The Rolex 24 at Daytona has long been an island of stability on the often turbulent sports-car racing scene. The Rolex sponsorship has been in place for 20 years. There have been rule changes from GTP coupes to open-cockpit World Sports Cars to the current Daytona Protoypes.
But there’s never any doubt that Daytona Speedweeks will begin with the twice-around-the-clock grind, either the last weekend of January or the first weekend of February.
It might come as a surprise to learn that the direct ancestor of the Rolex 24 — the Daytona Continental — ran to three different lengths and two formats during its first five years. The combination of length and format was never the same two years in a row until 1966-67.
The first Continental, in February 1962, was a three-hour event for prototypes and GT cars, with the latter racing for FIA points. Dan Gurney, driving the Arciero Brothers Lotus wrenched by legendary crew chief Jerry Eisert, was well in front with a few minutes to go when the engine blew.
The FIA rules stated a car must cross the finish line under its own power to be classified a finisher, so Gurney pulled up just short of the line, waited until time expired, and inched across the line on the starter motor, still nearly a minute ahead of Phil Hill’s Ferrari. Jim Hall’s original Chaparral was third and Stirling Moss, in his only Daytona appearance, was fourth and won the GT class.
In ’63, the three-hour distance remained but the prototypes were gone. Pedro Rodriguez, racing for the first time since the death of his brother Ricardo, drove a North American Racing Team Ferrari GTO to victory over Roger Penske in John Mecom’s similar car.
For 1964, the Continental adopted a 2,000-kilometer (1,242 miles) distance, making it the longest race in North America. Ferraris took four of the top five spots with Rodriguez and Hill sharing the winning car.
Prototypes were back in 1965, when the Continental was actually the final race of Speedweeks rather than the opening act. After trailing Gurney and Jerry Grant in a Lotus Ford for most of the event, the Ford GT40 Cobra wheeled by Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby carried Carroll Shelby to victory.
For 1966, Bill France decided it was time to take the big step. FIA sanction was obtained for a 24-hour World Sports Car Championship event, the first in the USA and the first in the series, outside LeMans, since the 24 Hours of Spa in 1953.
While Ferrari was not represented by a factory entry, the lineup featured the latest from Ford, Porsche and Chaparral among the 60 starters, a record crowd, and most important to France, a bonanza of international media coverage.
Miles and Ruby drove their Ford to victory for the second-straight year, leading all but nine of the 678 laps.
Also broken was the search for the right combination to make Daytona’s sports-car classic successful. With two exceptions — a six-hour race in 1972 dictated by FIA politics, and the 1974 energy crisis cancelation, it’s been 24 hours the last 45 years.