DAYTONA BEACH — Fifty years ago a British Airways pilot named George Waltman took a car that a friend found at a police impound lot in the Bronx and drove it down to Florida for the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
The big difference between Waltman and others coming down for the event was that he then raced the 1964 Morgan Plus 4 street car, by himself, finished the race, took a side trip to Miami and then drove it back home to New York — all on the same set of tires.
Waltman set a Daytona International Speedway and sports-car record unlikely to be broken.
He is the only driver in Rolex 24 At Daytona history to run the entire race solo and take the checkered flag. It is a tale packed full of racing lore.
“He always said an endurance race should not be all about the endurance of the car, but the endurance of the driver, otherwise it breaks it down to four races,” his daughter Tara Waltman said of her father, who died in 2013. “That was always his belief.”
Waltman, who lived in Freeport, New York, was what the industry now calls a “gentleman racer,” racing for fun, not profit. He began racing sports cars in 1954 and was a regular in races staged in Nassau, Bahamas.
He took his game up a notch in 1960 when he entered and competed in the 12 Hours of Sebring.
The following year, he made a solo run at Sebring. During his career, he competed in 54 races, and scored one overall victory (1965 SCCA Regional) and four class wins.
But Waltman’s biggest achievement was the 1968 Rolex 24, his only start in the Daytona race.
After the 1968 Rolex 24 at Daytona, George Waltman was surrounded by friends on Pit Road. Daytona International Speedway Founder, Bill France Jr., is in the middle of the photo. Waltman is second from the right. (PHOTOS Courtesy of WALTMAN ARCHIVES)
His solo performance began in the back of the 64-car field, but thanks to a combination of attrition and grit, he took the checkered flag in 30th place after turning 338 laps.
The Morgan Plus 4 was originally purchased by his friend and racing mechanic Ali Lugo. Waltman and Lugo made some minor tweaks before the race, such as adding an air scoop under the car to funnel more air to the engine, and outfitting the small auto with Michelin X radial tires.
Working with a shoestring budget, Waltman drove the street-legal Morgan convertible from Freeport to the Speedway. Waltman’s entry was no match for the top cars of the day, including exotic factory-backed Porsches and Ford GT40s. His goal was simply to drive solo and take the checkered flag under power.
In those days there was no rule against a one-man team, while today teams must have a minimum of three drivers for the twice-around-the-clock endurance race.
According to The News-Journal story chronicling Waltman’s historic run, the driver was ordered to take a one-hour rest after every four hours of racing.
The article also recounted how Waltman served as his own pit crew, “refueling his open cockpit white No. 35.”
But none of it seemed to phase the 42-year-old family man.
“Sunday he was still poking along with seeming unconcern for the swift traffic around him,” the newspaper story said. “He was conspicuous not only for the solitary splendor of his white car but also for his blue coveralls and red helmet.”
As if driving a solo 24-hour race did not provide enough drama, Waltman’s car suffered some late mechanical issues. But the resourceful pilot had one more trick up his sleeve.
“With less than one hour to go, part of the fan broke and a piece punctured the radiator. He had to pit,” Tara Waltman, 59, recalled.
“It took them a half of an hour to fix it — with chewing gum,” she said. “He had 10 sticks of chewing gum and he had everybody around him chew gum, lumped it together and plugged the hole in the radiator with it.
“He got back out with a half-hour to go and finished the race. He took the checkered flag, which is what he really wanted to do.”
Herb Branham, ISC Archives curator, is in the business of collecting and preserving racing history.
“The Rolex 24, aside from having so many great champions and huge names, is also known for all kinds of great characters and some tall tales,” said Branham. “George Waltman qualifies in that group. He may qualify as the most unique character in the history of the event.
“The guy was a good racer. At the end of the 1968 Rolex 24, he finished 30th which was the middle of the field at the end of the race. It is an amazing accomplishment.”
Bill France Sr., who founded NASCAR and built the Speedway, was so impressed with Waltman’s effort that he congratulated him on pit road and gave him a lap around the track in the pace car.
The story caught the fancy of the media with The New York Times dubbing Waltman the “Ironman” of racing.
“It was a sort of the tortoise and hare story,” Tara Waltman said. “He got a great reception at the finish line. He said everyone was standing up in the grandstands, cheering him on.”
Tara, who lives in New York, has spent several weeks inside the ISC Archives and Research Center here, helping create a display about her father’s solo run.
Among the artifacts on display is the helmet Waltman wore during the race.
Branham said Waltman’s story resonates to this day.
“It’s an incredibly romantic story,” Branham said. “It personifies the gentleman road racer and that part of international sports car racing.”
Tara is on a mission to tell her father’s story, which has been somewhat lost to racing history. The Waltman family is currently searching for the Morgan Plus 4 raced in 1968. It has proven difficult to track down because the car had no paperwork when it was bought and driven off the police impound area half a century ago.
“It would be nice to know what happened to it,” she said. “It would be great to restore. The search continues. The story is not finished yet.”