At 4:13 yesterday afternoon, 23 hours and 40 minutes into the sleepless adventure that is the 24 Hours of Daytona, Rolf Stommelen steered the turbo Porsche 935 that he and Antoine Hezemans co-drove to victory (with a brief assist from Peter Gregg) into the pits for the last time before the checkered flag.
There was no hurry now, and no real anxiety, despite the white smoke that had billowed from the car persistently since about 4 a.m. The "second car" entered by Gregg's efficient JMS Brumos Porsche Racing Team had an enormous lead - 31 laps of the 3.84-mile Daytona International Speedway road course - over a similar turbo Porsche driven to a second-place finish by Johnny Rutherford, Manfred Schurti and owner Dick Barbour.
Stommelen's last stop was a routine one for refueling oil and change of driver. Hezemans, 34, the Dutch "sly fox" of many European endurance tests, would take over for the final laps to victory lane from Stommelen, who had pushed the car to an early lead it never relinquished.
So why did the pit stop take 1 minute 49 seconds much longer than the Gregg team normally requires for such maneuvers?
"Putting on new decals," reported an intelligence gatherer dispatched to the scene.
The Stommelen-Hezemans-and-a-side-order-of-Gregg car was so comfortably ahead it could afford a little time to be pumped.
It was dented, bruised, and splatered with mud and grime, as befits a car that has just ground out 2,611 miles in 24 hours, but the winners wanted to make sure their trademarks and logos stood for the cameras that would record the champagne-splashed ceremonies in the winner's circle.
The Gregg team is Savvy, experienced and never misses a trick, which is why Gregg himself was in on the victory even though the other turbo Porsche he drove with Claude Ballot-Lena of France and Californian Brad Frisselle encountered a rear-axle problem and finished ninth, 59 laps behind its stablemate, after running second much of the way.
Gregg, 37, took over the controls of his second car for one hour during the night, and thus officially becomes the first four-time winner of this most grueling challenge in American racing.
Gregg won with Hurley Haywood in 1973-75, and with Britons Brian Redman and John Fitzpatrick in 1976, but this latest triumph for the Jacksonville sports-car dealer goes into the record books with a large asterisk.
Gregg did not drive long enough to earn points in the World Championship for Endurance Drivers, the new 11-race series on both sides of the Atlantic approved this year by the International Automobile Federation (FIA).
"I helped out for just a fraction over an hour," he said, "but Rolf and Tony should get all the credit. I decided to stay with the other car when they were both running on the same lap well into the morning. I didn't take a turn in their car until they had it 20 laps ahead."
Did that mean he should still be considered a three-time winning driver, as is his former teammate and rival from Jacksonville, Haywood?
"Well, I did drive a little bit," said Gregg hastily, almost hungrily. "Maybe they'll give me the credit for the fourth win."
Many will accuse Gregg of shameless gamesmanship, but there is no question that his team was superbly organized and skillful, as impressively crafted as the vehicles they fielded.
"There is no difference between him and a factory team," lauded Stommelen, a top Grand Prix driver from 1970 through 1974 when he had a bad crash at Barcelona, who now normally drives with Hezemans for Germany's Georg Loos Team.
It was Stommelen who put his car - one of five turbo Porsches among the first 10 finishers - into the lead on the 14th of an eventual 680 laps.
In doing so, he established a lap record for the course. He covered the 3.84 miles, which includes a lengthy stretch of the steeply banked Daytona tri-oval and a level but demanding road course (two left-handers, two right-handers, 17 gears shifts), in 1:51.845 minutes, which translates to 123.600 miles an hour.
The old record, which was also surpassed by Stommelen on the sixth lap and Haywood on the seventh, was 1:52 (123.42 mph), set last year by Belgian Jacky Ickx, also in a Porsche.
The Stommelen-Hessmans car averaged 108.743 mph for the race and finished 115.2 miles, or 30 laps, ahead of the Rutherford-Sohurti-Barbour entry. Thirty-two cars finished the race, of 67 that started Saturday at 4:33 p.m.
A nonturbocharged Porsche Carrera driven by owner Diego Febles of Puerto Rico and Alec Poole of Great Britain was third, another five laps back.
The Stemmelen-Hezemans car, which collected the $17,500 first prize from a purse of $83,000, performed flawlessly except for an oil-consumption problem that caused the worrisome smoke the last 12 hours.
"We were a little afraid we might get the black flag (pull into pits), so we drove past the grandstand (where the officials are located) . . . with the left foot on the brake and the right foot on the throttle, so it didn't smoke so hard," said Hezemans, smiling broadly.
He and Stommelen eased off considerably the last last couple of hours to make sure their machine would last, and thereby failed to break the record of 681 laps (2,615.04 miles) set by Haywood, John Graves and Dave Helmick in a Carrera last year.
But the point of the 24 Hours of Daytona, like its celebrated "sister race" at LeMans, France, is not strictly speed or distance. It is the combination of mechanical, driving, and organizational skills that add up to durability, human and automotive.