A lot of people have asked me over the years, what is it like to plan, prepare for and run a 24-hour sports car race. It has changed somewhat over the years from the days of the Porsche 935 at the 1981 Daytona 24 Hours. Many of today’s cars are way over-engineered for what is required, reference IMSA DP cars. Technology is relatively low, and if you build them correctly, they can be driven very hard for a long time. Restrictors, rev limits, boost limits, etc. limit the amount of potential damage that can be done by pushing too hard. Likewise, factories like Toyota, Porsche and Audi, spend hundreds of millions of dollars building and preparing very complex cars to run at Le Mans flat out for 24 hours. Cars pretty much run lap times in the race similar to what they qualify at.
This was not the case in the day of the Porsche 935. Preparation and how hard you pushed (or drove) were limiting factors to finishing and or winning. There were no restrictors at all, and engines run at high turbo boost pressure, would usually fail. The Achilles heel of the engine was the cylinder head gasket and high boost pressure created a lot of heat which was not good for engine life. High boost was also detrimental to the turbos. We would routinely qualify at one speed, and then race at a much slower pace, especially for the long races. The fine line was always to run as hard as you could, but not break anything. The Porsche 935, however, was more reliable than almost anything else running. Put together correctly and driven smartly, it was a very reliable car.
After the 1980 season, Dick Barbour had stopped racing, and Bob Garretson had bought chassis 009 0030 (the Apple Car in 1980), and was going to run it in 1981 IMSA and Le Mans. A deal was done to run the Cooke Woods racing team for the 1981 season. Bob would run in the 935, and after the enduros, a new Lola T600 Chevrolet would be added to the program for Brian Redman to attempt to win the IMSA championship. The 935 would be used for the two Florida enduros, as it was going to be more reliable and was a tested, known quantity, and the Lola was brand new. In any case the Lola was not ready in time to run the first races.
By Early January, the team was full speed ahead, preparing the 935 for the 24-hours, and Bob Garretson, Bobby Rahal and Brian Redman would be the drivers. The car was stripped down to the UniBody chassis and every major component was checked, crack tested and rebuilt. All the suspension, front uprights and rear trailing arms were sent for crack checking and then were rebuilt with new bearings. The Titanium drive shafts were completely stripped, sent for crack check and rebuilt with new rubber guibos. At this point the gearbox had been turned upside down in the car, in order to lessen the angle of the drive shafts and lower the centre of gravity. The Gearbox was also totally rebuilt with all new gears and synchros. The 935 gearbox was basically a beefed up 930 street ‘box so used the same synchro technology. The engine, clutch and flywheel were all brand new. Every other Porsche team was going to run a 2.8 or 3.0-litre engine, as this was the factory recommendation for longevity. Jerry Woods was taking a different approach. He built a 3.2-liter engine, the logic being we would run lower boost, but have more torque than the 2.8 or 3.0 litre, in theory making the car more reliable, being able to do the same speed with less wear on the car. The turbos were new or freshly rebuilt units from Fred Garretson in Southern California. The brakes were totally replaced, with all new rotors and pads, and the callipers had also been rebuilt. As this was a night race, all electrics and lights had to be checked and tested, all bulbs changed, or new light fixtures installed.
Another big work area were the wheels. We ran the three-piece BBS wheels, and these all got stripped, all the centres were crack-checked and then either replaced or reassembled with all new bolts and washers. Of course, spares for everything were required, so that all had to be prepared as well.
At that point in time, I was working at IBM as an engineer during the day, and at the shop as a mechanic most nights. The week before the race week, I had to go to Atlanta for an IBM meeting, so I left with the thinking that the truck would be gone by the time I got back, so I completed as much as I could before I left town. I arrived back very late Friday, and went by the shop early on Saturday just to make sure all had gone well and the truck had departed for Daytona. I was surprised to see the truck was still there. In the office, Bob Garretson was asleep on his desk, he had been there all night. Greg Eliff, the crew chief, was there but sort of staggering around, he had been up all night too. Jerry Woods was napping over at the engine shop on a desk. The car was still sitting there, no engine or gearbox installed, no rear suspension, and nowhere near ready to go. Greg, said, “Oh good, you are here, can you go build the drive shafts, I did not have time to get them done.” The shop looked like a hurricane had come through with parts and pieces everywhere.
I did not see right off, how we were going to make it at all. Normally the truck would leave the Friday before to arrive at Daytona by Tuesday. Here it was already Saturday, and we were not even close to that. A full-out thrash ensued until late Sunday, when everything was loaded up and sent whether it was ready or not. Some work would just have to be completed at the track during the practice time. Jack McAfee, our truck driver took off late on Sunday, and somehow made to Daytona by late Tuesday, we did not ask how he did it. What log book? Jack was a great driver in his own right in the 1950s and early 1960s in the USA, and he won a lot of races, especially in Porsches. He ran multiple times in events like the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico, and knew most of the US tracks very well. During the 1980 season, John Fitzpatrick would routinely take track tips from Jack, when we got to circuits that John was unfamiliar with. We definitely had the most qualified truck driver in the paddock!
While most teams spent practice and qualifying setting up the car for the 1981 Daytona 24 Hours, we spent most of the time still building the car. I spent a lot of time shot peening and preparing brake disc sets. Most of practice that we did run, we just drove around, making sure everything was working properly. For qualifying we sent Brian Redman out with all new brakes and pads, and used the session to scrub in race brake pads, and we qualified a lowly 16th. The crew were pretty down after qualifying, but Brian told us, “Don’t worry, the car is very good, I am confident.” So, while we looked like we were a disorganised bunch, we had a plan, and we were sticking to it.
At the start, everyone took off like gangbusters and 935 engines started blowing up almost immediately, Whittington, Interscope, Bayside, Heimrath, Fitzpatrick all had early engine problems. At that time, engine changes were allowed, so all these teams stopped and changed engines. It took about 30-45 minutes if you had a complete engine ready to go, but of course most did not, so a bunch of parts had to be swapped as well. I think the Whittingtons changed two engines and then gave up. After about four hours, Bobby Rahal, took the lead. Redman was furious, “Why are you pushing so hard,” he said, “it’s too early.” Rahal, just said, “I did not pass anyone, I am just driving around, and they are all falling out.” Our guys were driving conservatively but Brian was concerned about the brakes, and so he had everyone tapping the brakes slightly as they came through the tri-oval before turn one, so as to help preserve the drilled front rotors, as they would tend to crack over time. In 1981 there was no chicane at Daytona, and in a good 935 you entered the east banking at somewhere around 212mph, so Goodyear had special right side tyres to survive the banking.
By midnight we were several laps ahead. The second Interscope car crashed with a GTU car and was out. We even stopped to change an exhaust pipe, which was taken out by some debris, but we still maintained the lead. We were cruising, and Brian came in at around 6:45 am after driving two stints and asked, “Where is breakfast?” The crew said, “Well, we don’t know, nothing has been organised yet.” So, Brian after driving for two hours said, “Okay, I will take care of it.” He got in a rental car, and still in his driver’s uniform drove out across the street to McDonalds, and picked up breakfast for all of us, then sat in the pits and ate with the mechanics. After Breakfast, he noticed some glasses on the tool box, and asked, whose glasses are these. I informed him that they were Bob Garretson’s glasses, he had taken over when Brian got out at 6:45 am, and is driving without them. “What,” Brian exclaimed, “we have to get him out of there.” Bob came in at that point to pit for fuel and continue his second stint, but Brian basically jumped over the wall, and told Bob to get out. In the noise and such, there was some confusion as Bob was expecting to do two stints. After Brian left the pits, Bob asked us, “What was all that about, why did he want me out?” We said, “Well, he noticed you had gotten in without your glasses and started freaking out!” Bob laughed and said, “Yes okay, I don’t need my glasses for driving, just for up close work.” At the next pit stop they changed again, and Brian let him get in, after he checked to make sure Bob was wearing his glasses!
By Sunday morning, after the Andial 935 blew up their second engine and caught fire, only our car and the Akin car were still running strongly at all, and they had lost some number of laps in the night due to an off in an oil slick. We just ran off the remaining time and won easily but the attrition had been very high in the 1981 Daytona 24 Hours. Bob Akin’s car finished second and Bill Koll in a GTU 911 was third overall!
A funny exchange occurred in the week after the race. Back at the shop, Jerry Woods got a fax from the Porsche factory, asking for the engine specifications. They wanted to update their records I guess, so Jerry typed up a response, and faxed it back. Within minutes, there was another fax from Porsche, which said, “There must be some mistake, you have sent back the bore and stroke for a 3.2-liter engine. You must be mistaken, you cannot run this engine for 24 hours. Everyone else ran a 2.8 or 3.0-liter engine.” Jerry faxed back, “No, no mistake, we ran a 3.2-litre engine.” What could not be done – we had done! From then on, everyone ran 3.2-litre engines all the time, even in the long races. So even Porsche learned something, although they would never admit it.
So, when people ask about long distance racing and preparation, I tell them about Daytona 1981. Preparation and planning are key to success. Luck always helps also, but you can make your own luck with preparation and planning.
Words by: Martin Raffauf
Images by: Porsche & Martin Raffauf