Rolex 24 Flashback: The Magnificent Seven in 1997
The 1997 Rolex 24 At Daytona winning team celebrating in Victory Lane.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dyson Racing’s No. 20 Riley & Scott Mk III-Ford started the 1997 Rolex 24 At Daytona as an afterthought, but finished the star when it ended the team’s near-two decade quest for a first win in the Florida endurance classic. The fact that it took just about anybody and everybody in the Dyson pit who owned a driving suit to get it into victory lane – seven in total – just adds to the legend.
For 1997, team owner Rob Dyson had two Riley & Scott Mk III Ford V8s entered, but one looked on paper to have a much better chance of producing a win. The team’s lead entry featured full-season championship challengers James Weaver and Butch Leitzinger, with Andy Wallace and John Paul Jr. joining for Daytona.
The second entry was more of a “have fun and see what happens” scenario, with Dyson set to be joined by Elliott Forbes-Robinson and John Schneider.
“How we ended up with Elliott and John Schneider was that Elliott said, ‘I’m putting together a deal to run Daytona, and want you to run the second car,’” Dyson recalls. “‘I’ve got John Schneider on board, and he wants to do the race.’ I didn’t know the guy. He was a good pair of hands, not a pro. Reliable, safe and progressive.”
As it turned out, they’d need it.
The relative tortoise to the No. 16 hare, Dyson’s No. 20 notched up the laps, but fell behind its leading, sister car and the stunning Ferrari 333SPs fielded by both Andy Evans’ Team Scandia and Gianpiero Moretti’s MOMO Corse.
At seven hours, Moretti’s bullet hit an oil leak that cost the team three laps, and later a fire destroyed the car’s electronics.
Not long afterward, Dyson’s lead entry hit problems when the engine failed. Asked what triggered it, Leitzinger and Wallace both joke that things were fine until Weaver got in the car.
The strategy changed with Dyson’s backup car now the only contender. Paul was already scheduled to switch from the No. 16 to the 20 after eight hours, and his co-drivers soon followed.
“Around midnight, leading, the (16’s) engine blew to smithereens,” Leitzinger says. “That car had some problems, and JP had switched to the 20 car. Everyone thought it was over; the 16 was out, but JP said, ‘We could still win this.’ And everyone else agreed. I thought, ‘I’ve only driven once.’ I went over to (team manager) Pat (Smith) and asked, ‘Can I drive that car?’”
It was an optimistic assessment by Leitzinger, and one that took a moment to register for the rest of the team. But as Dyson recalls, with no rule against it, they figured they might as well go for it.
Almost immediately, the cars in front of them began dropping out like flies.
“I got in after JP,” Leitzinger continues. “Then all of us drove through the night. A few unfortunate things happened. The Scandia Ferrari had some sort of issues, and the MOMO Ferrari might have had gearbox problems. And then Wayne (Taylor) launched a motor really big on the straight.”
“Something happened to George Robinson’s car, he fell out too,” Dyson interjects. “All the other Rileys started falling by the wayside.”
As the night went on, Leitzinger said the race was coming to them – and he was left wondering whether his British co-drivers were off gallivanting.
“Right about three or four in the morning, when suddenly we were fighting with Scandia at that point. All this time, James and Andy are having a nice dinner, about 25 beers.”
Wallace and Weaver have to defend themselves at this point against Leitzinger’s playful jesting — lest they be accused of pulling a Max McGee in the first Super Bowl in competing after a night out.
“We were actually having a shower, a shave and said, ‘Oh let’s go and see how the boys are doing,’” Wallace says.
“We were going to have a few beers, but we were so depressed after falling out, we couldn’t even work up the enthusiasm to go out for any!” Weaver admits. “We woke up, went to the track to provide some moral support, and when we arrived Pat said, ‘Jump in!’”
Smith granted both aces a shot aboard the car.
The situation was unexpected, and although everyone had a fair shot, Leitzinger drove the lion’s share of the remaining hours for several reasons.
From 4 a.m., the engine began overheating on the No. 20 car. It was the start of a plethora of problems that nearly sent Dyson into a pitfall from the lead.
“We ran two different engine configurations, and the No. 16 had more power,” Leitzinger explains. “And then the 20 was falling apart. It kept overheating. We had to pump water in at the pit stops. It had electrical issues. The water temp was a very bad sign. We kept going slower and slower.”
“Evans was right behind us, trying his best, but he had brake problems,” Dyson adds. “They were on the same lap, and if they would have stopped to change brakes, they would have lost time over the final three hours. They were limping with no brakes.”
Leitzinger’s brakes weren’t much better, but the Ferrari was still pushing hard.
“The Scandia car was plugging away behind us,” Leitzinger says. “It felt really bad. One of the front brake pads was falling apart. I had to rub the brakes, and I couldn’t stab on the brakes. It was probably fortunate the thing didn’t have any power then, because I couldn’t use it.”
Weaver recalls the car ran sprint brakes, per Smith’s recommendation. Dyson remembers the brakes were bathed in liquid nitrogen, which would make them last, even if they were falling apart by that stage in the race.
Weaver’s request to get behind the wheel as the car began its self-destruction was later denied!
“Butch was driving as it went into a rapid descent,” Dyson says. “James said, ‘I should get in.’ Smitty replied, ‘No, Butch knows how to drive it. It’s so quirky.’ We were barely able to get in and out of the pits.”
Scandia’s charge ended when Charles Morgan spun out behind the wheel. Weaver, who had eventually made his case for another stint, almost avoided it but contact further damaged the Dyson car’s electronics.
“The Ferrari that was leading spun, I was right behind. I went up the inside of him.” Weaver says.
Both cars were battered and beaten, but not defeated. Only one would fall by the wayside and, on this occasion, it wasn’t going to be Dyson.
Leitzinger drove the final two hours waiting for the car to spontaneously combust. But, while it came apart in pieces, it never did as a whole.
“The car deteriorated lap by lap. I had my hand on the gear lever ready to put it in neutral,” Leitzinger says. “As bad as the engine was going, it was very surprising it did last.”
“We had to go and nurse it home,” Wallace concurs. “It was more than just driving around, it was babying it to the finish.”
After dropping a cylinder, plus the continuous overheating, it was a miracle the car made the finish. The No. 20 won with a record seven drivers – a mark unequaled before or since, and one that will stand forever as new regulations have capped the maximum number of drivers per car.
The win not only set a record, but it caught the race sponsor off-guard.
“I remember the Rolex people panicking,” Dyson says. “They only had provision for four watches and we needed seven! They gave us the other three later. Now they have a rule where they only give out four.”
Looking back on it, the guys who drove those 24 hours admit this was a magical – if draining – moment of success.
“After the race we got so much grief for putting so many guys in, but they were fresh,” Leitzinger says. “I’ll use a baseball analogy – it’s the last game of the World Series and we have all these pitchers on the sideline. So we kept throwing fresh people at it. For me, being in hour after hour, I was absolutely wiped out.”
“A lot of things have to go right and you do ask, ‘How many times did Rob do it before winning?’” Wallace says. “During the race, you never think, ‘Oh, we have a great chance of winning this.’ You don’t think that. If it’s going well, you push the thought out of your mind.”
“It’s not just the drivers, but the team, suppliers, engine, gearbox, every single part of the car,” Weaver says. “To build a car like that to last is really difficult, it’s not like Porsche or Audi. It’s a purpose-built hot-rod. We stuck a Ford V8 in the back and saw how it goes.”
The guy who his co-drivers respectfully call “Governor” sums it up, and also notes Paul’s dedication to the cause.
“When we were finally able to bring the car home in first place, it was a combination of elation and relief we were finally able to do it,” Dyson says. “We did everything we could to win it. We were always contenders.
“And John Paul never left the pits the entire race. He was in the car or stayed in a chair. That’s dedication.”
Paul finally did leave the pits – to take the short walk to victory lane, with his six co-drivers and crew in tow.