Pop quiz for all you Formula 1 geeks out there: Who’s won the most Monaco Grands Prix? Graham Hill? Nope. Ayrton Senna? Sorry. Michael Schumacher? Try again. Juan Manuel Fangio? Getting colder. Tazio Nuvolari? Now you’re just guessing. The correct answer is Duncan Dayton.
OK, so that was a trick question. Each of his eight victories came in the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, and nobody’s going to confuse Dayton with the Brabhams and Andrettis who originally drove the cars he now races in vintage events. But Dayton recently embarked on a new career – as an American Le Mans Series team owner – and his success may earn him a spot alongside another set of motorsports heroes.
“I want to emulate Lance Reventlow, Jim Kimberly, Briggs Cunningham, Bob Akin, Rob Dyson, Roger Penske – privateers who took it to the Europeans on their own soil and did an amazing job,” Dayton says. “But these days, to be successful at the highest level, you need factory support. So two years ago, I went to Acura and told them: ‘You guys don’t know me from Adam. But I’m going to win Le Mans in the next ten years, and I hope it’s with you as opposed to against you.’ Six weeks later, we signed a contract.”
Acura hasn’t committed itself to racing at Le Mans – yet. But the company selected Dayton’s little-known Highcroft Racing operation to be one of four teams to fly Acura’s flag in ALMS competition. Last year, Highcroft scored four class wins, more than the three other Acura teams combined. As a reward, Acura named Highcroft one of the two teams that will campaign its brand-new LMP1 cars – the top of the ALMS pyramid – this year.
“We looked at the existing teams and a few other teams that had either an existing sports car program or the ability to create one,” says Erik Berkman, president of Honda Performance Development, American Honda’s racing arm. “Duncan’s got a passion for racing, and he was aggressive in getting the Acura business. He dreams of going to Le Mans, and, ultimately, we dream about that, too. Also, he’s gotten to where he is today in a different way than any of his competitors, and you’ve got to respect that.”
Vintage racing is often the final port of call for affluent drivers looking for a relaxing environment where – especially here in America – cutthroat competition is actively discouraged. Dayton, 49, stockily built, engaging, and articulate, is rare, if not unique, in that he used vintage racing as a springboard to a career in the uppermost echelons of professional motorsports. And make no mistake: he’s not just a rich guy with an overdeveloped ego looking to play Ron Dennis for a few years before moving on to hydroplanes or climbing Mount Everest or building a lavish hideaway in Fiji.
Even at a glance during a preseason test at Sebring, it’s impossible to miss the fastidious, if not fanatical, attention to detail that Dayton brings to the Highcroft operation. The star attraction, naturally, is the supersexy Acura prototype. (“We’ve got more technology in our steering wheels than NASCAR has in its entire paddock,” Dayton says.) It’s being tended to by twenty mechanics and engineers with résumés stretching from vintage racing to F1. The car, transporter, tent, team uniforms, and signage all bear the striking black, blue, and lime-green livery of title sponsor Patrón Tequila. Even the color-coordinated trio of team motorbikes is parked with military precision.
“Duncan’s got a tremendous passion for the sport,” says Scott Sharp, who joined Highcroft last year and who will team again with co-driver David Brabham in 2009. “He has the wherewithal to do just about anything he wants, but he eats, drinks, and sleeps racing, and he’ll do whatever it takes to win.
Patrón and I got really lucky when we stumbled onto him.”
This is high praise for a guy who’d never even sat in a race car until he was thirty-one years old. Dayton dates his love affair with racing to seeing the stunning split-screen opening credits of the 1966 movie Grand Prix when he was an impressionable boy of eight. Growing up in Minneapolis (in the Highcroft neighborhood), he spent countless hours fooling around in go-karts and driving on frozen lakes in his mother’s Ford Gra-nada. But his father, Ken, was the CEO of the retail empire now known as Target, and the family had a long history of philanthropy and supporting the arts, so the notion of making a career out of racing, much less racing himself, never occurred to Dayton.
Instead, he studied architecture and went into business as a real-estate developer. It was only later that he indulged his long-sublimated love for cars, first restoring a Ferrari Dino and then buying a Brabham BT29 Formula B car whose lithe, cigar-shaped body reminded him of the lovelies featured in Grand Prix. In his first vintage event, he qualified on the pole and finished second, and then he was off to the races – literally.
Over the years, Dayton has amassed a world-class stable of collectibles, including F1 cars such as a Brabham BT33 raced by Black Jack himself, an ex-Graham Hill Lotus 16, and, most iconic of all, the Lotus 79 that Mario Andretti drove to the 1978 world championship. Dayton himself matured into perhaps America’s most celebrated vintage racer, winning races on four continents. But inevitably, he grew tired of being a big fish in a small pond. So he and his friend Michael Fitzgerald – another vintage racer who’d come late to the sport – teamed up to race Formula Ford 2000s in professional competition.
Dayton was just as fast – and sometimes faster – than the young lions who were climbing the formula-car ladder. “Duncan was especially good on ovals,” Fitzgerald recalls. “He beat Buddy Rice. He repeatedly beat Sam Hornish. He could have raced at Indy. Honestly, I think both of us could have been professional drivers if we’d started earlier. I think we would have been Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves.”
Seeing several friends – including Fitzgerald – break their backs in wrecks on ovals persuaded Dayton to shelve his dream of racing in the Indianapolis 500. Instead, he focused on sports cars, racing as a paying driver in Grand-Am and ALMS and competing at Le Mans four times. Although he scored class wins at Sebring and Petit Le Mans, he eventually realized that stepping up to the next class would require a much more serious investment of time, money, and personal responsibility.
Dayton formulated a five-year plan that he articulated to ALMS president Scott Atherton during a meeting in a Las Vegas hotel room. In 2005, Dayton said, he was going to build a race shop and administrative offices. In 2006, he planned to buy an existing chassis. In 2007, he wanted to attract manufacturer support. In 2008, he intended to secure a title sponsor. In 2009, he expected to move up to LMP1. And for 2010, the goal was Le Mans. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s ambitious,’ ” Atherton recalls. Dayton spent millions, if not tens of millions, of his own dollars getting the team off the ground. But he’s right on schedule with what he calls a “sustainable” program funded by sponsorship and factory backing.
He began by helping design and build a stunning 48,000-square-foot modernist facility for Highcroft Racing in Danbury, Connecticut, that’s unlike any race shop in America. Then, he amassed a top-flight group ranging from team manager Robin Hill, formerly of the Target Chip Ganassi Champ Car program, to technical director Dave Luckett, who had been the chief mechanic for the Shadow and Arrows F1 teams, to longtime mechanic Glenn Taylor, who had wrenched on the BT29 that Dayton drove in his first vintage race.
Highcroft Racing debuted as an entrant with an old Lola bought from Rob Dyson, and although it wasn’t competitive, the car gave Dayton the credibility he needed to wrangle a meeting with Honda Performance Development about an Acura LMP2 deal. Robert Clarke, HPD president at the time, was impressed enough to request a formal bid. On a tight deadline, Dayton and his friend Danny Sullivan, the 1985 Indy 500 winner, spent two days writing a forty-page proposal.
“As I was about to send it off, I said, ‘This is complete bullshit, and they’re going to see right through it,’ ” Dayton recalls. “So I threw it in the garbage and took a framed photograph – a beautiful professional photograph – of our building, and I wrote Robert a three-sentence letter: ‘Thanks very much for the opportunity to submit an RFP, but I’m at a loss for words, because I’ve never dealt with a manufacturer before. So to use an old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words. If you like what you see, give us a call.’ “
Clarke was looking for young, moldable teams, and he knew that Dayton had the requisite drive and resources. So he not only gave him a call, he gave him a car. At Sebring, in Highcroft’s first race with the new Acura, Dayton stunned the team’s hired guns, F1 veterans David Brabham and Stefan Johansson, by lapping nearly as quickly as they were. “At one point in the race,” Brabham says, “he was going quicker than Tony Kanaan.” Kanaan, by the way, went on to win the LMP2 class at Sebring in another Acura.
This was good for Dayton’s ego but worrisome to Honda, and Clarke felt compelled to have what he calls “a very blunt” conversation with Dayton. “I said, ‘For you not just to succeed but to excel, you have to put all of your efforts into being an owner,’ ” Clarke says. “He’s a very talented driver, and part of his dream was participating as a driver, so I think getting out of the car was a very difficult decision for him.”
But Dayton understood the situation. In an ultracompetitive environment where even proven professionals such as Bryan Herta and Christian Fittipaldi were getting dumped, there was no place for a middle-aged gentleman driver, no matter how talented. The decision to climb out of the cockpit was eased by a freak accident in his pool, which left Dayton with a broken neck that kept him out of commission for several months. Even now, he’s not sure his mended vertebrae could withstand the tremendous g-forces generated by a prototype. And to be honest, he gets more driving pleasure from old cars than new ones.
“The new cars are clearly better weapons, but they’re not as romantic,” he explains. “An old car is sliding. It’s creaking and groaning. It’s got more personality, and it’s more joyful to drive. To drift a front-engine grand prix car through Curva Grande at Monza is cooler to me than driving [a prototype] flat in sixth gear through turn 1 at Sebring. But there is an equal if not greater satisfaction that I take in having been able to put this team together. Running a team is a much more multifaceted challenge than simply driving a car quickly.”
Last year, Highcroft was the most successful rival to the championship-winning Porsches campaigned by Penske Racing. But this year, Dayton faces an even more formidable challenge as he debuts a clean-sheet chassis from Wirth Research and a new engine from Honda. (A second Acura LMP1 car will be run by de Ferran Motorsports.) At the opening race of the season, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the Acuras are expected to face stiff competition from the battle-tested Audi and Peugeot teams. But Honda is used to winning, and so is Dayton. Luckett says that Dayton was, if anything, too fast and too competitive for vintage racing, and he’s found his mtier as an ALMS team owner.
“This is insanely challenging,” Dayton says. “It’s an eighteen-hour-a-day, 362-days-a-year job. But I’m in a perfect place in my life, where I’ve got the time and the inclination and the money and the ability to do it. This is my shot, and I’m never going to get another one. So if not me, who? And if not now, when?”