What It’s Like To Drive A Lancia Beta Montecarlo At Daytona
Photography by Rafael Martin
So, like all things, for some bizarro reason, Lancias just come my way. I was talking to dealer Mike Sheehan and the subject came up that I’ve got an 037 and he wanted to know what I thought of the Beta Montecarlo, which is a very similar car except that the Beta’s an endurance car and the 037 is an out-and-out Group B monster.
The endurance car, the one pictured here, came before and was racing in 1980/81, before the more well-known 037 rally car.
So I tell Mike that I’ve always liked the Beta Montecarlos. How could I not? It’s a 1.4259 liter engine, 1425cc, 4 cylinder, big turbo. K-Sport had one in Italy, and the next thing I know we put a deal together with them and it’s in a nutty red and white sort of zebra livery. This is chassis 1009; we wanted to make sure we got FIA papers on the car, and then I got the certification from Abarth Classiche following that.
The reason we were concerned about the car being 1009 is because 1009 ran at Daytona in 1981 and dropped a valve on hour 14, so it didn’t finish that race, but it did later go on to Le Mans and win its class in 1981; it came in 8th overall, but it won the Group 5 under 2 liter class which is really amazing because its up against those monster-powered Porsches and all the rest, and it’s just a little 1.4 liter car!
So I get the car and then I’m having a conversation with Bill Warner, the chairman and founder of the Amelia Island show, and he says, “John, did you just get a Beta Montecarlo?” I said, “I did!”. He responds, “Two things: we have to have it at the show at Amelia,” and “I photographed that car for Road & Track at Daytona in 1981 during the race.” “Cool” was my response to both.
Long story short, he mentions in passing how much fun it would be to shoot the car on the track at Daytona again, over 30 years after the first time, and invites me to show the car at Amelia Island Concours as well. So in preparation I send the car up to Andy Greene to get it fully sorted as it hasn’t been driven in 20 years.
In the beginning of December my phone rings and it’s Tim Prendergast, who works for the Amelia Concours, and he asks me, “John, do you have Chassis 1009?” I say, “Yes,” and he says, “No, you don’t. There’s no way. You have chassis 1009!?” I said, again, “Yes.” “The Beta Montecarlo?” I said, for the third time, “Yes.” “Bill just told me. We gotta have it. That car hasn’t been seen in America since Watkins Glen in 1981.” And he adds, “Can you bring it to the Heritage? You know, it sits in the fan zone on Thurs, Fri, Sat, Sun during the 24 hours of Daytona.” I said, “Of course, no problem.”
But here’s the really interesting part: he asks,”Well, do you want to drive it? Do you want to take part in the 24 minutes of Daytona?” And I reply, “What the fuck? Are you serious? I get to drive my car on the track before the 24 hours? Are you kidding me?” So I immediately say yes if you can’t guess.
Now this means painting it white, putting the Martini stripes on it, and then getting the car ready to do a “Fast Procession.” I also had a full brake rebuild done, put in some telemetry equipment, radio, you name it— we got the car up to speed in record time with the help of Andy Greene.
Fast forward to race day we pull it out of the trailer, and we immediately notice a bunch of hydraulic fluid had leaked. So we’re stressing out about it: might be the clutch, spare cylinder, what are you going to do? I say, “I really don’t care. Just put a wrench on it, tighten it up. Let’s push it out to the track on Saturday and let’s just go. If it’s going to break let’s break it on the track.”
So we put out that fire and then I get to the track on Friday at which point everyone starts asking if I’ve ever driven on it before. Apparently — and I hadn’t thought about this — but the banking can be really disorienting to someone who isn’t trained on it. When you hit the bank coming off the back turn it’s like hitting a wall of asphalt. You just see nothing but asphalt. It’s really disorientating, you gotta turn your head to the side and it’s just really unnatural feeling at first; you know you gotta be really careful, so I start stressing out a little about all this.
So that was Friday night, and now it’s 4 o’clock in the morning on Saturday. I’m at the hotel and all I’m doing is looking at YouTube videos on “How to Drive Daytona.” I’m freaking out. I’m just totally freaking out. I can picture the headline the next day: “More Money Than Talent! Irish Guy Drives Car into Wall.” Right? It’s like oh my god, I don’t want to be that guy. So then, the other problem is it’s a 1.4 liter engine. So it makes no horsepower below 4000 RPM. Below that it’s got like 80 horsepower. So I’m on the grid with all these massive cars. Lots of torque, lots of horsepower in all of ‘em. And I’m the friggin’ Irish guy on the track with a 1.4 liter engine. I’m going to stall it. I’m going to be the guy that stalls the car at Daytona. That’s me. So, I’m freaked out of my mind to say the least.
So then, the day comes. I finally get the car, I get strapped in, I get my glasses shoved on my face, get my helmet on (I got a new helmet made as well with a big shamrock on the side of it). So anyway, I got the helmet on, got the gloves and glasses shoved on the side of my face. I’m in the car and I’m just nervous as fuck and I look at the side mirrors and can’t see anything. It suddenly dawned on me that we adjusted the mirrors with me sitting in the seat without being strapped in.
So when the mechanics cinched down on my five-point harness, it pushed me about two inches back into the seat, which means I could see fuck-all out of the mirrors.
Now, I’m on the track. I’ve never raced a car before in my life except on dirt. Put me in a Group B car on gravel, no problem. Put me on a track and I’m fish out of water. I’ve never been on a track. I’m here with millions of dollars of automobiles. I got the fancy overalls. I got the fancy car. I got the customized helmet but I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!
So, off we go.
I start the car, it’s moving, I’m on a track. I can’t see left. I can’t see right. I just go. So, I’m going and I’m watching Bill Warner in his TR-8 beside me. I go through the gears and I come back out and I’m dropping a gear and I’m about to hit the banking. Turbo kicks in, I hit the banking, and I think ‘This ain’t so bad.’ I’m doing 125 miles per hour when I get on the bank.
The other six laps were just amazing: I just got into the groove. I got into that space where everything is going right. I see what’s going on to the left and right, and it’s all good. And then, on the second lap, a Shelby Daytona Coupe spun out in front of me. Glad to have not hit that car! Expensive bump that would’ve been…
So, I finished the 24 Minutes of Daytona. I pull the Lancia back into the pits and I have to tell you, the heart rate’s up way high and it was probably one of the most intense, exhilarating, exciting, and absolutely humbling experiences of my life. And the reason that I say humbling is that I’m here, I’m an immigrant, no high school, no college, and here I am taking care of this car, which I have been lucky enough to be able to buy, lucky enough to be able to restore, lucky enough to be able to show, and I’m driving it at Daytona. I mean, amazing stuff. Absolutely amazing stuff.