Daytona Is A Spectacular Backdrop For These Fiery Classic Race Cars
Story and photography by Kenneth Midgett
Daytona International Speedway is a name that conjures decades of motorsports history, from its legendary high banks and enormous stadium-style grandstands. It’s a name that is most associated with NASCAR, beer-guzzling rednecks, and a field of thundering V8 stock cars. But for one weekend every year, Daytona is immersed in road racing heaven, swapping stock cars for sports cars for arguably one of the greatest endurance races in the world.
Now called the Rolex 24, the first 24-hour race on Daytona’s asphalt was held in 1966 at the peak of the Ford-versus-Ferrari rivalry. Almost all of the auto industry’s heavy hitters have enjoyed victory at Daytona. Porsche, Ferrari, Ford, BMW, Jaguar and Chevrolet—to name a few—have all crossed the checkerboard first.
To celebrate Daytona’s rich history, Historic Sportscar Racing (HSR) created the Classic 24 Hour at Daytona. In only its second year in existence, the event is already proving to be an international hit, with more than 190 cars from at least fifteen countries, easily topping last year’s 135 car total.
Why? To tackle Daytona’s largely unchanged 3.56 mile road course, of course. While labeled a 24-hour race, it would be unfeasible for so much historic machinery to last such a grueling amount of time on track, considering it’s an immense challenge even for modern engineering.
To handle this, the Classic 24 is run in a format of six period-correct groups with each group racing four times over the 24-hour duration. The groups range from ’60s legends all the way to racing cars of today, displaying a real life history lesson of both Daytona’s past and present.
Mingling with spectators in the paddock and grandstands, there didn’t seem to be a favorite group of the bunch. Each group is so different and special in its offerings that choosing just one is difficult. Group A (1960-72) fielded the beautiful French built Matra MS630, a Chevron B8 and B16, a Shelby GT350 and multiple Lola T70 V8 monsters. Group B (1973-82) consisted of flame-throwing Porsche 935s, classic American Greenwood Corvettes, and as many as six BMW CSL “Batmobiles”.
My personal favorite of the bunch, at least for the time being, was Group C (1983-93), which was made up of racing machines from the golden years of IMSA GTP and European Group C. Porsche 962s and Group 44 Jaguar XJRs lead the pack in unfiltered visual and aural bliss. Moving on to more modern “historic but familiar” machinery, the highlights of Group D (1994-2002) and E (2003-2012) included Riley and Scott MkIIIs, various GT Porsche 911s of every trim, Viper GTSs, a Saleen S7R GT1, LMS Audi R8s and a Sunoco-liveried Porsche RS Spyder. The list goes on. Rounding out the final group, Group F was for cars that were never eligible to compete at Daytona, and for those with no period racing history.
There is a special atmosphere reserved only for events such as this. The standard entry ticket allows full access to the paddock and practically all of Daytona’s infield grounds. Care to spark up a conversation with a driver or mechanic? Have at it. Maybe Jochen Mass, Derek Bell, or Brian Redman will be nearby for a handshake or to share some old memories.
Throughout the long night hours, crew members could be seen scrambling to repair a mechanical failure, all to the intoxicating scent of oil, fuel, and exhaust filling the air. At one point in the night, I actually witnessed some crew members applying a new layer of fiberglass resin to their damaged Sunoco Lola T70 front bumper.
The shear enormity of Daytona is always impressive, perhaps even moreso on a weekend like this. It’s so large that an actual lake sits within its grounds. Driving underneath the NASCAR tri-oval to enter the infield is like being welcomed into a coliseum of speed. The ominous high banks provide a road racing experience unlike anywhere else in the world. Almost all of the 2.5 mile superspeedway is utilized, enabling drivers to reach upwards of 200 mph. Not only is it a daunting task for man and machine alike, never allowing either a moment’s rest, but it captures the raucous sounds swirling in Daytona’s infield for 24 hours of aural enjoyment.
For years I’ve viewed events like the Goodwood Festival Of Speed and Le Mans Classic from my computer screen. It is an absolute pleasure to finally have an event Stateside that’s worthy of their company. It’s safe to say that the Classic 24 Hour at Daytona has already risen as one of the top historic motorsports events in the world.