24 Hours of Le Mans - Preston Henn (1931-2017)

24 Hours of Le Mans - Preston Henn (1931-2017)

Despite a rather short sporting career, Preston Henn, who passed away on Sunday at his home in Florida at the age of 86, achieved a remarkable track record in endurance racing, namely in the U.S. Winner at the 1983 Rolex 24 at Daytona, the American reached the second step on the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans the following year, well at least on paper...

In less than 10 years, Preston Henn amassed a track record some drivers and team owners only dream of but not without becoming a millionaire first. In 1963, the North Carolinian opened the movie drive-in Swap Shop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but the future Daytona winner also had another genius idea: to use the expansive laws reserved for movie-goer cars at night to host a flea market during the day. Bingo, his fortune was made!

It wasn't until 1977, after having given up off-shore boat racing, that Preston Henn debuted in motorsports. Two years later, he appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time with one of the most prestigious teams: NART (North American Racing Team). Unfortunately, his very first participation, with a Ferrari 512 BB/LM, ended in a retirement, and his second attempt proved even less stellar after the engine of the Ferrari broke down during the free practice and the driver line-up was unable to take the start of the race.

The next two editions were no more successful with his own team, first with a Porsche 935 K3 then once again with a Ferrari 512 BB/LM, ending in two retirements due to mechanical failures. So Preston Henn had to wait until 1983 to make it to the checkered flag, in 10th place with a Porsche 956, still with his own team, Preston Henn T-Bird (for Thunderbird) Swap Shop (his American company's name) along with Jean-Louis Schlesser and Claude-Ballot-Léna, with whom he won the Rolex 24 at Daytona the same year.

Preston Henn thereby became one of the few drivers in history to win a major endurance race both as a driver and team owner. It was in that last role on Saturday night at the 1983 Rolex 24 at Daytona that the self-made man and university graduate went to see A.J. Foyt whose Nimrod Aston Martin had quickly been forced to retire, to offer him the wheel of the Porsche 935. "Super Tex" accepted and…won the Rolex 24 at Daytona, with Claude Ballot-Léna and Bob Wollek. Wollek, along with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Thierry Boutsen, allowed Preston Henn to savor a second victory in 1985 as a team owner.

It was also as a team owner that he conquered the 12 Hours of Sebring that same year after having finished fourth at the wheel and as owner in 1980, as he did at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1984 but in second place overall…without ever taking the wheel. Indeed, the American outfit had entered two cars: the #61 Porsche 962 shared by Preston Henn, Michel Ferté and Edgar Doren, forced to retire in the 20th hour, and a Porsche 956 that finished second. Though the name Preston Henn figured on the entry list, only Jean Rondeau, winner at Le Mans in 1980 as a driver and constructor, and John Paul, Jr. took the start and crossed the finish line, two laps behind winners Henri Pescarolo and Klaus Ludwig in the #26 Porsche 956.

Preston Henn stopped competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans after this (false) good result and withdrew from competition in 1986. While still managing his company, he accumulated an exceptional sports car collection, including an extremely rare (only three were built) Ferrari 275 GTB that claimed the third step on the podium at the 1965 24 Hours of Le Mans in the hands of Willy Mairesse and Jean "Beurlys" Blaton. You can admire the car in the museum area of his drive-in/flea market in North Miami.

The Automobile Club de l'Ouest extends its sincerest condolences to Preston Henn's family and loved ones.

Photo (Copyright - Archives/ACO): Preston Henn seated in the #61 Porsche 962 at the 1984 24 Hours of Le Mans.