Next weekend, Daytona International Speedway unveils its $400 million motorsports stadium with the Rolex 24 At Daytona, an event featuring the awaited debut of the new Ford GT, taking on the new Ferrari 488, among others.
History repeats itself.
Fifty years ago, the battle between Ford and Ferrari for international sports car supremacy was at its zenith. Daytona promoter Bill France Sr. felt the time was right to extend the Daytona Continental to the now famous 24-hour distance on the unique circuit, which featured an infield road course tucked inside a high-banked 2.5-mile superspeedway.
The move not only virtually doubled the 2,000-kilometer distance, it also elevated Daytona to one of the world’s top three endurance races, along with the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 12 Hours of Sebring. The race also took its place towards the FIA World Manufacturer’s Championship.
Not taking any chances, Ford brought two factory teams to the race. Shelby American brought three new GT40s, designated Mark IIs, for the driver pairings of Ken Miles/Lloyd Ruby, Dan Gurner/Jerry Grant and Chris Amon/Bruce McLaren. Ford’s main NASCAR team, Holman and Moody, entered a pair of Ford Mark IIs, for Walt Hansgen/Mark Donohue and Richie Ginther/Ronnie Peterson.
Ferrari was represented by Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team, led by Mexican star Pedro Rodriguez and young American sensation Mario Andretti in an upgraded Ferrari 365P3, one of 10 Ferraris in the 59-car field.
Chevrolet also attracted plenty of attention with Jim Hall’s Chaparral, driven by American F1 World Champion Phil Hill and Jo Bonnier. That car qualified second, featuring a unique automatic transmission and an air spoiler controlled from inside the cockpit.
Bonnier led the first lap in the Chaparral, although the Swede pitted after only 16 minutes to repair a loose fan belt. One hour later, a steering malfunction dropped the team out of contention.
Miles took the lead on the second lap, with Ford leading the remainder of the event. Hansgen managed to lead when Miles pitted, but the No. 98 GT regained the point eight laps later and led the remainder of the race.
Gurney and Grant finished second, eight laps down, followed by Hansgen and Donohue.
Some of the best racing came at dawn on Sunday, when Rodriguez challenged Gurney for third in a battle between former Daytona winners. Gurney held on, breaking Phil Hill’s race lap record in the process.
It was the second consecutive Daytona victory for Miles and Ruby, who gave the Ford GT40 its first victory in the 1995 event. The team selected an aggressive 2:04 target pace and stuck to it throughout the race on the 3.810-mile circuit. They kept to a schedule of running double shifts (three hours), with no sleep for either driver.
“The first 12 hours was just like last year,” Ruby said. “But the last 12 hours was sheer, grinding perseverance.”
Rodriguez and Andretti finished fourth, with the Pennsylvanian competing in his first 24-hour race.
Making his debut as a car owner in the event was Roger Penske, who gave up driving in order to purchase a Chevrolet dealership in Philadelphia. He fielded a Corvette in the race which finished 12th and won its class with Dick Guldstrand, Ben Moore and George Wintersteen at the wheel.
Other competitors included future NASCAR star Bobby Allison, who parked his Corvair after 63 laps; Jacky Ickx, whose endurance racing debut also ended early, and future Indy 500 groundbreaker Janet Guthrie, part of two three-woman teams in the race.
The race featured extreme swings in temperature, starting at 47 degrees and dropping to a frigid 17 during the night. For the first time, a General Electric computer was used to time the race – although it ceased functioning due to the freezing conditions. Officially, a 120-person team scored the race.
Also in the event was Scranton, Pa.’s Oscar Koveleski, who went on to race in Can-Am while launching the popular Auto World catalog store for slot cars and model cars. After he and Hal Keck dominated the 1965 Watkins Glen 500 by four laps, Carol Shelby persuaded Keck and Koveleski to try their luck at Daytona.
“We felt if we could just stay on track, we could whip everybody,” said Koveleski, who continues to attend the event as a member of the Road Racing Drivers Club. “We had a crew of only five or six people, which included our wives. We were going good until our right-rear axle blew apart.”
France was happy with the move to 24 hours, announcing that the attendance was a Daytona sports car record and tripled the 1965 figure.
“We didn’t make a bundle on the 24-hour race, but we did start building towards a race that will become one of the great automotive events in the world,” France told the Daytona Beach Morning Journal – a statement proven accurate by 50 years of racing history.