As many were going to lunch Jackie Oliver brought in the leading car ahead of schedule. Somewhere on the high banks the transmission on his 917 crapped out and he coasted down pit lane to the Gulf pits with the transmission stuck in high gear.
Under normal circumstances this would be a simple repair because they had plenty of time. Just swap out the damaged transmission for a working one. However FIA rules didn’t allow this. You had to fix the damaged transmission, but was there enough time to do so?
John Wyer decided to go for it and the Porsche mechanics bent to a task that many, who were witness to it (including me), thought was impossible, totally rebuild the transmission one gear at a time in less than two hours.
As if this drama at the Speedway wasn’t enough, something happened outside the track that brought everyone in the grandstands to their feet in shock and horror.
At the Daytona International Airport, adjacent to the Speedway, a private plane had just taken off and at about 100 feet off the tarmac lost power, stalled and nose dived into the ground producing a huge ball of flaming black smoke. It took the airport crews over 15 minutes to douse the flames and the occupants were burned beyond recognition.
Back at the Speedway the Porsche mechanics were working feverishly to make the transmission repairs as the Bucknum – Adamowicz Ferrari 512S steadily chipped away at their lead. From the pit enclosure Rodriguez and Oliver watch, mostly in silence. They were both exhausted because, like most drivers, neither had slept since Friday night but they were both alert and ready to race.
After what seemed an interminable 92 minutes the car was ready to reenter the race. The time was now 1:05 p.m. with just under two hours left to go. However, they had lost their huge lead and were now second behind the Bucknum – Adamowicz Ferrari by almost three laps with the Donohue – Hobbs Ferrari coming up fast in third place just two laps behind the Porsche.
The “little Mexican” Pedro Rodriguez was tasked with regaining that lead and since the Porsche 917K (when healthy) was 10 to 12 seconds a lap faster than the ailing Ferrari 512S it seemed possible, and it was. In a brilliant feat of “balls-to-the-wall” driving, Rodriguez regained the lead in a remarkably short 33 minutes.
What followed then were two unscheduled pit stops for Porsche, both for tires. A brief rain shower forced the Porsche to pit for rain tires. It was over quickly and when the track dried sufficiently they pitted again for slicks. During one of those stops they lost the lead to the Bucknum – Adamowicz Ferrari which stayed out the entire time on slicks.
When Rodriguez took the checked flag at 3 p.m. he was ahead of the Bucknum – Adamowicz Ferrari by just over one lap. This was the closest finish at the Daytona 24 in the history of the event up to that time.
The Rodriguez – Oliver Porsche 917K averaged 109.203 m.p.h. and covered 2,621 miles making it the second fastest Daytona 24 up to that time.
For their efforts the JW/Gulf Porsche team was awarded $17,000 of the $55,000 total purse for the event. Bucknum – Adamowicz got $6,800 for second place, Donohue and Hobbs got $3,700 for third place, DeLorenzo and Yenko got $1,400 for fourth and Chinetti and Veiga got $500 for coming in fifth.
The nail-biting drama that occurred during those last three hours saved the race from becoming a boring runaway by Porsche and turned it into a contest worthy of remembering. Despite the fact that there were no “factory” teams entered at Daytona in 1971, the 24 Hours of Daytona was full excitement and drama worthy of any international event. Unfortunately it was also the last time the very popular, and now legendary, 917s and 512s would race competitively at Daytona. It was the end of an era.