Sunday, January 27, 2008

Twenty Four Hours of Daytona

I don’t follow most sports but one that I do is car racing. Like many other little boys I grew up loving cars. When I was ten or so I remember waiting for the new model year, in rapt anticipation for the body style changes. As a boy I also liked speed and consequently started following auto racing.

In the fifties, sixties and probably even the seventies, all motor sports were mostly an unorganized mélange of racers, racing enthusiasts and promoters, and Europe was the motherland of racing. In Vivian, where I grew up, there were mostly Chevrolets and Fords. In Europe there were Jaguars, Mercedes Benzs, Ferraris and Maseratis.

I loved European cars and I loved European racing, and I had my heroes, the greatest of whom was Stirling Moss. Moss was the most fantastic racer that ever lived. He rarely had a car as powerful or as fast as the competition, but he almost always found a way to win anyway. The cars were just as fast then as they are now but they weren’t nearly as safe. If you wrecked at speed in the 60s you were likely to die, or at least sustain horrible injury.

Formula 1 was in its infancy and I always rooted for the American racers – Phil Hill, Ritchie Ginther and Dan Gurney. In 1962, there was a sports car race track in Bossier City, Louisiana called Hilltop Raceway. I talked my parents into taking me and my best friend Rod to a race there.

I can’t remember the exact month but it was following the 12 hours of Sebring in 1962. Sports Car Illustrated, my favorite magazine, reported that the Gonzales Brothers, Dan Gurney and Stirling Moss would race at Hilltop the weekend following Sebring.

My all time hero, Stirling Moss didn’t make the race, nor did the Gonzales Brothers but Dan Gurney did. The race was sanctioned by no one in particular and there was a variety of race cars in the field. Gurney had a modified formula 1 open-wheeled race car that was the class of the field. He took one practice lap in a rented Corvair and then proceeded to smash the track record.

There were Porsches, Ferraris and probably even a few Triumphs in the race. None were as fast as Gurney’s car, even though there were a couple of other open wheelers there, notably Lloyd Ruby and Roger Penske (yes, he was once a very good race car driver). There were two one hundred mile races and Gurney easily won both of them. I remember him screaming through the other racing cars, nonchalantly waving to the crowd as he lapped the field over and over. One of my greatest treasures was Gurney’s autograph that I lost somewhere along the way.

I still love watching fast race cars. Today I watched the finish of the 24 hours of Daytona, one of the world’s greatest endurance races. It is always the first major race of the year. This year it was won by the Chip Ganassi-Felix Sabates racing team with drivers Scott Pruett, Juan Montoya, Memo Rojas and Dario Franchitti. Pruett, Montoya and Franchitti were all open-wheel racers in the old Champ Car series.

Many of the observers of motor sports in the world say that Formula 1 is the greatest form of racing, and the home of the greatest racing drivers. To this I say BS! The old Champ Car series spawned the best racers and the best racing that I have ever seen. There is rarely a passed car in Formula 1 so how exciting can it be?

Despite the fact that many Europeans say there are no great American racers, I say their racers never raced against Al Unser, Jr. during his prime. He was unbeatable. Perhaps the greatest racing driver of all time, Little Al never got his due. There is little doubt in my mind that he could have waxed the likes of Fernando Alonzo or Michael Schumacher in a head-to-head race.

That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful European race car drivers. My favorite is Alex Zanardi. It took the great Italian racer to finally dethrone Little Al. If you watch the finish of a NASCAR race these days you will undoubtedly see the winner doing a burn-out donuts, a very American thing to do. Was an American the first to cut celebratory donuts? I don’t think so. I think it was the great Alex Zanardi.

I digress. Today I watched the finish of one of the premier events in motor sports. Fox and the Speed Channel, to their great credit, aired fifteen hours of the spectacle. In addition to the millions watching on TV more than 50,000 spectators observed the event from the infield.

The cars of NASCAR champs Jimmy Johnson and Kurt Busch finished 2nd and 3rd, a testament to the talent overflowing in what is today the greatest forum for motor sports racing. Shortly before his death, Dale Earnhardt, himself a consummate race car driver, and his son Dale Jr. finished 3rd overall driving a GT class Corvette. I realized then that these Americans can race with anyone on earth, and win. Three years ago, another wonderful race driver Tony Stewart, came within twenty minutes of winning the 24 hours of Daytona, before his rear suspension disintegrated.

My only regret about NASCAR is that most of the events are held on ovals. This is a promotional deal because you can get more spectators into the stands and these spectators are never out of sight of the racers. Problem is they are going so fast that it is hard to tell one car from the next – except on TV, and I guess that is the point.

I missed seeing my hero, Stirling Moss race in person back in 1962. I did get to see Dan Gurney easily best a field that included Indy champ Lloyd Ruby and racing owner great Roger Penske. Today I watched as Gurney’s son Alex finished second. Am I a fan? Dyed in the wool.

Who is the present greatest race car driver on earth? I don’t know but I like A.J. Almendinger, a racer that can compete in anything on wheels.

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