American racing legend Dan Gurney gave gasoline/electric hybrid technology its first and so far only victory in international sports car racing half a century ago with his uniquely contrived win in the Daytona Continental race of 1962, the inaugural event in a series celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend with the running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Daytona International Speedway had opened its gates in 1959, marking the occasion with the first running of the NASCAR Daytona 500, but a road course employing some of the high banking and with the rest winding through the infield was also incorporated in the facility’s layout.
A number of minor events were staged on this circuit but track management in the form of larger than life Bill France Sr. had been eyeing the growing celebrity of the Sebring 12-hour race and decided to get in on the international action with the three-hour Daytona Continental of 1962, sanctioned by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile as a round in that year’s World Sports Car Championship.
Many of the great names of the day turned up at the end of January to compete – the roster included Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Olivier Gendebien, Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez, Jo Bonnier and David Hobbs, the latter still familiar as a television race commentator. They ran against Americans Phil Hill, A.J. Foyt, Roger Penske, Glen “Fireball” Roberts, Jim Hall and Gurney plus rising Canadian star Peter Ryan. And drove Ferraris, Maseratis, E-Type Jags, Corvettes, Cooper-Climaxes, a Pontiac Tempest of all things, and a speedy but a bit too fragile Lotus 19 with Gurney at the wheel.
The race began with a “Le Mans” start – in which drivers lined up across from their cars, in this case in the pit lane, and ran to them and jumped in when the flag dropped. Foyt was first away and charged around to lead the first lap, but blew the engine in his Tempest a lap later. Hill led until he hit a seagull damaging his Ferrari and Gurney eventually took over the lead building it to some two or three minutes until, with just a couple of laps to go, a connecting rod let go punching a hole in his engine’s block.
Rather than coast into the pits, Gurney proved he wasn’t only a fast driver but a quick thinker and parked the Lotus up by the wall on the 18-degree banking with the nose about a foot from the start-finish line.
As the field flashed past at 150 mph-plus Gurney jumped out and asked the guy with the chequered flag when he was planning to drop it. Given the word, he hopped back into the car and, after the flag was waved at the end of the race’s three-hour limit, he put the car in gear and engaged the electric starter motor creeping it forward on battery power and across the finish line in the slowest finish ever to a Daytona race. But he was 46 seconds ahead of the second-place Hill/Rodriguez, followed by Hall in his Chaparral and another Ferrari driven by Moss.
A protest, claiming the car didn’t cross the line under its own power but coasted over under the influence of gravity created by the banking, was soon dismissed as the wheels were seen to be pointed straight ahead at the line and Gurney’s hand was seen to be up where the starter button was located on his “hybrid” Lotus.
Up and coming young Canadian Peter Ryan, teamed with Ricardo Rodriguez in a Ferrari, finished the race in 15th place. Later in the year, he was killed in a Formula Junior race in Europe.
It seems somehow fitting that nice-guy Gurney claimed the win in what has become one of North America’s and the world’s most grueling and respected racing events, as he was and one of the true American racing greats.
Gurney was born on Long Island to an opera singer and his wife in 1931, but had car connections as the grandson of a successful ball-bearing manufacturer. He was also fortunate in moving to Riverside, Calif., after high school where he developed his driving skills on orange grove roads before spending his military service in Korea.
He began racing in 1955 in a Triumph TR2 and spent the next 15 years competing in Formula One, Indy car, Trans-Am, Can-Am and NASCAR, entering 312 races in more than 50 makes of cars – including Eagles he built himself – and winning 51 of them, along with 47 podium finishes. All American Racers, the company he created after retiring in 1970, went on to build a series of successful racing cars and he’s still involved in it to this day.
The Lotus 19 Monte Carlo-Climax Gurney drove at Daytona was one of the most successful sports racers to emerge from Colin Chapman’s small British factory.
Said to be inspired by John Cooper’s Monaco, it was based on the mid-engined Lotus 18 grand prix car with a suitably widened tube-frame draped in aerodynamic fibreglass and aluminum bodywork. Powering it was the same 2.5-litre Coventry-Climax four-cylinder engine used in the F1 racer, but with that all-important electric starter fitted to meet endurance racing rules. It also came with the radical but not too reliable Lotus designed five-speed sequential-shift “queerbox.” Only 17 Lotus 19s were built and some of these were later fitted with American V-8s to provide a little more urge and extend their competitive lives.
Gurney’s Lotus Monte Carlo will be one of more than 30 past Rolex 24 race winners on hand to help celebrate the event’s 50th anniversary.
Sports car endurance racing at Daytona evolved into a 2,000 km race in 1964 and a 24-hour event in 1966, the first won by Briton Ken Miles and American Lloyd Ruby driving a Ford GT40 Mk 11. And famous makes, driven by a who’s who of the world’s best known racing drivers, have been battling it out there ever since.
This weekend’s race, for super-fast Daytona Prototypes and production-based GT cars, begins at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.