One of my prized possessions is this photo of a school bus yellow C4 Corvette race car I drove in the 1987 24 Hours of Daytona. That’s me behind the wheel, about to make a left turn onto Daytona International Speedway’s high-turning Turn 1. In the background is a blurry red race car, most likely the famous Coca-Cola-sponsored Porsche 962 GTP -prototype co-driven by sports car and Formula 1 superstar Hans-Joachim Stuck. Every time I look at that photo I feel a thrill knowing that I was on the inside of one of the major professional sports car endurance races at the highest level rather than at home watching it on TV. I came back to Daytona for this year’s run – now out of race suit and helmet – to see what had changed and what hadn’t. And also to remember what it was like to be there in the middle of it all, on the track with my racing heroes.
The 24 Hours of Daytona, like those of us more than three decades old, is the same and different than it was. The 3.56-mile infield road course, which uses almost all of the 2.5-mile oval that surrounds it, is unchanged except for revisions to the curbs. A few new builds aside, Daytona still feels as impressive as it did when I first rolled into the garage area years ago. If you stand there again today, the immense tribune, which can seat more than 100,000 fans, towers over you; you are an ant at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. You can almost feel the racing history embedded in the tarmac and tucked into walls that line the oval. The facility opened in 1959, but it ate right and exercised; it is in good shape. If only we could age so gracefully.
Now called the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Daytona 24-Hour Endurance Race kicks off the pro racing season as surely as Memorial Day marks the start of summer. And with similar anticipation of good times to come. Down in the garages on the morning of the race, the 24-hour has a party feel. There is a lot of hard work going on around the cars, but also a lot of smiles and laughter from the teams, drivers and team owners. I remember that, and I’m keyed in for the biggest race of my life.
Race team owner Chip Ganassi, who entered two Cadillac GTP cars in the top class at this year’s event, confirmed that the light-hearted atmosphere is still alive. “The drivers love this race. It’s fun for them. It’s the start of the season. They get to see their friends from all over the world. They’re happy. Nobody’s crazy and stressed like they are at the end of the season isn’t. when they’re trying to win a championship.” Ganassi would know; its IndyCar and endurance racing teams have 19 series championships between them.
The 24 hours remains an event that attracts drivers from other racing disciplines besides sports cars. When I was racing, I was excited to know that legends like AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Danny Sullivan were competing in the GTP class. NASCAR stars Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte were in the field, as was Jim Downing, co-creator of the HANS device. A former Olympic racer named Bruce Jenner pedaled a Mustang in my class. I was looking for them; I did see AJ in pit lane before the race getting out of his Porsche 962.
It was the same in 2023. Among the big names this year were IndyCar champions Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Sébastien Bourdais, and Simon Pageneaud along with four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. NASCAR driver Austin Cindric and former Formula 1 driver (and current IndyCar shoe) Romain Grosjean were both in the show. Yes, I caught a glimpse of a few of them.
As the race unfolded, I watched from a spot just behind the starter’s stand at the starting finish line. The top class GTP cars coming at me at 200 mph while weaving through bunches of competitors from the slower classes was breathtaking. Was I really out there mixing it up in the middle of it? It was hard to believe. It didn’t seem that hectic when I was driving, and probably wasn’t. The cars run faster and closer today.
Sports car racing is messy as well as exciting for fans because of the multiple classes that circulate at different speeds. Simplified to its basic structure, there are two types of race cars in endurance races like the 24 Hours of Daytona: prototypes, which look like fighter jets on four wheels or full-grown Hot Wheels cars; and Grand Touring (GT) cars, which are based on easily identifiable production models such as the Corvette Z06, Porsche 911, Ferrari 296, Lamborghini Huracán, and several others.
The prototypes are divided into three classes in ascending order of horsepower and speed, with GTP at the top. Both GT classes, one for pros and one for a mix of pre- and semi-pros, are now made up of cars that meet the FIA’s global GT3 racing car specifications. Like them, my C4 Vette racer started life as a production car—though it was the only car in what was then called the GTO class that wasn’t a purpose-built, tube-frame racing machine hiding under fake production bodywork . The GT rules now prohibit that kind of thoroughbred racing machine.
My Vette’s production car roots made us one of the slower cars in the race that year, not that I minded. I was out there, wide-eyed and loving it. Riding in the race didn’t seem nearly as difficult as seeing today’s shoes from the sidelines. The Daytona road course is simple and easy to learn, though braking hard from 160 mph in Turn 1 and then again in the back straight’s Le Mans chicane while turning and downshifting simultaneously—without the benefit of today’s antilock brakes, paddle shifters, or high-downforce aerodynamics—demanded that I focus with every fiber of my being to do it every lap without spinning out.
I think what made the racing easier than I expected was the quality of the drivers. I had been racing in the amateur ranks for 14 years, but it took about two laps into my first afternoon innings to realize that my competitors were the best I had ever been on a track with. So, that was what it was like to race with pros. If they were to overtake you, it was quick, clean and as decisive as a karate chop on top of a table. Bam! They were next to you and gone. I was overtaken in turn 1 by the Coca-Cola 962 so aggressively that it must have been Hans at the wheel. Of course, I had no way of knowing that it was actually him, but I’ve held onto that belief ever since. And in my fantasy I am honored.
With the GTP cars capable of 210 mph on the straights and our car only 160, I constantly scanned the mirrors and stayed out of the way on the high-speed oval sections, always leaving the lane closest to the wall open as I was told to to do. Embarrassing revelation: after running a few laps in my first turn and getting almost comfortable, I realized that the two spots I climbed on the track’s 31-degree banking could provide me with the opportunity for additional celebrity stalking . Whenever any of the GTP competitors would speed past, I would steal a glance into their car, hoping to see which famous driver was behind the wheel. No luck. Insert laughing emoji here.
While much of the atmosphere and action on the track in 2023 seemed similar to what I experienced more than three decades ago, the one thing that has changed radically – and not surprisingly – is the technology in the cars. The GT cars benefit from advances we couldn’t have imagined in 1987: road-shifted gearboxes, driver-adjustable ABS and traction control, incredibly tough tires, plus picnic-table-sized rear wings and other aerodynamic appendages that lock the car down. the pavement with large amounts of downforce. That’s why the GT cars are about 17 seconds per lap faster than our old Vettes, a massive improvement in performance terms considering they don’t have much more than the 500 horsepower my race car had. Their speed comes from their ability to brake impossibly late and turn infinitely harder. It was shocking to see how much further they could bore into Turn 1 before their brake lights flashed.
A debut for hybrids in GTP
This year was also the first time that hybrid technology was allowed in the GTP class. The hybrid systems work nothing like in passenger vehicles, and the way the rules require that the electric energy be deployed and monitored is so complicated, only an engineer can understand it. The GTP cockpits have so many switches that they look more like an Apollo space capsule inside than a race car. That’s why BMW, Porsche, Cadillac and Acura entered this year’s race with cars largely built in-house: only automakers have the massive engineering resources needed to make these complex race cars work. Despite the extreme technology, the rules were structured in such a way that the hybrid GTP cars were no faster on the straights than the ones I raced, even though the new cars were about seven and a half seconds faster than the old ones in race finish.
The other result of technology change is the massive improvement in the race cars’ reliability. In the ’87 race we were running at a pace that was about four seconds slower than the car was capable of. The intention was not to overemphasize the mechanics and give the two Corvettes entered by the small Morrison-Cook race team the best chance of surviving the event intact. Most competitors at the time did something similar.
It did not help. My car went out with a terminal engine problem at the 16 hour mark, 337 laps in, after covering about 1200 miles. Our other car fared even worse, not making it past the 77th lap, after just 274 miles.
That year, 36 of 69 starters—52 percent—went out with mechanical problems. In 2023, only 11 of the 61 starters – a mere 11 per cent – failed to finish due to mechanical problems, despite being driven as fast as they can go each lap. It’s been that way for a few years now, as confirmed by Cadillac GTP driver Alex Sims. “Oh, yeah,” he said nonchalantly before the race, “we run flat every lap.” This made it all the more remarkable that the new hybrid GTP cars held up so well in their first outing.
The 2023 results
Eight of the nine GTPs entered completed the race, six of them without mechanical problems. The top four were on the same lap at the checkered, within 11 seconds of each other, having raced for 2787 miles – about the distance from New York City to Los Angeles. The two Acura ARX-06 GTPs finished one-two overall; the two Cadillac V-LMDh cars of the Ganassi team were third and fourth. Whelen Engineering Racing’s Caddy V-LMDh was fifth overall, followed by BMW’s M Hybrid V8 GTP sixth overall. The three other hybrid GTPs were further down the sequence. Each of the four other classes were also crowned winners.
Exactly how I was invited to ride in the 1987 race in the first place is lost in the deep recesses of my memory, even if my brain somehow kept key moments from that weekend alive in a file of vivid mental snapshots. I’ve done a lot of racing since then, racking up about 20 24-hour events in the amateur and semi-pro ranks. Although I’ve never won one, I’ve felt the sweet, exhausted joy that comes from the shared team effort it takes to simply make it to the end.
So, winning at Daytona must feel monumental. I can say from experience that just being there was something special, a warm feeling that I will always have with me.