Some say this was the best Daytona 24 hour ever. It certainly was the closest finish up to that point in time. My friend Hal Crocker called this time in sports car racing, a battle of the giants. This was the last year of the 5.0-litre sports cars in the World Championship. The race would be between the 1970 Championship winning Porsche 917 and a bevy of privately entered Ferrari 512’s. These cars were quite amazing and exciting to watch. Daytona in 1971 had no chicane on the back straight, as it does today. These cars were reaching speeds near 220 mph by the time they got to the Daytona east banking. These were prototype sports cars with around 600 horsepower weighing less than 1900 pounds. Compared to the cars of today, these cars were rudimentary technology. The 917 chassis were in fact made completely out of aluminium tube structure. But yet, they were as fast, top speed wise, as anything running today.
Porsche entered four cars. The Gulf Wyer cars (2), along with the Martini 917 entries (2) were all Porsche Factory supported. Ferdinand Piëch, son of Ferry Porsche’s sister Louise, was running the 917 programs for the factory. And in fact, he had been the man behind the whole concept of the 917. Much to the chagrin of John Wyer (the great team manager of the Gulf cars), Piëch continued his practice of running a separate team against the main factory cars of Wyer. In 1970 it had been Porsche Salzburg, owned by his mother, Louise. In 1971 Porsche had sold three cars but they were still factory supported.
For 1971 the second team was run by Hans-Dieter Dechent and sponsored by Martini & Rossi. The drivers in the two cars were Vic Elford with Gijs Van Lennep while Helmut Marko was paired with Rudi Lins. The Wyer cars were of course in the light blue and orange colours of the Gulf Oil company. They were driven by Jo Siffert and Derek Bell, with Pedro Rodriguez and Jackie Oliver in the other car. Both Porsche Teams utilised Firestone tyres. The Gulf cars had the 4.9-litre engine, the Martini cars the 4.5-litre engine. Piëch seemed to be covering all the bases.
Ferrari had taken a different approach. Knowing the rules would change into a 3.0-litre format in 1972, they were using the 1971 season to develop their 3.0-litre car, the 312P. Unfortunately, the car was destroyed in the fatal accident involving Ignacio Giunti at the Buenos Aires race a few weeks before, and a new one could not be prepared in time. So, the Ferrari effort was left in the hands of privateers. Three 512s and one 312P were entered by the North American distributor, Luigi Chinetti and his NART team. One was a 512S, two were the new 512M (the new upgraded model for 1971). Drivers in the 512S were Ronnie Bucknum with Tony Adamowicz. The 512Ms had Revson, Posey, Parsons and Chinetti Jr. in one, with Masten Gregory, Gregg Young and John Cannon in the second 512M. The 312P, which was not expected to compete with the 5.0-litre cars, was driven by Nestor Garcia-Viega, Chinetti Jr., and Alain De Cadanet.
Jose Juncadella entered an additional 512S for himself and Arturo Merzario. There was also a Belgian 512S entered by Jacques Swaters for Hughes de Fierlant and Gustave Gosselin. All the Ferrari 512s ran with the 5.0-litre V12 engine.
However, the car everyone was watching was a 512M entered by Roger Penske and Kirk F. White which had been prepared by Penske Racing. This was actually an original 1970 512S that had been bought by White from Chris Cord and Steve Earle, and then upgraded by Penske and converted to M specification with some additional Penske tweaks. The engines were built by TRACO in Southern California, as opposed to Ferrari in Maranello. The car was sponsored by SUNOCO (Sun Oil Company) and was painted in their dark blue and yellow colours. It looked stunning, and in the hands of Mark Donohue and David Hobbs it was fast. The Penske and NART Ferraris all used Goodyear tyres.
Porsche had to be concerned as the 512M was a very good car. It was much improved, especially in aerodynamics over the 512S. At the last race of the 1970 season at Kyalami South Africa, the Porsches had been soundly thrashed by the factory 512M driven by Jacky Ickx and Ignacio Giunti. Ferrari then proceeded with their 312P development and sold “M” upgrade kits to their 512 customers. But Porsche knew the Penske car would only run four races, Daytona, Sebring, LeMans and Watkins Glen. Porsche would contest the whole schedule, so would be favoured to win the championship once again. They had in fact already won the first race a few weeks before in Argentina.
The Daytona race would come down to a battle between the four 917s against the six 512s, with the 312P available as a backup if all the 5.0-litre cars failed. The grid was made up of the usual cars in the lower classes in the various GT categories. The FIA was very strict with the qualifications, in that many of the cars that practiced, did not start, as they were too slow. Mark Donohue captured pole position with a record lap of 1:42 (although some of this could be attributed to the repaving of the infield portion of the circuit) and took an immediate lead at the start. The Penske 512 led on and off for the first five hours or so until the taillights failed due to some alternator issues. Some twelve minutes were lost in the pits for repairs causing them to drop to third place.
Several of the other main combatants also ran into early difficulties. The NART 512M of Masten Gregory only made 16 laps before it had an engine failure. The Siffert/Bell 917 was next to go with engine failure after 116 laps, followed soon after by the de Fierlant 512 and the Juncadella 512 both of which dropped out with fuel pump issues. The second NART 512M of Posey, Revson and Parsons was next to fail at 202 laps. Donohue and Hobbs meanwhile had been working hard and making up time on the lead 917, and near midnight were back in the hunt.
Penske made up time on every pit stop, as they had installed a dry brake fuelling system on the car and were fuelling much faster than the Wyer 917s.
Just before midnight, Vic Elford had a tyre blow on his Martini 917 in the east banking, hitting the wall, strewing debris everywhere, but emerging unhurt. Donohue, close behind, slowed to pick his way through the debris and was rammed from behind by a Porsche 911 GT car that had failed to slow. The 512 was badly damaged and required over an hour in the pits for repairs. Some of the suspension parts needed were taken off one of the other NART 512s that had already dropped out. They had a spare nose, but all the mounting brackets on the left side had been torn off. Chief Mechanic, Woody Woodward had to fashion a mount out of broom handles. Copious amounts of duct tape was needed to hold it all together. The car became a rolling billboard for duct tape, but they continued. Shortly thereafter, the Martini 917 of Marko and Lins had gearbox problems, and an hour and a half was lost to repairs. They had earlier had a problem with a bent suspension and a broken brake pedal, so they were well back in the order by this time.
At 08h45 on Sunday, the Martini 917 of Helmut Marko had a tyre disintegrate on the east banking. The car hit the wall and was too damaged to continue. The Gulf 917 now had a large lead over the remaining NART 512, with the Penske duct tape car going well, but many laps behind.
However, at 11h50 on Sunday morning that all changed. The remaining 917 of Rodriguez and Oliver, with a 55-lap lead, was brought into the pits by Oliver with no 3rd or 4th gear. The gearbox was finished and at first it seemed the car would be pushed away. However, Porsche indicated this could be repaired, so the Wyer mechanics undertook a lengthy repair. According to the rules, the gearbox could not be replaced, it could only be repaired. Parts were scavenged from a spare box and the stationary Siffert/ Bell car. After an hour and a quarter repair and even longer total time in the pits, Rodriguez returned to the race, but he was now several laps behind the Ferrari 512 of Bucknum and Adamowicz. However, the Ferrari was struggling with valve spring issues, which slowed lap times by about 10 seconds per lap. They also had a fuel pick up problem necessitating extra pit stops. Meanwhile the Penske 512 was on pace to pass them both, but just before the Gulf car returned to the track, they lost an additional 13 minutes replacing a fuel pump belt which had broken.
The Rodriguez car, now smoking due to an oil leak, managed to get the lead back with just over an hour to go and hung on to win by 1 lap over the ailing NART Ferrari. The Penske car was third, 14 laps down. The fourth place car, a Corvette of DeLorenzo, Yenko and Mahler was 75 laps behind while the NART 312P was fifth after shift linkage issues, over 100 laps behind. Only 21 cars finished, but the day had been saved for Porsche by the Wyer mechanics.
However, the Ferrari’s and Penske had acquitted themselves well. Later that year when Porsche was looking for someone to run their 917 Can-Am team in 1972 – who did they call? Roger Penske – the rest they say, is history.
It had been my first Daytona 24-hour race. I was hooked, and it turned out, I would be back for many, many more!
All three of the main protagonists are still around today. The winning Porsche 917 was chassis #013/034 and according to Porsche records, it started life as #013, but was crashed during the making of Steve McQueen’s film Le Mans in 1970. It was rebuilt by Porsche using spare chassis #034, renumbered as #013 and eventually sold.
The second place Ferrari 512S was chassis #1006, which was campaigned by NART through both the 1970 and 1971 seasons. It was eventually sold to multiple buyers including Steve Earle, Chris Cord and Otis Chandler. It was the sold at auction in 2007 by Sotheby’s for €2.7 million. The Kirk F. White/Penske car was chassis #1040 and was sold after the 1971 season to one of White’s original investors in the car. Subsequently it was bought by Canadian Lawrence Stroll, and he still has it today, entering it in vintage events from time to time.
Written by: Martin Raffauf
Images by: Martin Raffauf, ISC & Daytona Archives, William Tuttle, Porsche Werkfoto