The Unknown Soldiers

If it had been, say, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte out on the big Daytona tri-oval for a two-day test, several dozen local race fans would've been in the bleachers, waiting through all the non-action for the occasional few laps turned by their beloved stockers.

But last week, the headliners for two days of Daytona testing were Hurley Haywood and Bob Wollek - two racers, you could argue, who are roughly equal in status to Elliott and Labonte.

Problem is, of course, Haywood and Wollek currently race a Porsche, not an American-badged sedan, and the race they were tuning for is February's 24 Hours of Daytona, not the Daytona 500.

Therefore, at the high-tide mark, you might've been able to scare up enough fans in the seats for a game of pickup basketball. Most of the time, however, you would've fallen a few people short for a hand of bridge.

Keep in mind, Haywood and Wollek have been around the sportscar world a long time - long enough to remember when a few folks might've used their lunch breaks to come out and sneak a peak at the new Porsche prototype they were horsing around the Daytona road course.

Not only is the open-cockpit ride a nice piece of lightning-quick machinery, but Haywood and Wollek are genuine racing legends - between them, there are 15 combined wins at Daytona, Le Mans and Sebring.

But in this country, NASCAR is king. These days, in terms of fan interest, when even the better-than-ever Indy-car shows can't keep pace, the sportscar society has no chance.

"The main problem in this country is there is no real history, no American history for road-racing and sportscar racing," says Wollek, a friendly Frenchman who still carries a Porsche-factory driving contract at age 57. "It's not like Europe, where you have Porsche and Ferrari. If an American manufacturer had been in sportscar racing for the past 20 years, with American drivers, the media would've spoken more about sportscars."

But Wollek isn't complaining. Not in the least. Once his young-man's dream of racing Jackie Stewart in Formula One didn't work out (he topped out in Formula Two), Wollek settled into a long, long career driving sportscars around the globe. The pace of the sportscar season (he'll drive about 15 races next year), as well as road-racing's demand for guile and experience instead of youthful hell-bent-for-leather acceleration, has allowed men like Wollek and Haywood (Hurley is now 52, believe it or not) to fly past the normal retirement age for racers.

"I didn't want to become rich, I didn't want to become famous," says Wollek. "I just wanted to live this life. If I'd made it to Formula One, I'd either be dead by now or I would've been out of racing a long time ago. This is the kind of life I wanted to live. But in my most stupid thoughts, I never thought I'd be a race-car driver at age 57."

Haywood cut his racing teeth at a great time to be a road-racer. He was a little too late for the prime Dan Gurney-Pedro Rodriguez years, but just in time to run with the likes of Al Holbert, Brian Redman, Peter Gregg and good friend Mark Donohue.

True, given his form of racing, he'd have a better chance of getting served quickly at a restaurant in France than even his native Jacksonville. But with the business career he's built through his racing life (he has a very successful Porsche dealership in Jacksonville), he too has no complaints.

"Sportscar racing has been extremely good for me," says Haywood, who once won four Daytona 24s in a six-year stretch. "For over 30 years I've been able to drive competitive cars and have the ability to win races. I don't ever regret what I've done with sportscars.

"If I had chosen to be a stock-car driver, or chosen to be an Indy-car driver, I might be a much wealthier person, but I don't know if I'd be any happier. When I'm at the track, I expect people to know who I am, but when I leave the track, I hope to blend in and not be bothered. In that respect, I'm lucky."

Lucky, but not immortal. And that's what gnaws at Wollek, who would just as soon ride this train forever.

"I know that I have, for sure, one year left, maybe two," he says. "But it's behind me. And I love racing so much. Every time I go to a race track I think, 'Maybe this is the last race I do on this circuit; maybe this is the last time I go to this hotel.' You have to be realistic - I'm 57.

"But I've done this for 33 years. One can’t feel sorry for being a race-car driver all these years."

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2000

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