1998 Rolex 24 Hours
sportscarpros Gallery

A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum

Eats, Shoots and Leaves
Late January, hmmm….it must be time for the Rolex 24. Yes, well the annual 24 hour pound around the tri-oval set in Volusia County, Florida gives the green flag to the international motorsport season in any year. Sure now there’s a 24 hours of Dubai and some rallies even earlier in the year but Daytona’s been kicking things off for so long that anything else does not really register.

The 2008 edition will happen without my participation, there is not enough work (read money) to justify the trip but such considerations were not part of the deal back 10 years ago. I had recently jumped (or was pushed) from the secure world of employment in design and marketing (?) to try my hand as photographer specialising in motorsport. The idea was to work on the 1998 FIA GT Championship, which looked a really good plan in 1997 and see what else turned up.

Lister Stormed
At the 1998 Autosport Show I bumped into Laurence Pearce, El Jefe of Lister Cars, which back then would make the trip across the Atlantic to the Floridian Enduro. The Lister Storm had competed at the Speedway in 96 & 97, showing a good turn of speed if not the reliability that is a pre-requisite for success in 24 hour races. Gearbox issues in the first year had been topped by a spectacular late race accident with the Storm being rammed by a backmarker into a series of barrel rolls that sent a dazed Kenny Acheson to hospital and the footage on to YouTube. The following year the team held a class lead in the early hours of the race but once again transmission woes undermined the effort but a finish, 19th overall and 4th in class gave fresh impetus to the third attempt on the banking.

Laurence with his unique approach to mixing English and Anglo Saxon, more akin to Coprolalia than Tourettes, offered me an air ticket in return for some of my “F$%~~## useless photos”, he was encouraged in this attitude by Dave Price who thought all this to be a hoot. I had long wanted to go to the Daytona 24 and with some further encouragement from Michael Cotton and Mark Cole I accepted. Mark, the vastly experienced broadcaster and writer, offered to sort me out a hotel and show me the ropes so to speak.

Breakfast Club
Two weeks later and I am driving up and down Daytona Beach Shores looking for the Seagarden Inn or God’s Waiting Room as it became nicknamed. Initially I thought that the hotel choice was governed by its low cost but I soon learnt that the proximity of Dennys and Red Lobster fine dining establishments were much more important factors. Cole had assembled a crew of hardy perennials at the hotel including Bert Devies, Chris Parsons, Stefan Heinrich, Manfred Jantke and others who were all sound trenchermen and especially so at breakfast. So Dennys with its “Just A Humongous Bucket Of Eggs And Meat” plus all the refills you can ever want or endure and all for about $4.78 was a magnet to the hungry mob.

One member of the cast who did not approve of this epicurean excess was none other than Kerry Morse, now my partner in this doomed enterprise.
Kerry for whom Percy Bysshe surely must have composed the line “whose frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command” did not do Dennys. IHOP up the street was about as far down as he would go, so pancakes it was. We hit it off straight away, like Rick and Louis “it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship” and we have worked together since, if not always in total harmony. It is of course another charge to add to the already lengthy Rap sheet on Mr Pearce that he indirectly caused SportsCarPros to be born……….

Sportscar Wars, Sportscar Bores………
The Rolex itself was a strange event for one used to racing in Europe, firesuits, the pit wall, the pit lane and a different set of rules and interpretations led to the odd mistake and embarrasment. What I did not know then is that some Americans not used to the unique ways of Daytona International Speedway felt the same. The race was the first round of the 1998 United States Road Racing Championship, sanctioned by the SCCA and run in opposition to the Andy Evans’ Professional Sports Car Racing organisation. At the time the conflict between these two series was of a fundamentalist nature as bitter in some instances as the CART/IRL conflict. Whole banks of servers could be filled with the details of the skirmishes with accusations and counter accusations flying around, some even based in truth. Strange to reflect that ten years on most have forgotten this struggle as first ALMS and then Grand Am brought a measure of stability to the North American sportscar scene. The two series co-exist in a way that would not be possible back then, which has much to do with the fact that they offer different products.  Scott Atherton, CEO of ALMS, and his Grand Am counterpart, Roger Edmondson, are gentlemen in the best sense of the word and treat each other and their respective organisations with courtesy, at least in public. Even those who do their fighting bravely on internet forums are for the most part broadly tolerant of the supporters of the other side. Most secretly will watch both series, endurance racing gets in the blood.

CanAm not GrandAm
The composition of the field was of course completely different back then at least at the front, open prototypes and closed GT1 cars running to evolutions of ACO and FIA rules backed up with an array of GT cars in GT2 and GT3 trim. 80 racers entered, 74 started and 34 finished. The stars of the show were the CanAm class, the SCCA hoping that some of the magic that the name generated in the 60’s and 70’s would rub off on their field, it didn’t. The main contenders were Ferrari 333SPs (for Moretti, Doyle-Risi and Scandia) and the Dyson Riley & Scott Fords with similar cars from Colucci and Camferdam being there or there abouts.

The leaders in the GT1 class had been hobbled by late rule changes with air restrictors, ballast and smaller fuel tanks ensuring that a Can Am entry would take the overall win. 1997 versions of the Porsche GT1 were run by Rohr, Labre and Champion but despite a crew of Porsche Werks hooligans such as Allan McNish, Uwe Alzen, Jörg Müller, Dirk Müller, Thierry Boutsen and Ralf Kelleners they could only realistically aim at class success. The opposition to the German marque came primarily from the factory Panoz team, run by ex-TWR honcho Tony Dowe and a then whole host of tube framed specials based around Mustangs, Camaros and Cutlasses.

The GT2 class was largely imported from Europe as was customary back then, another thing that changed when the Grand Am rules took effect and the rest of the field was in the highly competitive GT3 section with works teams from BMW and Porsche, together with a stack of privateers

One thing about the race back then is that there were always a few oddities on the grid, which would not appear elsewhere. The Lister Storm with its V12 Jaguar power was one of these as was the Mosler Raptor featuring an unusual split windscreen. A real throwback to the 50’s was the CanAm Cannibal Chevrolet which I understand started life as tube framed GT car, that then had the roof  chopped off. Front engined and somewhat in need of a diet, the car was not expected to be a factor in the race.

The Nomex Brigade
The driver line up for the Rolex has altered considerably since 1998. As far as I can tell back then there were no NASCAR stars and only few pilots from CART and IRL taking part, just the regular sportscar pros from both sides of the Atlantic and loads of guys with fat wallets. Next weekend’s race will see a fantastic group of drivers on the track; sportscar heroes such as Allan McNish and Oliver Gavin will face superstars from NASCAR and IRL, Jimmie Johnson, Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya to name but three. This reflects the links between Grand Am and NASCAR plus the fact that some teams run programmes across several racing discplines. There will also be the guys with the fat wallets. God Bless ‘Em!

Back in 1998 some of the photographers were very generous with advice on how this Speedway novice should plan his race (some were not!) which is how I came to be on the Winston Tower for the start. One thing I learned is that good boots are essential because you walk everywhere. The first impression you get as you emerge out of the old vehicle tunnel at turn 4 is how massive the place is but then if the 500 is run with around 200,000 spectators in attendance it has to be. So pounding the asphalt is the only way to get around till I discovered the magic of rented golf carts but that was in later years.

Mission Impossible
My team, Lister, was out of the race in less than two hours, so the only pressure on me was had I enough material in the can to keep Laurence happy, probably not. I had other magazine assignments to keep me occupied and ran round like a crazy thing as can be seen from the examples on these pages. Another feature unique to the Daytona track was the presence across from the entrance of Speedway Photo with E6 and C41 film processing facilities on site. At the end of every practice session there was a race from the media car park to the shop as we all strained to get to the head of the processing queue. Of course as we now live in the digital age and film has virtually disappeared from pressrooms being replaced by muffled curses by snappers staring at laptop screens as their Pulitzer winner turns out to be less good than they thought when viewed on the back of their cameras.

The 1998 edition of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona was won by the Ferrari of Gianpiero Moretti and his crew of hired guns, Mauro Baldi, Didier Theys and Arie Luyendyk. “Momo” had chased a winner's Rolex for a long time and there were few in the pit lane who begrudged him the victory. Porsche wrapped up GT1 and GT2 with BMW, in the shape of Tom Milner’s M3 team, taking the final top spot in GT3.

Soon the ISC folks across the road on International Speedway Boulevard knew that they would have to create some form of order out of the chaos of the USRRC and PSCR debacle. Don Panoz was waiting in the wings to launch the American Le Mans Series and not far behind would come the Grand American Road Racing Association, salvation for the endurance side of the sport in North America was at hand.

Me? Well like most of the Europeans I legged it from the Speedway to Orlando and the airport as soon as the podium had finished. I learnt another lesson here, don’t get into a drinking bout with Julian Bailey, I nearly missed my flight and was jeered at by the crowd of racers strapped in economy with me as I boarded the plane just as the doors were being “secured for take off”.

Some things never change……………..some people never learn.....

John Brooks, January 2008


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