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Mind races with memories, magnitude of another 24-hour race at Daytona


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DAYTONA BEACH – The smell of hot grease, tire dust and molten brake pads was invigorating Saturday afternoon. Nothing makes the mind race faster than watching 61 sports cars at top speed make a sharp left turn off the trioval and into the first corner for the first of what turned out to be 783 circuits around the 3.81-mile road course at the Daytona International Speedway.

The sounds of high-pitched, high-powered engines were captivating, but nothing stirred the senses more than sharing the excitement with the largest crowd to see a sports car race in United States history.

Daytona was packed. And crazy. And alive.

Last weekend’s race was my 45th in a row, and I’ve never been part of a more electric atmosphere. Attendance records for the twice-around-the-clock marathon were shattered hours before the command to start engines and many were still there – most with bloodshot eyes and a fuzzy memory – when an Acura ARX-05 prototype won the race after driving 2983.23 miles – about the distance between Orange Park and Seattle. With five different classes, watching the sleek hybrid prototypes navigate around the pedestrian Ferraris, Aston Martins, Corvettes, Mercedes, Porsches and BMWs was remarkable. The GTD PRO class-winning Mercedes-AMG GT3 finished nearly 206 miles behind the overall-winning Acura, so the mix of speeds enhanced the experience.

Like many other sports car races at Daytona, this year’s had memorable moments – one to forget; one to never forget.

Less than five minutes into the race, an LMP2 prototype driven by John Farano rolled to a stop in the middle of the high banks of the superspeedway portion of the track. His water bottle sprung a leak and the water shorted out the electric system. A $510,000 car and a year of development all were erased because a sippy cup had a drip.

One of the memorable moments came in the final quarter mile when James Allen erased a 40-yard deficit coming off the fourth turn and he passed Ben Hanley to win the LMP2 class by eight inches.

Those are two new memories that will be added to my list of funny, improbable and bizarre moments I’ve seen in the last 45 years.

When South Florida flea market owner Preston Henn brought a Porsche 962 to Daytona, he also brought legendary drivers A.J. Foyt, Bob Wollek, Al Unser and Thierry Boutsen – and sponsorship from Barnett Bank. The problem was, the race was sponsored by SunBank in 1985. When Henn’s car won, the speedway had one of its employees sit on the Barnett Bank logos on the car in Victory Lane to make sure they kept SunBank happy.

While the winning Acura was only four seconds ahead of a similar Acura, some finishes haven’t been as close.

In 1979, the turbocharger on the Porsche 935 for Hurley Haywood, Ted Field and Danny Ongais started to seize, but since they were more than 50 laps ahead of the second-place car, they parked on the track apron, a few feet from the finish line and waited for the final seven minutes to wind down. As soon as the clock struck 24 hours, Ongais managed to get the crippled car to chug across the line.

And in 1992, the Nissan factory used three of its company drivers and it spent millions on its R91CP. The result was so impressive, the company brought the car onto pit road to get it washed and waxed during the final hour so it would look good for publicity photos. They still won by nine laps, and all three drivers left their $15,000 Cosmograph Daytona Rolex watches at the track so they could quickly return to Japan.

Also, Porsche Experience in Atlanta lists every Rolex 24 winner – except one.

In 2010, Action Express’ Joao Barbosa, Terry Borcheller, Ryan Dalziel and Mike Rockenfeller won in a Porsche-powered Riley MkXI. The problem was, Porsche refused to claim the engine as one of its own since it was built specially by former Brumos Porsche owner Bob Snodgrass.

Rock and racing fans were shocked to see ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard sleeping in a lawn chair on the pit road. He was part of a driving team for a Porsche 911 that finished 15th overall in 1992.

There are stories of Bob Whittington cutting a hole in the chain-linked fence to push his car from the infield and into the garage area; Paul Newman winning the GTS-1 class in 1995; and the year when Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were 20 minutes away from winning in 2004 when a piece of the rear suspension broke on the backstretch.

Now that my ears aren’t ringing anymore and I’m not suffering from sleep deprivation, I’ve already started my countdown for next year’s race. I can’t wait to make new memories.