Where: Daytona International Speedway
What: Rolex 24 at Daytona
Who: A.J. Foyt, Darrell Waltrip
Take Super Tex, NASCAR’s biggest mouth, and add in an unknown driver from South America, and you just might have the weirdest driver lineup ever seen at the Daytona 24 Hours.
And it gets better. Four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt, two-time Winston Cup champ Darrell Waltrip and … according to the press release, “two-time Argentine Formula II champion Guillermo Maldonado” came together in 1983 to contest the famous endurance race with the fugly Aston Martin Nimrod prototype.
The melty, frog-inspired, V8-powered Aston was miles from being considered a long shot at IMSA’s biggest event, but it did have one thing going for it: prime backing from Pepsi. The Aston Martin, built and run by the Nimrod team in England, was almost eight seconds slower than the fastest Porsche 935s in the field. With the notorious reliability contained within the German cars, the Aston program was destined to become a short-lived promotional exercise for its beverage sponsor.
Pepsi’s cash made it possible to lure huge stars like Foyt and Waltrip into the program, and with the NASCAR driver’s over-the-top personality in mind, the outcome was pure comedy.
Waltrip’s pre-event quotes, given to former IndyCar pit reporter and “Pepsi-Cola Special Programs Manager” Jack Arute, speak to the fish-out-of-water sports car experience about to unfold:
“I was surprised how much [the Aston Martin Nimrod] had in common with the way a stock car goes around Daytona,” Waltrip said. “Of course, my helmet was bumping the roof and my knees were scrunched up to my chin. Other than that, this is the kind of car I think is capable of winning the race and the kind of car I like to drive. This British team certainly seems to have a knowledge of this kind of racing. I’m comfortable.”
What a brilliant line.
Yes, Darrell, one would hope the team in charge of sending you out in a 200mph prototype at Daytona would “have a knowledge of this kind of racing …”
For Foyt, whose last endurance race resulted in a historic win for Ford in 1967 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it fulfilled the wish of the big boss of NASCAR who had been requesting his presence at IMSA’s crown jewel, and with the Aston Martin Nimrod opportunity extended, he was able to turn the trip into a meaningful outing.
“Bill France called me three or four times to come run and I finally went because my daddy talked me into it,” Foyt told RACER‘s Robin Miller. “He was in a hospice and dying of cancer and told me to go out and have some fun.”
The fun, as you might suspect, was delivered by good old “DW.”
“Then Waltrip calls me and says there’s no way he’s driving a car with a welding torch in it,” Foyt continued. “I told him it wasn’t a welding torch – the Brits called flashlights a torch, and they must have said something about putting a torch inside the car and he got concerned. That was pretty damn funny.”
As expected, the Aston Martin “Pepsi Challenger” broke soon after the green flag waved.
“The Aston Martin blew up and I don’t think I even got to drive it before it blew,” Foyt recalled.
The January trip to Daytona, in the name of fun, ended in a less than glorious manner for Super Tex. Or had it?
“Then Preston Henn came down around midnight and asked if I wanted to drive his Porsche 935,” Foyt said. “Hell, I’d never driven a Porsche so I wasn’t sure how it shifted, and they had a spare car so I sat in that and practiced before I got into the racecar. They said later that Bob Wollek wasn’t too happy they put me in the car, but I think I did OK.”
Entered in an Aston Martin Nimrod to start the race, the first car Foyt drove in the 1983 Daytona 24 Hour contest was a Porsche 935 with the world’s grumpiest Frenchman. Foyt’s pace in the rain behind the wheel of that monstrous twin-turbo 935 is still spoken of with reverie by those who witnessed A.J.’s masterful performance.
He might have pocketed Pepsi’s money heading into the event, but he came away with something even better: a trip to Victory Lane as the overall winner alongside “Brilliant Bob” Wollek, Henn and Claude Ballot-Lena.
Not bad for an unexpected opportunity.
“I hadn’t been in a sports car for almost 20 years and it was fun,” Foyt said. “But I really wanted to win that race for daddy. And Bob and I became good friends.”