole position, besting the March- Porsche by nearly two seconds in qualifying.
Andretti p�re, who hadn't raced a Daytona enduro since 1972, when he appeared in a burly red Ferrari 312 (and, along with Jacky Ickx of Belgium, won), knew well that the pole means comparatively little in a round-the-clock race. He also knew that the car had undergone only about 500 miles of testing, none of it on the stressful banking that makes up about a third of Daytona's circuit.
When the green starting flag flapped at 3:30 Saturday, Mario was behind the wheel of the 962, with the Kreepy Krauly Springboks beside him on the grid. Next in line was the Jaguar driven by the veteran American road racers Bob Tullius and Doc Bundy, along with David Hobbs of England. Just outboard of them sat last year's winning Daytona car, a Porsche 935 owned by Preston Henn of the U.S., with Foyt, England's Derek Bell and five-time Porsche Challenge Cup winner Bob Wollek of France sharing the wheel. (Foyt had joined the Preston Henn squad last year at Daytona after his own car broke early on. With customary quick-study cool he brought the 935 into the lead and, ultimately, Victory Lane.) Behind the lead cars was a rush-hour crowd of 78 more cars, ranging from small-engine tiddlers with a top speed of 135 mph to other prototypes capable of 190.
Andretti opened up a 45-second lead in the first hour as Michael waited in the pit, his eagerness for action betrayed only by a tapping right foot. Just before Mario made his first pit stop, a crash on the main straightaway sent Plexiglas and bits of shattered fender soaring past Michael's head. He didn't even flinch. Mario came in, Michael took the wheel and the crew jacked up the car to change tires. As they did, a Porsche mechanic yelled, "Ist the car ouht of gear?" The rear wheels weren't turning freely. It was the first ominous symptom of what rapidly became a fatal flaw. Once out on the track, Michael found he had no fifth gear. He pitted for a minute and a half while a swarm of maroon-suited minions from Stuttgart fiddled with the gear linkage. Only a few laps later Michael was in again: Heat from the engine's turbo-header—probably pressed too close to the gearbox by downforces on the 31-degree banking—had literally welded fourth and fifth gears together. For nearly two hours the mechanics wrenched and wrestled, replacing the entire gearbox, but to little avail. At 11:18 p.m., hopelessly in arrears, the 962 retired with a broken camshaft.
Other cars were having their own problems. The two Jaguar XJR-5s kept throwing their alternator belts and one of them lost its nose cowling at speed—it was brought safely to the pits by its driver. The defending Porsche's intake manifold came unstuck. "We got the thing clamped together with vise grips and a two-by-four," Foyt explained later, "but we're not getting full boost out of the turbo." For all that, A.J. was jolly and laidback between his stints at the wheel—a far cry from his crabby, obsessed Indy 500 persona. Before last year he hadn't driven an enduro since he and Dan Gurney teamed in a Ford Mark IV to win Le Mans in 1967. Clearly, long-distance racing agrees with him.
A succession of ills, ranging from brake troubles to a broken intake manifold, plagued another favorite, the 935 driven by the American team of Al Holbert, Bruce Leven and Hurley Haywood (the last a four-time Daytona winner motoring with a cast on a broken left ankle). Their only real chance was for the leaders to break, but they didn't.
The Kreepy Krauly took the lead at 1:30 a.m. Sunday on Lap 254 and held it the remaining 386 tours. "We knew we had the speed to do it right from the start," said team spokesman David Amette. "The car [driven to the IMSA championship last year by Holbert] has a new suspension, better brakes and much more downforce in its body design. It had won the pole here in last November's three-hour race, and in testing we had beaten that time by two seconds. But you don't even think of winning a race this long until the minute hand is right at 3:30."
Lead driver Van der Merwe, 37, and his co-pilots kept it all together. Van der Merwe, eight times the South Africa rally champion, is used to all kinds of road conditions. Known in his homeland as Supervan, he has much the bravura style of his compatriot, former world champion Jody Scheckter. By the time the checkered flag fell, the Kreepy had krauled 2,476.8 miles at an average speed of 103.119 mph and was more than nine laps ahead. Foyt finished second, with Tullius' Jaguar third.