Earlier this year, Porsche race legend Hurley Haywood’s autobiography was released. Here, America’s greatest ever endurance race driver shares some additional memoirs with Tony Mcguiness
Nothing prepares you for Le Mans. It is an amazing event. Back in 1977 I couldn’t believe my luck being chosen as a factory driver for Porsche, yet here I was in the beautiful Martini Racing liveried 936 leading the race with Jürgen Barth and Jacky Ickx in my team.
They were going to give me the honour of taking the checkered flag. Everything was going marvellously well. The car felt good, everything was good. We weren’t in jeopardy of being caught by anybody. Then I felt this sort of tightness in the engine. I looked out the rear-view mirror and there was blue smoke billowing out of the exhaust pipes. I thought, “Oh my God!”
I stuck the microphone in my helmet and said, “This is car four, we have an engine problem.
There is smoke coming out. I am going to drive it slowly back to the pits.” I was feeling quite devastated, thinking I had done something wrong.
I got back to the pits and the crew immediately took the bonnet off the back and realised one of the pistons had burnt a hole in it. They disconnected the spark plug and took it out to neutralise it.
Porsche decided Jurgen was much more mechanically inclined than I was and had the best feel for keeping the engine going, so put him in the car. The engineers had worked out how slow Jurgen would have to drive, and the team knew exactly when to let him go from the pits to complete the last few minutes of the race and still be in the lead.
They gave him a huge clock and said you must do a lap within… I don’t know, four minutes, or whatever it was. I can’t remember the exact time, but they knew exactly what had to be done to take the checkered flag at the 24-hour mark.
Well, he went too quickly. He had to make another lap, and by that time the engine was not feeling well at all! It was agonising waiting for him to come back around. He basically inched across the finish line, but we had won the 1977 24 Hours of Le Mans! It was incredible!
I remember running across the pit lane, jumping over the guardrail and having this sea of people… I mean I have never been in a situation where you were so overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the crowd that was suddenly rushing on you.
I finally got to the car and they lifted me up on the side pod. It was amazing. That whole thing was unbelievable. It was hard to imagine it was happening. Here you are at your first time at Le Mans and you won the thing! The crowds were immense, and the noise was deafening. It was so incredibly emotional. Just like a dream! Everyone wanted to touch you, to talk to you, to say something. The guards and the safety protocols they have now didn’t exist then, so people where everywhere.
I had won Daytona three times up to that point so Porsche knew I had the ability to bring a car to the finish line, but Le Mans is so different from Daytona. There are few comparisons other than they are both 24-hour races.
Thank god that everything went well! There were a bunch of things that could have gone wrong and things that did go wrong, yet we overcame those problems. That’s what makes a great team, and that’s what gives Porsche the unique ability to win so many of these longdistance races – its ability to quickly analyse a problem and fix it.
I didn’t get to savour the Le Mans win as I went right back to the airport the next day to fly back to America. I was basically mobbed at the airport, which was amazing! That was pretty cool. No one knew who Hurley Haywood was when I landed in France, but they knew who I was when I left! I received a huge reception when I landed back in the States; there were a couple hundred people waiting to congratulate me.
We get a lot of things for winning Le Mans, but one of the things I got was a beautiful glass like a rock which has ‘Le Mans’ and ‘Winner’ and the year inscribed on it. It really is a beautiful thing, and weighs about 15 pounds. I actually carried it back home in my suitcase!
I had come a long way from that car park where I had beat Peter Gregg in my Corvette for the Autocross fastest time of the day (FTD). Back then I never would have imagined that I would have won major victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring before the 1970s ended.
But then, on Monday 15 December, 1980, I heard the devastating, incomprehensible news that lives with me to this day…