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For more than a decade porsche dominated sports car endurance racing. Then, in the first race of last season, a pair of howling Jaguars pounced as if from the Florida swamps and brought down the German giant by finishing first and third at the SunBank 24 Hours of Daytona. Despite that propitious performance, Jaguars were not destined to become the new kings of the asphalt jungle. Instead, the season-long sensation turned out to be a wedge-shaped Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo, which had not even been entered at Daytona but won nine of 12 subsequent International Motor Sport Association endurance races. Porsche, however, did not disappear. Various 962s had finished high enough in the standings of all 14 IMSA GTP races to allow Porsche to edge Nissan by a single point (197-196) for the IMSA Camel GTP manufacturers' championship.
Last week Porsche, Jaguar and Nissan were all on hand for the 1989 Daytona 24-hour race. The result was a day-and-night dogfight, followed by a flat-out dash to the wire by the two survivors. In the end the Jim Busby Racing Porsche 962 driven by Derek Bell, Bob Wollek and John Andretti took the flag one minute and 26.672 seconds ahead of the Jaguar of Price Cobb, Andy Wallace, John Nielsen and Jan Lammers. The victory was Porsche's 17th at Daytona and the closest finish in the 23-year history of the event.
For two days of practice and some 19 hours of competition, the story of the race was the speed of the silky six-cylinder Nissan, which was making its debut in a 24-hour event. Developed by American engineer Don Devendorf and driven by Geoff Brabham, an Australian expatriate living in Noblesville, Ind., the Nissan won the pole position with a qualifying lap of 129.217 mph. The team's backup car had the third-fastest qualifying time. Still, the $66,500 question—the winner's payoff—was whether the Nissan could go the distance; its total track time for those nine wins in '88 didn't even add up to 24 hours.
Its creators privately admitted that they did not expect the car to finish. Yet Brabham's machine led all Saturday night—including the four hours the cars spent parked on pit row while the race was suspended because of fog—and much of Sunday morning. Shortly before noon, though, the engine puffed white smoke and quit.
Busby's two-car team inherited the gold colors of Miller High Life, which previously had sponsored the Porsches campaigned by Holbert Racing. But Al Holbert was killed last September when his private plane crashed shortly after taking off from a Columbus, Ohio, airport. Holbert was the winningest driver in IMSA history, having won five Camel GTP titles and 49 races, including the Daytona 24-hour race in 1986 and '87, years in which he also won the legendary 24-hour race in Le Mans. In a touching ceremony before last week's race, the Porsche that Holbert had driven to those two Daytona victories was taken on a final lap before being sent to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. The driver for this last lap was Al's father. Bob, who was the leading Porsche driver in the U.S. during the "50s and '60s.
One of the Busby Porsche 962s, driven by Mario Andretti and his son Michael, was the car Holbert had campaigned in in his final season. The crew was Holbert's '88 team—a final gathering before its members are dispersed by the winds of racing. Mario, who can become icy when sentiment and competition share the track, was hit hard by Holbert's death. He wanted to win Daytona, in this car and with this crew, as a tribute to a man he admired and respected. But it was not to be; a blowout led to suspension problems and the eventual retirement of the car.
At 3:38 on Saturday afternoon, 67 cars (in four classes) took the starting flag. Twenty-one were GTP cars, the sleek, sophisticated, computer-tuned prototypes that can top 200 miles per hour. Before the field even made it off the road-course portion of the 3.56-mile circuit and onto the banking for the first time, one of the three Jaguars and the backup Nissan collided. The Jag was parked immediately; the Nissan, later.
Shooting into the lead down the back straight was a Porsche driven by Klaus Ludwig of West Germany. When he began lapping cars on the fourth lap, the dangerous differences in speeds among he classes of cars became all too apparent. Later, as the setting sun cast long shadows on the steep banking, there was a blinding glare in the eyes of the drivers, who had to squint through oil-streaked windshields. Next came gray dusk, making visible the orange flames hat shoot from the exhaust pipes of the turbocharged cars, followed by black light and the mesmerizing stream of headlights. Sounds became clear and distinctive in the dark: the goose bump-inducing scream of the Mazda four-rotor prototype on its first competitive outing (it finished fifth); the raspy growl of he two big V-8 Cougars, which swept he GTO class; the civilized whispers of he six-cylinder Porsche 962s.
Ludwig's Porsche had set the pace until about 6 p.m., when it took 40 minutes in the pits to repair a throttle cable. He and his codrivers spent the rest of the race trying to catch up. They finished fourth.
At 1 a.m. the Nissan was leading the last Jaguar (the 12-cylinder engine of the second Jag "just went bang," said team manager Tom Walkinshaw), with the remaining Busby Porsche hanging on to third. Its driver's seat was shared by Bell, who had won seven 24-hour races; John Andretti, Mario's 25-year-old nephew; and Wollek, a former member of the French national ski team and a 1983 and '85 winner at Daytona.