Rolex 24 Flashback: Bell’s Daytona highs (and a couple of lows)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Derek Bell admits that he sometimes wondered just what he had to do to win the 24 Hours of Daytona. Four times in the early 1980s, just at a time when he was starting to make a habit of winning the Le Mans 24 Hours, he finished second at Daytona International Speedway.

Eventually, he cast the monkey off his back and, during a purple patch in the second half of the ’80s, he and the late Al Holbert became the undisputed kings of 24-hour racing. Together they pulled off the Daytona-Le Mans double two years in succession, in 1986-’87, driving for Holbert's eponymous works-backed Porsche team in the U.S. enduro classic and the factory squad from Germany in its European counterpart over in France.

Bell went on to win Daytona again after Holbert’s death in late 1988, winning the ’89 event with Jim Busby’s Porsche squad. That third victory completed a phenomenal run of 24-hour results for Bell that would make him a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. Only once during the ’80s did he finish the season without a podium at either Daytona or Le Mans.
 
The Daytona story for Bell began years before, just as he was starting out on his sports car career. The big break for Bell came when he was picked up to drive a Porsche 917 for John Wyer’s factory Porsche JW Automotive squad for 1971 and the 24 Hours was race two on the International Championship of Makes schedule.

Bell got his feet under the table pretty quickly with Wyer, winning first time out with Jo Siffert in Buenos Aires in early January, but it was hardly preparation for racing at Daytona. Forty years on, Bell admits that he was spooked by the 31-degree banking – not so much by driving on it, but watching his teammate do so.

“We were testing at Daytona after Buenos Aires and I’d been told that I would be driving until 10 a.m.,” remembers Bell. “So when I drove into the track, I went through the infield and over to the banking to have a look.

“As Jo came around, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ There was a line painted on the track, and the left-front wheel was below the line and the left rear was above the line. The car was going along at 30 degrees from straight ahead. I thought, ‘Bloody hell, is that what I’ve got to do?’”

And that, of course, was in the days before the addition of the Bus Stop chicane on the back stretch.

“You were flat all the way around the banking; you flew into Turn 3 at 220mph,” he continues. “Luckily, I didn’t have any imagination back then.”

Bell and Siffert retired early from Daytona ’71 with engine failure. Engine problems would again spoil the Brit’s chances when he returned with Wyer’s Gulf-sponsored team, now running its own Cosworth-engined Mirage chassis, two years later. This time, he claimed the pole ahead of grand prix driver Francois Cevert aboard a Matra, but a misfire stymied his chances almost from the start.
 
There would be no Daytona return for Bell for another eight years, his absence from the track coming to an end when he was called up by the late Bob Akin to race his Porsche 935 in 1981. Akin’s squad finished second that season and in ’82, but Bell was still not a regular on the U.S. sports car scene. He missed the 1983 race and took part the following year almost by accident. Bell was in Daytona on TV duty and was hauled from the commentary box to share Preston Henn’s 935, the car that had won the previous year with Bob Wollek and A.J. Foyt.
 
“Out of the blue on Saturday night at five or six, long after the race had started, someone from Preston’s team came along saying that A.J. wouldn’t drive in the dark,” recalls Bell. “It wasn’t a problem because there was no TV coverage at night, so I put my overalls on, and Bob and I thrashed all the way through the night before A.J. got back in at dawn and I went back to the TV booth. A most unusual situation.”

The 1984 season was a turning point in Bell’s U.S. career, and it had nothing to do with the Daytona result. By the middle of the year, he would be racing – and winning – regularly with Holbert aboard the new IMSA-spec Porsche 962, the long-wheelbase, single-turbo version of the Le Mans-winning 956.

Bell became a core member of the Porsche-backed Holbert Racing squad that went on to claim a hat-trick of IMSA GTP titles with its owner and then Chip Robinson, but victory at Daytona initially eluded them. First time out with a 962 in ’85, they finished, you’ve guessed it, second. Bell, Holbert and Al Unser Jr. were 13 laps to the good at one point, but engine problems left them 17 laps down on the winning Henn entry at the finish.

“The car stopped out on the banking and I was told to change the plugs,” remembers Bell. “I was repeatedly putting my helmet back on to talk to the team on the radio, then taking it off and running around the back of the car. I remember [Porsche engine legend] Alwin Springer telling me there were five holes to put the wires in. I told him that that was all very well, but there were 12 wires.”

Bell finally broke through at Daytona in ‘86, the Holbert team just edging the Henn’s Swap Shop Racing squad by a shade under two minutes after 24 hours of racing. Holbert, Bell and Little Al were worthy winners, the trio fighting back from brake problems and then again after a broken throttle cable stranded Unser out on the track.

The moment Bell remembers is one that he believes could well have won the race for the Holbert crew.

“It was during the night, and I was right behind Danny Sullivan [driving the Henn car] up on the banking and we caught one of the Tullius Jags,” recalls Bell. “Suddenly, there was a puff of smoke. The engine lunched itself and threw its oil out, which smothered our screens. Danny may have caught more than me and ducked into the pits, whereas I stayed out and soldiered on until the end of my stint. That may well have made the difference at the end of the race.”

The problem for Bell and his teammates the following year was not the proximity of their rivals, rather the proximity of exhaustion. Bell, Unser Jr., Robinson and Holbert won by three laps, but only Bell, the most senior of the drivers, was in any fit state to get behind the wheel at the finish.

“I remember finishing a stint on Sunday and struggling to get my overalls off because I kept getting cramps through dehydration. I was absolutely finished,” recalls Bell. “The team told me that Al would only be able to do one stint, so I said that we still had Chip. When they said he’d had it and wouldn’t drive again, I thought, ‘Oh great.’”

Holbert, who had opted to concentrate on team management duties that year, famously dusted off his overalls to help out his ailing teammates, although Bell remembers his boss short-changing him…
 
“A message came back saying that Al [Holbert] would do one hour, but I would have to finish. After 30 minutes, the team said that Al was pitting in one lap. The adrenalin overtook the tiredness. I ran to the pits and completed the victory.”

Victory number three at Daytona in a Busby Racing Porsche shared with Bob Wollek and John Andretti wasn’t the end of Bell’s career at the Speedway. The 1990s included some highs and lows.

The low was a massive accident between NASCAR Turns 3 and 4 in Giampiero Moretti’s 962 in 1990: “There was a boom, the car dropped and then I was flying. It was a clear night and I remember seeing the stars as I went up. When the car landed, it seemed to keep going for a lifetime. It was a big shunt. The team put it down to a tire failure, but it is my belief that something broke.”

The high also came aboard one of old friend Moretti’s cars, this time a Ferrari 333SP: “I still say that was the best-handling sports car I ever drove. It was like a grand prix car. We led the race and I still remember overtaking Fermin Velez [driving a Scandia Ferrari] to take the lead. We dropped back after a fire, but to have won Daytona in a Ferrari at that stage of my career would have been amazing.”

There were more Daytona appearances for Bell and, perhaps fittingly for a driver who had become a Florida resident, he made his final appearances in sports car racing at the Speedway. He raced a Chevrolet Corvette with son Justin in 2003 and then came back one more time to say farewell five years later aboard a Riley Daytona Prototype.

The car retired before Bell Sr. could drive in the race, but that’s Daytona for you. Sports car racing in general, and 24-hour racing in particular, brings a low for every high, but Bell admits he’s lucky: “I had so many good races at Daytona that I’ve tended to forget about the others.”

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