Legendary racer Hurley Haywood still gets the questions, the congratulations and, frankly, all the great vibes for an incredible “how it all started” story – for IMSA and for the Hall of Fame driver personally. It was largely a simultaneous effort.
Fifty years ago this week – on April 18, 1971 – Haywood and co-driver Peter Gregg won the first IMSA Grand Touring Series race at Virginia International Raceway.
Their Porsche 914/6 earned a two-lap victory over the favored Corvette, driven by Dave Heinz.
It was a car enthusiast’s dream race: Porsches and Corvettes, Camaros and Datsuns. Most importantly, it was the start of great things to come for American sports car racing and IMSA as a premier sanctioning body.
For their work that April afternoon, Haywood and Gregg earned a trophy and approximately $3,000 – although Haywood chuckles and insists he isn’t positive on the winner’s check amount.
“Could have been less, it certainly wasn’t more,’’ the multi-time IMSA champion said. “Back then, people didn’t race for the money in sports cars. They raced just because they loved doing it.”
Even Haywood speaks with reverence about how far the series has come and what it meant in his own celebrated career – one that included notable victories in IMSA’s premier endurance races: five overall Rolex 24 At Daytona wins and a pair of Twelve Hours of Sebring overall victories. He won three times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans as well.
“When people mention this is your 50th anniversary of being with IMSA, being with Porsche, it’s a little mind-boggling because when I think about it, it seems like just yesterday,’’ Haywood said. “I can remember details of that first race. And when you look back at what’s happened in those 50 years, not only to the track, to the cars, to the people that run IMSA, it’s pretty incredible when you think about it.’’
The details of that first IMSA race are still vivid for Haywood.
“I actually owned that car,” Haywood said. “We qualified sort of mid-pack and we just ran ‘em down. We had better brakes, we had better reliability in the car and were able to whittle down the advantage the big Corvettes and Camaros were having and pass them at the midway point of the race and cruise from there on.
“That little 914 won because it was durable, very durable, and easy to drive and very good on the brakes so we could really just force the Corvettes, Camaros and Mustangs to go deep into the corner on brakes and two or three laps later their brakes were on fire, useless. So that’s how we won those races with that little 914. It was such a great race car.”
That inaugural race victory in 1971 came only a few weeks after the 21-year-old Haywood returned after serving in the Vietnam War.
In fact, Haywood found out that one of his U.S. Army officers had attended – and enjoyed – the race; seeing the subsequent race write-up in the Fort Lee, Virginia, base paper where Haywood was stationed.
“The commanding officer happened to be a big racing fan,” Haywood recalled. “He didn’t know who I was from a hole in the wall and went to that race as a spectator.
“The next day, my name was in the base paper. I got a call that afternoon to report to the commander’s office and he basically said, ‘I watched that race and you did a really great job. We’ve got to speed this rotation so you can get out of the Army and go back to racing.'”
While Haywood spent the next couple months finishing his commitment, he kept racing.
He and Gregg quickly proved to be IMSA’s original “team to beat.” Their work and the burgeoning popularity of their racing series laid a vital foundation for what would become North America’s premier sports car series.
The Brumos Racing pair won the first five races of the 1971 six-race schedule and would go on to become one of sports car racing’s greatest pairings.
Gregg, who died in 1980, earned 41 race wins and is 11th on the IMSA all-time wins list. Haywood won 34 times, including four titles and is tied for 14th in career wins.
And that historic trophy from the 1971 inaugural race? It remains in the Brumos collection in Jacksonville, Fla., where some of the most historic IMSA cars and memorabilia are proudly displayed.
“I was just a young kid then and the military really forces you to grow up in a hurry, especially when you’re in a war zone and people are shooting at you,” Haywood says of his earliest IMSA days of competition.
“You don’t tend to fool around, so you learn how to take orders and you learn how to separate what’s right and wrong to do. From a racing standpoint, I think that really helped me grow up in a big hurry and really taught the importance of preparation, thinking about what you’re doing, not doing a jerk reaction, really planning your steps carefully.”