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Ed. note: Below is an essay written by NASCAR Hall of Famer Ken Squier on the origins of the Rolex 24 and Daytona International Speedway’s first 24-hour race, which was won by Ken Miles of ‘Ford vs. Ferrari’ fame and Lloyd Ruby in 1966. (In the video above, Sam Posey recalls Miles as an unsung hero who personified racing intensity in that Daytona win.)
Daytona, the World Center of Racing.
Certainly, stock cars and motorcycles, even boats on Lake Lloyd.
What about sports cars?
The desire was there … so was the challenge. The interest?
The cars … the manufacturers rivaled anything … well, almost everything, except the crowds. Daytona and NASCAR had created a new fascination with the All-American stock car.
But road racing … sporty cars, if you will, did not fit the same mold.
Then came Daytona International Speedway. The 1959 Daytona 500 opened America’s eyes.
New thinking for auto racing, the tried and true sporty car to share the limelight. And nowhere better than this special venue created on Daytona beaches where world land speed records were established in the 1930s.
A new direction for an old, respected motorsports discipline.
The World Center of Racing, Daytona, ready in 1962 to give it a try. Bill France yearned for international attention, world recognition for his creation.
Why not put a new face on sports car racing?
On this 3.81-mile course, circulating through the infield, a talented marquee of the world’s best drivers and Daytona’s high-speed straightaways and 31-degree banking.
Why there was nothing to lose; everything to gain.
America’s A.J. Foyt, Houston, Texas, led that first 50-car field into a new dimension with world champion Jimmy Clark (31), Innes Ireland (32), Mexico’s great Pedro Rodriguez (43) and England’s Stirling Moss (4).
A preliminary event, 1962, one that was to have a Daytona finish.
Dan Gurney, with a blown engine and a big lead, waiting out the time in the tri-oval and then coasting across the finish line. The world headlines were sensational, but the meager crowd chalked it up to another Bill France Daytona finish when Gurney came out of the 18-degree tri-oval to claim the prize.
Not many witnesses but what an opening. The foreign press stories put Daytona over the moon. However, from that incredible introduction, the crowds just weren’t there for that American introduction.
That was ’62. By ’66, the Daytona boardroom was questioning this colossal red ink bonanza. The race had expanded in distance. It involved more of the prestigious names in sports car racing with talented fields up for the idea of winning at the new World Center of Speed.
Four years later, it still didn’t have traction.
Jim France, younger son of Bill France Sr., remembers the deliberations one day with Bill France Jr., his brother, and his dad. Bill Jr. said, “Why don’t we give it a try as a 24-hour race?” And you know the rest of this story.
In 1966, the Ford Motor Co. committed themselves totally to winning the new western hemisphere’s great race. Ford fostered not one but two teams, one from sportsman Carroll Shelby, and then they doubled down with a new team from Holman/Moody, the stock car people.
They added a team with Walt Hansgen and a newcomer, Mark Donohue. Hansgen put his ride at risk by insisting on this relative unknown, Donohue, as his co-driver. They bolstered that team with one of those GT40s featuring Peter Revson, whose mother called the track office nightly just checking on her son, Peter, as to how he was coming along.
Meanwhile, the second GT40 team was spawned in California. Both teams had the big engine, the Mark II 427 cubic inch. New Zealander Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren had been added to the Shelby Ford team.
Ferrari countered with a team starring Pedro Rodriguez and the sensational Mario Andretti, Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and drivers from the Ferrari Maranello team.
As that first Daytona 24-hour race came into darkness, it was cold and a new element was entertained, not recognized before.
The upper lane on those 31-degree banks froze. High speed on high banks with an icy glaze in that upper lane added a frosty touch to that first encounter. But at the outset Ken Miles with a Ford went to the front, even in these challenging conditions, with teammate Lloyd Ruby standing by for the second four-hour stint, and they never looked back.
A relative unknown driver outside of the sports car world, Ken Miles, gifted car builder and brilliant but relatively unheard-of driver, he was to sports cars what Junior Johnson or Holman Moody were to the stock car folks.
Miles was a genius in the cockpit and with the strategy of building cars to go left, right and super fast. He was unassuming and appeared like any of the American shade-tree mechanics from the stock car world, sort of a Junior Johnson type, and there was nothing shady about Ken Miles. He had a feeling for a car, its limitations and its full capabilities.
Miles and Texan Lloyd Ruby simply dominated the event. They went on to complete 678 laps and led 98.5% of the distance covered.
By the end of the 24 hours, the story was one of incredible domination led by Miles and Ruby who shared the car in four-hour stints. Whoops. The last stint was to be Ken Miles, but he strayed through a gate late in the race and was being led out of the grounds by the police. “You can’t go in there, it’s too dangerous.”
Miles was on the wrong side of the fence in the frenzy at the finish. In the turbulence of success, that’s how Ken Miles got messed up and almost missed victory lane.
In the confrontation with Ferrari, the Ford GT40s swept the podium with Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant taking second place and with Mark Donohue and Walt Hansgen finishing in third. John Holman, the noted Ford team guy was asked, “How’s it going?” To which he replied, “How do I know, I’ve only been in sports car racing since Friday.”
But Ford, France and the United States were firmly affixed to 24-hour road racing and Daytona was a centerpiece in world endurance racing. It was an all-new experience for Daytona, Ken Miles and the entire racing world.
A new hero had been born in Ken Miles, and Ford had put itself in the heart of world endurance racing in that first 24-hour contest on American soil.
It was the end of the first chapter in the history of the 24 Hours of Daytona, and it didn’t come out badly for sports cars and the Ford GT40.