January 2012 marks the Golden Anniversary (50th) of sports car endurance racing at the Daytona International Speedway (DIS) in Daytona Beach, Florida.
DIS was opened in 1959 by NASCAR founder, Bill France, Sr., after years of driving in and promoting stock car racing on the beaches of the Daytona area. From the beginning the new speedway was associated with stock car racing and to this day is well known for America’s premier stock car racing event known as the Daytona 500 or “The Great American Race.”
However, from the earliest days of planning Mr. France wanted his racing facility to be a multi-use racing venue capable of hosting stock car, sports car and motorcycle racing events. To that end he incorporated an infield road course into the construction plans.
When he combined the 2.5 mile high-banked NASCAR tri-oval with the infield road course it produced a unique 3.81 mile racing surface suitable for European-style endurance racing. This unique combination of surfaces had its critics. In August of 1959 Motor Trend’s publication Sportscar Graphic raised the question, “Daytona: Is it too fast?”
From its opening day in 1959 the Speedway has been host to many Sports Car Club of America Regional and National events as well as the then nationally known Paul Whiteman Trophy Races for sports cars. Those events utilized the tri-oval as well as the infield course and in a sense were testing sessions for what was to follow in 1962.
During this period in time Alec Ulmann’s Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance was well established at Sebring, Florida. It was touted in the automotive press as the premier sports car racing event in North America.
Mr. France could not help but notice this and probably envied the national and international prestige the Sebring race garnered each year. Finally in 1961 France was able to get the international governing body of racing (FIA) to sanction a three-hour event to be held at the Daytona track in January of 1962. This event would be a points race and part of the World Sportscar Championship (WSC).
The first event of the 1962 WSC season would draw some of the best cars and drivers in the world to the Daytona facility. Among those entering the race that year were Dan Gurney in a Lotus 19B, Formula One champ, Phil Hill, and co-driver Ricardo Rodriguez in a Ferrari Dino 246 SP, Jim Hall in a Chaparral 1, driving Ferrari 250 GTs would be Stirling Moss, Oliver Gendebien and NASCAR star Glen “Fireball” Roberts. Roberts commented to the media that he had resorted to hand gestures to communicate with his mechanics because he knew no Italian and they knew no English. In addition another NASCAR veteran, Marvin Panch, would be driving a Corvette, Roger Penske would be in a Cooper-Climax, and Jim Clark would drive a Lotus Elite.
Other well-known racing names included David Hobbs, Jo Bonnier, Pedro Rodriguez, Briggs Cunningham, Roger Ward, Indy 500 champion A. J. Foyt driving a Pontiac Tempest and Joe Weatherly driving a Lister-Corvette. Weatherly raised some eyebrows among the other drivers by wearing pink powder puffs on each wrist as goggle wipers. This was quite an impressive field of FIA, SCCA, NASCAR and USAC champion drivers for the Daytona inaugural.
One prominent American sports car driver who failed to make the start of the race was Augie Pabst. His ‘Birdcage’ Maserati blew an engine during practice for the event. When it happened he was on the high banks doing about 150 mph. The car flipped end over end and he was thrown free.
The 27-year-old driver and great-grandson of the founder of Pabst Brewing Company sustained fractured ribs, multiple cuts over the face and body, and some internal injuries. His condition was listed as fair at the time but he would recover and go on to drive another day.