For the beginning of the three-hour event the officials utilized a Le Mans style start where the drivers sprint across to their cars, climb in, start the car and try like mad to be the first away.
At Daytona the Le Mans start was done on the pit road in close proximity to turns one and two and it was decided, for safety sake, to have the drivers skip going into turns one and two and go straight onto the tri-oval lest there be a thirty car pileup with everyone trying to get into the first turn at the same time.
This gave the pack time to stretch out along the 2.5 mile tri-oval and only when they finished the first circuit would they start using the infield course. At the end of the first lap the Pontiac Tempest of A.J. Foyt was in the lead going into turn one.
The heavier Tempest was passed by Roger Penske in the more nimble Cooper-Climax on the infield course and he would eventually lose the lead to Phil Hill in the more powerful V6 Ferrari Dino. Foyt lead the first lap because he really pushed the Tempest in order to win a $10.00 bet he had with Roger Ward that he could lead the first lap. He may have done too good of a job winning that bet because he withdrew his car on the second lap with engine trouble.
In one of those “If I didn’t have bad luck I would have no luck at all” scenarios, Hill would strike a seagull with his car necessitating an unscheduled pit stop to clean what was left of the bird from the grill and radiator. Later he would have to pit again because he lost the fuel filler cap on the track and on lap 44 he would brake too late for turn one and miss the turn which cost him valuable time.
In a 24-hour race all these unfortunate incidents might not be a problem but in a three-hour race they were the kiss of death and Dan Gurney’s Lotus took over the lead. It then became a dogfight between the Hill/Rodriguez Ferrari and the Chaparral of Jim Hall to see who would come in second.
With just a couple of laps left in the race, Gurney had what he thought was a comfortable lead of almost two minutes over the rest of the field. Coming out of turn six he accelerated his Lotus onto the high banks expecting to do maybe one or two more laps before he got the checkered flag.
Somewhere between NASCAR turns three and four the 2500cc Climax engine blew and he lost power immediately. Normally when this happens to a driver at Daytona he would signal to the other cars behind him with a raised arm and then slowly drift down to the apron. Gurney was close enough to pit road where he could have coasted all the way to his pit.
Instead Gurney went higher on the banked track almost to the retaining wall and used his momentum to continue all the way to the start/finish line stopping just a few feet short of the starter and the start/finish line. He was just inches away from the retaining wall much to the delight of the hundreds of spectators in the grand stands.
Gurney exited his car and examined the engine which he saw was a hopeless mess. He talked to the starter who told him he was about to drop the checkered flag. Gurney reentered his car and looked at his watch. He noticed that the starter was also looking at his watch. Gurney’s strategy was to wait for the checkered flag to drop and then cross the finish line hopefully still in the lead. At that moment both the Ferrari Dino (Rodriguez now driving) and Jim Hall’s Chaparral were on the same lap and closing fast.
Well, the time ran out and the starter dropped the checkered flag. Gurney was in his broken-down Lotus and his car magically (?) moves across the finish line to claim the win. How he did it is still being questioned fifty years later and recent statements from Dan Gurney haven’t helped the matter.
In the book Daytona 24 Hours by J.J. O’Malley, Gurney indicated to the author that he did not cross the finish line on the car’s starter motor as many have believed for decades but, “I just turned left…(and)…coasted across.”
Several things seem to contradict Mr. Gurney’s account in the J.J. O’Malley book. First is a contemporary report in the magazine Sports Car Graphic, which at the time indicated that the post-race celebrations were interrupted when:
“…the voice from the loudspeaker announced that a protest had been lodged. There was a moment of stunned silence and then people began to wildly compare notes and remember regulations. The stewards had to meet for a decision and the car was immediately locked in the Prestolite Company’s garage. Neither Dan nor Jerry (Gurney’s mechanic Jerry Eisert) yet knew exactly what had happened to the car; later examination showed that a piston had disintegrated and the connecting rod and wristpin had beaten a fist-sized hole in the block. Unofficial word had it that starter O.W. Collins, Jr. had filed the protest on the basis that the car did not cross the line under its own power. This later proved to be false and the situation resolved itself when the stewards were shown that the car was still capable of moving itself on the starter motor.”
A series of five black-and-white period photos are included with this race profile. Some of them appeared in the publication Competition Press and Autoweek soon after the race. They clearly show Gurney stopping his Lotus on the 18-degree bank near the starter. One photo shows him out of the car. Other photos show him as the checkered flag drops and as he passes under the starter’s perch with his front tires pointed straight ahead. Only when he is beyond the starter does he turn left. Additionally all of this can also be viewed on YouTube with a period film called “Off to the Races 1962” which was produced by Delco batteries.
Finally is a statement that appeared in the Daytona Beach Morning Journal quoting Dan Gurney as saying the following, “I got out of the car, talked to the starter, and when he told me he was going to drop the flag I got back in the car and went across on the starter. I don’t know whether the engine actually fired or not. It very well could have since there was nothing wrong with the other three cylinders and the engine wasn’t locked up. It was a Prestolite battery that got the car across. As a matter of fact, we’ve used that Prestolite battery for the last three or four races, we didn’t just put it in for this race. And it sure did the job for us. Thanks, Mr. Prestolite.”
Dan Gurney completed 82 laps in the three-hour inaugural event averaging 104.101 mph (167.523 kph) in his 2.5 liter Arciero Brothers Lotus 19 Monte Carlo. The Hill/Rodriguez Ferrari Dino finished second just 46 seconds behind the Lotus. Jim Hall’s Chaparral 1 finished third but first in class. Stirling Moss placed fourth in his Ferrari 250 GT and first in his class. Both the second place Ferrari and third place Chaparral finished on the same lap as the Gurney Lotus. The national and international publicity surrounding the dramatic and controversial finish was welcomed by Bill France, Sr. and helped to establish Gurney as a household name among many sports car aficionados and made the Daytona Continental (now the Rolex 24 At Daytona) the place to be for exciting sports car endurance racing.
For Further Reading
Daytona 24 Hours: The Definitive History of America’s Great Endurance Race,
by J.J. O’Malley, pages 19-25, David Bull Publishing
The Daytona Beach News Journal (morning, evening and Sunday) February 6-12, 1962
Godwin Kelly, The Daytona Beach News Journal Motorsports Editor, http://www.news-journalonline.com/columns/motorsports/ August 19, 2011
Countdown to the 50th Anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona, September 2, 2011, www.racer.com