Race Weekend Central

Turning Back the Clock: 1996 Rolex 24 at Daytona

Hello, race fans. This season, we’re upping the amount of coverage for the Rolex Sports Car Series. I will be in Daytona for the race and plan on spending the entire race at the track. Be sure to follow Frontstretch on Twitter at @Frontstretch for up to the minute updates from Daytona Beach this weekend.

The 24 Hours of Daytona traditionally marks the beginning of Speedweeks. Up until recently, the event was held the weekend before the now-Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona. However, the race was moved up a week to avoid a conflict with the Super Bowl. Originally a three-hour event dubbed the Daytona Continental, the race expanded to 24 hours for the first time in 1966 and has been a major test for sports car teams from around the world ever since. In years past, the entry list would be filled with the best from North America and Europe battling it out for class and overall honors.

However, since Grand-Am introduced the Daytona Prototype (DP) class for the 2003 season, the participation by international teams has dropped off to almost nil. Series rules make the race very unattractive for teams that do not ordinarily run in the United States since the rules are quite different from any other series in the GT class. The Daytona Prototypes are almost completely exclusive to Grand-Am (the sole exception is the Mooncraft Shiden that formerly ran in the GT300 class of SuperGT, which was based off of a Riley chassis).

Back in 1996, the international influence was most definitely still in play. The turn out was huge, and all three competing classes were competitive. The race turned out to be the crown jewel in one driver’s career, but it will be best known as the coming out party for a Italian racer.

At the time, there was one unified sports car series in the United States, the International Motor Sports Association, or IMSA. Today, they’re considered to be a sanctioning body for American Le Mans, but they don’t run the series. In 1996, they did.

There were three classes running in the Rolex 24 in 1996. The top class was the World Sports Car, or WSC Class, featuring open-cockpit prototypes. By 1996, the class was an all-out battle between teams running the Dallara-built Ferrari 333SP and teams with the Riley & Scott Mk III running either Ford or Oldsmobile engines. The GTS-1 class was home to mainly purpose-built racers that looked relatively similar to street cars. In practice, many GTS-1 cars were similar to those racing in Trans-Am at the time (Camaros, Mustangs, etc.). Finally, the GTS-2 class mainly consisted of Porsche 911s, although there were some other cars in play.

Qualifying identified three teams that were significantly than everyone else in the WSC class. The No. 30 Momo Ferrari for Moretti Racing won the pole with a time of 101.224 seconds (126.610 mph). The No. 30 would be shared by Didier Theys, Gianpiero Moretti, Bob Wollek and Max Papis. The No. 4 Wayne Taylor Racing Riley & Scott Mk III with Oldsmobile power was three-tenths behind in second. The 4.0 liter production-based Aurora V8 in Taylor’s car was a detuned version of the engine that General Motors eventually used in the Indy Racing League when the series transitioned to production-based naturally aspirated engines in 1997 (and dominated for many years afterwards). Taylor himself co-drove, along with Scott Sharp and Jim Pace. Third was the Team Scandia No. 3 Ferrari with the driving team of team owner Andy Evans, Mauro Baldi, Fermin Velez and Michele Alboreto. The Dyson Racing No. 20, which qualified fourth, was a full four seconds off the pole.

However, Dyson Racing elected to use a very unusual strategy for the race. They would start their No. 16 while the No. 20 sat on the sidelines in case something happened to the No. 16. As a result, the Screaming Eagles Riley and Scott Ford No. 2 of team owner Craig T. Nelson (yes, that Craig T. Nelson), Case Montgomery, Johnny O’Connell, and Dan Clark technically moved up to fourth on the grid.

In the GTS-1 class, the brand new Brix Racing factory-backed Oldsmobile Aurora made its debut at Daytona. In qualifying, it did not disappoint. The No. 1 Aurora, which would be shared by Irv Hoerr, Mike Borkowski, Darin Brassfield and Brian Cunningham, won the class pole with a time of 110.071 seconds (116.434 mph), good enough for 11th overall. The No. 90 Oldsmobile Cutlass of Tommy Riggins, Craig Carter, Les Delano and Andy Petery was second in class (13th overall), while the Champion Racing No. 74 Porsche 911 GT2 Evolution was third in class with an all-star lineup of Hans-Joachim Stuck, Bill Adam, and Thierry Boutsen.

Meanwhile, in GTS-2, the No. 06 PTG BMW M3 won the class pole (32nd overall) with the driving team of Javier Quiros, John Paul Jr., Bill Adams and David Donohue. Their team car, the No. 07, was right behind. The No. 99 Schumacher Racing Porsche 911 qualified third in class. 76 cars officially were on the grid for the race, while two more failed to start.

After two days of very warm weather for early February in Central Florida, race day dawned cool and cloudy. Drizzle fell on Saturday morning, but the precipitation had stopped by the time the race started. Moretti led the field to green and immediately began to assert himself over the rest of the field. The V12 Ferrari engine was running perfectly, allowing Moretti to pull out to a substantial lead. Meanwhile, a battle started for second between the No. 3 Ferrari of Mauro Baldi and the No. 4 of Wayne Taylor.

Taylor eventually passed Baldi for second and ran down Moretti quickly once the Ferrari got caught up in the near constant lapped traffic that a 24 hour race with a 76 car field usually provides. Taylor passed Moretti for the lead right before the first round of stops and chose to double stint in the car while the No. 30 team switched to Wollek in the seat. The No. 3 had an off-course excursion in the Bus Stop Chicane and was forced to spend an extended amount of time in the pits for repairs. Baldi returned 20 minutes later in 65th overall, 14 laps down to Taylor.

Once the stops cycled out, Taylor maintained his lead over new second-place runner Andy Wallace in the No. 16 Dyson Racing Riley & Scott. Wollek continued on in third. In GTS-1, the No. 1 Aurora continued to lead the class (6th overall), with their team car, the No. 5 of Charles Morgan in second (tenth overall). The No. 89 Lister Storm of Geoff Lees was third. Ferdinand de Lesseps led GTS-2 in the No. 55 Porsche 911, followed by the No. 67 of Jeff Purner and the No. 07 of Pete Halsmer.

The issues were already starting to mount. 85 minutes in, the No. 16 pulled off due to transmission problems and retired. The retirement allowed for the aforementioned unusual tactic to come into play. When the No. 16 dropped out, the team pulled the No. 20 out of the garage and put it out on track to start 90 minutes behind the leaders. Shortly afterward, the No. 07 BMW M3 lost the left front tire in the Bus Stop. The team had to spend time checking the hub before putting a new tire on and resuming. The No. 84 Dodge Viper RT/10 spun and suffered rear suspension failure in the Infield. The No. 74 Porsche 911 was hit in the Infield and suffered a failure of a rear CV Joint, which forced the team to spend 40 minutes repairing the car before rejoining.

Taylor had his own issues in Hour 2, getting run off the road in the Bus Stop chicane by the No. 15 Oldsmobile Cutlass. When Taylor pitted normally and switched out of the seat in favor of Sharp, the stop was extended so that the crew could install a new screen in the nose. The No. 4 yielded the lead to Wollek’s No. 30 during the stop, and lost a lap shortly afterwards.

The weather that plagued the morning hours began to return to the track, shrouding the track under a cloud of fog. Visibility was limited. A near constant mist fell, enough to make the track wet off-line. However, there was still a dry line, so all of the cars remained on dry tires.

The No. 4 Riley & Scott Oldsmobile and No. 30 Ferrari swapped the lead back and forth depending on when each car had to pit. After three hours, the No. 4 had the lead with the No. 30 approximately 15 seconds behind. Third in class (fourth overall) was the No. 2 Screaming Eagles Riley & Scott Ford, five laps behind the leaders.

In the GTS-1 class, the No. 01 Rohr Porsche 911 GT2 Evolution of Hurley Haywood, Scott Goodyear, John O’Steen and David Murry was leading and running third overall. They enjoyed a one lap lead over the No. 5 Brix Racing Oldsmobile Aurora (fifth overall). The No. 1 Aurora, which led early, had dropped back to 11th overall after pitting to change an alternator. The No. 79 Porsche 911 GT2 and the No. 05 Bugatti EB110 were not far behind as well.

In the GTS-2 class, the No. 55 Porsche 911 of de Lesseps, Enzo Calderari, Lillian Bryner and Ulli Richter led the class (13th overall after temporarily entering the Top 10) with a small advantage over the No. 99 Schumacher Racing Porsche 911. The No. 06 BMW M3 was third in class.

It was here that ESPN left the air for the night (although they did keep their cameras on). They returned at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. Of course, just because ESPN’s booth crew went back to their hotels doesn’t mean that the action stopped.

During the nighttime hours, the No. 30 Ferrari had issues with a hole being burned through one of their exhaust pipes, while the other pipe was cracked. Replacing the pipes cost the team six laps on track. The No. 4 ran without issues on track until a regularly scheduled pit stop included a brake pad change. Such changes are normal in a 24-hour race, but the change did not go to plan. The slow pad change, combined with excellent pace from the No. 30, allowed the Ferrari back onto the lead lap. By 7 a.m., they had retaken the lead overall, albeit with the No. 4 still on the lead lap.

The nighttime was very rough on the contenders in the GTS-1 class. The No. 1 Aurora caught fire due to a backfire through a split muffler and effectively burned to the ground. Naturally, it put the team out on the spot. The No. 5 Aurora picked up the slack from the No. 1 and led the class throughout the night, picking up members of the No. 1’s driving crew along the way. By 7 a.m., their advantage over second in class was 24 laps. The second-placed car in class, the No. 6 Inca Kola Ford Mustang driven by Boris Said, O’Connell, the Dibos brothers (Eduardo and Juan) and Jorge Koechlin, struggled early on with multiple unscheduled stops in the first couple of hours before finding their pace at night. The No. 00 Callaway Corvette was third in class and tenth overall.

The No. 74 Porsche 911 GT2 Evolution was involved in a big crash in which Adam was hit in the right rear by the No. 01 Porsche driven by O‘Steen. The resulting spectacular crash saw Adam roll multiple times. The No. 74 held up great in the crash, but the Champion-entered Porsche was out.

In the GTS-2 class, the No. 55 Porsche 911 was having about as close to a perfect race as one could have. With faster teams dropping down the overall order due to various issues, the yellow Porsche was up to sixth overall, 28 laps off the overall lead by 7 a.m. Their lead was 12 laps over the No. 78 Porsche, with the No. 06 BMW M3 third in class, a further five laps back.

Through superior fuel mileage and a pit strategy revolving around double-stinting tires (going two pit stops between tire changes), the No. 30 was able to build up a lead of over a lap and a half over the No. 4 Riley and Scott. However, trouble struck in Hour 20, when smoke started coming out of the Momo Ferrari. Moretti brought the car to the pits and made a scheduled driver change to Wollek before the rear bodywork came off to address the problem. The issue was that some bolts had come undone from the transmission (gearbox), allowing gear oil to leak out. Replacement bolts were not in the pit, forcing crewmembers to run to the transporter to get them. The lack of preparation cost the No. 30 team multiple minutes that turned out to be crucial.

The No. 30 was on pit road for more than 12 minutes, more than enough time for the No. 4 to regain the overall lead. The No. 30 went from a lap and a half ahead to over four laps behind. However, in addition to the repairs, the team also replaced the front brake pads, allowing the drivers to take the Ferrari deeper into corners. Thus, while Marty Reid, Bill Weber and Jon Beekhuis were having a little fun during a pit reporter changeover just a little after 9 a.m., the foundation for a great chase was being laid.

In Hour 21, issues continued to hamper teams high up in the overall standings. The No. 43 Riley and Scott Oldsmobile of Ross Bentley, Franck Freon, Lee Payne and Don Kitch pitted out of fourth place overall with issues. The team lost their fourth spot to the GTS-1 leading Oldsmobile Aurora No. 5 as a result of the stop. They eventually got back on track, only to drop a cylinder in the engine and stop on course shortly afterwards.

However, issues on the Aurora brought the GTS-1 leading car in for a prolonged stop immediately. The team diagnosed an issue with the rear end and replaced the bolts on the rear end as a stopgap measure until a new rear end could be assembled behind the pit wall. Brix Racing then brought the No. 5 back in to install a new rear end. The gearbox issues took the No. 5 from having a huge lead over the GTS-2 leading No. 55 Porsche 911 to the Porsche passing both stricken cars to take fourth overall.

However, a broken A-Frame in the left front corner of the No. 5 was found while the team was trying to fix the rear end. The front suspension issue was actually the root cause of the rear end issues on the No. 5, so once the parts were properly changed, the Aurora went back out onto the track without having to have the new rear end installed. The issues dropped the No. 5 from a very healthy lead of over 85 miles (24 laps) over second in class to the No. 6 Ford Mustang being within only three laps of taking the class lead.

Then, the No. 63 Jim Downing-owned Mazda Kudzu WSC car had gearbox failure, resulting in a lengthy stop to replace the faulty box. The No. 55 eventually made up the seven laps that it was behind the No. 63 and took over the third spot overall.

Meanwhile, Wollek in the No. 30 Momo Ferrari was flying on-track, running three to five seconds a lap faster than the leading Oldsmobile-powered WSC car. The No. 4, driven now by Sharp, was struggling out on track without second gear, which would hurt the car in the infield portion of the course. That pace allowed Wollek to pull back to less than three laps behind before the end of his stint. However, that pace led to a collision with the GTS-2 leading No. 55 Porsche (driven by Richter at the time) in the bus stop chicane. Both cars pitted for repairs (and for the Ferrari, a change to Theys in the drivers’ seat) and continued. Unfortunately, the long stop took away all of the progress Wollek made, putting the No. 30 back four laps down.

Thus, the chase began once again. The No. 30 team was helped by Sharp spinning the No. 4 out on cold tires in the International Horseshoe in Hour 22. No damage was done to the leading car, but time was lost. With one hour and 32 minutes left, the No. 30 pitted for tires, fuel and a driver change. Out went Theys and back in the seat was Papis.

Issues continued to mount as the No. 58 Porsche 911 stopped on track just past pit out (the team would resume after making repairs). Meanwhile, the No. 00 Callaway Corvette pitted with a wheel bearing issue out of third in GTS-1 (tenth overall). Also, the No. 20 Dyson Racing Riley and Scott Ford dropped out after losing a valve spring.

Once back out on the track, Papis started laying down some of the fastest laps of the race, running laps around 1:44.3 and 1:44.4. Shortly afterwards, Papis began dipping into the 1:43’s, a time that would have been fast enough to qualify fourth overall. Then, he went down to 1:42.5, a pace nearly seven seconds a lap faster than what Sharp was turning in at the time.

With 70 minutes remaining, the leading No. 4 pitted for a regular stop. Sharp exited the car after a quadruple-stint and team owner Taylor got in. Sharp was fine physically after driving 14 stints during the race (approximately ten hours). However, his hands paid the price with some nasty blisters.

The final full course caution came out with 50 minutes to go for a spectacular crash on the backstretch involving the No. 89 Lister Storm, driven at the time by Kenny Acheson. It appeared that the Lister had the left rear tire come off exiting Turn 2 on the tri-oval. As a result, the car was pitched into a spin and got in the grass. The car then dug in and was launched into one complete roll before landing right-side up. A replay of the crash can be seen here. Acheson walked away from the wreck, but the Lister was destroyed. The crash itself is a little reminiscent of the ride Michael Waltrip took in the 2004 Daytona 500.

Since Papis was ahead of the No. 4 at the time of the caution, the yellow allowed him make up almost a complete lap on Taylor. In addition, the caution allowed Taylor to make his final pit stop for fuel.

On the restart, Taylor had to drive somewhat conservatively due to being very tight on fuel. Papis, who had to make a splash and go before the finish, didn’t have to worry about it. With roughly 26 minutes remaining, Papis unlapped himself in the International Horseshoe and continued to pour it on while uncertainty reigned in the No. 4 pit about the fuel. To make matters worse, the reserve fuel pump was not working up to full capacity, further hampering the team’s efforts.

Papis sprinted onto pit road with 17 minutes left to take fuel and tires (and I mean sprinted, since there was no pit road speed limit at the time). Such a short run would allow the team to put on the softest compounds available in order to go all out on the track. While the No. 30 was in the pits, Taylor re-lapped the car. However, Papis got it back just eight minutes later while turning laps down into the 1:41’s, just a few tenths slower than the pole speed.

Unfortunately, Papis ran out of time. Taylor was able to conserve enough fuel to get his No. 4 to the finish to claim the 1996 Rolex 24 at Daytona overall victory.

In Victory Lane, a somewhat under the weather Taylor was very pleased with his effort.

“[This victory] is a tribute to all these people …Danka Industries, Oldsmobile, Riley & Scott,” Taylor said to ESPN’s Marty Reid in Victory Lane. “This is the first that the Aurora V8 engine has ever competed in one of these events and to a win a classic event like this is unbelievable.”

Even though Taylor’s No. 4 team won, the man of the hour was Papis, who was able to claw back a substantial chunk of Taylor’s lead in the last few minutes, finishing one minute and five seconds behind. At the time, it was the closest ever finish in the 24 Hours of Daytona (since eclipsed twice, in 2000 and 2009).

“It was a fantastic time. You couldn’t do it faster than that,” Papis told ESPN’s Bill Weber while trying to describe the final hour of the race. “It was really one hundred percent. Every lap was like qualifying. I’m very proud of the car and the team.”

The No. 63 Mazda Kudzu claimed third overall (and in the WSC class), but a full 48 laps behind the two leaders.

In the GTS-1 class, the No. 5 Oldsmobile Aurora limped home to the finish to claim the class victory and seventh overall. Their margin of victory was just one lap over the No. 6 Inca Kola Ford Mustang. The No. 00 Callaway Corvette, despite their many issues including a wheel bearing going bad and a header issue, finished third in class and 13th overall.

In the GTS-2 class, the No. 55 Porsche 911 held on to take the class victory. They were passed by the No. 63 Mazda Kudzu WSC car for third overall with only a couple of minutes left in the race and had to settle for fourth. Their margin of class victory was eight laps over the No. 78 Porsche 911 of Cort Wagner, Steve Dente, Richard Raimist, and Mike Doolin, which finished sixth overall. The No. 06 BMW M3 was third in class and ninth overall, a further three laps behind.

While the Rolex 24 at Daytona victory (and a victory the next month in the Exxon Supreme 12 Hours of Sebring) were crowning achievements in Taylor’s career, Papis undoubtedly benefited far more in the long run. Even though Papis had driven in seven Grand Prix the previous year in Formula One for the Footwork/Arrows Hart team, he was a near unknown in the United States at the time of the race. Papis’ efforts in the final 90 minutes of the race (despite driving in his first-ever endurance race) earned him the nickname, “Mad Max,” a name that some still use to refer to him today. Additional victories in the Momo Ferrari 333SP resulted in Papis getting the call to move up to CART following the untimely death of Jeff Krosnoff in a horrific crash during the Molson Indy Toronto street race at Exhibition Place.

I hope you enjoyed this look back at the 1996 Rolex 24 at Daytona. While it will be hard for this years’ edition to top the excitement from 1996, it is sure to entertain. We’ll be back with more classic races later on this season. Have a great weekend.

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