Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Innes at Daytona

Bill France had been trying to get Innes to drive the Daytona 500 for years, ever since he had won the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in 1961. In 1962, the Radnorshire based Scotsman had even turned up at the Florida track, where he caused a certain amount of mirth amongst the regulars by trying to open the welded door of a stocker. By 1967 Innes's road race drives were drying-up, he'd gotten a somewhat unfair reputation as a crasher, someone who took partying more seriously than racing, and this in a sport that was getting more serious by the minute.

The offer to drive the 1967 race must have been a godsend to Innes, who, contrary to popular misconception, was not a well-heeled toff. The starting money offered by France was going to be very welcome to a Scot whose domestic arrangements at that time were somewhat complicated to say the least. This was not some fly in and fly out arrangement, Innes was to spend a couple of weeks at Daytona in the lead up to the race, generally learning the ropes of the oval game. France had fixed a deal with the middle of the grid Ray Fox team for Innes to drive one of their Dodges. Not a new Dodge mind, but an old 65 Dodge Coronet - team mate Buddy Baker was allocated the 67 Charger.

Ireland was disconcerted by the understeering stocker and caused some consternation in practice by setting up the car to allow him to corner with a touch of oversteer. A few friendly words from Mario Andretti, in which the American pointed out the consequences to the tyres of coming through the bends with the front wheels in lane two and the rears almost in lane three, saw Innes hastily abandon his effort to teach the locals their own game. Over the years this episode has sometimes been used as evidence of road racer naivety, but what is usually forgotten is that Innes was the source of the tale. Unlike so many others in the ego driven racing world, Ireland was always big enough to tell a story against himself.

Innes got the feeling that the Fox team crew were not too impressed with the 175 mph laps he was reeling off in the 600 bhp Dodge, so he asked Baker to try out the older car and as his team leader's best time was just 0.04 mph faster, it was agreed that the rookie wasn't doing so bad. The second of the one hundred mile qualifying races saw Innes come in a very respectable 10th place which put him at 20th position on the grid of 50 starters for the 500 mile main event on 26th February.

Even as the high speed 500 progressed, Ireland was still learning the techniques of oval racing as he drafted Cale Yarborough's Ford to record laps of 178mph, his fastest yet. Innes had moved up steadily through the field to 10th place when his engine disintegrated on lap 126. The experts agreed that given his increasing pace the newcomer would have finished in the top five if the car had lasted the race. Stock Car Racing magazine was most impressed with the road racer's first outing on the high banks, commenting that he had compressed in a few days what many NASCAR drivers took years to acquiire. He had been gaining ground they said on some of the most formidable names in the sport, including eventual winner Andretti, and the likes of Petty, Yarborough and Pearson.

Despite the respect and welcome Innes received from the stock racing fraternity, he was not eager to take up the offers to race again during the rest of the season. He disliked the seriousness of it all, the 9 to 5 routine at the circuit followed by long hours back at the hotel, without the fun and good food of the European scene. He also did not have the same rapport with the mechanics as he had back home. Racing was becoming a business and Innes, as he often stated, was no business man.

Later in the year Bill France invited two other great Scots, Jimmy Clark and Jackie Stewart to participate in the American 500 at Rockingham. The terms were not right for JYS, who in many ways typified the new hard-nosed business attitudes that Innes abhorred. Jimmy, by contrast, was a racer who just couldn't turn down the opportunity to try something new. He drove a 67 Ford in the late October race for the frontline Holman-Moody team. Well off the pace set by his teammates in practice, the eventual race winner Allison and second placed Pearson, Clark was still learning the ropes and moving up through the mid field when his engine gave up the ghost on lap 144. Clark fans like to point to this foray as yet another example of their heroes versatility and greatness. No-one pays much mind to Innes's very similar outing earlier in the same season of course, but then what has fairness got to do with anything.

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