Heavens To Murgatroyd! – Big surprise at the 1969 24 Hours of Daytona
If you had attended the 1969 24 Hours of Daytona or had read about it in your local paper the following Monday the results of that event might have elicited a phrase such as Heavens To Murgatroyd!
While that phrase might not be familiar to today’s younger generation, it was certainly familiar to young people in 1969 who might have been fans of the Yogi Bear TV show or to their parents who were familiar with a 1940’s era movie star by the name of Bert Lahr. His best known role was that of the Cowardly Lion in the classic movie The Wizard of Oz.
On the track that Sunday afternoon when the checkered flag dropped at 3:08 pm the comments wouldn’t have been as mundane. I won’t repeat in this publication what I overhead that day since this is a family-friendly publication.
This was a race that saw the unexpected happen. The mighty Porsche factory team that finished 1-2-3 at Daytona in 1968 would see all five of their Porsche 908’s fail to finish. The two Ferrari-killing Ford GT40’s of John Wyer Automotive also failed to finish. The winning car that outlasted these titans was the Eric Broadley-designed Lola T70 Mk. IIIB entered by Roger Penske and driven by Mark Donohue and Chuck Parsons. Another Lola T70 Mark III came in second and this one was entered by none other than actor James Garner and his American International Racers (AIR) team. An ACTOR! Who would have “thunk” it?
I think I am getting ahead of myself in telling this story. It all started out normally enough in 1969. There was the annual migration in late January of racers and sports car fans to Daytona Beach for the first big international endurance race of the year, otherwise known as the 24 Hours of Daytona.
On the beach side of the city of Daytona the main artery, known as A1A, was clogged with exotic automobiles like Ferraris, Alfas, Cobras, and Lancias with a sprinkling of MG’s, TR4’s and the usual assortment of domestic iron from Ford and Chevrolet.
The race fans driving some of those “furrin” cars were quite different from the race fans who normally come later for Speed Weeks and the Daytona 500. These “Furriners” and “Yankees” sported longer hair and sideburns and wore what some called modish fashions. There were also the young women with their long hair, short skirts and boots. And some of them even wore cut-out dresses that exposed great expanses of the female anatomy. No doubt more than one resident senior citizen had to be treated for neck problems. Why? From all the head twisting and turning in an attempt to get a better view of the young ladies walking by the tourist shops and head shops on Main Street.
At the Daytona Speedway in the last week of January the infield was already filling up with every imaginable kind of van, trailer and tow vehicle. Racers and course workers alike were already staking out a spot for their rental trucks, cars, tents, canopies and other equipment.
Those on a limited budget (which included many racers, fans & workers) either planned to sleep in their cars for several days or slept outside in sleeping bags placed on aluminum lounge chairs. This could present a problem for some because Daytona in January and early February can get a little chilly. Thick damp fogs have been known to roll in off the Atlantic Ocean making life miserable for all concerned and racing on the track extremely dangerous.
The talk at the track in 1969 was whether Porsche would repeat its 1-2-3 finish from the previous year and prospects for this looked good. The factory had brought over five Porsche 908L’s that were only slightly different from the previous year’s winners except with larger engines (2.2 to 3-liter) and different spoilers. The “L” designation (some prefer LH) stood for Langheck or long tail. Porsche had experienced problems with the shorter body 908 when at speeds in excess of 190 mph the tail began to lift. The longer body and new rear spoiler gave them the downforce needed to correct that problem at high speed tracks like Daytona and Le Mans.