P.J. Jones is prepared to give up his outright lap record from the Rolex 24 At Daytona. But don’t mistake preparedness for happiness when it comes to seeing one of IMSA’s DPi drivers break the 26-year-old standard he set in 1993 behind the wheel of an All American Racers Eagle Mk III GTP machine.
Weather permitting, an Acura, Cadillac, Mazda, or Nissan could go well below the 1m33.875s lap he turned in qualifying more than a quarter-century ago. England’s Oliver Jarvis posted a blistering 1m33.398s in testing earlier this month in his Mazda RT24-P prototype, and in all likelihood, the record will change hands on Thursday when WeatherTech SportsCar Championship qualifying gets underway.
With the recent one-year anniversary of Dan Gurney’s passing, Jones wouldn’t mind keeping the Daytona record in his AAR family a little longer, and isn’t above asking Mother Nature to intervene.
“I never thought it would hold up this long,” he admitted. “You know, obviously there was rule changes, a little bit of a track change, but I mean, [I’m] so honored and able to set that track record and for it to be still standing. I pray for rain so I can at least have it for another year.
“And it’s just not really all about me, more about Gurney and more of a tribute to Dan and to see if we can hold it for another year or so and everybody at All American Racers.”
The Eagle Mk III made prodigious power and downforce in full road racing trim, but for IMSA’s longest endurance race on the calendar, both attributes were dialed back to suit the circuit’s layout, and to aid reliability. Even with a slightly tamed GTP car to wield, the son of Indy 500 legend Parnelli Jones found himself in a trance-like rhythm while flying through Daytona’s banking and its infield section.
Although the profile of Daytona’s ‘Bus Stop’ section that slows cars between NASCAR Turns 2 and 3 has been slightly reprofiled from the time when Jones rocketed around the 3.56-mile circuit with his 2.1-liter turbocharged Toyota four-cylinder wound to the heavens, it remains one of his cherished memories from the famous pole lap.
“The year, you know, when we set that record, and during that race, the bus stop was just one of my favorite segments,” he said. “Especially in that Eagle Mark III, we just drove down in there so deep, and almost to the ‘1’ [hundred-foot braking] marker and pretty much where we were everywhere.
“The closing rate from the slower traffic, you know we’re running 200 mph. They’re backing off at the ‘3’ marker or so from 150mph and we’re running 200…we’re going almost to the ‘1’ marker and we just powered through the Bus Stop. The car had so much downforce and was so nimble and just had big sideboards on it to where we could get the car out in a little bit of a yaw and it would just hunker right through there.”
The Eagle Mk III obliterated IMSA’s GTP competition from the moment it was introduced halfway through the 1991 season through the end of the GTP era following the 1993 championship. Coming into the last GTP season, IMSA did its best to cage the Mk III by forcing its motor to draw air from a restrictor opening so small, Gurney likened it to a ‘hummingbird’s a**hole.’
Jones recalls having to drive exceptionally hard to set new records with the de-tuned Eagle, which led to some high-risk moments behind the wheel.
“They kept restricting us and slowing us down so we really had to maximize our cornering and our braking and all that in order to set all these records,” he said. “So I would think to myself okay, what can I do to just get a little bit more and it was like, okay so I lifted here going into one, so I am going to go in a little deeper and I’m going to get back in the throttle a little bit more.
“Then you would just go through every corner and analyze what you could do and one of the places if, I had to look back, is you make up a lot of time in places like the Bus Stop. You drove it with bravery and muscles, because we didn’t have power steering.”
“The sheer [speed] with carbon-carbon brakes [and] that 18-inch-wide tire. 10,000 pounds of downforce at 200 miles an hour. We were only running about 200 miles an hour down the straightaway and yeah, in today’s numbers, that was probably pretty good.”
For an aggressive driver like Jones, learning to extract the Eagle Mk III’s full potential took place in the transitions from high speed to low speed, and getting back on the throttle with immediacy. It’s the same process for every driver, but few have been given the greatest GTP car ever made — one that reached heights never seen before or after — and been asked to explore the scariest of limits.
“When you brake and it’s almost four Gs … my dad watched me at Phoenix International on the road course there and he was just walking in … and he wasn’t paying attention or anything,” Jones continued. “He just walked in and he saw me coming down the straightaway into Turn 1 there and pulling off the oval into the road course at Phoenix and he goes, ‘Oh my God, the throttle just stuck.’
“No, the throttle didn’t stick, we just drive them in that far. They were just incredible machines. I don’t think anybody at All American Racers really knew how good those cars were going to get.
“But that car was like that, you just grunted up and I’m bigger than Fangio was, and I was stronger and I could put a little more caster in it and I could get the car to turn a little bit better and that was one of the reasons I was able to out-qualify him a little bit more in ’93.”
Provided IMSA crowns a new lap-record holder on Thursday, Jones will indeed approve of the achievement, knowing that it took decades of advancements to topple one of sports car racing’s most enduring feats.
“Hey, records are made to be broken and we all race and these guys are obviously working very hard and they have less horsepower and t rules are completely different, so they’re doing it a lot more efficiently,” he said. “That just tells you what kind of team Mazda [has], or whoever breaks it, and you know, maybe their record will hold up for many years.”
Enjoy the full interview below, including P.J.’s tale of getting sideways in the Eagle Mk III and letting go of the steering wheel…