Up to that point, I’d never been so fast into Turn One at Daytona. In practice, it was normal to stay with and in some cases catch Daytona Prototypes in sixth gear. Trimmed out for qualifying, this 2004 996 Cup car was the fastest GT car on the track—and I could tell. Crossing the start-finish line, I knew we had won the pole for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. It was confirmed seconds later by Thomas Blam, our team strategist, over the radio. Later, I looked at the data and confirmed what I felt. Going into Turn One, I had exceeded 190 mph—in a Cup car!
Flying Lizard Motorsports was founded in 2003. We collectively decided that we would run the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona—which was a part of the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series schedule—in addition to the American Le Mans Series.
For the 2004 Daytona effort, we decided to use a new 996 Cup car (VIN WPOZZZ99Z4S698050) that would be “modified” for the effort. As an initial shakedown for the team, we entered the car in the December 2003 NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill. We figured the 25 Hour would present the opportunity for a team building exercise, pit stop practice, driver change practice, radio usage, etc. After a tough fight, we finished third overall to two other Cup cars. But based on our objective of beginning to learn what we didn’t know, it was a perfect event.
Sitting in the Flying Lizard office at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California one night in the fall of 2003, crew chief Tommy Sadler realized that he could put 996 RS pieces onto a Cup car and conform to the Grand-Am “Prep II” rules. The RS at the time was what the 911 RSR is today—Porsche’s premier GT racer.
The RS had wider front fenders and wider rear fenders to accommodate the extra track and wheel width. It also had a more powerful engine with six individual throttle bodies and a taller and wider rear wing element. Tommy knew that if we had RS power in the narrow Cup car shape, we would be ultra competitive.
“I got the idea [after] seeing Jack Lewis running the World Challenge-spec Cup car at Road America a year or two before,” Tommy explains. “Road America was the wrong track to highlight the combination of high horsepower and low drag, but it was the spark for my idea.” Interestingly, Porsche did something similar when it ran the then-new “R” powertrain in the new 996, which was basically a Cup car chassis at Le Mans in 1999. The result was a 190 mph top speed and a class win.
After the NASA 25 Hour, the Flying Lizard Cup car got completely stripped and prepped for what was to come.
“The only thing that remained a Cup car was the dash, transmission, and gearshift,” remembers Tommy. “Virtually everything else was modified, including an RS engine, custom headers that moved the pipes away from the rear tires, and we modified the body to get the Dunlop GT tires (the spec Grand-Am series tire) and corresponding wheel widths to work. In the rear, we had to tub the chassis, like a drag car, to get the width on the inside rather than the outside. It had a GT3 RS wiring harness, and we added a fuel-cell and a GT3 RS wing and uprights.”
Once completed, the casual observer would see a plain 996 Cup car with different wheel offsets. But this wasn’t any Cup car. If you happened to be blind or lacking an eye for detail, once the 2004 Flying Lizard Cup car started up, it was clear that this was no ordinary Cup car. It sounded more like a ground-shaking big block V8 than a mild-mannered flat six.
Believing we had a good car was one thing. The proof would be at the track. The car left Sonoma and headed 2,904 miles east to Daytona for the three-day test during the first week of January 2004. Before the first session, nobody paid much attention to this plain 996 fielded by a brand-new team. That would change after our first session on track.
Tommy’s hunch and hard work paid off. I distinctly remember following the BMW of North America M3 entry through the infield during one of the practice sessions. We were decent in the infield but incredible on the banking. I remember tracking out of Turn Six closely behind the Bimmer. Second gear, third gear, fourth gear, I was slowly catching the BMW. Once I hit 8,500 rpm and shifted to fifth gear, the game changed. The M3 hit an aerodynamic wall and I pulled out and passed, leaving him in my wake. In sixth gear heading into the bus stop on the back straightaway, I looked in my mirror and saw the car that was once right behind me was now eight car lengths behind me—in one straight!
We made it through the test days working on setup, driver changes, getting seat time for the drivers and working on our procedures. In less than two weeks we would be back for the biggest endurance race in America with very little time for problems or setup as the first day of practice is also the first day of qualifying. There’s no time for problems.
Our driver roster that year included Mike Rockenfeller (then a Porsche factory driver and currently an Audi factory driver and recent DTM champion), Peter Cunningham (one of the winningest drivers in production-based American sports car racing), Lonnie Pechnik, Flying Lizard boss Seth Neiman, and yours truly. I was tasked with qualifying for the event. Having qualifying on day one of a big weekend means that you have to unload 100 percent prepared and ready to go. Based on the practice sessions, I was excited about setting a time. I knew we could qualify on the pole. Qualifying on the pole for such a prestigious race was a feather I wanted in my cap.
I don’t remember much about qualifying other than how quickly this little Cup car chewed up the race track. In the end, we were able to get pole position and start at the front for the Rolex 24. Not many people can say they have participated in the Rolex 24, let alone qualify on the pole in a very competitive class. We were over the moon with excitement. In retrospect, I should’ve been fired if I didn’t qualify on the pole! Tommy had orchestrated a coup. We identified an opportunity and took full advantage of it. Not that it was overly easy to drive.
“If you look at the picture post qualifying—where you’re holding the $1,000 pole position check—the car is behind you,” says Craig Watkins, chief engineer at Flying Lizard during its Porsche dominance. “If you look at the wing, there is a tiny 2.0-3.0 mm Gurney (named for Dan Gurney, it’s a 90 degree upright along the trailing edge of the wing that produces more downforce than drag) and almost no angle of incidence.”
We ran this way to maximize our advantage: top speed,” he continues. “I remember you and I talking that the car wouldn’t be very good in the infield kink or the bus stop but faster on the straights. I remember when you and I were walking back to the garage area after that picture was taken and you said, ‘We sure can’t run the race with that aero package, it’d be exhausting to drive because of the potential for oversteer once the tires went off.’ But our gamble on the qualifying setup worked like a charm!”
The 24 20 Hours of Daytona
Our car was dominant. By the time the race came around everyone was coming by to see the special Cup car. Very few people noticed, or realized, what Tommy Sadler had done. Although we had the fastest car, we still had to get through 24 hours cleanly. With 53 cars, more than 200 drivers in the field, and rain in the forecast, what could possibly go wrong?
At the drop of the green flag, we got off to a clean start and began pulling a gap. Shortly after that, we had a problem. We had a fender liner fall from the right front fender onto the wheel, which began rubbing and smoking. We pitted to fix it. In doing so, we lost a crucial lap. In retrospect, we should’ve ripped it out and forgotten about it. But we didn’t.
As the race wore on, the weather was challenging. The rain that was forecast arrived with a fury. So furious in fact that the race was red flagged for four hours. Four hours less we had to get our lap back and put distance between us and everyone else. We later heard a rumor that Grand-Am red-flagged the race because Grand-Am’s premier class, the Daytona Prototypes, didn’t have enough rain tires on hand. But I digress…
During one memorable stint before the red flag, I remember seeing a front tire that came off our car when Peter Cunningham was at the wheel. Early in his stint, he locked up the front wheels going into the bus stop which is very easy to do on cold tires in a 911 in the rain—especially if you didn’t put enough rear brake bias to compensate. P.D., as he is affectionately called, radioed the pits, saying, “I need to pit. The front tires are terribly flat spotted.”
Tommy Sadler radioed back, “You can’t pit,” followed by his standard, “Let me know if it gets any worse.” What was memorable was that the tire was so badly flat-spotted that you could see the air bubbling out of the wet tire after an hour of being on track at 190 miles an hour—in the rain! “After seeing that tire I felt terrible,” said Tommy afterward. “I could’ve killed P.D.”
As the sun came up and everyone was thoroughly exhausted, the track was dry, and we began to make up lost ground. The final two stints saw Mike Rockenfeller at the wheel. This was his first race in the United States as a Porsche man. We were trailing, but Mike quickly caught up to the leading car with minutes to go. Then it started to rain again. Mike tried everything to get around a Porsche that was in front of him. The entire team was riveted to the fight on track.
We seemed to have lost power as the race wore on and the advantage that we had on the straights was significantly decreased. Mike did everything he could to rattle the car in front but never got close enough to make it effective. We were closing fast though. In the end, however, we missed the GT class win by a mere 7.0 seconds. After 20 Hours (four less due to the earlier red flag). Utter heartbreak. I honestly believe that if there was one more lap, Mike would’ve passed the lead car. We just needed a bit more time as we were clearly faster. We finished second in class and third overall, only three laps behind the winning Daytona Prototype.
With the benefit of hindsight, we should’ve been happy. We qualified on the pole and were second in one of the world’s largest endurance races in Flying Lizard’s first attempt as a professional team. However, we’re racers, and true racers don’t settle for second.
We tested the car at Homestead and ran the car once more at Daytona in 2005 without much success. By then Grand-Am had wizened up to our loophole and promptly closed it. Flying Lizard sold the car, and it floated around, winning the 25 Hours of Thunderhill in 2006. Tommy Sadler and I often wondered where this special car went. We both wanted it back at some point because it was a breakthrough for the team, for him as a technical director, and me as a driver. Besides, it was a one-of-a-kind badass car. The car eventually did come back into our lives. Richard Diehl, a friend who I’ve coached over the years, found the car, bought it in 2014 and began a complete restoration.
Richard Diehl was looking for something different. He’s heard about this unique Cup car for years from me, Tommy, and Craig Watkins.
“I always had a love and fascination for Porsches, and I’m always on the hunt for the next car,” says Richard. “My interest transitioned from road to race cars—looking at Porsche race cars became more serious. So the balancing act of seeing what’s available/monitoring prices in today’s market and acting quickly became all the more important.”
He focused on cars that were originally race cars—with a racing history—and a recognizable livery as a bonus. He also wanted to be able to drive the car. He missed out on a Flying Lizard 997 (#75, which belongs to a mutual friend) and realized that a Flying Lizard 996 Cup car would be a perfect fit. It would be a turn-key racer with a locally recognizable livery and not much of a parts availability issue. But then there was the task of locating such a machine.
Bill Ward, who purchased 997 #75, was looking for a while prior to his purchase and told Richard of a car on the East Coast—the first Lizard Cup 996 #74 that ran Daytona in 2004! He got the seller’s information and in a very short time had the car inspected, authenticated, and bought. He contacted Tommy and Craig to get as much information about the car and decide the era/ timeline of restoration. This is where his self-described OCD took over. The more he heard about the car, the more he realized it was very special. It wasn’t just going to be a restored race car—it had to be perfect.
The primary people responsible for bringing this special Cup car back to life was a group effort between Rich Walton at Jerry Woods Enterprises (JWE) in Campbell, California and Nico Castellaccio of Migliore Motorsports in Lathrop, California.
With the experience of owning Porsches in the past, Richard put together a timeline and budget—then doubled it. He didn’t realize at the time that those numbers for time and dollars would double again! The car needed to be taken down to bare metal and reworked to its 2004 form. But, as these things tend to go, it had to be a show/race car. Where fenders were hastily pulled on at the track for clearance—new sectioned fenders had to be made to maintain clearance and gaps. The body was only the beginning, as all wear items were replaced one bit after another soon after.
Looking at the car today, it is indeed nicer than it was when I last saw it. Richard’s attention to detail is showcased in every body gap, trim piece, and paint line. Other than the addition of anti-lock brakes, the Porsche is as it ran at the 2004 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the same barking exhaust that makes onlookers stare in confusion.
Being back in the car 14 years after the eventful Rolex 24 at Daytona brought back a flood of memories, all of which were good. We, as a team, were young, enthusiastic, competitive, and beginning a journey that we had no idea where it would take us. At the start, we outsmarted and out-qualified the best in the business at the time. Our inexperience, however, led to a more experienced team taking the win at a race that, despite other successes and championships, Flying Lizard Motorsports never won despite years of trying. I haven’t looked at seven seconds the same ever since.