After the end of World War II, sports car racing experienced a renaissance, unlike anything America had ever witnessed before. The post-war economy was booming. And when combined with a growing workforce of educated, skilled workers created by the G.I. Bill, it helped create a vibrant American middle class. For the first time since the Great Depression, families began to have money for more than just the basics, including sports cars, which were beginning to show up from exotic places such as Italy, Britain, Germany and other countries.
The small trickle of imported machines grew steadily and the inevitable happened – races started to emerge. This is the behind-the-scenes story of what happened next, how sports car racing emerged in America during the post-war era, who organized the races and the all-out war that erupted for control.
My father, John Bishop, started his career with the SCCA in 1956, at the very beginning of the knock-down fight between the SCCA and USAC over control of professional road racing in America. He later would take over as executive director of the SCCA at the beginning of 1962, putting him squarely in the middle of the drama. What follows is an account of that period, excerpted from the book: “IMSA 1969-1989: The Inside Story of How John Bishop Built the World’s Greatest Sports Car Racing Series,” authored by Mitch Bishop and Mark Raffauf, scheduled for publication in January 2019 from Octane Press.
The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) was founded in 1944 by a group of wealthy sports car enthusiasts from Boston as a kind of gentleman’s club, according to Peter Hylton, SCCA archivist and historian. The original members were all friends that shared the same economic status and liked cars, the more exotic the better. Joining was not easy. Prospective members of the SCCA had to be formally endorsed by an existing member and voted into the Club by the rest of the membership.
Those first meetings consisted of shared meals and conversation followed by rallies on public roads. Soon, the footprint of the SCCA began to grow as it began to sanction races over fixed courses on public roads. The Club expanded westward and southward by formally chartering regional chapters. But even as the Club grew, it always adhered to the notion that racing was strictly an amateur activity and for Club members only.
By 1955, the SCCA had become the sports car road racing alternative to the American Automobile Association (AAA), which sanctioned champ car, sprint car and midget racing on ovals and to the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), which ran stock car races in the South and through alliances with promoters in the Northeast, Midwest and on the West Coast. In many respects, the early success of the SCCA reflected the post-war economic boom. As the economy grew, so did the ranks of the middle class. New prosperity brought increased interest in European sports cars like MGs, Jaguars, Porsches, Ferraris, Alfa Romeos, and others. And once these cars were on the street, competition was inevitable.
Racing through the streets of Watkins Glen began in 1948 and Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin in 1950, but racing on public roads was deemed too dangerous after a spectator fatality at Watkins Glen in 1952. Demand for road racing venues escalated quickly, but there were simply not enough purpose-built tracks at the time – building permanent race tracks was an expensive and slow process. The shortage was partly relieved with the help of Curtis LeMay, an Air Force General in charge of the Strategic Air Command (and car guy), who opened up a few decommissioned WWII airfields for racing events.
The 12 Hours of Sebring was held on a decommissioned B-17 training base south of Orlando, Florida starting in 1952. As this photo shows, the condition of the pit area had improved only slightly by 1957. Photo credit: IMRRC Archive
Mike Hawthorne in a D-Type Jaguar during the 12 Hours of Sebring held in 1955, when the race was sanctioned by the AAA. After the debacle at Le Mans later that year, Alec and Mary Ulmann formed the Automobile Racing Club of Florida (ARCF) as an entity to produce and promote the race. The SCCA took over sanction of the Sebring event in 1964. Photo credit: IMRRC Archive
The landscape changed dramatically and suddenly with the infamous disaster at Le Mans in 1955. Pierre Levegh, co-driving with American John Fitch, made contact with a slower car on the main straight, vaulting his Mercedes-Benz into the air, which struck a retaining wall and exploded, sending components into the crowd. Levegh and more than 80 spectators were killed. As a direct result of this horrific accident, the AAA decided to drop out of race sanctioning altogether. This left a void in the sanctioning world that was quickly filled by the newly formed United States Auto Club (USAC), organized at the behest of Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman.
But rather than just focus just on the AAA’s former turf, USAC had bigger ambitions. It had designs on becoming the single dominant player in all forms of motor racing – short tracks, stock cars and road racing. Knowing the SCCA was committed to amateur racing, USAC announced a professional road racing series for 1958.
USAC ran its first road races at Lime Rock Park, Marlboro Motor Raceway and the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Circuit in 1958, which caught the attention of the top drivers of the day. The concept of racing for money instead of just trophies was enticing. The SCCA Board of Governors hotly debated whether to respond with the Club’s own professional series or to maintain strict, amateur-only status.
In the end, the Board decided to keep the status quo. But as part of this decision, the Board of Governors decreed that SCCA licensed drivers and corner workers who participated in, or assisted with, USAC events would be banished from the Club. Further, it was announced that any SCCA region participating in a racing event where remuneration was offered would have its charter revoked. This form of harsh excommunication was designed to keep the membership in line. Ultimately, this strategy failed, but a seven-year war for control of road racing in America had been formally declared.
TO BE CONTINUED…