Last month, global racing fans descended on Daytona International Speedway in Florida as the legendary endurance race celebrated its 50th anniversary.
But for Japanese racing fans memories will always turn back to 1992.
Tougher economic times had whittled the field to 49 cars in the year the race officially became known as the Rolex 24 At Daytona. Nissan Motorsports International, or Nismo, began designing and developing race and rally cars in September 1984, but was a newcomer to the rigors of Daytona.
Nismo would enter the 24-hour race with Masahiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino, and Toshio Suzuki at the wheel of its prototype R91CP car, with only Hasemi having U.S. driving experience.
The Daytona debut, though, would become a milestone in Nissan’s motorsports history, said Kunihiko Kakimoto, who led planning and engineering for the race.
“As a car manufacturer, Nissan has always dealt with closed-top racing cars, so we set a goal to win 24-hour races in top categories for closed-car racing. That was the company’s consensus at that time, and we made a decision to take part in races at Spa, Daytona and an ultimate goal of Le Mans,” said Kakimoto.
“We thought winning these three races would be our goal as a car company.”
Under regulations introduced that year, Nismo entered a prototype that would face horsepower restrictions and would be required to pit more frequently than its GTP cousins.
The No. 23 car would be based on the winner of the 1991 All Japan Sports Prototype Championship, only now with Daytona specs.
“Nissan had won the series several times in Japan by that time, so we decided to make some modifications to the car and participate in Daytona. The average horsepower of this car was about 800hp, so it was very fast,” said Kakimoto.
Nissan had used British racing chassis until 1990 and its own engines, but the R91CP would be 100% Japan-built, with a full-carbon composite body.
The driving team of the 46-year-old Hasemi, 45-year-old Hoshino, and the 35-year-old youngster Suzuki had only learned late in 1991 that they were bound for Daytona, and Hoshino said he tried to get up to speed on the circuit as quickly as possible.
“It was only three or four months until the race when I was told that I was going to Daytona. I had very little information about the circuit,” said Hoshino.
“However, I am a professional driver, and I didn’t want to make any excuses that I didn’t have information or didn’t have time to practice, so I went to Daytona and walked the circuit to learn the road conditions. I walked the corners, learned the ins and outs of the circuit. There was no computer or data at that time. The only thing I could rely on was my ‘kan’-puter, or my senses. I simulated in my mind how I would drive the Daytona course and take its corners.”
With Hasemi leading the charge, the third-placed No. 23 Nissan made a strong start and quickly gained the lead after the second lap.
Hoshino took over after Hasemi and kept up a blistering pace. No longer fazed by the new circuit, the team now focused on the prospect of winning. “When I get behind the wheel, my personality changes completely, so if you are going to accept the challenge, then you have to win. There would be no excuses, that was my feeling,” said Hoshino.
As day turned to night, No. 23 kept its lead despite tough visibility, with initial challenger Porsche retiring on the morning of the second day. Kakimoto said holding the lead through the night was key. “These HID (high-intensity discharge) headlights contributed greatly to the victory. We co-developed these with our supplier Ichikoh, which had very good technology. There were many competitors and other suppliers developing HID headlights, but Ichikoh had one of the best in terms of performance and reliability,” Kakimoto explained.
“In fact, right after Daytona, our rival Jaguar, came to us and asked us if they could buy it and would pay as much as we wanted. From their point of view, these lamps were a big advantage for us.”
After Porsche’s exit, the No. 23 had a nine-lap lead on Jaguar, which used the same car model that had won the race in 1990. But Nissan conceded the lead only once after pitting, although the race wasn’t over yet. “There were no mistakes, the car and drivers were right, and we were on the road to victory, but then came a surprise,” said Kakimoto.
“As the Daytona circuit is so close to the beach, wind-blown sand blocked up the radiator. We tried to wash off the sand during our pit stop, but it was not easy to clear with only water. However, we had a big enough lead time that we could go to the store and buy some detergent to clear the sand.”
After the blocked radiator, a lack of airflow caused a rise in temperature, resulting in an overheated engine. But quick thinking by the crew who used a high-pressure water line to replace the entire coolant box immediately rectified the problem. As the race drew to a close, No.23 earned the checkered flag nine laps ahead of the Jaguar XJR-12, clocking a record 762 laps at an average speed of nearly 113 miles per hour and over 2,700 miles.
“It was the first time ever that no one cheered when a car won because everyone was still so tense. Our garage crew was so nervous, and I felt like my heart was going to explode. I was at a loss for words, and tears just rolled down my face,” said Hoshino.
“For 10 to 15 minutes, nothing was said. Namba-san, Hasemi-san, Toshio-san, none of us could say anything.” When asked by reporters to rate their own record Daytona performances, Hoshino and the team gave themselves an “A-plus”. But the first victory by a Japanese car and team at the 24-hour endurance race was more than just rewriting the Daytona record books.
The debut paved the way for another Nissan win two years later and a legacy of motor sports success that continues to this day.