DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Emanuele Pirro has few ambitions still to fulfill as a driver. After all, he's won the 24 Hours of Le Mans no fewer than five times and twice triumphed in the Sebring 12 Hours. Yet he'll be ticking a box when he races at Daytona this month. His participation in the 50th anniversary Rolex 24 will mark his comeback to the high banks of the Daytona International Speedway after no fewer than 31 years.
The Italian's first, and so far only, participation in the 24 Hours of Daytona, way back in 1981, has a special place in his memory. It was the 19-year-old Italian's first major international event after a year spent racing in his homeland in the Fiat Abarth junior open-wheel category, and his first with a factory team.
"I really wanted to do the race again now because it meant so much to me back then, not just as a race but as a life experience," says Pirro. "It had a big impact on me, but for some reason I never went back. I guess my career took me elsewhere."
Pirro, who had won the Abarth title in 1980, received a late call from Lancia competitions boss Cesare Fiorio. After a brief tryout in one of the Italian manufacturer's Group 5 Beta Montecarlos around the factory parking lot, he was packed off to the U.S. by his parents.
"I have so many memories of that race," he says. "When I drove into the circuit with two of my team mates, Michele Alboreto and Beppe Gabbiani, and we saw the banking for the first time, we wanted to do a U-turn and go home. None of us had seen anything like that before."
Everything was new for Pirro, but American ways also confused his older, yet not necessarily wiser, team mates driving the two Martini Lancia Racing entries.
"The day before practice, we had nothing to do, so Michele, his wife, Beppe and I decided to go to Miami for lunch. We thought 250 miles didn't sound very far," he recalls. "It took us a long time to get there…even though I was stopped for speeding at 105mph in a 55mph zone.
"We didn't leave until late and, on the way back, I saw the sea on my left. I knew Miami was on the East Coast and Daytona was on the East Coast, so if you see the sea on your left, there's something wrong. We ended up somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico and had to drive through the night. We only made it to the circuit just in time for first free practice."
Pirro was entered in a third factory-run Lancia, which was entered under the Jolly Club banner, alongside fellow Italians Martino Finotto and Carlo Facetti. The two veterans were also down to drive Finotto's fire-breathing Ferrari 308 GTB.
"That was a monster of a car with a huge amount of power," says Pirro. "They knew it wouldn't last. They told me I'd start the Lancia and they would join me when the Ferrari broke down."
The 308 lasted just four laps, but the Lancia ran through the 24 Hours without major problems. That turned out to be significant in the Italian manufacturer's bid for the World Endurance Championship, of which Daytona was the opening round. The two front-line Montecarlos were hit by problems, but fifth place overall for Pirro, Facetti and Finotto gave Lancia maximum points in the up to two-liter Group 5 class.
"After the race, Fiorio came up to me and said, 'Do you know what you have achieved?' To be honest I didn't," says Pirro. "I just felt like I'd been doing a 24-hour test."
Long-distance sports car racing was a different animal in those days. It was not the flat-out sprint it is today.
"At that time, I believed that racing was solely about driving as fast as possible," explains Pirro. "I had no idea about long-distance racing. I couldn't understand that we were not allowed to drive flat-out; we even had to back off once a lap to allow the turbo to cool down."
Nor could he understand the fuss in the media when he arrived back in Italy.
"There was quite a lot of press because I was just a young driver and it was such an important race," he recalls. "It really was quite big news, but to be honest it didn't feel very deserved."
Thirty-one years on, the hardened veteran is taking his Daytona comeback in his stride, but he can't hide his enthusiasm for his return to the Speedway.
These days, he is a semi-retired racer who works in an ambassadorial role for long-time employer Audi, but when the German manufacturer decided to develop a Grand-Am specification version of its successful R8 LMS GT3 racer, Pirro put in a request to drive the solo car entered by the APR Motorsport squad.
"Audi organized this for me," he says. "I told them I wanted to do it, and they said to the team that I was available. To be driving again here is quite a big thing for me because of that race all those years ago.
"It was the first big race of my career. I can't say this is the last big race for me, but I am definitely in the twilight of my career."