By Don Coble Editor-in-Chief
Hurley Haywood still remembers being overwhelmed by the enormity and importance the first time he came to Daytona International Speedway.
It was in 1973.
“I remember the first time I walked through the tunnel, it took my breath away,” Haywood said.
His emotions haven’t changed.
Now 73, the legendary runner from St. Augustine is still overwhelmed by the purr of a sports car and the daunting challenge of racing nonstop for 24 hours on the 3.54-mile road course.
Haywood returned to Daytona for last weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. Although he is no longer driving the iconic red, white and blue colors of Brumos Racing, he will forever be remembered as one of the pioneers of endurance racing. More importantly, he knows he helped steer the IMSA sports car series down a path of rebirth and growth.
“It’s great to see the speedway for the 24-hour endurance program packed with spectators,” he said minutes after a 61-car field took the green flag to start the 24-hour marathon. on 24. “The infield, there is not a blade of grass available. I think it’s a record crowd. I haven’t seen a crowd here in the 24 years I’ve been running here, the amount of people that were there (before the race). It’s really cool. And that shows you that IMSA is on the right track. Great cars. Great pilots. A truly international platform. It seems to work.
Sports car racing has been looking for more secure footing for years. Shrinking fields, rising costs, lack of builder support and ever-changing rules have forced several teams – including Brumos – on the sidelines.
If last weekend’s race is any indication, the work done behind the scenes by IMSA officials and the work done by the race teams in the garage area has paid off.
“It’s not something that happened overnight. It’s been evolving for a while,” Haywood said.
The endurance run kicked off a week early with a three-day Roar Before the 24 workout. Fans were allowed to wander around the busy garage, often inches away from $500,000 race cars, to create impressions that last a lifetime.
The track also opened to scouts for free. Nearly half of the thousands of fans in attendance at the test were children.
“IMSA and the folks at NASCAR know how to engage fans and keep fans with this kind of personalized way where kids and adults can connect with drivers and team owners, and they remember that,” said Haywood. “I remember when I was just starting out, Darrell Waltrip was sitting next to me at an autograph session and he said if you want to have a fan for life, you have a direct conversation with them, watch them in eyes, shake his hand and start a conversation about anything and he’ll be a fan forever.
Despite the threat of the coldest nighttime temperatures in nearly 50 years, every seat in the infield was taken by fans ready to brave the cold to watch prototypes powered by Cadillac, Oreca and Acura, as well as a crowd of luxury cars like Lexus, Mercedes, Ferrari, BMW, Porsche, Ligier, McLaren, Chevrolet Corvette, Lamborghini and Aston Martin weave through the flat field and around the high banks of the superspeedway.
“Now you have a field of 61 cars – all class cars; all very good cars, all with very good experienced drivers,” said Haywood. “The chances of these cars breaking are very slim. They’re bulletproof. Now it’s all about the drivers and the ones who make the fewest mistakes are the ones who are going to get away with it.”
On Sunday afternoon, an Acura-powered prototype driven by defending Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, Oliver Jarvis, Tom Blomqvist and Simon Pagenaud had the fastest car and fewest mistakes to outlast everyone.
And in the process, they covered 2,693.94 miles – the distance to Omaha, Nebraska, and back in a single day.
More impressive – and appealing to fans – was the fact that there were 76 lead changes across seven different space sports cars.
The real winners, however, are a series that is back on the fast track to racing prominence and the thousands of new fans it created last weekend.