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Original Issue

The price of perfection

Peter Gregg has become the best sports car driver in the U.S. by finding fault, a road to the top that was certain to take him on a wide detour around popularity

Peter Gregg, America's best sports car driver, has several dilemmas. Most of them stem from his approach to life, which is to look for faults, bring them to attention, ruthlessly eliminate them and, voilà, perfection. "Peter Perfect," he is called by his racing rivals.

Having spent many of his 38 years doggedly pursuing perfection and having exorcised most of his own weaknesses—he is tempted only by cashew nuts today—Gregg now finds himself facing the results of such determined effort, which is not the same as reaping the rewards. Having won the International Motor Sports Association GT championship five times, including last year when he won nine of the 10 races he finished, the only person who can challenge him in that series is himself. He holds a degree in English from Harvard and finds few in motor racing who stimulate him intellectually. It shows. People are generally put off by what they perceive to be his air of condescension. He lives in Jacksonville, where he owns an extremely profitable automobile dealership handling three of the best (nothing but) marques in the world: Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and BMW. But in Jacksonville he has few chances to see the foreign films he so loves, or to otherwise pursue culture. He feels racing can be fun "for about 20 minutes." After that he is uninspired, because, being in the lead, "the only thing left to do is not lose."

There are still more dilemmas, but one gets the picture. Peter Perfect has improved himself right out of the ball park. It isn't easy for a man to be satisfied when he feels the best he can do is not lose.

Gregg's accentuate-the-negative approach may be successful when measured by its temporal rewards, but it is a bumpy road to travel spiritually since those around him are generally less obsessed with mistakes and weaknesses. As a result, when Gregg attempts to point out the flaws in others—let alone ruthlessly eliminate them—things often get tense. He is not overwhelmingly popular. His defenders, staunch though they may be, are those few who are close to him. And his standards for others being uncompromising, few even get close to him for very long. A lot of people simply write him off as being rude and obnoxious, only to suddenly find that he can be charming and gracious: humorous, warm, even self-effacing. Much of what he says is for effect, either to manipulate, to shock—or simply to amuse himself.

All of which makes Peter Gregg probably no more difficult than the average intelligent, egocentric, complicated, calculating, clever, successful businessman-race driver. If it weren't for the fact that Peter Gregg and A. J. Foyt would never get along, Peter Gregg and A. J. Foyt would get along famously.

Given his ego, Gregg is moderately frustrated by the fact that he is not revered like Foyt or Mario Andretti. But his game is sports cars, which receive less attention than open-wheeled racers. Gregg tries to console himself by being philosophical about it; he likes to think of sports car racing as a purer pursuit, a higher-class endeavor. He likens himself to a stage actor as opposed to a movie star; still, he wouldn't mind seeing his name in lights. He is reconciled to relative anonymity, however, because he has rejected open-wheeled racing as unsafe. "I could be a star like Andretti if I had less concern for my life," Gregg says.

Successful race drivers occasionally have delusions of grandeur, but they rarely kid themselves about their ability. Gregg's ego is not misplaced; he doesn't think he is better than he actually is. In an event last October run in identically prepared Camaros, Gregg won the pole and the race, defeating seven Formula I drivers, including Andretti.

The overwhelming majority of Gregg's racing miles and victories have been in Porsches, although he has never won the most prestigious sports car race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. "I wouldn't be anywhere today without Porsche," Gregg says sincerely. "It's a paternalistic relationship," he adds with a smile. "I'm always trying to win their approval. When I do something good they say, 'Here, Peter,' and throw me another bone." The bone is usually in the form of the newest and fastest equipment from Porsche.

Sometimes Gregg hires himself to the factory as just a driver, bringing along little more than his driving gear. Other times he contracts his entire effort—meaning cars, mechanics and tools. His dealership, Brumos, has its own team, and Gregg prefers to race under the red, white and blue Brumos colors because that way he has more control—he is team manager as well as No. 1 driver—and stands to make more money.

Last weekend's Daytona 24-hour endurance race was one of those events in which Gregg brought only his helmet. No factory Porsches were entered, but Gregg's was the closest thing, one of two "factory-supported" cars entered by Georg Loos, a wealthy German department store owner. Gregg was the heavy favorite, having won the race four times and being teamed with Jacky Ickx of Belgium, whom even Gregg considers the best endurance driver in the world, and Bob Wollek of France, an accomplished sports car driver. Despite the fact that the Loos team's organization fell way short of Gregg's standards, he was relaxed and enjoying the race week.

"It makes no sense to worry about things over which you have no control," he said, adding that anyone who doesn't have that philosophy would do well to adopt it. "But this team is almost comical," he continued. "By all rights Loos should never win races, but he does because he buys the best equipment. And the best drivers—you have to give him credit for that. But there is almost no communication. Last year I raced for Loos at Watkins Glen, and he wouldn't let the mechanics speak to the drivers. We wanted to adjust the rear wings, so we had to go to Ingrid—that's Georg's girl friend, who runs the team when it comes over here because Georg hates America and refuses to come—and have her call Georg in Germany, and she had him tell the mechanics it was O.K. to move the wings."

True to form, the cars arrived a day late, because of missed shipping connections. When they did get to Daytona, Gregg and Ickx each drove four laps in practice and were told that that was it, thank you. Wollek drove a few more laps, and the engine blew. The engine was replaced the next day and the car qualified fifth, after which Ingrid and the drivers of the other Loos team car went to Disney World.

The twin turbocharged Porsche 935 is all but invincible in sports car racing, because of its sheer speed and numbers, if not reliability. Gregg's competition came from other Porsches, most notably the black 935 shared by Indy car hot-shoe Danny Ongais, Ted Field and Hurley Haywood, Gregg's protègè who has not only won Daytona three times but Le Mans as well. Another challenger was the Porsche of Carlo Facetti, Gianpiero Moretti and Martino Finotto; Facetti had won the pole with a record speed of 130.276 mph. Also given a chance was the Porsche of 1976 Daytona winner Brian Redman, now teamed with Dick Barbour and actor Paul Newman, a former amateur class champion.

There was also a factory-supported Italian Ferrari effort, three long and low red Boxer Berlinetta 12-cylinder 512s. Ferrari had been out of endurance racing for seven years, so no one knew how seriously to take the challenge. The cars were about 10 seconds per lap slower than the best Porsches, therefore their strategy was to run like tortoises and watch the Porsches explode. However, the five tons of spare parts Ferrari brought from Italy gave one cause to wonder about the Boxer Berlinetta's own reliability.

Still, it might have been a good plan—if only the tires had been more suitable. The Ferraris used Michelins, the Porsches Goodyears; Goodyear has done extensive testing at Daytona, Michelin has little experience with what happens to tires at 200 mph around the steep banking, lap after lap. One of the Ferraris blew a tire and crashed on the oval during practice; the same thing happened to another in the third hour of the race. So at 8:30 p.m., four hours after the start, the Ferraris were withdrawn.

The Porsches started exploding early, as expected. Half an hour after the start, pole sitter Facetti was in the pits with a blown engine. The No. 2 Loos Porsche followed suit soon thereafter. At sunset, Gregg's car lost an hour when two turbochargers had to be replaced. By midnight the Ongais/Haywood/Field and the Redman/Barbour/Newman Porsches were running one-two on the same lap, the only 935s still going strong. For a while Gregg was 20 laps behind in fifth, making up ground, but during the night he retired with valve problems.

At dawn Redman went out with a blown head gasket, which left Ongais/ Haywood/Field with a 46-lap lead over yet another Porsche. A gorgeous old Ferrari-Daytona, driven by John Morton and Tony Adamowicz, was third.

When the second-placed Porsche died later in the day, the Ferrari-Daytona, over 200 miles behind Ongais, inherited second. Then with only 10 minutes remaining in the race, Ongais' Porsche slowed to a crawl with turbocharger problems. Danny parked it 300 feet from the finish line, shut off the engine to protect it from further damage and waited for the checkered flag to fall, marking the end of the 24 hours. It did, and Ongais fired up the 935 once more to get credit for finishing the race. The car blew out a charge of blue smoke and chugged across the line a winner, at about 15 mph. He and his teammates had covered a record 2,626.56 miles at an average speed of 109.249 mph.

It wouldn't take a Harvard graduate to figure out that it wasn't a perfect finish, but not all winners are fussy.


Gregg was favored to win his fifth Daytona 24-hour, but he had his doubts. As usual, he was right.