The 20-year struggle by Dr. Robert Hubbard and Jim Downing to gain universal acceptance for their life-saving HANS Device—now in use by over 275,000 competitors worldwide—is an amazing tale of family, genius, perseverance, tragedy and triumph. It tells how the world’s leading auto racing series shouldered the task of saving their driving heroes—and a sport. Excerpted from the book CRASH! by Jonathan Ingram (with Dr. Robert Hubbard and Jim Downing), this is the story of Jim Downing’s awakening to the very real dangers of high-speed frontal impacts and his resolve to do something about it. The full book can be purchased here.
Chapter 2. Downing’s Awakening
A five-time road racing champion, Jim Downing first met Dale Earnhardt in the NASCAR hauler at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2000, where he was talking about the HANS Device to a longtime acquaintance, Mike Helton, soon to be named the NASCAR president.
After the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin from basal skull fractures earlier that year during two separate NASCAR events at the New Hampshire International Speedway, Helton was very interested in talking with Downing about motor racing’s first head and neck restraint. Since NASCAR closely controlled all aspects of its racing series, any safety device used by drivers had to have the sanctioning body’s approval.
Downing had met the future NASCAR president in the early 1980s while building Mazda RX-7 pace cars at his Downing/Atlanta race shop for the Atlanta International Raceway, where Helton was the general manager and in charge of securing the cars to fulfill a sponsorship deal financed by Mazda. Not long after that deal with Downing, Helton left his post at the Atlanta track to take a similar job at the giant oval in Talladega, Alabama, before moving to Daytona Beach as an employee at NASCAR’s Florida headquarters. Tall and broad with imposing eyes beneath a thick mane of dark hair, Helton had gradually worked his way up the NASCAR hierarchy.
“I knew Jim Downing from his racing days when he was the Mazda driver, when he was up in the wine country of Georgia and I was down in the moonshine country,” recalled Helton. “I knew Jim Downing as a racer. Atlanta Raceway had a deal one year with Mazda. We had Mazda RX-7 pace cars and they were souped-up by Downing. Bob Hubbard came along with that process of knowing Jim and in that time (after the driver deaths) we were getting more aggressive in talking with folks like that.”
Earnhardt wanted nothing to do with the HANS Device at the Indy test. “Dale came through the door of the NASCAR hauler, just walked right in while I was talking to Mike about the HANS,” said Downing of his first meeting with the driver known as “The Intimidator.”
“They had a little desk in there and he threw his leg over the corner of it and kind of sat down. He looked at us with that bristly mustache and a grin as if to say, ‘What are you guys talking about?’ The message was pretty clear. He didn’t want to have anything to do with the HANS and didn’t want Mike listening to what I had to say. Earnhardt sitting there pretty much brought the discussion with Mike to an end.”
Twenty years prior to meeting Earnhardt, Downing’s own experience with a head injury resulted in a fortunate outcome—given the dangerous nature of his crash on a track in Canada in 1980. On a sweltering August day at the Mosport Park track near Toronto, Downing was sweating profusely while competing in the Molson 1000. Onboard a Mazda RX-7 entered by the Racing Beat factory team, the tall, slender Downing was running first in the GTU class with the other Racing Beat Mazda immediately behind him in second place. Its driver, John Morton, was looking for a way past.
The 10-turn Mosport track undulates around glacially carved hills. Because of the almost non-stop high speeds, it’s a thrilling place to watch a race. On this summer day, fans, many of them camping overnight in tents on the various overlooks, had come out to see the World Championship of Makes race sanctioned by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). The race also paid points for the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) and the combined entry featured some of the world’s best sports car teams and drivers.
This included numerous Porsche 935 Turbos, relatively crude silhouette cars. These ill-handling tube-frame machines were wicked fast due to turbocharged engines producing gobs of torque that hit the drive train like a thunderstorm. They were driven by sports car stars such as Brian Redman and John Fitzpatrick and by moonlighting Indy car drivers Rick Mears, Danny Ongais and Johnny Rutherford. Twenty-year-old future star John Paul, Jr. was another of those behind the wheel of the Porsches. The fearless and fast German, Walter Rohrl, co-drove a Lancia Turbo in search of FIA points and renowned team owner Bob Tullius of Group 44 was competing in a Triumph TR-8 for British Leyland.
In IMSA’s standard endurance racing formula, the GTU class for cars with smaller engines consisted of Mazdas, Datsun 240Z’s and Porsche 911 Carreras. While they relied more on momentum and less on horsepower, the GTUs were scary to drive at Mosport, too, because of their nimble cornering speeds—–and the constant swarm of faster Porsche Turbos.
During this particular summer, the heat and humidity were not unusual for August. But to find more speed, the engineer at the Racing Beat factory team had closed off most of the airflow into the cockpit. Downing had worked his way into the graces of Mazda’s racing management due to his quickness, reliability and low-key confidence that fit in well with the Japanese. He intended to sustain his career momentum and decided not to protest the lack of air coming through the cockpit.
Already a championship contender aboard Mazda RX-3s in the RS series of IMSA for compact cars running on radial street tires, he was looking to advance to the big leagues of American sports car racing and into the GTU category where Mazda was a major player. But he lost so much perspiration during the race’s first hour in the muggy cockpit that he passed out behind the wheel while heading into Turn Two—–a fast, sweeping, left-hand corner.
For the first and only time in his career, the crash briefly knocked Downing unconscious. Events became fuzzy as he was taken to the track medical center. It was like a dream—tumult, and noise all around him, but everything distant and one step removed, the roar of the cars on the nearby track now a distant hum. The memory lingered after an overnight stay in the hospital.
Patrick Jacquemart puts his amazing turbo-powered Renault through its paces at Mid-Ohio in 1981. He would be killed in a testing accident in the same car at the same track a few weeks later. Photo: Peter Gloede
“I just got lucky and the car turned backward,” recalled Downing. “It was a concrete wall with a hill behind it. The impact cracked and broke the wall. The car was so bad, they left it in Canada after stripping a few pieces off of it.”
Downing realized a head-on crash could have been deadly. (Five years later, Manfred Winkelhock was killed by a head-on meeting with the wall in Turn 2 on board a Porsche 962C during a World Endurance Championship race.) Downing began to think about the number of head and neck injuries happening in racing at the time. Like so many racers, he shrugged off his crash as part of the business. Then, the following spring, Downing learned that a frontal impact by fellow GTU racer Patrick Jacquemart at the end of the back straight of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course during a test was indeed fatal. The cause of death was a basal skull fracture.
Downing’s first reaction to his own near-miss typified the ambitious racer’s point of view, whether it was Formula 1, Indy cars, sports cars, stock cars or rallying. ‘It won’t happen to me again,’ he thought. But when Jacquemart’s crash occurred, the realization sunk in with Downing that it might have been his funeral. He then asked himself a once again: ‘Why can’t something be done about head injuries?’
The 50th anniversary of Porsche’s 917 has triggered a wave of interest and appearances for the cars. Porsche has led the way with a significant display at its museum. The centerpiece of the ‘Colours of Speed’ exhibit is the newly-restored 917 Chassis 001.
Ferdinand Piech reveals the 917 at the Geneva Salon. Photo: Porsche Archive
Chassis 001 was the first 917 to appear in public. According to Walter Naher’s authoritative book, 917 Archive, there is no record of the exact date of completion, but it was likely March 10, 1969 allowing just one day for transportation to Geneva. The car was unveiled at 3:09 PM local time on March 12 in the Swiss Auto Club booth at the Geneva Motor Show press day. The original body shape may now look slightly dated but it must have been stunning to the assembled journalists. Looking similar to a longtail, 3-liter 908, but more purposeful and menacing, the real news was under the tail. Since the development of the 917 was a well-guarded secret, few could have guessed Porsche would be showing and offering for sale a Group 4 ‘Sports’ racer with an air-cooled flat 12 engine displacing 4.5 liters. The price was listed at DM 140,000. That was about $35,000 or a little under $250,000 in today’s money.
Porsche competition manager Rico Steinemann made a brief statement before Ferdinand Piech, as head of R&D for Porsche and the father of the 917, removed the cover himself. Several of the Porsche factory team drivers were also present for the unveiling. Jo Siffert, Gerard Larrousse and Gerhard Mitter can be seen in the photos along with Vic Elford. Elford was particularly enamored of the 917, a case of love at first site. In his book, Reflections on a Golden Era in Motorsports, Vic wrote: “I fell in love with its curves and the sensation of power that emanated from it, even while it sat still and silent.”
Twenty-five Porsche 917s lined up for homologation inspection. Photo: Porsche Archive
Chassis 001 made its next appearance on April 21, 1969 in the forecourt of Porsche’s race shop in Zuffenhausen, first in line of course. The occasion was the homologation inspection of the initial run of 25 917s. As a Group 4 ‘Sports’ racer, the rules required that Porsche build 25 cars in order to race in the World Sports Car Championship. The FIA/CSI representatives (Delamont and Schmidt) duly reviewed the line-up with Ferdinand Piech and the Porsche team. 001 was then used for some testing duties in 1969. Walter Naher lists tests at the Nurburgring Sudschleife (May 14 with a short tail, engine damaged) and Weissach (in June, an extended wheel bearing test over 220 kilometers on the skid pad).
Chassis 001 in IAA Frankfurt Motor Show colors. Photo: Porsche Archive
Chassis 001 in Gulf announcement colors. Photo: Porsche Archive
In early September, chassis 001 was shown at the IAA Frankfurt Motor Show (International Automobil Ausstellung). The car was white with orange stripes, orange wheels and wore race number 3. The car was then painted in Gulf colors for the announcement of the partnership between Porsche and JW Automotive on which took place on September 30, 1969, at the Carlton Tower Hotel in London. After this press reception, the car was put on display at the Earl’s Court Motor Show. A discreetly small John Wyer signature appeared on the left front wheel arch. Although Herr Naher doesn’t list it, at least one photo exists showing 001 at the Jochen Rindt Motor Show in Vienna (in Gulf colors with a large Porsche badge on the nose). Likely this would have been in November of 1969. The Rindt event moved to Essen after Rindt’s death and continues to this day as the Essen Motor Show.
Historic Porsche display at Courtanvaux Castle. Photo: Porsche Archive
The next appearance was at Le Mans in 1970, but not for racing. Chassis 001 was part of a display of historic Porsche racing cars at Courtanvaux Castle. A 917 engine was also part of the display and at this stage the car still wore its 1969 Le Mans-style, longtail bodywork and Gulf colors.
In September of 1970, chassis 001 was converted to 917K bodywork. For the Paris Motor Show of October 1970 it was painted in red race number 23 Porsche-Salzburg livery to replicate the appearance of Chassis 023, the actual 1970 Le Mans-winning car. Herr Naher lists October 6, 1970 as the official date for 001 to be transferred to the Press Department as an exhibition car. It also appeared at motor shows in London, Brussels and Germany (Essen) during this period. In the spring of 1971 it came to the US for the New York Auto Show.
For many years it was thought that chassis 001 might have been re-numbered 009, possibly in preparation to replace the damaged chassis 009 after the Sebring race in 1971. There is no evidence currently to support this, however. The car remained in the Porsche Museum collection, standing-in for the 1970 Le Mans winner for the next 45 years. 001 came back to the US in 1998 for the ‘Double 50’ celebration at Watkins Glen, organized by Brian Redman. This event celebrated Porsche’s 50th anniversary as a manufacturer and the 50th for racing at Watkins Glen. Also in 1998 the car was shown at Laguna Seca during the Monterey Historic Races. The most recent appearance in the US was in 2015 at Rennsport Reunion V.
Chassis 001 at Rennsport Reunion V. Photo: Jay Gillotti
The restoration project began in January of 2018 with a technical assessment that established feasibility and the originality of many components. Disassembly began in February of 2018. 3D scanning and CAD technology along with the original factory drawings were used to recreate the nose and tail. The frame for the 1969 long tail also had to be recreated along with the rear axle kinetic lever system. This was designed to actuate flaps moving up or down depending on the direction of a turn. As ‘moveable aerodynamic devices’ the flaps were outlawed after the 1969 Le Mans race. The roof section, windscreen and doors were original and did not require rebuilding. The new body was completed and painted by January of 2019, leaving only a few weeks to reassemble the car. The Porsche Newsroom article on the restoration can be found at: https://newsroom.porsche.com/en/2019/history/porsche-917-001-disassembling-restoration-museum-17525.html.
The restored chassis 001 poses with Concorde 002. Photo: Porsche Archive
Prior to the opening of the new exhibit, Porsche debuted the restored Chassis 001 at the Retro Classic show in Stuttgart. This was in March, almost 50 years to the day since the car was first shown in Geneva. Porsche then took Chassis 001 to the Goodwood Member’s Meeting for exhibition runs along with four other 917s. While in England, it posed with Concorde 002, also celebrating a 50th birthday, at the Fleet Air Arm Museum. The YouTube video link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqBA1JIJ5l4) shows 1970 Le Mans-winning driver, Richard Attwood, visiting with Concorde pilot Tim Orchard. ‘Colours of Speed’ runs until December 8th at the Porsche Museum and all the 917 fans in the US hope that Chassis 001 will make an appearance in the US sometime in the next few years.
Jay is the author of “Gulf 917,” a comprehensive history of the Porsche 917s associated with the JW Automotive/Gulf Racing Team. The book is available at www.daltonwatson.com.
As the founder of NASCAR, Bill France, Sr. was a force to be reckoned with. Physically intimidating but soft-spoken, “Big Bill” guided the growth of stock car racing with an iron hand into a powerful and popular regional sport in the 1960s. But many people don’t realize that Bill Sr. was also keen on establishing Daytona International Speedway, which he built in 1958, as a center for international motorsport.
In June of 1961, “Big Bill” and his son Bill France Jr. attended the Le Mans 24 Hour race as guests of the organizers. The sights and sounds of the cars were enticing but most intriguing were the more than 150,000 spectators filling the grounds of the track. This gave France Sr. an idea: could Daytona hold a similar style event and fill the stands? He reached out to his friend John Bishop, who was about to become the executive director at the SCCA, to help put the idea into action. As Bishop remembered: “When the SCCA went pro racing in 1961, there was an ACCUS meeting in New York City at the Drake Hotel. Bill Sr. invited me up for breakfast before the meeting and asked me: ‘Would you be interested in a new event? We’d like to get involved with the SCCA in putting on a major race in the early part of the year and we’ll call it the Daytona Continental.”
In the ensuing months, Bishop, and the two Frances had several meetings to plan what would become of the Daytona Continental that soon morphed into the 24 Hours of Daytona. The timing could not have been more perfect; the Club was just putting its professional road racing blueprint into motion and sanctioning the Daytona event would give it a much-needed leg up in that direction. Bill Jr. advocated for a 24-hour race from the start, but his father understood the need to ease into a longer event to avoid any political fallout with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the organizers of Le Mans.
The 1962 Daytona Continental three-hour race for sports and grand touring cars was held in February and fully sanctioned by the SCCA. Internationally famous drivers like Phil Hill, Jim Clark and Sterling Moss competed directly with top U.S. talent represented by A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Walt Hansgen, Roger Penske and Briggs Cunningham. The race was won by Gurney, who coasted his Lotus-Climax over the finish line using only his starter motor since his engine had blown three minutes from the end of the race. In spite of a media tour held in New York the month before, attendance was light.
Fortunately, sports car racing (and Bishop) had an advocate in France Sr. He understood that it was going to take time to build an audience for this new spectacle and his vision of international recognition for Daytona intertwined with sports cars. This friendship culminated in France, Sr. coming up with the idea to start IMSA in 1969 and providing the funding to start the organization. Early IMSA races consisted of Formula cars (Fords, Vees, Super Vees) on ovals. But scary crashes and injuries in 1970 led IMSA to pivot towards sanctioning sports car races for FIA Group 2 and 4 GT cars. Aside from the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Watkins Glen 6 Hour, these cars had nowhere else to race for prize money during the season. It turned out to be the start of something big that eventually grew into the Camel GT Series starting in 1972.
One of the earliest experiments with this category happened in November of 1970 at Alabama International Motor Speedway (now called Talladega). In a show of support, both Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. entered the race in matching Ford Cortinas that had been bought used from a local dealer and outfitted for racing. The ragtag field of cobbled-together machines included the founder and president of NASCAR and his son! Ultimately the son bested the father by finishing 9th in the race, while his father finished 17th. Here are some rare photos from the event.
Bill France, Jr. (left) talks with his father, NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., before the IMSA sedan race at Alabama International Motor Speedway in November 1970. Note that Bill Sr. is wearing a dress shirt and tie under his driving overalls! Photo: IMSA collection at the International Motor Racing Research Center
It was apparently a do-it-yourself kind of weekend. Bill France, Sr. paints his name on the top of the Ford Cortina he’s about to race in the IMSA event at the relatively new Talladega superspeedway in November 1970. Photo: IMSA collection at the International Motor Racing Research Center
Bill France Sr. leads Bill France Jr. in their Ford Cortinas at Talladega in November 1970. The younger France would finish 9th, ahead of his father, who finished 17th. Photo: IMSA collection at the International Motor Racing Research Center
Bill France, Sr. comes in for a pit stop during practice for the race. Photo: IMSA collection at the International Motor Racing Research Center
In mid-November 1992, thanks to leading 103 laps in the Hooter’s 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Alan Kulwicki was able to secure the five bonus points for leading the most laps in the race, which would, in turn, then allowed him to finish second to Bill Elliott and yet still secure the Winston Cup title. Bill Elliott, driving for Junior Johnson, led for 102 laps, the difference of that one lap deciding the championship in the favor of Kulwicki, despite Elliott winning for the fifth time that season.
It was, of course, somewhat more complicated than that. There were, after all, twenty-eight events in NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series prior to the Hooter’s 500 in November. The Bill Elliott versus Alan Kulwicki battle for the title as the race wound down was not necessarily what might have been expected when the green flag dropped to start the race, which was, incidentally, the last for Richard Petty and the first Winston Cup start for Jeff Gordon. Coming into the race, the points leader was Davey Allison, not Elliott. The lead for the championship had changed after the previous event, the Pyroil 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway, two weeks previously.
Alan Kulwicki, during the 1992 season. Photo: Hooter’s
Davey Allison held the lead in the points standings for much of the season before Elliott moved past him at the Miller 500 at the Pocono International Raceway in mid-July. Elliott was about to take a slim nine-point lead in the standings thanks to Allison having a massive crash that left him with a broken right collarbone, forearm, and wrist. That Allison was not injured more severely was little short of a miracle given that his Ford Thunderbird rolled eleven times, slammed into the guardrail and ultimately came to rest on its roof.
At the next race, the Diehard 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway, using Bobby Hillin Jr. as a relief driver to be credited for finishing third, the injured Allison managed to take a one-point lead over Elliott. However, from the Budweiser at the Glen in August until the Phoenix race, Bill Elliott held the lead in the Winston Cup standings. It was not without problems, however. He blew an engine at the Goody’s 500 at Martinsville and suffered with an ill-handling car during the Tyson 400 at North Wilkesboro, relegating him to a 26th place finish. He then hit the guardrail and broke a sway bar during the Mello Yello 500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, spending eighteen laps in the pits for repairs. But after the AC-Delco 500 at Rockingham, with a sixth-place or better finish at the remaining two events on the calendar (Phoenix and Atlanta), Elliott was in a position to clinch the Winston Cup championship.
Tribute Card issued by Hooter’s after Alan Kulwicki won the 1992 Winston Cup Championship that was used during autograph sessions. Credit: Hooter’s
At Phoenix, Elliott’s Thunderbird cracked a cylinder head and started overheating, relegating him to a thirty-first place finish. This allowed Allison to retake the points lead with his win. A fourth-place finish by Kulwicki moved him past Elliott and into second place in the standings. As they headed towards the season finale, Allison was now the leader, with Kulwicki thirty points back, and Elliott forty points in arrears. Also within striking distance, mathematically or at least possibly or theoretically, were Harry Gant, Kyle Petty, and Mark Martin. The latter three would require some very serious problems among the top three given that Gant and Petty were over fifty points behind.
What all this meant was that to be the 1992 Winton Cup champion, Davey Allison simply needed to finish fifth or better to ensure the title regardless of whatever the others might end up doing. Plus, he had a thirty point buffer over Kulwicki with an additional ten points on top of that over Elliott. In other words, it seemed quite reasonable that Davey Allison would emerge as the 1992 champion, especially in light of the difficulties facing Kulwicki and Elliott, not to mention Allison coming off a victory at Phoenix, having the momentum that success creates going into the finale.
The Atlanta race was run under a points schedule that was put in place by NASCAR beginning with the 1975 season. It replaced a series of point systems that were often confusing to fans and teams alike. Until the 1968 season, the Grand National series, as it was then known, used a combination of prize money and distance to determine the points awarded for an event. In 1964, for example, points were awarded using sixteen different schedules based upon the prize money posted and the distance of an event. From 1968 60 1971, this somewhat chaotic system was replaced by a very simple three-tiered system: points were awarded for events less than 250 miles, those between 251 and 399 miles, and those 400 miles or longer.
In 1972 and 1973, points were awarded based upon the finishing position and then with additional points given according to the number of laps completed in a race. If that system wasn’t enough of a bookkeeping nightmare, in 1974 NASCAR managed to outdo itself: Winnings from purse posted for an event, with qualifying and contingency awards not counting, multiplied by the number of races started, with the resulting figure divided by 1,000 determined the number of points earned in the championship. Needless to say, it turned out to be so hopelessly difficult to compute that even the teams were more often than not often confused trying to figure it out. Although the 1974 system has been the subject of a massive case of organizational amnesia in Daytona Beach, the system was clearly intended to reintroduce one of the major components of how NASCAR – and Big Bill France in particular – weighed the early points system by giving emphasis to the prize money being awarded.
In 1975, Bob Latford – usually referred to as a NASCAR “historian,” but in reality, a public relations flack for the organization who also just happened to be a high school classmate of Bill France, Jr. – devised a system that was used from 1975 through the 2003 seasons. It awarded points on a sliding scale in increments of five, four, three, two, and one down to fifty-fourth place, beginning with 175 points for first place. Points were awarded for an event regardless of the distance or the purse that was posted. Five bonus points for leading a lap with an additional five points for the driver leading the most laps in a race.
This meant that a driver finishing second in a race, earning 170 points, could earn five more points for leading a lap, and another five points for leading the most laps. In other words, with the winner getting an automatic additional five points thanks to leading a lap, earning 180 points, it also meant that a driver finishing second, 170 points, could equal the points awarded to the winner by leading the most laps in a race, therefore adding ten bonus points to his score, also earning 180 points.
It was this quirk in the points system that came into play as events played out during the Hooters 500 at Atlanta in 1992. As mentioned, although it was theoretically possible for Harry Gant, Kyle Petty or Mark Martin to win the championship, this meant that Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and Bill Elliott all needed to fall out of the race very early on, earning very few points, and that one of the trio needed to win the race. As it turned out, Martin retired with engine trouble and neither Gant or Petty were much of a factor at the end, finishing thirteenth and sixteenth, respectfully.
Needing only to finish fifth or better to wrap up the championship regardless of what Kulwicki or Elliott did, Davey Allison’s championship hopes ended less than fifty laps from the end. Running in the top five most of the time, making sure to gain five bonus points by leading a lap thanks to pitting late during the third caution period, Allison’s Thunderbird was shoved into the wall by the Chevrolet of Ernie Irvan when the Morgan-McClure team driver lost control in the fourth turn. With the damage to the car such that Allison was out of the race, the attention now shifted to the cat-and-mouse game that the Junior Johnson and Kulwicki teams had been playing just in case something like this happened.
The decision by Kulwicki’s crew chief, Paul Andrews, to stay out an extra lap while leading, ensuring that the five bonus points for leading the most laps was critical for Kulwicki. This meant that by finishing second, even if Elliott won the race and collected 180 points, that Kulwicki’s second-place points total of 170 would have an additional ten points added, therefore equaling Elliott’s 180 points. Had Elliott and Kulwicki finished first and second, but with Elliott collecting the five bonus points for leading the most laps, his 185 points and Kulwicki’s 175 points would have resulted in a tie: 4,073 points each. With the tiebreaker being the total number of wins in the season, Elliott would have become the 1992 Winston Cup champion, with his five wins against Kulwicki’s two wins.
Alan Kulwicki’s Ford Thunderbird, with Ford’s permission, ran the race as an “Underbird,” with a cartoon Mighty Mouse on board also adding emphasis to the team’s position as the underdog in the championship fight. That Alan Kulwicki Racing defeated the Junior Johnson team, which had attempted to hire him at one point, also meant that by earning the 1992 title Kulwicki also ended up as the last owner-driver to do so. Alas, on 1 April 1993, Kulwicki and three others died when an aircraft owned by the Hooters restaurant chain crashed on its way to the Bristol International Raceway. Later that year, on July 12, 1993, Davey Allison crashed his Hughes 369 HS helicopter while landing at the Talladega Superspeedway, dying the following day.
Alan Kulwicki hoisting the Winston Cup Championship Trophy, at the conclusion of the Hooter’s 500, Atlanta on November 12, 1992. Photo: Racing One/Getty Images.
If the legacy of the 1992 fight for the Winston Cup ultimately ended in tragedy for Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, there were other notable aspects to the season as well. One of them was the debut of Joe Gibbs Racing, a single-car team with Dale Jarrett driving a Chevrolet Lumina sponsored by Interstate Batteries. The addition of a lighting system for The Winston, the series all-star event held at the Charlotte Motor Speedway was not only a spectacular success at the time, but a harbinger of the future that the Daytona added later for racing under darkness.
There was also the deaths of Anne and Bill France, Sr. in January and June, respectively. Although Big Bill had turned over the helm of NASCAR to his son, Bill Jr. in 1992, Big Bill’s presence still loomed over the organization. His death was literally the end of an era for NASCAR, the links to its origins beginning to fade and its mythology becoming even more embedded in American folklore and the culture of motorsport. That said, it was Anne France who was possibly the real reason that NASCAR both survived and literally prospered: it was Mrs. France who ran the financial side of the family business, who kept the books and an eye on the real moneymaker for NASCAR, the Competition Liaison Bureau, the entity to which the promoters posted their purses so as to guarantee that the money would be available at payout time.
That, of course, is another story…
I was casually leafing through a recent copy of the Porsche Magazine, Christophorus, (March 1998), when a number of splendid black and white photographs of road racing cars of the 50’s and 60’s caught my attention. Somehow it is appropriate that photographs of cars of that era be black and white; color would be totally superfluous, even distracting. Staring at the photographs I am immersed in the facial expressions of the drivers who betray, in their open face helmets with goggles, their intense concentration and total commitment to their work. Today’s closed-face helmets add a significant safety margin, but, alas, photographer and spectator alike are deprived of contact with the drivers. Among the many iconic cars presented in this story are early Porsches – RS Spyders, RSK’s, 550’s – driven by the likes of Masten Gregory, Jo Bonnier and Ricardo Rodriguez.
Ricardo Rodriguez practices a Le Mans start in his #39 Porsche 1600 RSK just prior to the 1960 Grand Prix held in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Tom Burnside, copyright The Revs Institute.
The featured photographer is Tom Burnside, who traveled the road racing circuits from 1954 to 1968, capturing the essence of sports car racing in those early years after World War II. On page 36 of Christophorus I study Ricardo Rodriguez, caught by Burnside’s lens as Rodriguez leaps over the door into his Porsche 1600 RSK practicing the traditional Le Mans start in 1960. Rodriguez is wearing a short-sleeved golf shirt, goggles dangling around his neck, driving gloves without fingers (like today’s bicycling gloves), and – not to be missed above his penny loafers – his pants legs gathered up around his ankles under small belts to keep his pant cuffs from interfering with the furious pedal work that lies ahead. I know Mexicans are very proud of their motherland, so Rodriguez uses electrical tape to write MEXICO in block letters on the faring behind his head restraint.
Then I glance over at page 37 and I can’t believe my eyes – a photograph of road racing cars in the 1960 Havana Grand Prix! It is obvious in the photograph that the race is being run on the wide-open spaces of a runway, and then I shudder as goose bumps course up and down my spine. I WAS THERE! It’s the first time I’ve seen a photograph of that event, which took place on the Columbia Military Airport in suburban Havana in early 1960. I was born in Havana, and it so happened that we had our home on 21st Avenue, between 82nd and 84th streets. The military airport, which was the venue for this race, was at the south end of 84th street, only one block from my house. As a young child, oftentimes I would run up to the fence to see bombers, propeller fighters, venerable DC3’s and assorted aircraft warming their radial piston engines at the eastern end of the runway (visible at the far end in Burnside’s photograph). My favorite airplane was the Lockheed Super G Constellation, an early 1950’s transatlantic carrier with its unmistakable triple vertical stabilizer and four piston engines of 9,000 combined horsepower. Its crew would carefully warm up one engine at a time, and I would wait patiently, staring through the cyclone fence at the monster about 200 yards away. The pilot would hold the brakes, rev up all that horsepower until the window glass on our houses shook, and then release the brakes, beginning the takeoff roll, headed to parts unknown. Like some annoying song that sticks in your head, the roar of those engines is still in my ears.
But how did this Grand Prix race come about? The late Joel E. Finn, the author of the prized book, Caribbean Capers, wrote that “Kenneth ‘Ken’ Coleman of West Palm Beach, FL, had been involved in road racing for some years as an active member of the Florida Region of the SCCA.” Flinn indicates that it was Coleman who approached the new Director of the Cuban Sporting Commission, Captain Felipe Guerra Matos (“Guerrita” to his friends) and convinced him that organizing a sports car race would entice tourists from the US, whose numbers had plummeted. I personally remember the gentleman, Guerrita because my mother’s younger sister, Edith Romagosa, was his Executive Secretary. This explains why my Dad and I had unfettered access to that Grand Epreuve.
Finn goes on to explain that Guerrita accepted Coleman’s proposal and allowed Coleman and two other Cubans with racing experience, Juan Garcia and Alfonso Gomez Mena to coordinate the Havana Speed Week. After concluding that the seaside boulevard, “El Malecon”, the venue used in previous races, was unsafe and uncontrollable. (In a personal conversation I had with the late Phil Hill when I asked him which was the most difficult track he had ever experienced he said El Malecon in Havana because sea water is constantly washing over the wall onto the street and creating a soapy scum on the pavement). For a venue, Coleman’s team chose the military airport, Campo Libertad (Freedom Camp). They decided to hold an event, Havana Speed Week, commencing on February 20, 1960, and concluding with the GP on Sunday, February” 28. The 3.11-mile course at the airport was set to run clockwise, for a total of 65 laps (about 202 miles).
Action near Havana Country Club: Alfonso Gomez-Mena (sporting Cuban flag on the hood) in the #14 Ferrari 250 GT LWB, leads Jim Jeffords, USA, in the #4 Chevrolet Corvette C1. Photo: Tom Burnside, copyright The Revs Institute.
Back to the photographs. As I was only 11 years old at the time, so my father was at the track with me. He mentioned that he helped keep lap times for one of the teams during the race in 1958. I think it was for a team of privateers with a Mercedes sponsored by the Cuban cigarette makers, Trinidad y Hermanos (the MB factory teams had abandoned racing after Pierre LeVegh’s crash at Le Mans in 1955). As I stare at the photograph I recall the ripping sounds of small bore engines, straining at their redlines, the musical sequence of heel & toe downshifting and the pungent smells of racing oil, clutch and brake dust and racing fuels (which occupy a special place in my sense of smell, right next to cordite from antiaircraft shells and exploding bombs, but more on this later). I remember that the spectator stands lining the runway were provisional, made of wood, housing the makeshift pit area along the “front straight.” My house was so close to the runway that I could stand at the fence and watch the racers run the left sweeper in the “Curva Camaguey” followed by the tight right turn into the long straight. That was the most important sequence for the quickest lap. Crowd control was evidently not terribly tight, what with next-to-nonexistent racing car restraints like a hay bale every ten feet or so. But such was the innocence of that era: on track, my Dad let me roam about at will, evidencing all confidence that I would be alright.
Observing the photographs taken by Burnside, there are many signs and banners advertising products – Shell gasoline, Goodyear tires, LASO batteries, Hilton Hotels (the racing headquarters were at the Habana Hilton) Coca-Cola, and Polar and Hatuey beer. This may seem totally obvious to readers, but there’s more. Later that year Fidel Castro ordered the “intervention” of all businesses, beginning with the expropriation of major U.S. corporations. On August 6, 1960, the Castro government formally nationalized all foreign-owned property in the nation. By the end of 1960, the revolutionary government had stolen more than $25 billion worth of private property owned by Cubans – 1960 was the end of private enterprise.
Maurice Trintignant, France, negotiates a right-hander onto the front straight in his #9 Maserati 300S. Photo: Tom Burnside, copyright The Revs Institute.
I wish I could give you more details on how the race went. Neither my father nor I had the foresight to hang on to a race program. But how was I to know, at age 11, of the magnitude of the event before me? Although my idol, Juan Manuel Fangio was not there, here were gathered the world’s best dueling at 180 mph in their golf shirts and penny loafers, darting about on skinny Dunlops sans driver restraints. Researching racing history, I found one version of the program (complete with someone’s handwriting) which listed 43 entries representing 14 nations. Among them were well known competitors including Joaquim Bonnier (Porsche RSK 1.5L), Jack Brabham (Cooper-Monaco 2.5L), Ettore Chimeri (Ferrari 3.0L), Masten Gregory (Porsche RSK 1.5L), Dan Gurney (Maserati 2.9L), Stirling Moss (Maserati Tipo 61 “Birdcage” 2.9L), Ulf Norinder (Porsche RSK 1.5L), brothers Pedro (Ferrari 3.0L) and Ricardo Rodriguez (Porsche RSK 1.5L), Eddie Sachs (Nisonger KLG Special 5.3L), Harry Schell (Ferrari 4.1L), Carroll Shelby (Porsche 1.5L), Maurice Trintignant (Maserati 3.0L), Huschke Von Hanstein (Porsche RSK 1.5) and Rodger Ward (Ferrari 2.9L). (Briggs Cunningham had been invited but refused to participate because Castro had already expropriated his businesses in Cuba). One Italian lady, Ada Pace, hurled her OSCA MT4 around the airport runway, her helmet more likely a leather head sock, with goggles and, in the tropical sunshine, sporting a sleeveless blouse – her careful manicure evident in her fingerless driving gloves. She finished her race!
Pedro Rodriguez, Mexico, in the #10 Ferrari 250 TR 59, finished second overall and second in class in the 50 lap main race. Photo: Tom Burnside, copyright The Revs Institute.
As I look at the photograph, Tom Burnside suddenly becomes my hero, the only person who can bring back details of a memory that I’ve carefully nurtured all these years. I become infatuated with the photograph – I must locate him. Finding a phone number for him, I ever so cautiously ring him up. He answers. I can’t believe he answers his own phone! I introduce myself, and I tell him about the photograph and that I was there. I’m thinking he’ll say, “Yeah, so what, I know many people who were there, big deal.” But instead, he says, “You’re the first person who has contacted me who says he was there!” Burnside remembers that Stirling Moss drove a birdcage Maserati (a white number 7, I remember distinctly). He also knows that a Jaguar XKSS was entered (and that it was just repatriated from Cuba to the US for some astronomical sum). He also tells me about the time in ’57 when he was in Havana for the Gran Premio, staying at the El Presidente hotel where he received a visit at 3:00 am from Castro’s representatives, who take him back to their lair (but that’s Burnside’s story to tell). At the airport, he said the race was run clockwise using the runway with mostly curves to the right using some of the service roads. There is one more personal detail that I recall: as the featured race ended and the crowds were leaving, I gathered a few of my friends and stuffed wads of paper in the tailpipes of spectator cars parked all around our neighborhood. Then we watched with glee as the wads rocketed out of the tailpipes when the engines were started.
One year later, on Saturday, April 15, 1961, at 6:00 am, the thunder of low flying airplanes shook the house. But accustomed as we were to airplanes overhead, this was different: there was more than one, and their approach to the airport was not supposed to be over our house, and they are coming in TOO LOW! Then all hell breaks loose as these airplanes begin strafing the military airport and Castro’s Czechoslovakian 4-barrelled antiaircraft batteries reply in kind. The ground leaps as bombs hit their targets. I grab my baby sister out of her bed and our family runs screaming into the dining room, sliding under the dining room table, everyone praying loudly for God to spare us and literally feeling every bomb hit through the cold hard, tile floor. I have never before or since been so afraid for my life. We expect a bomb to hit our house any second as the bombers (CIA-supplied Douglas A-23’s of the anti-Castro assault force of Alpha 66) make their runs at their targets. Twenty minutes later the bombers leave, but they have decimated the airport. The ordinance, which had been trucked into the air base only a week earlier, is now exploding at will. We run to the car, in our sleepwear, not stopping for anything. We drive away to my mother’s cousin in the western suburbs of Miramar. Two days later, 1,500 men make shore in a crocodile-infested swamp known to the rest of the world as the Bay of Pigs.
The following is an excerpt from “IMSA 1969-1989” written by Mitch Bishop and Mark Raffauf that tells the inside story of how IMSA got started and its first 20 glorious years. Available from Octane Press or wherever books are sold.
Standing at just 5 feet, 6 inches tall, Charlie Rainville’s small stature didn’t seem at first glance to be a good fit in the high stakes, high-pressure world of big-time sports car racing. But competitors and manufacturers that underestimated him quickly learned the hard way that Charlie was not a man to be trifled with. He was tough as nails, a kid that grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Providence, Rhode Island. He was street smart, savvy and ready for a fight. But he was also immensely clear thinking and eminently practical when it came to managing the many conflicting personalities that were each vying for an unfair advantage. The ever-present twinkle in his blue eyes and ready smile were Rainville’s main weapons for disarming tense situations, but he also commanded immense respect from competitors familiar with his experience.
One of the original pioneers of U.S. road racing, Charlie had earned a reputation as a tough competitor and brilliant race car preparer, starting as a mechanic at Jake Kaplan’s Import Motors shops in Providence in the late 1950s. Known for being able to massage anything to go faster than originally intended, he was the go-to guy for preparing sports cars in New England for the growing groups of enthusiasts importing them from Europe. Charlie became an expert on all of the exotic cars of the day, including Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, Lotus, Ferrari, Porsche, OSCA, Iso Grifo, Datsun, and Corvette. In addition to engines and suspension setup, he became a true artist, hand forming aluminum body panels for all sorts of makes and models.
An accomplished racer, Charlie Rainville drove for the factory Plymouth Trans-Am team in 1966, including the opening round at Sebring, where the Trans-Am cars had a four-hour race ahead of the 12 Hour classic. Photo: REVS Institute
As a driver, Rainville had a brief career in sprint cars and on short tracks until he gravitated to SCCA track events, hill climbs and rallying in the New England area, campaigning in aluminum- bodied XK120 Jaguars, Alfas, OSCAs, and Cobras. He then jumped to the professional ranks by competing in SCCA Trans-Am series events in Barracudas as part of the first works team from Detroit in 1966. A few podiums and a fifth-place overall finish in the points that first year of the Trans-Am would mark the pinnacle of his driving career. Along the way, Charlie built a reputation for helping anyone in the paddock with parts, labor, and advice, and then going out and beating them on the track.
SIDEBAR: Don’t Lean Too Hard on the Doors
The cars for the first-ever Trans-Am race were run as a separate class at the Sebring 12 Hour in 1966. As both John Bishop and Charlie Rainville relayed it, they met on the grid just before the race. John went over to the driver’s side of Charlie’s car to wish him good luck in the race. As he leaned in on the door to talk, the door started collapsing. John knew that the SCCA had approved alternative thin steel door panels for the Plymouth, but he was unprepared for how thin! Charlie laughed and promptly pounded the panel back out with his fists from inside the car and made no reference to the fact the door was, in fact, aluminum which, needless to say, was not a standard Barracuda part in 1966. John gave his apologies for damaging the car, along with a wry smile and walked away. Charlie went on to finish seventh that day.
By the end of the 1960s, Rainville had retired from racing and evolved into one of the top SCCA race stewards in the country. He and Bishop had crossed paths many times by this point. Bishop saw that Rainville’s view of how racing should be conducted matched his own and when the opportunity came to forge a partnership of philosophies, he became the obvious choice to lead the charge for IMSA at the track when it came to technical and competition matters.
The man who made the tagline “Racing with a Difference” come to life at IMSA events for many of the participants was Rainville. He was IMSA’s chief steward, race director, technical director and director of competition from IMSA’s start through the early 1980s. In appointing him to these positions, Bishop understood that Rainville brought decades of useful experience in car construction, race preparation, competition driving and race officiating to the table. He knew instinctively that Charlie would command immediate respect from competitors, team owners, race organizers and manufacturers.
The solid partnership forged between Charlie Rainville and John Bishop made IMSA tick for many years. Photo: IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research Center
Rainville’s no-nonsense, common sense approach to technical rules, race regulations and race management confirmed he was the logical choice to run the competition side of the new organization. He introduced a new style of series management: benevolent dictatorship, something competitors had not experienced in the highly political world of the SCCA.
Hurley Haywood had this to say about Rainville: “He would look at the situation and say, “That’s a good idea,” or “No, that’s not a good idea.” There was no discussion. Whatever he said was final. You could talk until you were blue in the face, and you weren’t going to change his mind. Most of the time, he was pretty reasonable. John softened these situations by playing the ultimate diplomat. John would never put his foot down and say “This is the way it’s going to be. You’re going to do it my way or hit the bricks.” John always left the door open where you could see some light shining through. There was always hope.”
SIDEBAR: The Chopped Camaro
One story that illustrated Charlie Rainville’s practical approach to policing rules happened at Laguna Seca in 1976. Carl Shafer, a regular on the IMSA circuit in his orange Camaro, had towed all the way to California along with a bunch of other East Coast competitors. At the time, IMSA was still building a foothold with the West Coast races and needed every entry it could get. As the Camel GT cars were sitting in pit lane, waiting for practice to begin, Charlie stood next to Shafer’s Camaro, just staring at it long and hard; something just didn’t look right. Charlie called Shafer over and the two of them faced each other. Shafer was 6 foot, 3 inches tall, so he towered over Charlie, who asked him: “The car doesn’t look right, Carl. Did you chop it?” Shafer, knowing he had been caught, looked down and replied in his slow Midwestern drawl: “Yeah Charlie, I did.” Turns out the car’s roofline was four inches too short from the standard Camaro template. But rather than throw him out and not let him race, Charlie told him to weld a four-inch spoiler to the top of his roofline, which the team did that night. It looked like hell and acted as a boat anchor at speed, but at least he didn’t have to tow home to Wyoming, Ill. without racing and IMSA had another car in the field.
Michael Keyser leads the first lap of the Camel GT Challenge race at Laguna Seca in 1976. Al Holbert, Peter Gregg, and Carl Shafer follow. A four-inch spoiler is visible on Shafer’s Camaro, mandated by Charlie Rainville after IMSA found that the roofline had been chopped. Photo: IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research Center
SIDEBAR: Passing Tech Inspection
Jim Busby recalled: “Charlie’s policing was fascinating to me. We’d be doing something really bad, so far out of the box that it was ridiculous. One example was when we modified the wheelbase of a Porsche Carrera RSR to take the weight off the rear end. Having the weight there was great, for the first half of a stint, but we burned off the rears after that. We had to find a way to move weight forward.”
“Right before Mid-Ohio one year, I got to thinking. What if we just move the holes in the fenders forward like three or four inches and move the engine forward three or four inches and misalign the half shafts forward three and a half inches? We made Porsche A-arms that looked stock but moved the wheelbase forward, which shifted the engine and transmission weight forward and shortened the rod that went from the shifter to the transmission and off we went. We took the car to Mid-Ohio and were getting ready to race, but first, we had to get the car through inspection.”
“We’re standing there in the tech shed and Charlie was standing there looking at the car, then looking at me. Over and over again. Back and forth between the car and me, like he was asking with his eyes: “You’re up to something, I just don’t know what it is yet.” Finally, I turned around and I looked at him and he looked at me and he had a look in his eye like, “Is there something you want to tell me?” I responded: “Oh hey, Charlie! How are you?” He nodded his head and walked away. John did that to me a lot too. His patience for me would really grow thin.”
Charlie’s stature within the SCCA was solid and influential, particularly the corner workers and other officials. He felt most at home with the hundreds of volunteer officials and course marshals that showed up every race weekend. This allowed him to diffuse some of the early politics that the SCCA had with IMSA. The workers respected him and loved working with him at the track. He quickly added a number of key SCCA stewards, notably, Roger Eandi in California, K.C. Van Niman in the Midwest and Charlie Earwood in the Southeast into IMSA’s fold as race officials. They remained a significant part of the organization for the balance of their careers well into the 1990s.
SIDEBAR: Shicklegruber Fuel Injection
Mark Raffauf remembers a classic Charlie Rainville story: “Charlie worked in the IMSA office in Connecticut a few days a week when there wasn’t a race meeting to attend. Although he was an integral part of the behind-the-scenes rules process, Charlie wasn’t really at home working in an office. He preferred the smells, the grime and the comradery of the track or garage. We were working on finalizing the rule book for the 1977 season when one day, Charlie walked into my office and asked: “What’s the name of the fuel injection that BMW wants us to allow for the 320i?” Both Roger Bailey and I answered: “Kuglefischer.” Charlie thanked us and went back to his office. A month later, after we published the rule book, we received a frantic call from Jim Patterson, who ran BMW’s racing program in North America at the time. Apparently, Charlie had published the rule book with the name of the approved BMW fuel injection as “Shicklegruber,” which is how Charlie apparently translated “Kuglefischer.” We never lived it down with the BMW folks.”
John Bishop and Rainville together forged a philosophy and organization that set new standards of professionalism, communication and empathy that were soon copied everywhere. Although emotions often ran high, drivers respected the decision-making process and often would admit that it was fair, even if it went against their position. Charlie looked out for the competitors in ways very different from previous attitudes about the relationship between officials and participants. They were his drivers and he went to great lengths to take good care of them. And he started every day with a clean sheet of paper, nothing from the previous day was held over anyone.
Charlie Rainville and John Bishop in 1979. Photo: IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research Center
The staff that worked for IMSA were mentored and taught how to do the right thing, how to be straight-forward and how not to be afraid of making decisions or the resulting consequences. Sure, mistakes were made, but Rainville was generous and forgiving the first time. The second time was not so pretty. From this process, a new generation of professionally trained, full-time officials was developed who eventually held the reins well into the 1990s. Because of this training, when Charlie retired in 1983, the transition to Mark Raffauf was virtually seamless. Though still attending the races for another year he never injected himself into the activity unless asked, but he was always there for support if needed.
When Rainville passed away in February of 1985, sports car racing lost one of its true pioneers. At the time, Ken Parker of the Providence Journal-Bulletin wrote; “No man is irreplaceable, but one cannot help but feel a twinge of sympathy for the person who steps into Charlie Rainville’s shoes. During his many years as Racing (and Technical) Director of IMSA, Charlie was known, loved and respected nationwide, not only for his competence but also his fairness and quiet generosity. John Bishop, President of IMSA, gives Charlie much of the credit for making IMSA the world’s foremost professional racing organization, and Charlie raised IMSA to that level in less than 10 years.”
The following is an excerpt from “IMSA 1969-1989” written by Mitch Bishop and Mark Raffauf that tells the inside story of how IMSA got started and its first 20 glorious years. Available from Octane Press or wherever books are sold.
John Bishop’s early vision for sports car racing in the U.S. was influenced by the Federation Internationale de le’Automobile (FIA), the governing body for all international racing. But his decision in 1980 to create the IMSA GTP category that differed significantly from Group C regulations set down by the FIA the following year wasn’t an easy one. In the end, it resulted in a hugely popular class that would distinguish IMSA and racing in North America from the rest of the endurance racing world for more than a decade.
By the mid-1970s, the FIA class structure (Groups 1-6) for endurance racing was floundering in Europe, while IMSA’s race entries were growing. IMSA’s success did not go unnoticed by the FIA and the organizers of Le Mans, the most prestigious event on the international sportscar calendar. In 1976, an event partnership between Daytona International Speedway and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the Le Mans organizers, brought IMSA’s popular Corvettes and Monzas to the famed French 24-hour race, where they ran in a special class. John Greenwood’s Corvette and Michael Keyser’s Monza both ran strongly, even leading the Group 6 prototypes early in the race. Greenwood recorded the fastest top speeds on the Mulsanne straight that year, an astounding 215 mph. Although both cars were eventually forced to retire with mechanical woes, non-homologated American cars from IMSA were making a mockery of the FIA rules structure.
In the early laps of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1976, John Greenwood’s Corvette leads Michael Keyser’s Monza and the eventual runner-up Group 6 Mirage Ford GR8. The IMSA class cars were popular with the fans and ran strongly before both dropped out with driveline/transmission problems. Photo: autosportsltd.com
The situation led to a new and productive relationship between Bishop and Alain Bertaut, the Director of Competition for the ACO. Both men shared similar values and appreciation for giving the private entrant a fighting chance. They also agreed that controls were needed to reign in the rapidly escalating costs of competition. But most importantly, they saw eye-to-eye on the importance of putting on a good show for paying spectators.
Bertaut, Bishop and Bill France Sr. began working together to encourage participation by the same teams and manufacturers in the 24-hour races at Daytona and Le Mans, including an invitation by the ACO for NASCAR stock cars to race at Le Mans in 1976, when NASCAR drivers Dick Brooks and Dick Hutcherson drove a Junie Donlavey-entered Ford Torino. Eventually, an entire class was devoted to IMSA at Le Mans due to the cars’ popularity with the European fans, a situation that lasted through the 1982 race.
The first turbocharged Porsche 934 ever to race anywhere in the world was at the 24 Hours of Daytona in January 1976, eligible only by special invitation to the World Championship of Makes Manufacturer championship. It finished forty-first, dropping out with mechanical issues. Photo: autosportsltd.com
In a reciprocal arrangement, European-based cars were brought to the U.S. to race in the 24 Hours of Daytona, including the first Porsche 934 to race anywhere in the world in 1976, and the Inaltera built by Jean Rondeau that raced in 1977. The first Porsche 935s showed up at Daytona in 1977 as well, even though they were not yet eligible to compete in other Camel GT races. The Inaltera was entered in the “Le Mans GTP” class, a catch-all for cars that did not meet FIA Groups 1 through 6 regulations or anything else, and had been conceived by the ACO as a cost-effective alternative to Group 6. Over the years, the Le Mans GTP class included the WM-Peugeot, Rondeau 378 and the Porsche factory 924 Turbo GT cars.
The Martini & Rossi–sponsored factory Porsche 935 and a similar Kremer customer car were the first 935s to compete in an IMSA event, shown here on the front row of the grid at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1977. Inaltera “Le Mans GTP” prototypes are on the second row. Both car types competed as part of the World Championship of Makes. Photo: ISC Archives & Research Center/Getty Image
The IMSA-ACO relationship continued to grow. IMSA representatives regularly attended the 24 Hours of Le Mans to build relationships and help the U.S. teams participating there. Dick Barbour, Paul Newman, and Rolf Stommelen driving a Garretson-prepared Porsche 935, almost won the race overall in 1979, driving an IMSA-class car. All the signs pointed to a flourishing relationship between IMSA and the ACO, with movement toward a uniform set of technical rules that would guide both sides of the Atlantic.
The relationship flourished to the point that Bertaut traveled cross country in the Bishop’s Newell Coach during the summer of 1980 and the following year his daughter interned at the IMSA headquarters. The ideas that resulted in IMSA’s GTP class were hatched on that long cross-country drive in the motorhome. The class was envisioned as a simple prototype car governed by a sliding power-to-weight formula that would be attractive to both manufacturers and private constructors. Jean Rondeau had shown the way by winning Le Mans in June of 1980 in a car designed and built entirely in his garage, fitted with a detuned Cosworth customer Formula One engine.
From Bishop’s point of view, Porsche and its 935 were dominating the 1979 and 1980 seasons and he knew that it would be difficult to continue growing the Camel GT Series unless something changed. Although the racing was close, he worried that no one would continue to pay to see a Porsche parade. The AAGT concept had diversified the fields for a while, but the cars were increasingly uncompetitive against the onslaught of 935s, even with more relaxed GTX rules that allowed for tube frames, wider wheels and essentially unlimited bodywork tweaks. BMW, Nissan, and Ford had all been represented in the GTX class during this time, but only as solo or two-car efforts; there were no customer cars. And the price for a new Porsche 935 was in excess of $200,000, a huge sum at the time. Privateers were getting priced out of the game.
“The bottom line is that private entrants fielding American-powered cars were never going to be able to keep up with the money invested by large manufacturers like Porsche, who were continually developing customer cars with virtually unlimited funds,” remembered Bishop. “We needed something new. We liked the general direction that the ACO and FIA were taking that allowed entrants to pair prototype monocoques with different engines, but somehow the Group C rules had become driven by fuel consumption as a result of the recent gas crisis. The Europeans seemed out of touch with what sold tickets in the U.S. We didn’t think fans wanted to watch high-powered racing cars coast by in an effort to save gas to make it the end of the race.”
“We were initially inspired by the Inaltera cars that showed up for the 1977 24 Hours of Daytona in a special prototype class,” Bishop continued. “The cars were fast, good looking and competitive. Best of all, they were built with off-the-shelf parts by Jean Rondeau, a private entrant, so we knew it could be done on a reasonable budget. Given the availability of a wide variety of reliable engines, our vision was to repeat a bit of the same formula that had made the AAGT class such a success. Our goal was to create a prototype class that could compete head-to-head with the 935s, but at a lower price point.”
One of two Inaltera “Le Mans GTP” class cars during the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1977. The privately designed and built machines became the inspiration for the IMSA GTP class rules developed in 1980. Photo: autosportsltd.com
After Rondeau’s victory at Le Mans in 1980, the IMSA-ACO relationship continued to gain steam. By contrast, the FIA’s World Championship of Makes continued to lose traction. Grids were small and participation by manufacturers sporadic. After much hand wringing, the FIA announced a response in 1980. It would abandon the Group 1 through 6 model and revamp all technical regulations into a new structure of Groups A, B, and C. Group A encompassed touring cars, Group B included GT cars along with limited production touring cars, and Group C defined sports prototypes.
There was one problem: IMSA had already publicly committed to the GTP concept as the alternative to the dominating Porsche 935. By the time of the FIA’s announcement on Group C, the GTP concept was well underway with chassis layout, engine options and a weight/displacement scale already decided on with mutual IMSA/ACO support. And manufacturers like Lola, BMW, and March were already building cars.
The hope was that all parties would embrace the IMSA GTP concept given that IMSA and the ACO were aligned and cars were already being built. However, the FIA went in another direction for its Group C class rules by insisting on a fuel consumption formula for the World Championship of Makes.
Without Le Mans on the World Championship of Makes calendar, it was doubtful whether the FIA series could survive. With an impasse looming over which rules would be used at Le Mans, the FIA, through its control of the World Championship of Makes, decided to play hardball. Jean-Marie Balestre was the president of the FISA – the sporting arm of the FIA – and also happened to be the president of the organization that controlled auto racing in France known as the Fédération Française du Sport Automobile. Wearing both hats, Balestre threatened to not to list the 24 Hours of Le Mans as an international event unless the ACO adopted the new Group C regulations along with the fuel consumption format. The ACO was forced into a corner, because not being listed would create licensing and legal havoc, among other problems. Although Bertaut was more philosophically aligned with IMSA, he had no real choice but to acquiesce to the political pressure in France. The ACO agreed to adopt the FIA Group C formula.
Although IMSA GTP and Group C cars turned out to be very similar, there were three critical technical differences that would keep them apart. IMSA required the driver’s feet to be behind the centerline of the front axle for safety reasons from the earliest time the rules were drawn up. Second, the fuel consumption formula favored smaller displacement, predominantly European racing engines that did not offer privateers, American or Japanese brands an equal opportunity to succeed without significant investment in new technologies. And finally, IMSA GTP rules required the use of production-based engines.
Due to these fundamental divides, IMSA went its own way. IMSA GTP chassis from Lola, March, Jaguar, and Ford appeared by 1983 and won the championships in 198 and 1983 through 1993. With the introduction of Group C in 1982 first at Silverstone and then at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the IMSA class subsequently fell away at the famed event. The Group C specifications did help the newly renamed World Endurance Championship of Makes regain its footing in Europe and became the World Sports-Prototype Championship in 1987. At the same time, IMSA grew and succeeded with the IMSA GTP concept in the U.S. Meanwhile, Japanese rule makers developed a similar, but unique style of prototype racing in Japan that didn’t exactly match either Group C or IMSA GTP.
By 1984, IMSA Camel GT fields were packed with GTP machines, as illustrated here at Michigan International Speedway. A Ford Mustang GTP leads from a few March chassis, two Jaguars, two newly introduced Porsche 962s and others. Photo: Bob Harmeyer
As a result, three separate prototype championships evolved that dominated their respective markets for over a decade. Ironically, this became the most successful period of global sports car racing in history. Manufacturers that participated in Group C included Lancia, Porsche, Mercedes, Ford, BMW, Nissan, Jaguar, Toyota, Mazda, Rondeau, Sauber, Spice, Lola, Argo, Tiga, and Alba, among others. A similar group or road car and racing car manufacturers participated in IMSA: Porsche, Jaguar, Nissan, Mazda, Ford, BMW, Toyota, Acura, Spice, Argo, Tiga, and Alba, in addition to U.S brands Chevrolet, Buick, and Pontiac. In Japan, Nissan, Toyota, Mazda, and Porsche all took part. Not all of these brands necessarily participated in each series at the same time, but the U.S. market drove the creation and development of more manufacturer GTP cars than either of the other two series.
The technical situation changed in the FIA after some frightening accidents in Europe. In 1985, the FIA finally adopted the IMSA rule concerning the placement of the driver’s feet behind the front axle centerline. With this change, a common chassis could then be used around the world in the European-based World Endurance Championship of Teams, the U.S.-based Camel GT Series, and the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship.
The Ferrari 333SP was a beautiful workhorse of the IMSA series in the mid-1990s. Chassis number 012 sits in the Mugello pit lane awaiting a track lapping event in 2018. Photo: Martin Raffauf
In the early 1990s, Gianpierro Moretti approached his friend, Piero Ferrari about Ferrari building a sports prototype. It was a hard sell, but Moretti, along with IMSA (International Motorsports Association) eventually convinced Ferrari to build a customer car for the new IMSA Exxon WSC (World Sports Car) rules which were to take effect in 1994. This would be the first prototype sports car Ferrari had built since the 1970s and the 312 series.
Gianpierro Moretti was the brain trust and owner of the MOMO performance gear company. He was instrumental in convincing Ferrari to build the 333SP for the IMSA World Sportscar Challenge (WSC) series. Photo: MOMO press kit, 1994
Conforming to the WSC rules, the Ferrari 333SP was designed as a flat bottomed, open cockpit prototype. Engines had to be production-based and could either be based on a 4.0-liter “racing” version, or 5.0- liter stock block motor. Ferrari made the decision to use a derivative of the F50 engine and de-tuned it. In effect, this was a derivative of the 3.5-liter Formula One motor being used by the Ferrari team at the time. It was a 65-degree V12 that produced about 680 horsepower in its ultimate configuration. In later years, as FIA rules changed the original IMSA specifications for use in Europe, restrictors came into vogue and the Ferrari engine was severely limited in power. Ferrari basically gave up on the formula (rightfully so in my opinion), as their view was that this engine was not designed for a restricted formula.
The Ferrari 333SP cockpit was pretty basic compared to today’s modern sports racing cars. Photo: Martin Raffauf
In the end, some 40 or so Ferrari 333SP chassis were constructed, all of them being built by Dallara. The early cars were assembled by Ferrari in Maranello, the later ones were assembled by Michelotto in Padua.
In all, the cars were very successful. They won quite a few IMSA races between 1994 and 2001, eventually taking both the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring races in the hands of Moretti’s Doran Racing Team. Ferrari also won the constructor championship in IMSA and the European based ISRS (International Sports Racing Series) multiple times.
The Ferrari 333SP was a fearsome competitor in the hands of independent IMSA teams. Photo: Martin Raffauf
None of the cars were factory entries but were all run by privateers. Notable entrants in the USA were, of course, Moretti, Andy Evans, and Fredy Lienhard. Fredy was probably the only entrant to participate on both sides of the Atlantic, running one car in IMSA and another in the European ISRS series. Ferrari did support the IMSA series and their 333SP customers, as long-time Ferrari engine man, Renzo Setti, was the designated factory support for the teams after 1994.
Confusion reigned in sports car racing in the USA by the late 1990s. IMSA had changed hands multiple times by this point and eventually was sold to Don Panoz, the inventor of the nicotine patch and ultimate car guy. Panoz resurrected the IMSA name as the organizer behind the ALMS (American Le Mans Series). Sports car rules (now under control of the ACO and FIA) shifted to a restrictor- based formula. Ferrari refused to modify or design any new engines, as in their view, this is not what the 333SP was built for. Once restrictors appeared, the 4.0-liter V12 became severely disadvantaged compared to larger engines from Ford, BMW, and others. Restricted, the engines suffered a loss of power, torque, and fuel economy, and were basically uncompetitive for the last years of the cars race history.
Kevin Doran, the team principal of Fredy Lienhard’s team, even went so far as to install a Judd V10 engine in the 333SP chassis, creating what became known as the FUDD (Ferrari-Judd). Some success was experienced with this configuration in 2000 and 2001, although by then there were newer more competitive chassis from other makers. Ferrari had gone back once more to concentrate on Formula One during the age of Michael Schumacher, and all future customer race car programs would become GT road car based.
By the end of 2001, even stalwart Fredy Lienhard put the Ferrari 333SP-012 back into his Autobau collection and bought a new Dallara-Judd. The 333SP was now relegated to vintage racing. As is the case with most Ferrari race cars, they soon increased in value exponentially. Because of their increased value, not many were ever, or are now raced in vintage events, although a few appear at Ferrari’s annual Corsa Clienti World Final events. Moretti boasted to me once in the 1990s about how he had bought a car (Ferrari), raced it all year, then sold it for what he had bought it for, about $500,000. He deemed this as “good value.” His 1998 Daytona and Sebring race winning car reportedly sold recently for five million dollars!
Fredy Lienhard still owns Chassis 012, and from time to time, takes the car out to “track days” for his friends and business associates. I worked on his race teams for Kevin Doran for many years, so I was fortunate to be invited to one of these events in early 2018 at The Mugello Circuit in Italy (and again in 2019 at Mugello).
Weather permitting, I would get the opportunity to go for a ride as a second seat had been mounted in the car for passengers. Although I had worked on these cars for many years, changing engines, gearboxes, installing and removing suspension and brakes, I had never actually ridden in one. The only real race cars I had ridden in were a Porsche 935 in the late 1970s, and a BMW 235-i Cup car. Having had quite a bit of history with this Ferrari, it was with some anticipation that I looked forward to seeing what it was like to actually experience it at speed.
Mugello in March can be cold. In fact, the days we were in-house (at the circuit), there was snow on the hillsides around the circuit which sits in a valley. So, it was unclear if this was going to work or not. The 333SP has to be warmed up with a water heater, especially during cold temperatures, as there is a danger of the radiators splitting. The minimum recommended water temperature to start the car is 50C.
The Mugello circuit was cold and wet when we showed up in March 2018. Photo: Martin Raffauf
Despite the cold temperatures, we got the car warmed up and Didier Theys took a few laps to make sure all was in good order. I suited up and prepared to get in. The immediate sensation is that this is a tight fit. The second seat, if you want to call it that, is just some padding and some belts next to the driver. Getting in and buckling up, the sensation is that you are sitting on the pavement. Very different from a road car or race car based on a road car such as a Porsche 935. The Ferrari 333SP is a 680 HP go-kart!
Acceleration is massive, the car just leaps forward. The noise of the engine without earplugs is deafening. As you exit the Mugello pits, you are on a long straight, the longest on the course. You go over a rise, then descend slightly downhill to the first corner which is a long radius 180- degree right-hand corner. At the end of the Mugello straight in this car, the speed is in the neighborhood of 185 mph Braking here is very, very impressive in this car (with steel brakes, no less). The first impression of a non-driver is that there is no way the car will stop. However, it does of course (Didier later told me he was braking 50 meters early, only running at about 80% capacity). I am convinced the G force of braking would throw you out of the car if you were not strapped in tight.
Due to the “passenger” seat configuration, I found my head was sticking up into the airflow more than Didier. The force of the air tended to want to rip my helmet off. So, I had to hang on with one hand and hold the front of the helmet down with the other to see where we were going. All the while, I had to be careful with the spare hand, as right in front of me was the switch panel, with all the ignition and fuel switches. I had to be careful not to hit a switch by mistake!
Trying to keep my helmet from flying off at speed! Photo: Dino Sbrissa
We were on the circuit with other cars. Most of them were GT based cars such as Porsche GT3 cup cars and the like. So, we passed a lot of people in the few laps we did. Passing was kind of disconcerting as again the 333SP is so low, I found myself looking up at the door handles of the cars we were passing! A strange sensation for the uninitiated. As we zipped thru the traffic, the car just leaped from one corner to the next. The ride was a lot more brutal and jerky than it looks when just watching. The power allowed the 333 to cover distance very quickly compared to the other cars. I tried to imagine driving this car at the 24 Hours of Daytona, at night, trying to get through traffic. A mind-boggling thing to comprehend. As we drove, I tried to put myself in the driver’s seat. I thought, ok, would I stick my nose in this corner to pass this GT car? Most often the answer was NO! I asked Didier later how he knew these guys would not come over on us in the corner. His response, “My nose tells me, after many years of experience!” But I guess that is why he is the driver and I am the mechanic!
Riding in close proximity to other cars, in an open cockpit car you notice quickly the exhaust smell of the cars in front of you. No doubt this was due to my head sticking up in the airflow higher than the driver. Didier said it didn’t bother him, as the air goes over the drivers head due to the shape of the front windscreen.
Too soon, it was over, and we returned to the pits. I was left with the feeling that every race mechanic should take a few laps as a passenger in the cars they are working on. Very quickly, you begin to understand what is at stake here, and how fast you are going, what could potentially go wrong and what the consequences might be.
All in all, an incredible experience to ride in this historic sports racing car, at the famous Italian track which is owned by Ferrari. In the USA, we call this a definite “E-ride” (referring to Disney World’s rides ranging from A, the lowest and easiest to E, the most impressive). It was a short glimpse of what is possible and what most people never get to experience.
This past weekend was the 1000th Grand Prix of the modern era of Formula 1, held at Shanghai in China. Today let’s take a look back at some photographs from the first Grand Prix of this era. It was the British Grand Prix which also had the title of Grand Prix d’Europe and took place at Silverstone on May 13, 1950. In 1950 Alfa Romeo was the leading team with their 158 which was an update of a prewar design. Car number 1 in front of the lineup in the rudimentary Silverstone pits of the four Alfettas will be driven by Juan Manuel Fangio. Other Alfa drivers will be Giuseppe “Nino” Farina, Luigi Fagioli and British garagiste Reg Parnell.
Before the race started, King George VI (in the grey suit) greeted the drivers. Here he is speaking with Louis Chiron as Toulo de Graffenried awaits his turn and Prince Bira leans in patiently at the right. The Royal Family would watch the race from a small private elevated stand.
The Silverstone paddock was directly behind the pits and was pretty informal being simply a mown field inside the runways of the old RAF wartime airfield. Here again, is the Alfa Romeo team with car number 4 to be driven by Reg Parnell.
Here is another view of the Alfettas in the paddock with the pits in the background and the Alfa Romeo transporters at the right. Car number 3 will be driven by Fagioli and number 2 by Farina.
And here is Farina with his imperious driving position on the approach to Stowe Corner at the far end of the circuit. He swapped the lead at various times during the race with Fangio and Fagioli. Parnell was driving somewhat cautiously being a guest driver for the great Italian team.
The Talbot Lago 26C was really an open-wheeled sports car design of which there were five examples entered, two by Antonio Lago’s Automobiles Talbot-Darracq and three by private teams. This example was a Talbot team entry piloted by the French prewar driver Eugène Martin. He did not finish.
Monégasque Louis Chiron was a famous prewar driver who eventually became the oldest driver to start a Grand Prix when he drove a Maserati 250F at Monaco in 1958. At Silverstone, he was already 50 and drove a factory-entered Maserati 4CLT/48 but failed to finish.
In another Maserati 4CLT/48 was English amateur driver David Hampshire whose car was entered by Scuderia Ambrosiana. This Italian private team, created by Giovanni “Johnny” Lurani, allowed English drivers to maintain racing cars outside of England and thereby avoid both Purchase Tax and, by swapping expenses, the then limitation on taking Sterling funds outside of England.
This is Fagioli seen braking for Stowe Corner with his Alfetta. He would finish second to Farina after Fangio hit a straw bale and then suffered engine failure.
Before the start of the Grand Prix, Raymond Mays drove a slow demonstration lap in the B.R.M. 15 which was not yet ready to race after numerous disappointments. Here he is coming out of Abbey Corner and past the pits which at this time were located between Abbey and Woodcote.
The race is over and the Alfa Romeo mechanics surround Reg Parnell’s third-place car as he heads to the prize-giving. The smashed grille in its nose resulted from a fatal argument with a hare during the race. There was no other damage caused by the collision.
Nino Farina receives his laurels as the winner of the first Grand Prix counting for the World Championship which he will go on to win in 1950.
The winner and World Champion to be, Nino Farina
Photos by Alan R. Smith & Louis Klemantaski ©The Klemantaski Collection – http://www.klemcoll.com
The following is an excerpt from “IMSA 1969-1989” that tells the inside story of how IMSA got started and its first 20 glorious years. Available from Octane Press or wherever books are sold.
BMW of North America’s racing group was established in 1975 in an effort to support the company’s growth in the lucrative US performance car market. Unfortunately, the company did not have an IMSA championship to show for the investments in the BMW 3.0 CSL and the turbocharged BMW 320i. With just one or two cars pitted against a host of Porsches, the odds were not in their favor. The tube frame M-1 Procar did crush the GTO competition in 1981 but was underpowered in IMSA’s top GT Prototype (GTP) class.
Something had to be done to narrow the gap. Former SCCA executive Jim Patterson, who took over the BMW North America racing program in 1978, saw the newly minted IMSA GTP rules in 1980 as a way to get back in the game. Working with partner March Engineering, a unique new prototype was unveiled in early 1981 that would become the basis for a long, successful supply of GTP cars to the IMSA field from the British company.
The BMW M1/C debuted at Riverside in April 1981. The March chassis featured a modern aluminum monocoque that was mated to a normally aspirated 3.5-liter BMW engine. The team would upgrade to a 2.0-liter turbocharged motor later in the year. Photo: Don Hodgdon
Designed by French aerodynamics expert Max Sardou and BMW engineer Raine Bratenstein, the car was dubbed the BMW M-1/C. It was built around a March Engineering aluminum monocoque and featured two distinctive pontoons at the front that were designed to channel airflow to both the radiators and twin ground-effects tunnels for maximum downforce. The car was initially fitted with a 3.5-liter, six-cylinder, normally aspirated BMW engine, and entered for the first time at the Riverside 6 Hours in April 1981 with David Hobbs and European endurance veteran Marc Surer at the wheel. Featuring sponsorship livery from Kenwood audio, the pair finished a credible sixth place, albeit eleven laps down to the winning 935 piloted by Fitzpatrick and Busby.
The lone BMW M1/C is swamped by a host of Porsche 935s at the start of the 1981 Riverside Camel GT race. The M1/C would go on to finish sixth, eleven laps down from the winning Porsche 935 of John Fitzpatrick/Jim Busby (#1). Photo: Don Hodgdon
A week later at Laguna Seca, Hobbs placed sixth again, this time one lap down to the new Lola T-600 with Brian Redman at the wheel. Although down on power, Hobbs managed to put the car on the front row at both Lime Rock and Mid-Ohio. The first few races proved the M-1/C had real potential and the decision was made to further develop the chassis and engine. The long-term plan was to install the 1.5-liter turbocharged BMW motor being developed for Formula One, but that engine wasn’t ready and would never be used in the March. Instead, the team force-fit the same turbocharged 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that had been used successfully in the McLaren-engineered BMW 320i program. Since the M-1/C had not been designed for that power plant, it required a cooling workaround for a motor that produced 600 to 675bhp with the boost turned up.
Results were mixed after the change. The new engine debuted at Sears Point in August. The car was fast and competitive, but ultimately unreliable. A fourth place at Portland would turn out to be the team’s best finish. Despite stating long-term commitments early on, BMW again left IMSA racing at the end of the year, this time to focus on its Formula One program.
Even with this setback, March Engineering took what it had learned from the M-1/C experience and produced a viable, stable GTP customer car for 1982, dubbed the 82G, that was designed by Gordon Coppuck. The first two customer March 82Gs appeared in January for the 24 Hours of Daytona. One of them was a Chevrolet V8-powered version driven by Bobby Rahal and Jim Trueman and fielded by Garretson Enterprises. Rahal would campaign the car in later rounds with Michelob backing.
The first March 82G customer car was fielded by the Garretson team at Daytona in January 1982. Photo: Bob Harmeyer
The other March was campaigned by Dave Cowart and Kenper Miller’s Red Lobster team. After winning the 1981 GTO championship in the dominant BMW M-1, the team commissioned an 82G from the March factory with the now well-tested 3.5-liter BMW M-1 engine. The distinctive twin pontoons of the March turned out to be a perfect canvas for two Red Lobster claws, a design that became iconic almost instantly. Unfortunately, the normally aspirated BMW engine was no match for the Chevy V8 or Porsche 935s, and for 1983 the team campaigned with Porsche 935 turbo power, only to suffer from overheating issues. The team took the midsummer Daytona race off in 1983 and came back later in the year with Holbert’s second March 83G powered by a Chevy V8.
The twin pontoons of the March 82/3G were ideally suited for the paint scheme of the Red Lobster team, pictured here in 1983 at Daytona, leading the similar Porsche-powered March of Al Holbert. Photo: Richard Bryant
The biggest news of the 1983 season was the return of Al Holbert, who had been pursuing Indy Car and Can-Am glory. Holbert started the season by sharing Bruce Leven’s Bayside Disposal 935 with Hurley Haywood at Daytona and Sebring. But his main focus was on a CRC Chemicals–sponsored March 83G, initially fitted with a small-block Chevy V8. Holbert won with the car the first time it was entered, at the inaugural, but rain shortened, Grand Prix of Miami. After skipping the Road Atlanta round, Holbert finished second at Riverside and won Laguna Seca, after which he sold the car to Kenper Miller and Dave Cowart’s Red Lobster team.
Holbert had another ace up his sleeve: a brand-new March 83G, this time fitted with an ANDIAL-prepared Porsche 934 single-turbo engine. Despite skipping the Mid-Ohio and mid-summer Daytona events, Holbert easily took the 1983 Camel GT title by winning with the new Porsche-powered car four times and scoring points in another seven races.
Al Holbert’s triumphant return to IMSA competition in 1983 came at the wheel of a March 83G fitted with small block Chevy V8, shown here at Riverside. He later switched to a new March 83G chassis fitted with a single turbo Porsche 934 motor and won the 1983 Camel GT championship. Photo: Kurt Oblinger
One of the prettiest GTP cars of the era, the ex-Holbert Racing Porsche-powered Kreepy Krauly March 83G of Sarel Van der Merwe, Tony Martin, and Graham Duxbury, won the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1984, pictured here at Riverside in the 1984 season. Photo: Kurt Oblinger
The Blue Thunder Marches of Bill Whittington and Randy Lanier, sponsored by Apache Powerboats, dominated the 1984 Camel GT season with six wins, including one here at Watkins Glen, giving the title to Lanier. Photo: Whit Bazemore
With the introduction of the Porsche 962 into the Camel GT Series in 1984, it wouldn’t take long for Porsche to once again dominate U.S. sports car racing. The 1984 championship in the hands of Randy Lanier driving a Chevy-March would turn out to be the last for a March-based car in the series. But not without a fight.
BMW decided to renew its Camel GT program by entering a March 86G chassis for David Hobbs and John Watson in the 1985 season-ending race at Daytona. As before with the 320i program, McLaren North America prepared the cars and ran the team. By this time, BMW’s 1.5-liter turbocharged Formula One engine was well developed and reliable. It was the same engine used by Nelson Piquet to secure the 1983 Formula One World Championship. It was adapted in a 2.0-liter form for the March 86G, the first prototype designed entirely using computer-aided design equipment. Power output was a reputed 1,100bhp with the boost turned up.
A second car for John Andretti and Davy Jones was built early in 1986, but during testing at Road Atlanta, it was destroyed in a fire caused by a fuel line that had been loosened by an engine vibration. The same vibration caused a serious, end-over-end crash in practice at Sebring when the rear cowling flew off, destroying a second tub, and forcing the team to withdraw.
Given the teething issues and destroyed cars, Bob Riley and a host of all-stars were brought in to help sort things out. After working flat out, the team turned the BMW-March into a very fast but still inconsistent car. The team skipped a few races during the 1986 season, but the car’s outright speed was evident whenever it showed up. After winning the pole at Road America, Jones survived a horrific high-speed crash in the race just after the kink in the backstretch when he put two wheels off in the grass on driver’s left. Bad luck and mistakes seemed to dog the team.
The BMW March 86G was a generation ahead of the rest in terms of aerodynamic grip and raw speed in 1986. Reliability issues kept it from doing well much of the season. Photo: Bob Harmeyer
However, the team’s triumphant moment arrived in one spectacular win at Watkins Glen with Andretti and Jones at the wheel. The two BMWs started on the front row and the winning car lapped almost everyone else in the field. In spite of the promising result and the car getting faster without direct factory support from Germany, BMW once again withdrew from IMSA after the Daytona finale at the end of 1986. David Hobbs lamented the decision, saying, “We could have cleaned the table with that car in 1987, it was probably the fastest prototype I ever drove.” Two of the March 86G chassis were sold to Gianpiero Moretti, who installed Buick V6s (one was a turbocharged 3.0-liter and another was a 4.5-liter normally aspirated motor) and raced them the following year.
The BMW March team scored its most impressive weekend at Watkins Glen, with both cars on the front row and John Andretti/Davy Jones taking the overall win in convincing fashion. Photo: Tony Mezzacca
When BMW canceled its IMSA GTP program at the end of 1986, Gianpiero Moretti purchased the March 86G chassis and installed turbo-powered Buicks for the 1987 season. He co-drove here at Sears Point with Whitney Ganz. Photo: Richard Bryant