It was a long time coming, but last weekend's SunBank 24 Hours of Daytona produced a manufacturers' road racing battle worthy of the great showdowns of bygone days. Fittingly, it was the British who were responsible—with three howling Jaguars called Tom Cats and an attendant army of engineers and mechanics. The win was the first for Jaguar in a 24-hour race since 1957 at Le Mans, and Porsche lost at Daytona for the first time since 1976.
The Brits came fresh from winning last year's World Sports Prototype Championship; they took eight of 10 races and ended the reign of Porsche. But Daytona would be no piece of cake. In the U.S. the Jaguars were up against Holbert Racing, the team that had won the last two Daytona 24-hour races with a Porsche 962 and whose three drivers are noted overachievers. Al Holbert, the bossman, is the most successful driver in the history of the International Motor Sports Association, with 49 wins and five championships. Derek Bell is one of the most accomplished endurance drivers ever, with 23 24-hour races under his seat belt, including five wins at Le Mans and two at Daytona. And Chip Robinson is the IMSA GT-class champ.
No one in the U.S. knows more about racing Porsches than Holbert—quite naturally, since he is the head of Porsche racing in North America. He is objective, methodical and thorough in approach. "My strategy is to carefully and specifically define the car's parameters, then run it at the limits," he says. "And if the competition is beating you, then you work hard to improve the car, not drive it harder." That's Holbert the engineer talking. Says Holbert the race driver, "Other than that, we just drive the wheels off the car."
The Jaguar team was commanded by Tom Walkinshaw, a sturdy, soft-spoken Scottish multimillionaire. Walkinshaw, 39, studied business for a year at the University of Edinburgh but left at 19 because he was "keen to get on with it." "It" was both racing and business, and his success was unbroken, all the way up. Overachievers? In 1984 Walkinshaw was the European Touring Car champion, driving a Jaguar XJ-S, while off the racetrack he was building a diverse business empire that now consists of 17 companies. He's frequently described as England's answer to Roger Penske, but he just as readily calls to mind Holbert.
In 1985 he persuaded the Jaguar factory that his Tom Walkinshaw Racing team could topple the hitherto invincible Porsche factory in endurance racing if Jaguar would help him build the cars. The company agreed, and he delivered, winning the world championship just two years later. "When we started, I think it's fair to say, no one believed we could win a race, much less a world championship," he says.
The Porsche 962 was bred specifically for endurance racing and refined for five years, and its turbocharged flat-six engine is smooth and silent, making the car a luxury liner compared to Walkinshaw's Tom Cat. The nonturbocharged V-12 Jag accelerates, brakes and handles better than the 962, but it has less horsepower and a slower top speed and a poor record in 24-hour races. In other words, Daytona was a track and race for the Porsche. But the Jaguar was a car for the fans, who found its high-revving wail music to the ears.
For his three Daytona entries Walkinshaw signed nine drivers, and they were as stylish as his fender-skirted cars. The fastest trio consisted of Jan Lammers of the Netherlands and two Americans, Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and Davy Jones. The last is a 23-year-old who did so well when he auditioned in the Jaguar, specifically for a ride at Daytona, that he was hired by Walkinshaw Racing for the entire 21-race IMSA GT season.
In the second car was world endurance driving champion Raul Boesel, from Brazil, teamed with Englishman Martin Brundle and a Dane named John Nielsen, who would turn out to be the race's discovery. In the third car were John Colum Crichton-Stuart, earl of Dumfries County in Scotland and otherwise known as Johnny Dumfries; Grand Prix veteran John Watson from Northern Ireland; and Eddie Cheever, the American Formula 1 driver who has lived in Rome since he was a kid.
Daytona has found a formula for keeping a 24-hour race from getting boring: Put plenty of cars on the track and make the fast guys fight their way through traffic. Altogether there were 75 race cars, most of them considerably slower than the 180-mph prototypes. There were some 240 drivers, from Sullivan and fellow Indy winners A.J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones to actor Lorenzo Lamas and Olympic slalom champion Phil Mahre.
Prerace speculation was that one of the Jaguars would play rabbit in order to sucker the Porsches into overdoing. But Walkinshaw gave his drivers strict instructions to conserve their cars and not take chances in traffic. The rabbit turned out to be a Porsche driven by Price Cobb, of Texas, which led after the first hour by nearly a lap before gearbox gremlins did it in.