Daytona 24, 1998
Downing/Atlanta NEC Racing Report
#62 Mazda-Kudzu DLM 3-rotor
#63 Mazda-Kudzu DLM4 4-rotor

Text & images copyright Michael J. Fuller

So a new racing season is upon us.  My enthusiasm for this upcoming season has been slightly tempered relative to last year.  I guess I have become old hand at this now.  Last year I was able to attend the Daytona 24, Sebring 12, Road Atlanta.  And then there was the highlight of the season for me, driving cross country from the Sebring “Octoberfest” race to the Laguna Seca season finale.  I tell you, there is nothing like being young and having the opportunity to travel across the vast expanses of the United States.

But during our off season the silly powers that be assumed it was time to butt heads ONE more time, and once again we find the sport in political agitation.  Ironically, this all occurs during a period when the sport is seeing a resurgence in popularity (look at the interest that Le Mans is garnering this year from the manufacturers [Toyota, Nissan, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Panoz]).  This uncertainty about the direction of the sport has in a sense muted the start of the season to those involved in the sport.  But hell, when you get down and look at it, why complain?  We still get to watch the world’s coolest cars race for 24 hours while the rest of the country shivers from the cold!  I guess you still can’t beat that!

Practice and qualifying, Thursday and Friday, January 28th & 29th, 1998

Our driver line ups were as follows: #62, Dennis Spencer, Ralph Thomas, Doug Campbell, Rich Grupp, and John Mirro,  and #63, Jim Downing, Howard Katz, John O’Steen, Franck Freon, and Yojiro Terada.  Rich Grupp also doubled as crew chief on the #62.

Kudzu DL4 going through pre-race tech inspection, Copyright Mike Fuller, 1998The first practice session for the Daytona 24 was at 10:30 am the first morning.  The cars were essentially in the same trim as we had tested.  The only modifications were beefed up wing supports on both cars (remember the testing fiasco and the wing mount failure on car #63).  The 4-rotor was  also sporting a new wing borrowed from the Courage C41 and Jim was interested in seeing if it would improve the performance of the car.

Session one went off fine.  The 3-rotor settled down into the 1:55s.  We used this session to do some catch-up setup work on the 4-rotor.  The test session weekend had been lost for us and we really didn’t accomplish anything over that weekend.  So we started basically from scratch setting up the 4-rotor.  Franck turned a fast lap in the 2:10 bracket.  But he never did get a flying lap.  The session went like this:  make a chassis change(ride height, dampner, etc.), exit pits, come right back in.  The times meant nothing.

There was nothing to change on the 3-rotor for qualifying.  But we determined to revert back to the original Kudzu wing for the 4-rotor.  Also, the 4-rotor was showing a propensity to porpoise at speed on the banking.  Over the weekend practice sessions this problem was mis-diagnosed as a spring control issue, that is, if was thought the dampners weren’t controlling the spring enough, and it was oscillating over the bumps at speed, basically floundering and flopping around.  What it turned out to be was an aerodynamics induced porposing, an aerodynamic balance issue.  The front end was working too well and planting the nose down on the straights, which in turn starved off the nose tray, underbody, and rear wing, and that resulted in loss of downforce,  causing the nose to pop back off the race track.  It did this up and down, up and down,  scooting along the fastest portions of the track.

By final qualifying the 4-rotor was set up well enough that Jim said, “It’s great, don’t change a THING!”.  The aero porposing issue had been addressed and it ran smoothly, if not necessarily fast.

Our cars lined up 17th and 18th, with the surprise being that the 3-rotor had just barely out qualified the 4-rotor.  The official times were 1:48.170 (118.48mph) for the #62 and 1:48.427(118.19mph) for the #63.  Franck could have had a faster time in the 4-rotor, but on his last lap of the final qualifying session he misjudged where the timing beacon was (assumed it was on the start/finish line--isn’t, is located between turns 1 and 2) and got off the gas before crossing the timing light.  According to my stop watch, Franck’s time would have been around a 1:48.07.  There still was more time in the 4-rotor, but it really didn’t matter.  The race was upon us and it was time to prepare for the real reason why we came to Daytona.

The race

Race morning was more hectic that usual.  A lot of work was yet to be done.  Most of my time was spent prepping all the spare body pieces.  They needed to be fitted for latches and the night noses (Le Mans low downforce nose with 4 light surrounds) needed to be harnessed and wired for lighting.  Suffice to say I nearly missed the “engine start” command and the beginning of the race!

John Mirro was starting in the #62 (3-rotor) and Howard Katz in the #63 (4-rotor).  Things got off to a somewhat ominous start when Scott, our chief mechanic, came hurtling back as the cars were released from the grid for the first pace lap saying that we had a cut tire on the #63 and that Howard was going to pit it before the start of the second pace lap.  Howard came in, the right rear was changed (big gash in tread), and he made his way back to the field, albeit down from his original starting position.

The start, was well, just that, the start of a 24 hour race!  It really is MUCH more exciting from the fan’s perspective.  For us it means time to relax and cat nap when you can and be ready when you need to be!  My “shift” didn’t start till 2 AM (what a shitty time to start, eh??) and ran till 9 am, but I was a floater from 1 PM till 2 AM.

After the first hour, Howard pitted the #63 and switched over to Yojiro.  The 4-rotor was up to 17th at this time (had fallen back to 27th or so at the start).  Howard described the car as “very loose” and was having to lift to keep it off the rev limiter on the front straight.  John then pitted #62 and switched over to Ralph.  The 3-rotor had made some head way and was in about 13th position.

Around 3 PM we had our first break in the routine and the first full course yellow (the Dyson R&S/Panoz incident on the front straight).  I just missed seeing the initial contact, but I did catch glimpse of  the errant Panoz pirouetting down the front straight laying down bits of body work as it came to a rest.  The Panoz appeared to slow down suddenly (traffic in the way?) and the Dyson car just didn’t react in time.  The track was cleaned up and we were back racing.

3:50 PM, the Ford Keiler Can-Am blows its motor on the front straight (pretty spectacularly, fire and smoke and a loud explosion), yellow flag for oil clean up.

5:00-ish PM, Jim brings the #63 in for routine fuel stop and decides to put on the Le Mans night nose with the four headlights (the ones that Brooks and I wired) at that time.  The noses are switched on, but two of the four lights aren’t working (shit!).  Jim heads back out and does a few laps and brings her back in to have the regular day nose re-fitted.  Turns out the car is handling differently with the low-drag Le Mans nose (we never had time to test back-to-back setups between the regular high downforce nose and the Le Mans nose with its four headlights and lower drag and downforce).

At 6:50 PM we had our first emergency stop for the #62 car.   The driver brought the car in because the gear shifter/shift linkage mount inside the tub had come loose.  This is the bracket that holds the shift lever and the linkage together.  Well, its bolts apparently sheared, and it was flopping around inside the well.  We had to lift the body work off, remove the right side cooler duct and then replace the bolts, nuts, and washers.  The whole operation took about 20 minutes.

For a while things where going smoothly, around 9:30 PM there was a full course caution for the #17 Ferrari 333SP.  Apparently it nosed into the Armco and was out on the spot.

The track went green around 9:45 PM and almost immediately Dennis is on the radio in the #62 car saying he has “no gears”.  The first course of action is to determine if Dennis can make it back to the pits.  Dennis isn’t confident that he can nurse her back, he is going to have to be towed back to pit lane.  Next we have to find out where the officials are going to tow him (in the mean time I am sprinting around the paddock trying to figure out where they are going to drag him in).  If they bring him back to the paddock there is a penalty.  USRRC assures us that they will tow him back onto pit row.  By the time I get back to the pits (out of breath!), the guys have the wing and gear box casing off and are rooting around to find out what the trouble is.  The 6-speed gearbox is definitely the Achilles Heel of the 3-rotor.  In order to fit 6 gears in a 5-speed gear box, you have to build the gears narrower.  Well, narrow gears mean there is a higher probability of failure (the drivers have to be careful with the ‘box, deliberate and smooth, we were knocked out of contention last year because of an over exuberant driver who roughed up the gearbox), and in this case, that is what happened.  Second gear was stripped, all the teeth were knocked off it.  Fortunately there was no additional damage.  The gear was replaced and we lost about an hour in the pits (9:45-10:45).  John took over from Dennis, went out, and everything ran fine!

At 11:30 John O’Steen had a tire blow out in the 4-rotor and made a dash for pit lane.  He came in, we changed the tire (right rear), and he was back out.  About 10 minutes later he was back in complaining of a vibration.  Scott checked the rear suspension and we went ahead and changed the tire again in case it had been out of balance.

The leader at 11:30 PM was the #20 Dyson R&S Ford with 314 laps completed.  A quick look at the timing monitor showed the #95 Supreme Exhaust Chevy Kudzu in 10th, our #63 Mazda-Kudzu DLM4 18th, our #62 Mazda-Kudzu DLM 41st, and the #19 Davin Racing Buick Kudzu 43rd.

By midnight I had started my shift.  I was the time keeper on the #62.  I would keep track of the lap times, and radio them back to the driver.  John had been in the car since we got it back on the track.  Nearly an hour into his stint and he was rattling off times in the 1:55-1:58 bracket.

1:30 AM--  #63 is in for routine fuel and driver change.  Jim gets out and Franck gets in.  This is Franck’s first time in the car all day.

The doldrums--2:00 AM-4:00 AM.  It was during this time that the temperature cooled right off.  I was doing my damnedest to keep warm!  Not sure how low the temperatures got (low 40s-high 30sF?), but it was too cold to be standing around at 4 AM with a silly stop watch watching cars go around (no matter even if they WERE the coolest cars in the world!)!!

Rich was due to get into the #62 and start a double stint around 4:00 AM.  During this time I would be the only person on the radio with him and it would be my responsibility to get the crew ready for when he came in for his stops.

Ralph pitted at 4:15, and Rich went out.  The #62 could do about  30 laps on a tank of fuel in about an hours time.  Well, I guess I miscalculated when he was due to arrive for his first stop,  because I had just started to get everyone ready  when I heard him say, “green light just came on, I am in NASCAR 3, heading towards pit row”.   Everyone was scrambling around and no body (my responsibility) was at the head of our pit to guide him in!  Rich cruised past our pits and stopped a few stalls down where another team was waiting for their car.  Scott and I had to run and get the car and push it back!  Let’s just say for his second stop I was on the ball!!!

Rich finished his double stint and turned the #62 over to Dennis around 6:00 AM.  At 6:45 Dennis called back in to say that the shift linkage appeared loose and that the car was stuck in gear.  At first we thought it was the same problem we had before when the shifter/linkage bracket bolts had sheared.  It turned out that the shift linkage itself had come loose at the rear of the car.  We had the car fixed and back out on the track in about 12 minutes.

7:00 AM, top 5:  #20, #30, #01, #38, #39.  The #63 was in 14th, #62 27th.

7:30 AM, #63 stops on track with a throttle cable problem (many of you ESPN2 viewers awakened to the #63 sitting forlornly by itself).  USRRC tows the car back in.  Crew sets out and fixes the machine and gets it back onto the track.

8:30 AM, #62, 3rd gear is gone.  Drivers told to not use 3rd gear.

9:20 AM, Kudzu update:  #95 Supreme Exhaust Chevy Kudzu 9th, #63 NEC Mazda-Kudzu DLM4 15th, #62 Trench Shoring Mazda-Kudzu DLM 25th, #19 Davin Racing Buick Kudzu 49th.  The #95 Chevy Kudzu would drop out soon after one hell of a run do to a failed ring and pinion.

10:30 AM, the #3 Scandia  Ferrari 333SP comes by pit straight and looses it motor in a muted fireball.  It leaves a streak of oil on the track.

11:15 AM, #38 Champion Porsche GT1 retires

11:20 AM, reports of the #16 Dyson R&S Ford on fire in the infield.  Retires.

By now most of the crew is keeping track of the #63’s progress on the timing monitor.  It is clear that with all the failures in front of us we can move up in placing in the last few hours.  Mood is a bit excited!  Can we get a class podium??

11:40 AM, #63 has moved up to 4th in class.

12:15 PM, #20 Dyson R&S Ford retires.  Driver steps out and raises his arms in defeat!

The excitement is building!  At midnight no one would have thought that we had a chance at a podium class finish!  The old axiom of racing, in order to finish first you must first finish, is ever so true!

12:35 PM, monitors show the #63 NEC Mazda-Kudzu in 8th place overall, 2nd in the Can-Am class!!!  Last pit stops are made, cars are topped off.

I head up to the photo tower to photograph the finish.  The last few laps have both Jim in the #63 and John in the #62 circulating in formation in preparation of a photo finish (fingers crossed, be careful guys!).  I notice from the photo tower the #19 Buick Kudzu is being started up.  Soon he joins the Kudzu formation!  So we are going to have a 1-2-3 Kudzu photo finish!

Moretti crew assembles on pit row to wave Gianpeiro Moretti home!  As he crosses the finish and takes the checkered flag, a junker GT1 Camaro try’s to steal his thunder and get in the way of his photo finish.

A triumvirate of Kudzus crosses the line!  Captured on film!
Kudzu finish, Copyright Mike Fuller, 1998

We are jubilant with the result.  Daytona Speedway officials bring us our 2nd place trophy and a chilled bottle of champagne.

Mazda Kudzu DLM after the 24 Hours of Daytona, Copyright Mike Fuller, 1998Final Kudzu update:

8th place, 2nd in Can-Am:  #63 NEC Mazda-Kudzu DLM4
22nd place, 6th in Can-Am:  #62 Trench Shoring Mazda-Kudzu DLM
25th place, 7th in Can-Am:  #95 Supreme Exhaust Chevy Kudzu DL4
50th place, 15th in Can-Am:  #19 Davin Racing Buick Kudzu DLM

A little fun fact was passed on to me by Dave Lynn, the Kudzu’s designer.  According to their calculations, the 3-rotor Mazda-Kudzu DLM has covered over 20,000 racing miles!  Including 3 Daytona 24’s, 2 Sebrings, and 1 Le Mans!

ęCopyright 1998-2019, Michael J. Fuller
"It's marvelous to go so very fast!"