Hurley Haywood’s Rolex 24 Hot Takes

A racing legend and five-time winner on coming out ahead at Daytona

byChris Cantle| UPDATED Jan 28, 2017 6:44 PM
Hurley Haywood’s Rolex 24 Hot Takes

Hurley Haywood knows his stuff. He's a three-time winner at Le Mans, a five-time winner at Daytona, and a legendary driving instructor. We hit pit row with Haywood just before racing got under way at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and the veteran driver shared what he was seeing in the chaos around him. When Hurley speaks, you'd best listen.

It's overcast and chilly in Daytona. Low-fifties, and getting cooler fast. "You can't use tire warmers. That's critical here." Haywood says. That means drivers are going to struggle for grip with every set of new tires. Those cool temperatures are going to dictate more than cornering speeds. Planning for driver changes, too, will revolve around those tires. 

"They're going to get good wear." Says Haywood. "One strategy is to get all the drivers in the car while it's light out. The other is to get one guy out and run a long stint to see what tire wear is like, see if they can double stint those tires." 

In addition to the dropping temperatures, rain is forecast for early in the morning, leading some around the paddock to suggest that the prototypes will have to back off, leaving an opening for another class to take the overall win. 

"The GTLM cars are very good in the wet. Much more weatherproof than a prototype, and heavier, they stick better. If it rains a GTLM car is going to win." Haywood says.

If you've never been to Daytona, make the trip. The racing is fantastic, and the crowd is deeply enthusiastic. While it might make for great spectating, all the action can be very distracting for a driver—even one with Haywood's powers of concentration. "It's a mob scene before the race. The fans want to talk to you. You just block everyone out." Daytona, in particular, has a knack for getting under a driver's skin. "This is the big race for us. The opening of the season. The longest race. And everyone is just hoping to get everything right." 

Because of enthusiastic crowd, it's not unusual to get big pieces of race car and sharpies shoved through the crowd for autographs. "The racetrack after a 24 hour race is like a garbage can." Haywood says of the mountains of car parts left trackside as a result of contact or attrition.

Chris Cantle

According to Haywood, keeping your head straight during the race is much easier. Expert preparation helped, but Haywood's focus seemed to be the secret to staying sharp on his next stint in the car. "I went right to sleep." He says. "We got out of the car, went to the doctor, got an IV and got into a hyperbaric chamber. And if you sleep for two or three hours you're doing good. I forced myself to do it." 

The routine worked wonders for alertness in Haywood's time, and sports medicine has only improved since. The aggressive health management has another advantage as the hours click past and everyone sane starts to head to bed. "If history's any guide, the fast times are set at night." Says the veteran driver.

Seventeen manufacturers are participating at Daytona this year, and a great number of the cars are unproven at Daytona. Speed shouldn't be much of a challenge, reliability is going to be another story entirely. "Prototype are prototypes, we went through the same teething problems." Haywood says. When the field is all-new, just huck your expectations out the window. That said, Haywood seems to like what he sees on track.

"We've done a full circle with engine development." Haywood says. His career started in small-displacement, turbocharged cars. 40-years later, much of the field has gone the same way for the advantages in fuel economy. And while the big horsepower cars are still impressive, straightaway speeds this year are expected to be held down around 200-mph. Helpful as all that power is, there's another measurement that's important to this race winner. 

"Torque gets you from corner to corner. When you have turbocharging with good torque, you've got a winning combination."

Part of Daytona's charm is the pro-am nature of the racing. "You have a big variance of driver ability." Haywood says. 

But interestingly, the amateurs are doing a better job of keeping up than ever. 

"The difference in speed is smaller. Because the cars are so much easier to drive now, it's much closer than it used to be. Compared to what we were in, it's like night and day. These are the cars we always wanted to drive."

While he won't be taking the wheel this weekend, another honor is going to Haywood. For the first time he'll be watching the start of the race from the starting stand, and waving the green flag over Daytona decades after his first win here.

"I've taken the flag 40 times, but I've never waved it." Haywood told us. 

"I hope I don't drop it."