July 11th and 12th, 1970 saw the World Sportscar Championship return for the third race of the year in the United States. Watkins Glen would host the Six Hour endurance race on Saturday and the Can-Am race on Sunday making it a double-header for some of the teams and drivers.
Porsche came into the weekend on a roll, having already clinched the Manufacturer’s Championship and having recorded their first overall victory at Le Mans. Ferrari had a poor race at Le Mans and hadn’t been close to a victory since Monza in late April. John Wyer’s JWAE/Gulf-Porsche team had a truly disastrous race at Le Mans and were looking to regain the dominant form they had shown most of the season.
Early on in practice, Jo Siffert was very unhappy with his Gulf 917 according to Ermanno Cuoghi in his book, Racing Mechanic: “Siffert was not happy with his car, it was just no good compared to Pedro’s. So we put Pedro’s car in one flat concrete bay and take all the suspension geometry readings off that car. Then we push Siffert’s car on the same spot, check everything out – especially bump and rebound settings- and it was quite a long way out. So we put Siffert’s car in exactly the same trim and Siffert was very happy with that car.” In Ian Wagstaff’s book, Porsche 917 – Owner’s Workshop Manual, mechanic Alan Hearn confirmed that bump steer (and toe-in) was critical on the 917 and something the JWAE mechanics worked on very carefully when setting up the cars in the workshop at Slough. At Watkins Glen, the team experimented with a revised rear fender shape to better accommodate 17-inch rear wheels. They also used special 10.5-inch front wheels to work better with revisions to the front suspension with reduced off-set. Although the track surface was new, it was breaking up in places so the team chose Firestone intermediate tires.
Jo Siffert in 917-014, Watkins Glen Six Hour Race. Photo: Porsche Archive
Ultimately, Siffert took pole position for the Six Hour, just three-tenths of a second faster than one Mario Andretti in a Ferrari 512S and Pedro Rodriguez in the other Gulf 917. Jacky Ickx and Peter Schetty were fourth fastest in the other factory-entered Ferrari 512S, followed by three more Porsche 917s. Larrousse and van Lennep were fifth fastest in the Martini entry (painted in psychedelic ‘Hippie’ colors). Sixth and seventh were the two Porsche-Salzburg 917s, Richard Attwood driving with Kurt Ahrens and Vic Elford paired with Denis Hulme. Jo Bonnier’s Lola T70 was eighth fastest with co-driver Reine Wisell.
After the rolling start which was standard at the races in America, there was quite a tussle at the first corner as Siffert and Mario Andretti touched, Siffert nearly spinning. Andretti led at the end of the first lap in the Ferrari, but Siffert passed for the lead on lap three. Siffert then led the race with Rodriguez closing in and passing just before the first fuel stop. There was light rain at the one hour mark and Siffert apparently had a misfire due to the rev limiter re-setting itself so it was disconnected at the first fuel stop.
Early in the race, Rodriguez had been flashing his lights to warn back-markers of his approach, but accidentally switched off a fuel pump (an easy mistake to make according to Alan Hearn, given the proximity of the fuel pump switches to the light switch). Realizing his mistake, Pedro then got back up to full speed and managed to claw his way back to the front. He actually got into the lead by lap 35, perhaps roused by his own error. He lost the lead to Siffert on lap 50 but gained it again on lap 53.
Rodriguez hounding Siffert in the Gulf-Porsche 917s. Photo: Porsche Archive
Rodriguez and Siffert then had a coming together around lap 100. This one was quite a bit more substantial than the touch at Spa earlier in the year. Pedro was approaching to put Jo a lap down. Siffert was not inclined to give way and when Pedro tried to swing by, Siffert clouted Rodriguez’s car, leaving a large tire mark on Chassis 016’s driver side door. In the film A Year To Remember, John Wyer stated that Siffert was trying to pass slower traffic and may not have seen Rodriguez coming up behind him. Perhaps Wyer was making an excuse as it seemed the simmering rivalry was now on full boil and the wheel banging and paint-swapping caused a flat tire for Siffert.
At the pit stop for a driver change, Ermanno Cuoghi and the Gulf mechanics made a quick repair to the damaged door on Rodriguez’s car. During the middle part of the race, Siffert’s co-driver, Brian Redman regained the lead and in a see-saw battle, Redman and Siffert then led from lap 105 to 160. However, when Rodriguez got back in the car, he put on his usual charge, as the situation demanded and took the lead on lap 161.
The wheel-banging incident may ultimately have cost Siffert and Redman a chance to win as their oil tank developed a leak after Redman had passed Kinnunen for the lead on lap 204. The oil tank was located on the left side of the car where the collision occurred. The tank repair put Siffert too far behind at a critical part of the race. Pedro took the lead from the Gulf sister car again on lap 211 and held it until the end. After 308 laps, Rodriguez was in first place by 44 seconds over the sister Gulf 917. Although Kinnunen only drove 51 laps to Rodriguez’s 257, his average lap time was recorded as four-tenths faster than Rodriguez in the JWAE race datasheet. Redman’s average lap time was only four-tenths slower than Siffert and given the variables of weather and traffic in a six-hour race, it shows that the nominal #2 drivers were highly capable behind the wheel.
Ignazio Giunti, Ferrari 512S versus Gijs van Lennep in the Martini-entered Porsche 917. Photo: Porsche Archive
Andretti and Ignazio Giunti held on to finish third, three laps down in their Ferrari 512. Jacky Ickx and Peter Schetty were fifth for the Ferrari factory. The Ferraris were hampered during the race by problems with their fuel systems. The Porsche Salzburg 917s finished in fourth and sixth places, Attwood ahead of Elford. This was the third of three wins in 1970 for 917 Chassis 016, which had won at Brands Hatch and Monza in April. The Watkins Glen Six Hour race was the closest head-to-head battle of the 1970 season between the Gulf teammates.
Jackie Stewart in the Chaparral 2J, Chris Economaki in front of the car. Photo: Kathie J. Meredith Collection/IMRRC
On Sunday, the Can-Am race was notable on a number of fronts. At the top of the list was the presence of reigning F1 World Champion, Jackie Stewart, driving for Jim Hall in the brand new and radical Chaparral 2J. This very early attempt at ground effect used an auxiliary two-stroke snowmobile motor to drive two fans at the box-shaped rear of the car. The fans sucked the air from under the car and kept it glued to the road. Lexan ‘skirts’ provided a seal under the car to maintain the suction effect. Problems with debris from areas of the track breaking up would hamper the auxiliary motor and fan drive during the event which started with practice on Wednesday. Stewart also admitted to having a learning curve with left-foot braking in the two-pedal, automatic transmission Chaparral. As far as the handling was concerned, Stewart enthused: “Adhesion is second to none, and is like comparing the road-holding of a touring car to that of a Formula One machine.”
The Gulf team entered their three 917 coupes in the Can-Am race. Although lacking the maximum power of the big-block Chevrolet-powered cars, the endurance racers performed quite well. Participation allowed the drivers to compete for significant prize money and Siffert would put on a great driving display. The final results were even more impressive considering that Siffert and the other Group 5 runners had to pit for fuel while the Group 7 Can-Am cars could go the whole distance without stopping.
A big crowd, stated at 70,000, saw Denis Hulme sit on the pole alongside Dan Gurney in the other McLaren M8D. This being the third race of the Can-Am season, the team were still adjusting to life without the founder, Bruce McLaren, who had been killed in testing in April. On Saturday evening, Hulme’s car was changed down to a 430 cubic inch Chevy from the regular 465 due to concerns about cooling. Stewart was third on the grid in the Chaparral with Peter Revson fourth in the Lola T220. Gurney and Revson stayed with the larger Chevy engines for the race. Mario Andretti was fifth fastest in his 5-liter Ferrari 512S. Lothar Motschenbacher was sixth fastest in an M8B with Jacky Ickx seventh for Ferrari. With all the endurance cars entered, the field for the Can-Am was an Indy-size 33 cars.
At the start of the race, Revson passed Stewart for third and held it until lap four when Stewart vacuumed his way back to first place of those chasing the McLarens. He was able to stay in close touch with Dan Gurney until lap 14 when the Chaparral came in for a long pit stop due to vapor lock. After seven further exploratory laps, the car was retired with near complete loss of brakes. Stewart did set fastest lap at 125.86 mph average speed, winning a $1000 bonus. Revson held third place until his oil pump drive belt failed. Gurney maintained second position, even with a black flag stop for passing under the yellow, but then had two lengthy stops with the engine overheating. Dan would soldier on to finish ninth.
Pedro Rodriguez, 917-016 in the 1970 Watkins Glen Can-Am. Photo: Porsche Archive
Pedro Rodriguez started 10th and moved up steadily, eventually running in fourth place. However, he missed a gear and dropped out with a blown engine on lap 32. It was the only time that Rodriguez fell victim to the 917’s well-known Achilles’ heel. In The Certain Sound, John Wyer recounts talking with Bob Corn of Ford Engineering Research regarding the problem of 917 over-revs wrecking the valve train. Corn advised that given the relevant data, a valve spring could be designed that would give a greater margin of safety. JW states that he reported this to Porsche’s Ferdinand Piech who “brushed it aside. It was the typical Porsche reaction to NIH (not invented here).” This doesn’t speak to the issue of the rev limiter itself not being able to act quickly enough.
Siffert had two spins while avoiding slower cars but at one point he was within 10 seconds of Hulme and “in some danger of winning the race” as John Wyer said before being balked by slower traffic. As Wyer also remarked in A Year To Remember, Siffert had to “motor over half of New York State” in one incident! Late in the race Hulme was slower than normal due to high coolant temperature and problems with the track surface that limited the power application for the big-block cars. Track debris was partially blocking the cooling system in his McLaren. Hulme was also suffering from still-painful burns on his hands from an incident at the Indy 500. Given the heat, his hands and difficult track conditions, he was quoted as saying the race was “the toughest I’ve ever run.” At the finish, Siffert in 917 Chassis 014 was only 28 seconds behind the McLaren. John Wyer called it one of the best races of Siffert’s life and since Jo (ever the wheeler-dealer) won more money for finishing second than Pedro had for winning the day before, he was very happy. Siffert won $9000 for second place plus the $1000 BOAC ‘Man of the Race’ bonus.
Jo Siffert in the Gulf-Porsche 917. Photo: Kenneth French Collection/IMRRC
It should be noted that on a rough day for the regular Can-Am campaigners, the Porsche-Salzburg 917s, sponsored by Porsche-Audi, finished third and fourth (Attwood ahead of Elford). Since 917 Chassis 015 was on hand at Watkins Glen as the Gulf T car, it could be assigned to Brian Redman for the Can-Am race. Redman finished seventh after being delayed by a right rear puncture on the 60th lap. 015 wore race number 6 with the orange greenhouse livery. In fact, the Group 5 endurance racing cars finished in second through seventh place including Mario Andretti, fifth for Ferrari and Gijs van Lennep, sixth in the Martini 917.
Regarding the Chaparral 2J ‘sucker’ car, author Karl Ludvigsen noted in Excellence Was Expected that Porsche’s Dr. Bott took the occasion to remark that Porsche had considered reversing the direction of the 917’s cooling fan to create the same effect. Porsche rejected the idea due to concerns about sucking dirt and debris into the engine area, as well as the problem of bumps on track changing the suction effect. It was also thought not to have any applicability to Porsche’s road cars. Since racing came under the general category of Research & Development, this was always a significant consideration for Porsche.
Watkins Glen was the 16th consecutive Can-Am victory for McLaren and they were getting ready to debut the M8E a bit later in the 1970 season. The JWAE-Gulf team would go on to win the final race of the World Sportscar Championship in Austria, making it seven wins for Gulf-Porsches in the ten race series for 1970.
Special thanks to Jenny Ambrose of the IMRRC for assistance with research materials and photos for this article.
The months of April and May bring sad reminders of three great F1 heroes lost to crashes – Jimmy Clark, Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna. All are sorely missed. We can be grateful that Niki Lauda, whose passing in May of 2019 was a reminder of a long and inspiring life, escaped from his fiery crash at the Nürburgring. Yet, it was not until the fatal crash of Senna in 1994 that a safety revolution took place. This excerpt from “CRASH!” looks at why the great Brazilian’s death made so much difference when it came to racing safety, now part of his legacy.
The Death of Senna
Those in racing who were closer to Senna tended to present him in a more nuanced light. One of those was Dr. Sidney Watkins, the head of neurosurgery at the London Hospital. The medical officer of Formula 1 was known as Professor or “Prof” Watkins. He became a friend and confidant of the Brazilian driver, who arrived not long after Watkins first took responsibility for ensuring a prompt medical response to drivers involved in crashes. (This was at the behest of Formula 1’s hard-driving businessman Bernie Ecclestone, who perhaps foresaw the need for greater safety and the politically risky prospect of drivers getting killed during the live TV coverage he was so instrumental in organizing.)
Watkins, in his book “Life at the Limit, Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One,” recalls the time when Senna made a visit to the Loretto School, Scotland’s oldest boarding school located near Edinburgh. Watkins’ stepson Matthew Amato was enrolled at Loretto and had requested a visit from Senna in a letter that was hand-delivered by Watkins.
There was great interest in Formula 1 at Loretto. Jim Clark, the two-time World Champion, had attended the school and the Clark family’s farm was located in the rolling hills of the nearby Borders district. Senna’s visit came prior to the start of the 1991 season and shortly after he had won his second World Championship—– the one he had clinched by intentionally taking Alain Prost off the track in Japan. After walking through the memorial to Clark in the chapel, Senna addressed the high school enrollment during the mandatory bi-weekly Saturday evening lecture, which usually featured speakers from industry or medicine.
“We thought Ayrton would be a good one to have,” recalled Amato in an interview 20 years later. He was 15 at the time he requested the visit by having his stepfather deliver the letter to Senna. “He gave a really good talk about what it takes to be a Formula 1 driver and about Jim Clark. He said he liked the fact that Jim Clark always had a smile.”
The bulk of the lecture was a question and answer session and the first question came from a future barrister. It was about rival Prost and what he thought of him? “Wow, first question!” said Senna, who went on to praise his rival in some detail.
“It was the etiquette that we had to address the lecturer as ‘Sir’ before we asked a question,” said Amato. “About three or four questions in, he said, ‘You don’t have to call me sir.’ The next question he got, the guy called him ‘Ayrton,’ and he said, ‘Yes, like that.’ By the end, everyone was calling him Ayrton. He answered a lot of good questions about the pressures of the job and even about sponsorship by tobacco.
“He gave very good, thoughtful answers, which I think is not a given for many sportspeople. He was very comfortable talking about his faith in God. It was more from the perspective of answering questions about the danger of his job and was he scared of losing his life? He said he had faith and that helped.”
If there was a comparable driver to Senna, it would have been Clark. Along with Alberto Ascari, they were the three Formula 1 champions considered truly great who died in their race cars.
Clark won everything worth winning, including the Indy 500 and two World Championships. His fame invariably preceded him, but Clark, who became the youngest Formula 1 champion when he won the 1963 title, sustained a down-to-earth outlook more fitting of the mechanics who worked on his cars, an attitude one might expect from the son of a Scottish farmer.
On the track, Clark’s hallmarks were all-round skills and success in a variety of cars, head-and-shoulder dominance of Formula 1 and an ungodly ability to coax speed from even the most ill-handling or demanding machines.
He had an easy manner and smile, but Clark detested the hoopla surrounding such events as the Indy 500. “I started (racing) as a hobby with no idea and no intention of being world champion,” he said in some rare video footage, “I wanted to see what it was like to race on the track.”
Jimmy Clark confirmed his legacy as one of the all-time greats by winning the Indianapolis 500 in Colin Chapman’s Lotus chassis. (Photo courtesy of The Klemantaski Collection)
Apparently, Clark was happiest behind the wheel plying his other-worldly skills. He raced practically non-stop, spending his winters Down Under driving in the Tasman Series for Formula 1 cars, winning the championship in a Lotus 49T in 1968 and presaging what many expected would be a third world title. He drove anything, including a Lotus Cortina taken to the championship in the British Touring Car Series and even a Ford Galaxie at the North Carolina Motor Speedway in a NASCAR Grand National event. He was on board a Lotus Formula 2 car at the Hockenheim circuit in Germany when a suspension failure on his Lotus chassis sent him off the track, into the trees and to his death from a broken neck and skull on April 7, 1968.
In a response eerily similar to the death of Senna 26 years later at Imola, fans and participants in the sport found it hard to believe Clark had died. During a sports car race, an announcement about the crash was made at the Brands Hatch circuit in England where Clark had scored the 1964 British Grand Prix victory. “The place was stumped,” said future racing executive Ian Phillips, a teenager at the time. “People were just staring blankly at one another, standing about in complete and utter silence. The whole place went numb, really.”
The day Clark was killed, he was driving a Lotus chassis in the gold, red and white livery of Gold Leaf Tobacco Company, not the traditional green colors representing Britain that had been used by Lotus and team owner Colin Chapman previously. It marked the beginning of the commercialization of Formula 1, the initial step away from being considered a sport by participants. Instead, it would soon be looked upon as a sport that needed to run itself as a business.
After Clark’s death, there was concern the sport would be outlawed due to the obvious lack of safety represented by the fatal crash of its greatest driver. But the absence of scale when it came to motor racing’s popularity and the lack of broad commercial involvement precluded any great backlash. The tragedy was significant enough to warrant a same day announcement in America on Wide World of Sports by host Jim McKay, who was the broadcaster for the Indy 500 during Clark’s assaults on the Speedway. But regular live TV coverage of Formula 1 was still years away. That, too, helped keep in check the tide of public criticism about the dangers of motor racing.
Almost a decade later, when Niki Lauda crashed at the Nürburgring at the German Grand Prix in 1976, the incident generated a hail of news coverage in racing trade publications. Despite the high-profile of Lauda’s crash, the effort to change the odds in favor of safety ran up against the acceptance and admiration by the racing culture, which held that racing at high speeds necessarily carried inherent risk. Instead, the focus was on giving medals to the two drivers who helped pull Lauda from his burning Ferrari, his gusty return after only six weeks, and James Hunt’s incredible comeback in the season finale at Mt. Fuji to win the title – where Lauda withdrew due to unsafe conditions. The wire services had also covered the crash at the Nürburging, but the general public viewed it as just another motor racing incident.
Six years later, when the much loved, free-spirited, and effervescent Gilles Villeneuve died in Belgium on board a Ferrari during a balls-out qualifying lap, it shocked and saddened the racing world, but did not take it by surprise. Similarly, when Villeneuve’s brilliant young counterpart in rally driving, Henri Toivonen, fatally crashed in Corsica four years later, shock mixed with grief, but the fatal crash was not totally unexpected. The FIA summarily banned the Group B cars used in rallying at the time of Toivonen’s death—the so-called Killer Bs. Otherwise, not much political fallout occurred.
By contrast, the death of Senna, whose estate was valued by some as high as $400 million, occurred when commercialization was in full bloom. His crash in a car powered by Renault and sponsored by the Rothmans International tobacco company was beamed into homes, bars, motor homes, and public houses globally, the same medium that had made the Brazilian driver a leading light in the daily march of sports heroes across TV screens everywhere.
Max Mosley, the FIA President at the time of Senna’s death, had competed in the Formula 2 event in which celebrated champion Clark was killed. In fact, it was his first race. Mosley, a man who believed strongly in individual choice, continued his driving efforts and later became a part-owner of the March Engineering team in F1. As the FIA’s leader, he found himself stunned by the backlash from the media and the public in the aftermath of Senna’s fatal crash.
Major newspaper editorials in Europe expressed doubt about a sport that could kill one of its champions. The racing trade publications blamed the FIA. Even the Vatican weighed in, characterizing F1 as contrary to the human spirit. At first, Mosley backed the risk-taking in F1, saying that mountain climbing and other sports offered the same challenges. But when Karl Wendlinger suffered a severe concussion in the first practice session at Monaco, which left him in a coma, it followed three critical or fatal head injuries at Imola, including the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Senna. Mosley changed his perspective overnight and made a major decision on safety.
A half-century after the shift began to permanent circuits to protect fans as a result of public outcry, the FIA was forced to radically change course to protect the sport from political backlash again. This time, the focus was on making the safety of drivers an unquestioned priority.
(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram is in his 44th year of writing on motor racing. His current book is “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt — How the HANS Helped Save Racing.” Visit his website for other blogs and special pricing for “CRASH!” during the economic slowdown — https://jingrambooks.com/industry-book/crash )
I get asked often: “What was the first IMSA GTP car?” While most people think it was the BMW M1/C that showed up at Riverside in 1981, the truth is a bit more complicated. Yes, the BMW-March was the first prototype purpose-built to the new IMSA GTP rules published in 1980, but it was not the very first race car to run in the GTP class at a Camel GT event. But before we get to that story, first some background.
The BMW M1/C debuted at Riverside in April 1981 with David Hobbs driving. 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
The Porsche 935 was dominating the 1979 IMSA season. Although the racing was close, IMSA president John Bishop worried that no one would continue to pay to see a Porsche parade. The All-American GT (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. 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 of a new Porsche 935 was in excess of $200,000, a huge sum at the time. Privateers were getting priced out of the game.
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
“We were initially inspired by the Inaltera cars that showed up for the 1977 24 Hours of Daytona in a special LeMans GTP 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 in his garage, 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.”
Unlike FIA Group C, which focused on a fuel consumption formula in its rules, IMSA GTP used a sliding scale of weight versus displacement to accept as many engines as possible and give entrants freedom to decide what chassis/power package would be most competitive. The initial GTP rules set a sliding scale for cars weighing 700kg, 800kg, and 900kg using corresponding production-based, stock block engines rated at 400bhp, 500bhp, or 600bhp. This provided a place for just about everything from 335bhp Mazda rotaries to 650bhp Detroit V8s to compete on a level playing field.
The technical rules for the IMSA GTP class were kept simple in an effort to attract as many different chassis and engine manufacturers as possible. John Bishop’s hand-drawn diagram of GTP dimensions became a fixture in the IMSA rule book. Source: IMSA
“Roger Bailey deserves much of the credit for the GTP rules,” remembered Bishop. “We developed a formula where basic pushrod engines would be our yardstick. Any sophistication in the engines would then create a handicap as they got bigger, so we added weight to keep things even. If an engine had four valves per cylinder, then it had to weigh something like 1.3 times the version with two valves. We took a lot of time and care to conscientiously come up with the fairest possible set of rules that also included turbocharged engines.”
With the new IMSA GTP rule book in place by early 1980, various efforts were started at Lola Cars, BMW-March and other manufacturers to design cars. But others were at work as well.
The very first car to run in the GTP class at an IMSA race was Jim Busby’s highly modified BMW M-1 at the 1980 Road Atlanta Camel GT race in April. As Busby tells it: “The March-BMW M-1 we raced at Daytona and Sebring that year was a disaster against the 935s. We were down on power and stuck with an unreliable package. So, we stuffed a Traco Engineering Chevrolet V8 in the thing and called it a March M-1 Chevy. We couldn’t run it as a BMW or an M-1 anymore; it certainly wasn’t homologated. We asked John Bishop about it ahead of time to make sure IMSA would let us run, and he winked and said it was fine. The car had a solid monocoque, two seats, and a large, American-made V8, so IMSA let us run it as a GTP car.”
The first car ever to be classified as “GTP” in an IMSA race was a Chevrolet-powered BMW M-1 entered by Jim Busby at Road Atlanta in 1980. Seen here at Riverside, the car turned out to be a beast to drive and was abandoned the next race weekend at Laguna Seca. Photo: Kurt Oblinger
The Busby March M-1 Chevy dropped out of both the Road Atlanta and Riverside rounds and turned out to be an unholy terror to drive. Busby had a major off at Laguna Seca in Saturday practice the week after Riverside. The car scared him so much that he threw in the towel and purchased a Porsche 935 from Gianpierro Moretti on the spot and raced it at Laguna the next day.
At the inaugural race of the 1981 season, the first prototype GTP car showed up for the 24 Hours of Daytona. Working largely in his own garage, longtime IMSA competitor Del Russo Taylor spent the better part of 1980 marrying a Chevron B19 chassis with an Alfa Romeo V8 engine. Since the Chevron was designed as an open cockpit sports prototype, he used a Corvette rear window as his mandatory front windscreen. To improve safety, a second roll bar was welded into the chassis next to the original. Hand-crafted sheet metal completed the makeshift roof. The result was less than aesthetic, but the car proved the fundamental point of the new rules. Here was a private entrant with ingenuity that assembled a fast prototype using readily available parts.
The first purpose-built GTP car entered in an IMSA event was Del Russo Taylor’s converted Chevron B-19 with an Alfa Romeo engine that first arrived at Daytona in January 1981. It would practice, but not compete in the race. Photo: IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research Center
At Daytona, the car was so slow, especially at night, that IMSA reluctantly told Taylor he couldn’t race. Taylor went home, worked some more, and turned up at Sebring six weeks later, where he finished 51st, completing just 72 laps. The car was called an Alfa Chevron for that race, but a Buick V6 was installed for subsequent events. Taylor ended up running the car for several years in the GTP class, at times with impressive speed, including a fifth-place at Mosport and a sixth at Lime Rock in 1982.
“The first time I really got a good look at that car was when we pulled into the paddock at Sears Point and I noticed what looked like the remains of a massive wreck laid out on the cement in a circle about 40 feet wide,” recalled Bishop. “Roger Bailey was with me and he said: “I sure hope no one got hurt in that wreck.” Turned out, it was simply Taylor’s car in pieces, complete with oil stains, in the middle of an engine change”
Just to confuse the matter further of which was the first IMSA GTP car, there was another entry that showed up at Daytona in 1981 that ran either in the GTP or GTX class depending on which story you believe. McLaren Engines in Michigan built a Ford Mustang fitted with a 2.0-liter normally aspirated Cosworth racing engine. Dubbed a “McLaren Mustang,” the car ran on shaved Firestone HPR street tires and contained a few other trick parts like a unique Halibrand Sprint Car quick-change differential and a live rear axle. Firestone sponsored the entry as part of an effort to promote their high-performance street tires. Ford Performance had nothing to do with the effort, according to then team manager Roger Bailey. The original intention was to race the car in the IMSA GTO class but with the non-production-based engine, the car wasn’t eligible for that class.
The McLaren Mustang’s Cosworth-based, four-cylinder engine. Photo: Ed Wheatley (current owner)
The McLaren Mustang at speed at Daytona in 1981. Note the hastily made “GTP” decal on the driver’s door along with the official “IMSA GT” decal. Photo: Ed Wheatley
This is where the two stories diverge. According to IMSA results, the car was listed as a GTX machine, running up against a host of Porsche 935s and tricked-out Corvettes. Yet the team was adamant that the car was run in GTP. The letters “GTP” were painted (or a decal was hastily created) on the driver and passenger side doors in what looked like an official IMSA font but were not put there by IMSA officials. The only official IMSA class sticker on the car was “IMSA GT” on the same doors.
It may be that the team realized that the car didn’t stand much of a chance in the GTX class and concocted a scheme to try to run the car run in GTP since there were no other cars running in GTP at Daytona in 1981. Doing so would guarantee a win for the team. It’s not clear whether IMSA officials noticed or decided to turn a blind eye to the scheme during the event but the car was eventually classified in the final results in “GTX.” The car ran well in the race but an engine change during the night relegated drivers John Morton and Tom Klauser to a 21st-place finish (8th in GTX). After the event, Ford Performance, who had been absent from the whole project beforehand, touted a “win” in GTP in their marketing materials and postcards.
The McLaren Mustang was entered in just one other race at the 12 Hours of Sebring a few weeks later, where it finished 40th after the rear axle seized out on the track, necessitating a replacement rear-end change by driver Tom Klauser and a mechanic who ran out to the car with spare parts once donning a spare John Morton racing suit to skirt the rules about no mechanics touching race cars out on course. After Sebring, the program was abandoned and the car never raced in IMSA again. It is now owned by Ed Wheatley and being restored for vintage racing.
So the answer to the question: “What was the first IMSA GTP car?” is not a simple one but it’s a most interesting topic.
-Mitch Bishop is the son of IMSA founder John Bishop and co-author of “IMSA 1969-1989,” available wherever great books are sold.
The following is an excerpt from the book, IMSA: 1969-1989, by Mitch Bishop and Mark Raffauf.
Once IMSA was incorporated in the summer of 1969, founder and president John Bishop turned his attention towards figuring out what kind of show the fledgling sanctioning body was going to produce. Bishop was committed to not competing with the SCCA, whose professional racing championships were dominating the racing scene; the Trans-Am and Can-Am series were arguably at the peak of their popularity. He decided to run a series of races for Formula Fords and Formula Vees on ovals, along with a few road courses. There were plenty of cars available and no professional outlet for these drivers. And key tracks were owned by benefactor Bill France, Sr. Calls were made to promoters and the first few races were scheduled.
Invitations were sent to all the top open-wheel drivers to join IMSA and come race. The immediate and positive response from drivers were encouraging and gratifying. Bishop’s name and reputation, carefully built during his tenure at the SCCA, was opening doors. The fact that IMSA was offering prize money didn’t hurt, either.
The first IMSA race was scheduled for October of 1969, a Formula Ford event on the short, 5/8-mile oval at Pocono International Raceway. A promoter’s agreement was signed, entry forms were mailed out and the race was advertised in the trade press. The entry list started building to an eventual 23 drivers and cars. Everything was going smoothly, or so it seemed.
Just two weeks before the inaugural IMSA event at Pocono, John Bishop received an urgent call from Dave Montgomery, the track president, who told him that he was going to have to cancel the race due to pressure from the SCCA. The Club was threatening tracks and workers with ex-communication if they participated in any IMSA events, a tactic borrowed from the early days of the road racing wars in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Although it was barely off the ground, the Club viewed IMSA as a potential rival. Ultimately, this approach didn’t work and was abandoned, but the short-term threat to IMSA was quite real. Track owner Joe Mattioli did agree to lease the track directly to IMSA but could not agree to do more for fear of losing SCCA dates the following year.
Deciding that IMSA’s credibility was on the line, Bishop swallowed hard, borrowed $10,000 to lease the track and solidify the prize money. He scrambled and called on friends to help with timing, scoring, pit marshal duties, technical inspection, and safety roles. The race was back on. Inverhouse Scotch came on board at the last minute to help with prize money and promotion.
NASCAR founder and original IMSA investor Bill France Sr. and John Bishop enjoy a laugh before the race at Pocono. Dick Gilmartin, IMSA’s first public relations director, is on the left. Photo: IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research Center
On October 19, 1969, the 23 teams that showed up were immediately treated to some refreshing changes from the way things were done at the SCCA. There were apples and friendly faces at registration, and prize money was awarded to everyone that started. Ray Heppenstall helped Charlie Rainville with technical inspection and they introduced another innovation; teams didn’t have to line up. Instead, Ray and Charlie went around to where the competitors were parked in the infield and did their work on the spot. It was a revelation to competitors.
Promotion for the event had appeared in Competition Press & Autoweek, but very little marketing had been done locally. Still, 350 curious spectators showed up. Everyone in the Bishop family pitched in. Peggy ran registration and worked scoring. Son Marc, on leave from the Navy, along with John’s brother Peter, sold tickets. Sons Marshal and Mitch directed traffic in the parking lot and worked timing and scoring. Drivers’ wives were also pressed into service to score the race. It was an “all-hands-on-deck” exercise. Bill France Sr. made sure to lend his support by flying in, giving the event instant legitimacy.
A rare shot of the driver’s meeting for the inaugural IMSA race at Pocono. Bill France Sr. is on the far left, wearing the hat and long coat. Jim Jenkins in on the left, in front of the window. Bill Scott talks with Carson Baird in the foreground. John Bishop is by the tow truck in the back. Fourth from the right is Don Nixon, who ran timing and scoring for the event with his wife Ruth. Photo: IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research Center
Some of the best Formula Ford drivers of the day showed up: Skip Barber, Bill Scott, Jim Jenkins, and Fred Opert, among others. Almost all of them had no experience on ovals and many guessed at the proper setup. One of the guys that guessed wrong was George Alderman, an experienced SCCA racer who backed his car hard into the outside retaining wall during qualifying, ending up in the hospital overnight with a concussion. The car was not so lucky, it took months to rebuild. Alderman came back to become an IMSA regular and won the 1971 and 1974 IMSA RS series titles.
The race itself was a 200-lap affair. The pace was frantic on the flat, 5/8-mile oval. Timing and scoring was being done from the grandstands; there was no covered area to work. The scorers, used to longer road courses, were overwhelmed by cars completing laps in just 26 seconds. It was all done the old-fashioned way – by hand.
Winner Jim Clarke receives congratulations from the IMSA founder following the first race at Pocono. It wasn’t until after the trophies and prize money were handed out that a scoring error was discovered. It was never corrected. Photo: IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research
At the end of the race, Jim Clarke was declared the winner, and a modest Victory Lane ceremony was held. Post-race analysis, however, revealed that an error had been made and the second-place driver, Jim Jenkins, had actually won. But the ceremonies were over, the spectators were long gone and teams were packing up to go home. Bishop decided to let the results stand. They were never corrected.
“Don and Ruth Nixon were running timing and scoring for us that race,” Bishop recalled. “The rest of the scoring team was largely made up of drivers’ wives. When Carson Baird crashed on lap 31, his wife Betsy stood up and screamed. Peggy told her to sit down and keep scoring. Somehow, we missed the real winner. Jim Jenkins should have won the race but instead, the win was given to Jim Clarke. I remember Don Nixon running down the grandstand shouting, “Don’t give out the checks!” but by then it was too late.”
After all the drama and hard work, IMSA had pulled off its first race. Yes, the crowd was small and there were issues, but the sanctioning body was now off and running.
Just two months later, IMSA held three races at the newly built Alabama International International Speedway (Talladega), one each for Formula Vees and Formula Fords, and one for a new class called International Sedans. For the first time, they used the four-mile combination oval/road course, even though Bishop was beginning to get concerned about the safety of running open-wheel formula cars on ovals. “Race cars have to be faster than the track,” he pointed out. “If the track is faster than the cars, then you have the potential for big trouble. We learned that the hard way with Formula Fords at Charlotte the next year.” Race day was not a commercial success; the 500 spectators were completely lost in the grandstands designed to hold thousands of rabid NASCAR fans.
The 1970 season was largely focused on running more formula car races on a mixture of ovals and road courses, starting with season-opening events at Daytona in February during Speed Weeks. The Formula Vee race had just twenty entries but paid the winner Bill Scott more than $5,000, a princely sum at the time. A week later, IMSA put just 15 Formula Fords on the grid at Daytona. Both races were run on the combined oval and infield road course.
Putting a bunch of Formula Fords on the wide-open expanses of Alabama International Speedway (Talladega) was a recipe for exciting pack racing but also an invitation to disaster. Photo: Photo: IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research
Thirty-Three Formula Fords showed up for the next race in April at Talladega. Again, the drafting and dicing on the oval section was spectacular, but with more cars on the track the inevitable happened; there were multi-car wrecks in the first heat that damaged 13 cars badly enough they were unable to start the second heat. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt but John Bishop was shaken by the close calls. IMSA was barely limping along; somehow IMSA had dodged a bullet.
Early laps of the Formula Ford race held on the full oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 1970. Gary Weber in No. 00 leads Vic Matthews in No. 1 prior to a dangerous wreck. Photo: IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research Center
The race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May was the turning point. Run on the full 1.5-mile oval, the field of 22 Formula Fords ran in a tight pack the entire first heat, drivers drafting each other within inches of one another. No one could break away from the bunch. Passing required staying in the draft, tight on the tail of the car in front, gaining momentum and then dodging right or left out of the slipstream. Entering the front straight, the leading pack of six cars came together in a spectacular crash. After touching wheels, Vic Matthew’s Macon flipped end-over-end, as did the car of John Kinney. Bob Gardner ended up in the wall. The declared winner of the first race at Pocono, Jim Clarke, ended up underneath Spurgeon May’s Caldwell, effectively trapping Clarke in the car. After coming to a halt on the grass, the stack of two cars burst into flames. Spurgeon climbed out but Clarke was wedged in his car, unable to exit.
A very rare sequence of shots of the huge wreck at the IMSA Formula Ford race at Charlotte in May 1970. Photo: IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research Center
Spurgeon May pushes his car out of the way after the Charlotte crash. His Caldwell Formula Ford came to rest on top of Jim Clarke’s machine before both cars were engulfed by flames. Photo: IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research Center
As Clarke later recalled; “After the initial impact, when we came to a stop, I remember thinking that I was lucky to be unhurt. Then, I smelled gasoline and thought to myself: I need to get out of here! After we caught fire, my next thought was: well, this is it, there’s no way out, I’m going to die. I resigned myself to my fate. Then it started to get really hot and I thought: The heck with this, I’m getting out of here! And I did something no one thought possible; I punched a hole in the side of the fiberglass bodywork with my fist and crawled out.”
The race was red-flagged and never restarted. Kinney and Matthews were both hospitalized with head, ankle, and burn injuries. A total of eight cars were damaged beyond repair in time for the second heat run later that day, which was shortened due to safety concerns. No one was killed in the melee and the injured recovered. But once again, IMSA had just barely dodged a bullet.
IMSA was struggling. Beyond the safety issues, not enough people were coming out to see the races. The company was in the red and had to borrow more money to stay afloat. It was time for a new vision. Bishop wrote an entirely new rule book in the fall of 1970 for the following season with the help of Charlie Rainville and input from some of the key drivers of the day like John Greenwood and Peter Gregg. That winter, the rule book was widely distributed to SCCA racers who had already built FIA Group 2 and Group 4 cars but didn’t have a place to race them professionally other than the annual endurance events at Daytona, Sebring and Watkins Glen. Reaction was positive, both from competitors and track promoters. Jim Haynes at Lime Rock and Les Griebling at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course both signed on right away, as did the folks at Bridgehampton Race Circuit.
The new IMSA GT series debuted in April 1971 at Virgina International Raceway. It was an instant success with promoters, drivers, team owners and sponsors. Camel cigarettes joined as the series sponsor at the end of 1971 and starting in 1972, the Camel GT Series quickly became the most popular professional sports car racing series in the world.
April 12, 1970, was the date for one of the most famous endurance sports car races. The race was run partly in heavy rain and became a showcase for one of the great car and driver combinations in motorsport history. Mexican driver Pedro Rodriguez and his Gulf-Porsche 917 thoroughly defeated the opposition in one the best drives of his storied career.
Pedro Rodriguez with JWAE Team Manager, David Yorke, during practice for the BOAC 1000 Km at Brands Hatch in 1970. Photo: Porsche Archives
In contrast to the race, the weather was dry for practice and qualifying. Chris Amon put his Ferrari 512 on the pole, with Jacky Ickx second fastest, showing that Ferrari was competitive on pace after having won the previous race at Sebring. For the Gulf 917 team of Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen, there was a gearbox problem in practice. The team elected to move the car to the grass area ahead of the pits for more room to work (the pits being congested and the paddock too far away). The problem was with the linkage and connection where it went into the gearbox. Pictures show the team around the car with the right side transmission cooling duct removed. Rodriguez ultimately qualified seventh with Jo Siffert and Brian Redman fifth in the other Gulf 917. Vic Elford was third in another 917 for Porsche-Salzburg. The 3-liter Matra MS 650s were fourth and sixth in qualifying. The top seven cars were all within 1.4 seconds of each other on lap times. The rather short, twisty Kent circuit was not ideally suited to the 917, a car designed for high-speed tracks like Monza, Spa, and Le Mans. All the cars in the race wore special decals on the front fenders; a blue BOAC 1000 KM logo.
Jo Siffert in his Gulf-Porsche 917 during practice. Photo: Porsche Archive
Readers may notice that the Gulf 917s look a little odd in some photos from the race. The reason is that for part of the race, they ran on wheels that were only 9.5 inches wide in front, 12 inches at the rear. Firestone had recommended the narrow wheel approach to the Gulf team as it would make the cars easier to control in heavy rain. The Firestone wet tires were also thought to perform better than the Goodyears on the Salzburg Porsches, giving the Gulf team an additional edge. Ferrari ran on Firestone, so no difference there. JWAE Chief Engineer, John Horsman, noted that on lap 154, the team elected to change to intermediate versus full wet tires, the intermediates being the normal 10.5 and 15-inch widths.
Despite the gloom, a good crowd of 20,000 came out to see the biggest sports car race of the year in England. A cold (47 Fahrenheit/8 Celsius), steady rain fell in the hours before the race and right through the start. There was some debate among the officials about whether to start the race but Clerk of the Course Nick Syrett was determined to go ahead. An equally determined Vic Elford passed Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx in their Ferraris on the first lap, hoping for a few laps clear of the spray from other cars. Barrie Smith’s Lola T70 spun and crashed at the end of the first lap, at the start/finishing line. Smith was forced to start without regular rain tires on the rear because Goodyear ran short of tires in the needed size. It is possible that Pedro Rodriguez passed another car in the yellow flag area but also it is likely he was unable to see the yellow flag due to the spray. Most of the drivers agreed it was possible to have missed the flag the way it was initially displayed.
Porsche Archive candid of Pedro Rodriguez.
Syrett took over the waiving of the yellow and became upset with Rodriguez’s speed and proximity on the next two laps as the marshals attempted to move Smith’s car safely off track. He then elected to show Pedro the black flag, which Rodriguez ignored for two additional laps. Syrett then advised John Wyer that Pedro would be disqualified if he didn’t come into the pits. Pedro finally came into the pits (on lap six) on the signal from his team. In The Autobiography of 917-023, author Ian Wagstaff quoted Rodriguez’s lead mechanic, Alan Hearn, on what happened next: “Pedro then came tearing down the pit road and I was assigned to open the driver’s door when he stopped. Syrett was hovering right behind me. As soon as I opened the door I could see from his blazing eyes that Pedro was not happy. Straight away, Nick dived in the cockpit with his head well down and proceeded to have a right go at him for dangerous driving, a real tongue lashing. Pedro just kept staring straight ahead, not looking at Syrett until he was finished, which took about 20 to 30 seconds. I could see he was fuming. All this time the engine was running. As Syrett stepped away from the car I quickly shut the door. Pedro revved like mad, spun the rear wheels and shot off down the pit road at a very rapid rate. We were lucky we didn’t get our toes taken off…..”
Syrett was an imposing figure, standing over six feet tall and well over 200 pounds. All the witnesses agreed that Pedro sat impassively, but with a building fury, not making eye contact while Nick gave his finger-wagging lecture. Pedro later told John Wyer that he did not see the yellow flag and did not feel he was driving unsafely. After the lecture, Pedro rejoined the race almost a full lap behind the leaders. Syrett had unknowingly set the stage for one of the all-time great drives but he also told Wagstaff that the “telling off” continued after the race on the lap of honor!
Vic Elford led the early laps until he was caught and passed by another acknowledged rain-master, Jacky Ickx. However, Ickx had to pit on lap eight with wiper problems. Rodriguez was already on a furious charge through the field and was up to third place on lap 15. Amon’s Ferrari was running in second place and Chris forced his way past Elford on lap 16 to lead briefly. Pedro passed Elford on lap 18 and set off after the Ferrari. On lap 20, Pedro charged out of Clearways, pulling alongside at start/finish and splashed by Amon in the Paddock Hill bend for the lead.
Siffert was delayed on lap three by a puncture of the left rear tire. Jo and Brian eventually held station, alternating between second and third place until Redman crashed on lap 177. The accident happened at Westfield bend as Brian was pushed off the road by Amon’s Ferrari. Because the car hit a bank while traveling backward, the rear bodywork was pushed over the top of the car, trapping Redman inside. The marshals eventually extricated the driver who made his way back to the pits, wet and muddy, from the farthest point on the track. Brian had expressed some concerns about the safety aspect of the 917. He related the story of this accident and subsequent discussion with Porsche’s Dr. Bott to the writer in 2009:
“I was lying second (when) I got tapped by Chris Amon in the Ferrari 512 and it spun me. I went into a banking and I couldn’t get out because the tail came up over the roof. Anyway, I’d been complaining to Porsche engineering, to Herr Bott in particular, about why did Porsche build these aluminum space frame chassis when everybody else had monocoques or semi-monocoques. The Kurt Ahrens car had broken in half across the cockpit, the John Woolfe car had broken in half across the cockpit. So, when I got back to the pits, it’s raining, I’m muddy, and Herr Bott says: ‘Brian, are you okay?’ I said ‘yes, thank you, Herr Bott.’ He then said, ‘Now you see the 917 is a very good car to have a crash in!’
The possible consequences of a fire in this type of crash may have been lost on the soggy Dr. Bott at that moment. Brian’s references are to the fatal crash of John Woolfe at Le Mans in 1969 and Kurt Ahrens’ crash at the Volkswagen test track just six days before the Brands Hatch race.
Leo Kinnunen in 917-016 during practice. Photo: Porsche Archive
By lap 50, Rodriguez’s lead was over a minute and a half on the field. By the two-hour mark, he was able to put Elford a lap down for the first time. Both Elford and Rodriguez had spins of their own in the appalling conditions but were able to get back on track. Approaching three and a half hours, Rodriguez stopped for the mandatory driver change, Kinnunen taking over for 38 laps. After about four hours, the rain eased off and the track began to dry some. Like Rodriguez, second-place driver Elford drove nearly six hours out of a 6 hour, 45-minute race. Elford’s co-driver, Denny Hulme, was never a fan of driving in the wet and he gladly deferred to the ex-rally man. For the record, the winning car (917 Chassis 016) covered the 235 laps in 6 hours, 45 minutes, 29.6 seconds. In all, Rodriguez lapped the field five times. John Horsman noted in his book that the fans delighted in Pedro’s masterful work, staying to the end of the race despite the miserable conditions.
Pedro Rodriguez sliding through the wet and gloom of April 12th, 1970. Photo: This image was graciously provided by the Mike Hayward collection, a specialist library of classic British motorsport photographs and is available for purchase as a print here: www.mikehaywardcollection.com.
Many superlatives have been offered over the years about Rodriguez’s drive. David Hobbs, who watched from the Gulf team pits was on hand as a reserve driver in case Brian Redman didn’t make it back from the Le Mans test weekend in time for the race. Hobbs recalled: “There was never anything similar to Pedro that day in Brands Hatch; it was the greatest performance I’ve seen.”
Brian Redman said: “Pedro, no doubt, became someone different after the incident in Brands Hatch. From then on, his stature in the eyes of others grew impressively. We all knew how good he was, but that day, the whole world took notice.”
Vic Elford wrote: “Both Jacky Ickx and I were acknowledged wet-weather drivers, but neither of us had an answer to Pedro that day. He simply trounced everyone.”
From Richard Attwood: “I would challenge anyone to drive a car as fast as Pedro did that day. Jim Clark, had he been alive, or any other you could name, in fact, nobody could have equaled Pedro that day.”
In 2013, Alain de Cadenet, who drove a Porsche 908 in the race, wrote: “No racer, before or since, could fail to have felt proud of Pedro that day at Brands.”
John Horsman in 2014 said simply: “It was the right car on the right tires with the right driver.”
Ian Wagstaff quoted Rodriguez’s companion Glenda (Fox) Foreman: “I think Pedro was almost in awe of himself that day…”
Interestingly, the Gulf Team headmaster, John Wyer, thought that Pedro’s performance at the Osterreichring in 1971 surpassed the more famous Brands Hatch race. In his book, ‘The Certain Sound’, he said the race in Austria was “without question” the greatest race Pedro ever drove. Perhaps the spectacle of racing in the rain (which became the title of John Horsman’s book) at Brands Hatch better captured the popular and historical imagination. Also, there is a good film documenting the 1970 race at Brands Hatch – enjoy the 50th anniversary and see for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0YCGF3ncEY
Thanks to Porsche Archive for the use of their photos. Special thanks to Mike Hayward for the use of his photo from www.mikehaywardcollection.com. Jay Gillotti’s book, “Gulf 917” is available from Dalton Watson Fine Books – www.daltonwatson.com.
The following is an excerpt from the book, IMSA: 1969-1989, by Mitch Bishop and Mark Raffauf.
Porsche’s dominance during the 1974 season began to weigh on John Bishop. He understood the Camel GT Series was not sustainable if it became a one-marque show. And he worried about escalating costs if European manufacturers like Porsche and BMW controlled the supply of the most competitive cars. He wanted to find a way to bring American manufacturers to the front of the grid and offer a cost-effective, competitive product to private teams. But how? The answer came to him on an airplane.
“The old system favored limited production cars like Porsches and BMWs,” John later recounted. “There was no way high volume, cheaper production cars could compete with limited production cars with better components. They were simply better cars. What we needed was an American car that could compete with limited production sports cars from Europe. In the middle of the 1974 season, I was on my way somewhere on an airplane. It occurred to me that Porsche was abusing the FIA Group 5 rules with the turbo-powered 934 and then the 935 with its wilder bodywork. The Group 2 and 4 rules limited what you could do with the bodywork but not so with the Group 5 rules. There was total disregard for the future of the class. We couldn’t ban the Porsches. So, I figured we’ll just do what they’re doing.”
John Bishop’s original sketch of the All American GT concept he made on an airplane in 1974. This first concept drawing turned out to be very close to the first machines built for the AAGT class. Photo credit: Bishop Family
On the airplane, Bishop quickly sketched out his vision for American-based, tube-frame cars powered by readily available, low maintenance V8 engines, a class of cars that would be able to compete with the limited production, high-cost European Porsches and BMWs. He decided to call it All American GT (AAGT).
“The AAGT class was designed to allow tube-frame American cars to compete with limited production sports cars from Europe,” John recalled. “Porsche 935s were tube-frame cars at the end of the day. The only difference was that they rolled off a special production line in Germany, ready to race. The name AAGT came from our desire to give other people the same advantages that, by stretching the Group 5 rules, Porsche had enjoyed.”
Bishop started to share the AAGT concept in 1974 with some of the top competitors and at the end of the year IMSA published AAGT rules for the 1975 season. Steve Coleman and Amos Johnson debuted the very first AAGT car, a Chevy Vega they had built themselves, at the 1974 Daytona finale, where the car retired after managing just seven laps.
Steve Coleman and Amos Johnson’s home-built Chevrolet Vega, entered at the Daytona finale in November 1974, was the first AAGT in IMSA. Photo credit: ISC Archives & Research Center/Getty Image
“That was one of the overriding happiest reflections on IMSA,” remembered John later. “We could write a set of rules, talk about them with competitors, team owners and the like, publish the rules and then everybody would say; “Yes sir!” And they would go out there and spend money to build a car to those rules. We could create something great from just an idea.”
The new AAGT concept grabbed the attention of car builder and top engineer Lee Dykstra, who entered into a partnership with Horst Kwech in 1974 to form DeKon Engineering with the express purpose of designing, building and selling a competitive AAGT racer. With the direct assistance of Chevrolet, they began taking delivery of engines and other parts to construct the first wave of tube-frame Monzas. At just 2,400 pounds and powered by small-block V8s initially using Weber carburetors and later direct fuel injection, they produced 600 to 650bhp, making the Monzas balanced and lightning-fast. Purpose-built for racing, the only production parts appeared to be the roof and the windshield.
Kwech, already an accomplished racer, debuted the first production DeKon Monza at the Road Atlanta Camel GT doubleheader in April of 1975. He qualified fifth out of 40 cars entered, which got everyone’s attention, but retired after just 13 laps in the opening heat and didn’t start the second heat the next day due to teething issues. The bright spot was a privately built AAGT Monza driven by Tom Nehl, who finished eighth in both heats. The rest of the paddock began to see the potential of the new cars.
The first DeKon Monza campaigned in two races during the 1975 season. Australian Allan Moffat drove it at the Daytona 250-mile finale, on his way to a DNF after completing just fifteen laps. Photo credit: autosportsltd.com
DeKon Engineering continued to develop the car while another, privately-built version of the Monza arrived in the hands of Warren Agor, who finished a respectable 12th and 10th in the two heats at Lime Rock and scored another 10th at Mosport.
It was just a hint of things to come.
The AAGT concept gained speed with Porsche’s focus on the 934 and the Trans-Am for 1976. It put the top IMSA Porsche teams in a bind. Could they be competitive with the now-aging Carrera RSR against the BMW CSLs and new AAGT Monzas?
Al Holbert decided the answer was no. Although he had lobbied for the inclusion of the Porsche 934 for 1976, he preferred the larger rear wing, wider rear tires and lighter weight of the Monza compared to the RSR. Holbert purchased a DeKon Monza for the 1976 season and ran his first race at Road Atlanta in April with it after wisely sticking with the more reliable Porsche RSR for the longer Daytona and Sebring rounds. He finished second at the 24 hours of Daytona and won Sebring in March, co-driving with Michael Keyser, who then switched to the Monza.
By the Road Atlanta round in April, eight small block Monzas showed up from three constructors, including examples fielded by Keyser, Agor, Trueman, Nehl, Tom Frank and Jerry Jolly. There were many other AAGT cars as well: Coleman’s original AAGT Vega, five Greenwood- style Corvettes, Charlie Kemp’s wild Cobra II built by Bob Riley, and a host of Camaros led by the big orange No. 21 of Carl Shafer. Holbert and Keyser finished first and second in their DeKon Monzas, humiliating the rest of the field. The AAGT era had officially come of age.
Charlie Kemp’s wild AAGT Cobra II blowing smoke out the exhaust headers at Daytona. IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research Center
Holbert went on to win four more races in the Monza to take the 1976 Camel GT championship. Keyser won two races with his version as well, cementing the future of American-built, tube-frame racers as the equal of anything produced on assembly lines in Europe. The Porsche Carrera RSR contingent included the usual faces along with George Dyer, Roberto Quintanilla, Bob Hagestad, John Gunn, John Graves, Monte Shelton, and others.
A host of Monzas head into the final turn at Laguna Seca during a heat race in 1977. Tom Frank leads Michael Keyser, Greg Pickett, Chris Cord, and Brad Frisselle, who took delivery of his car right before the race from Keyser and didn’t have time to apply graphics. Photo credit: autosportsltd.com
Al Holbert won a second consecutive Camel GT championship in 1977 in his potent AAGT Monza, updated with a larger rear wing, wider wheels, and more generous bodywork modifications that were allowed under new GTX rules. Photo credit: autosportsltd.com)
The AAGT revolution continued unabated for several years. Holbert won a second championship in a new winged Monza in 1977 against an onslaught of Porsche 934/5s. Other manufacturers became involved in the AAGT class, including Bob Sharp with the Datsun 280ZX twin-turbo V8. The bodywork, aero packages, and engines got so outrageous that IMSA dropped the AAGT moniker and changed the name of the class to GT eXperimental (GTX) in 1978. GTX became a combined class that included Group 5 Porsche 935s and all manner of AAGT machinery.
With rules changes that allowed for wilder bodywork, AAGT machinery continued to compete effectively with the Porsche 935 and the BMW turbo in 1978. Carl Shafer’s Camaro exits from under the bridge at Road Atlanta and starts the downhill plunge to the start/finish line. Photo credit: Bruce Czaja
On the last Sunday afternoon in May of 1994 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, John Andretti stepped off a helicopter, which had brought him from a tenth-place finish in the Indy 500 earlier in the day, and began his walk across the front stretch grass toward the pit road and an awaiting Chevy that he would drive in the Coca-Cola 600.
The helicopter had set down in front of a grandstand jammed with 140,000 fans, primed for the beckoning start of the 600-mile race. The fans let out a huge cheer once Andretti appeared. Now in his NASCAR driving suit, Andretti may have “bulked up” on intravenous fluids during the trip from Indy. But the moment remained enormously impressive—a lone driver, all of five-foot-five, bringing down the house by merely walking across the grass.
That was the beginning of a long and successful stint in NASCAR’s premier series for the only member of the Andretti family to work regularly in Indy cars and what was then known as the Winston Cup. He was also the only member of his clan to win the prestigious 24-hour sports car race at Daytona and to clock within a hairbreadth of 300 mph in a Top Fuel dragster.
The sports car and drag racing exploits had been accomplished before Andretti invented the Memorial Day weekend double. He teed himself up to drive an A.J. Foyt-owned Lola-Ford at the Brickyard and one of Billy Hagan’s Chevy Luminas for the 600-mile second leg in Charlotte. On the biggest day of racing in America, the diminutive Andretti won the hearts of fans everywhere. It was a calculated move by Andretti, in part, who also gained the attention of those hardened sports editors at major American newspapers who only gave racing a major space allocation on the last Sunday in May due to the huge crowds at Indy and Charlotte.
Far from a stunt, this was the real deal. People were electrified about Andretti’s arrival in Charlotte and the drama continued in a TV interview with Kenny Wallace, a relative newcomer to the broadcast side of the sport. An up-and-coming driver as well as announcer, a nervous Wallace greeted Andretti on the pit road and goofed big time by calling him “Jeff,” the name of his cousin. John took it in stride, referring in deadpan to his TV interviewer as “Rusty,” which, of course, was the name of Wallace’s older and more famous brother. It was a typical moment for the smiling Andretti, his humor undeniable and disarming, delivered in the enormous glare of the moment.
Having known him since he was 23 years old, it came as little surprise that John would eventually top that major career day in Indianapolis and Charlotte.
Andretti celebrates his first Cup win along with the Yarborough team at Daytona. Photo: Daytona International Speedway
He didn’t top it by later winning a summer Cup race at Daytona for team owner Cale Yarborough or by winning at Martinsville for team owner Richard Petty, or by winning poles at Darlington and Talladega. He didn’t top it by pursuing an ongoing bout with the Indy 500, where he raced 12 times and suffered the ill fortune that has followed the Andretti clan at the Brickyard. (Cousin Michael led the most laps of any driver who never won the race; John suffered a different type of family luck, failing to land enough rides capable of leading the field, a prerequisite to winning.)
At Indy, Andretti scored two Top 10 finishes with the Hall/VDS team in 1991 and 1992. Photo: IMS
Eventually, John would top his Indy-Charlotte double and an impressive career across multiple disciplines by how he faced the fact he was diagnosed with colon cancer in his early fifties. He stepped up big time by publicly engaging a problem faced by many who were dodging the well-known, but often shunned, method of early detection—a colonoscopy once every five years after the age of 50. By creating the hashtag #CheckIt4Andretti and speaking publicly about his illness, John knew he could make a difference.
“That’s the only reason I went public,” he later confided to a writer for a medical magazine called Coping with Cancer. “Because I really didn’t want people to know. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.” Even now, trying to walk a mile in his shoes, it’s difficult to fathom how hard it must have been for such a proud man to publicly admit he could have avoided a painful and often deadly form of cancer by choosing the standard medical screening.
In round one, John beat the cancer following dastardly difficult surgery and chemotherapy. But as cancer often does, it returned with a vengeance. John fought bravely. We know this from the many accolades and tributes from those familiar with the final year of struggle before his death at age 56.
Andretti, aged 23, paired with Davy Jones and BMW to score his first IMSA Camel GT win at Watkins Glen in 1986. Photo: Tony Mezzacca
It was almost impossible not to like John Andretti. I had first met him while he was driving a GTP car for the BMW factory team shortly after he had graduated from Moravian College (and simultaneously raced USAC midgets at the Indianapolis Speedrome). Near the end of that 1986 season, at age 23 he scored a major victory for BMW in a co-drive with Davy Jones at Watkins Glen. Even then, Andretti had a disarming manner and was outgoing in a way that really engaged people—which he always seemed to enjoy. His perspective was his own and invariably unique, as later witnessed by his response to colon cancer.
It can be odd, sometimes, how a friendship strikes up. John had what might be described as an Italian temper as well as temperament, the latter being about a capacity for the joys of life and an individualistic viewpoint. As for the temper, it was easy to tell when John was angry. As far as I knew, it didn’t happen very often. But when angry, John lit up like a bulb. One day during an IMSA race weekend, he was considerate enough to lower the boom where nobody else could hear us. “When I read your race reports,” he said with a generous amount of heat, “it’s like you think everybody else on the team is responsible and I’m just along for the ride.”
John posted his first major victory at the Rolex Daytona 24 in 1989 with the Busby team, co-driving with Bob Wollek and Derek Bell, all the young age of 25. Photo: Peter Gloede
This conversation took place during IMSA’s 1989 GTP season when John was paired with Frenchman Bob Wollek on the Porsche 962 team owned by former star driver Jim Busby and sponsored by Miller beer and B.F. Goodrich. The team had won the season-opening 24-hour, where Derek Bell had been part of the three-man driving crew. Thinking back to when Davy Jones co-drove with John in what turned out to be the crucial stints in the BMW victory at Watkins Glen in 1986 and then considering the 24-hour win at Daytona, co-driven with Wollek and Bell, I realized John had raised a valid point.
“Brilliant” Bob, as Wollek was known, was regularly hired by factory teams for his deep understanding of tires and chassis. He had a Machiavellian way of dealing with journalists, alternating mild sarcasm with approachable friendliness and then, inevitably, angry tirades. Bell, the Brit who won his eighth 24-hour between Le Mans and Daytona that year, had an established reputation. The young Andretti, on the other hand, was still proving himself in my eyes, which I realized may have been a mistake, because I was paying too much attention to other story lines. At Daytona, this included John’s scheduled start in a sister Busby Porsche with cousin Michael and uncle Mario. That car departed early, allowing John to switch to what became the winning machine initially driven by Wollek and Bell.
“OK, John,” I told him, “I understand what you’re saying. From now on, I’ll pay closer attention.” I talked with a trusted member of the Busby team and got more details about John’s role entering the fifth race of the season. Then, John delivered. He and Wollek won that weekend on the fairgrounds circuit at West Palm Beach against a deep field of Porsches, two Jaguars entered by TWR and the Nissan of Electramotive. My story included this line: “Andretti was not only instrumental in setting up the Goodrich-shod Porsche, he nearly matched Wollek’s times in the race that ended Electramotive’s three-race winning streak.”
Although drivers make their own way, racing magazines always made an impression. That’s what John was angling for, understandably, the kind of third-party information in the media that would help him get a good ride in a CART Indy car. If John got a ride in CART, which he did, that was up to him. But I had to admit he had nailed me on initially adopting a wait-and-see attitude about him during the inevitable cacophony of GTP races with multiple contending teams and co-drivers. Had I fallen guilty to thinking he got the ride in the BMW and the Busby Porsche just because of his family name? Had I doubted his sports car endurance ability due to his diminutive size? Where his cousin and uncle were short and stout, at that time John was a similar height but slender by comparison, almost wispy at 135 pounds.
I’ve had young drivers tell me how wrong my reporting was and then declare, “I’m never speaking to you again.” They’re the type that usually sabotages their own career in equally disastrous relationships with teams and co-drivers. But after the West Palm Beach victory, John went back to being outgoing, engaging and funny whenever I saw him, bearing no hint of a grudge or the usual frostiness of drivers after swords have been crossed. As it turned out, our careers advanced along similar lines. John landed an Indy car ride in the legendary Pennzoil colors of Jim Hall, winning out of the box in Australia in 1991. I added the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to my publications list, the largest newspaper in the Southeast and the largest that regularly covered NASCAR. The paper sent me to Indy in 1991, where John joined uncle Mario, cousins Michael and Jeff in the starting field; John scored his best-ever finish of fifth in that year’s 500.
In the year of his double, I covered the final leg in Charlotte. In the previous year, the newspaper had me covering local drag racing, which meant reporting on John clocking 299 mph in the Southern Nationals at the Atlanta Dragway and winning two rounds in Top Fuel, before bowing out in the semi-final round of eliminations. At the time, John was an out-of-work, young race car driver who had taken the extraordinary step of doing something completely different to keep his name—and skills—in front of the racing community. It could not have been as easy to adapt to the high-powered, finicky Top Fuel machines.
The money soon ran out on the drag racing side, but then John landed a full-time gig in NASCAR as a result of the Indy-Charlotte double, once again taking it upon himself to call attention to his talent, stamina and media appeal, which led to 393 career Winston Cup starts, including 15 in the Daytona 500.
Looking back, John had driven in IMSA sports cars and taken the journeyman ride in Top Fuel to demonstrate his ability with high horsepower cars, which for young drivers was a prerequisite to entering the major series that included deeper fields and stiffer competition. If people thought maybe he wasn’t big enough or strong enough to handle major 500-mile races, it occurred to John how he might change the minds of potential team owners and sponsors. He could give himself a better opportunity to land a ride in either Indy cars or NASCAR if he created and pulled off the Memorial Day weekend double. We never talked about it, but looking back, it seems I was not the only one who had doubted this Andretti early in his career.
Not only did John and I continue to cross paths throughout his days in NASCAR, but I also got to know his father Aldo, the twin of Mario. Aldo frequented NASCAR events to watch John race, often getting around to various parts of the track to observe on his own. In conversations with Aldo, I could see where John got his insightful and wry view of the world. His father had suffered a head injury that forced him out of racing while Mario continued and achieved worldwide fame. Despite his misfortune, Aldo retained a generosity of spirit and ability to handle life’s fate with pride and humility, two attributes that run deep in each of the twin brothers whose fates were so disparate. Although he never achieved the considerable heights of his uncle or cousin Michael behind the wheel, John not only made his father extremely proud, but sustained those twin pillars of pride and humility.
As far as the world knows about the second half of his double in 1994, for example, the engine expired in his Chevy after 220 of 400 laps. The fact was that John hit the wall to bring out the first caution, which damaged the radiator and later the engine. He didn’t make any excuses, such as starting in the back after qualifying ninth, because he had missed the mandatory pre-race drivers’ meeting. “I was really loose,” he said. “It’s a tough job driving a loose car and I was hoping for a yellow. Unfortunately, it came out for me.” He soldiered on, eventually completing 830 miles of racing that day and night.
Once his driving career was over, John found himself in a world where racing had evolved into a TV-enriched state. Appearance fees started reaching five figures, even for retired stars. John, who always seemed to draw energy from those he engaged as well as give it, chose his own way. He continued to voluntarily raise money for the Riley Children’s Hospital, where he regularly visited with patients and their families, by promoting the “Race for Riley” go-kart event. He also helped promote son Jarett’s sprint car career.
The signature car design known as ‘The Stinger’ raised $900,000 for charity. Photo: unknown
John promoted the Indy 500 through the “Stinger” project, a modern car built in homage to the Marmon Wasp that won the first Indy 500. It was a joint effort by John, the Andretti Autosport team of cousin Michael and Window World, one of John’s longtime sponsors. When necessary, John traveled with the car around the U.S. to gain signatures of as many living Indy 500 veterans as possible, including every winner, before it was sold at auction in 2016 after the 100th running of the Indy 500, raising $900,000 for the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
In another twist of fate for me, John and cousin Michael launched a go-karting facility in the Atlanta area, once again establishing a common link. After this first one closed, Mario eventually joined them and the trio later helped launch a new state-of-the-art indoor karting facility in Marietta, just up the road from Atlanta. The night of the opening, I had a car problem and missed the Andrettis by a matter of minutes after locating a back-up vehicle and dashing through the snarl of Atlanta’s rush hour. Looking back, how I wished I’d had one more chance to say hello in person away from the hectic environment of a race weekend. As it was, I later called John and talked with him about the karting business on behalf of a friend looking to get into that line of work. We had a long, engaging conversation, including talk about the ongoing “Stinger” project, because John always had time for people.
When fate called on him early, John answered with the #CheckIt4Andretti campaign. In the initial treatments, John shared his story on TV with local Indianapolis sportscaster Dave Calabro, helping to leverage his message. After an all-too-brief hiatus of cancer-free status, he and wife Nancy then focused on the private side of his medical struggle and on their children, including son Jarett and his sprint car career, and two college-age daughters. John vowed to see both daughters graduate.
John and Nancy never stopped sending out Christmas cards. They probably sent more than anybody in U.S. racing, cards that were high-quality and featured a family photo. As a result, each year I’d see their children growing up, experiencing the pride John and Nancy felt about their family while taking note of their understated religious conviction. The cards, including this year’s version that showed a smiling John, have been a yearly reminder of how John always did things his way.
(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram is entering his 44th year of covering motor racing. His sixth book “CRASH! How the HANS Device Helped Save Racing” is in current release. To learn more and see excerpts, visit www.jingrambooks.com.)
For a guy who recently finished a book on some of the deadliest years of professional racing—and the safety revolution those years spawned—I felt strangely numb the day after Ryan Newman escaped from his finish-line crash at the Daytona 500. A brutal series of events, the crash included four different circumstances in a couple of seconds that could have potentially killed the driver.
The end of this Daytona 500 was like a near-death experience, except not your own. Once the thankful outcome became certain, there’s an aftermath. Relief comes first and before nagging doubts finally pass in one last shudder of horror.
On Tuesday the day after, I found initial relief in some thoughtful online comments plus the professional work of a couple of fellow commentators. Writer Ryan McGee and broadcaster Ricky Craven helped sum up that whole oddball process of a brilliant racing enterprise, invariably part ritual and part magic, turning into something else.
Those two summed up the nagging doubts that creep in when the close-to-the-bone nature of racing gets revealed and how the sport’s community of participants and fans face up to the reality of the mechanized, ritualized danger. Oh, there was plenty of standard stuff out there, too. Some expressed their doubts by criticizing the drivers—or NASCAR for how it operates the races on the Daytona and Talladega tracks. Some took it as an opportunity to express envy disguised as sarcasm because NASCAR’s stock cars and drivers are so popular compared to their own preferred style of racing.
In fact, the Daytona 500 requires each driver to make critical split-second decisions at sustained speeds of 200 mph every lap. If it becomes a race of cautions and attrition, well nobody complained in the years when only three or four drivers finished on the lead lap.
I felt lifted, and fully relieved, at the end of the day on Tuesday when I came across one road racing photographer’s Facebook post that was a funny take on his family members’ relative lack of racing knowledge. It underscored that everybody, not just race fans, were talking about Newman’s crash. (This was a particularly poignant as well as funny post considering the family has been fighting, successfully, alongside a teenage son in his battle with cancer.)
The potential for gut-wrenching outcomes have always been there in racing and will continue. Newman’s crash, for example, was a reminder of Sebastien Bourdais’s head-on collision with the barrier at Indy during qualifying for the 500 in 2017 at a speed of 227 mph. The difference was the French driver, who suffered a fractured pelvis and broken hip, remained conscious and alert afterward, immediately easing fears of the worst-case scenario. By contrast, it took almost a week for Newman to release a statement that he had suffered a head injury and would return to full-time status pending a medical clearance.
The replays of Newman’s finish-line crash will be repeated ad infinitum—because the driver survives to tell about it. I like this element, given that I wrote a book titled “CRASH!” containing voluminous research on how the safety revolution brought racing to the point where this kind of crash can be survived.
The safety revolution occurred across all the world’s major racing series. It started in Formula 1 with the death of three-time world champion Ayrton Senna in 1994. CART simultaneously began making major safety improvements after the injurious crash of two-time world champion Nelson Piquet during practice at Indy; CART became the first to mandate the HANS device prior to the 2001 season. The movement then came to NASCAR as a result of four driver deaths over a nine-month period, including Dale Earnhardt’s last-lap crash at Daytona. Given that these series operate in their own orbits and fans often do likewise, very few fully recognized how the safety revolution actually occurred. And how decisions in all three of these series helped make it happen.
The book is subtitled “From Senna to Earnhardt” for this reason. One could argue that their deaths—the great F1 champion from an errant suspension piece and Earnhardt from a basal skull fracture—during races watched by tens of millions of fans on live television were the two biggest events in motor racing in the last 100 years. After a full century of professional racing where death was commonplace, organizers realized, as we all did at this year’s Daytona 500, the sport simply could not be sustained if it continued to kill its drivers on live television.
There’s a touch of controversy to the book because it’s based on the idea that the brilliant work of so many dedicated racing professionals to achieve the safety revolution might have faltered absent the HANS Device. That’s the organizing principle of the story and the reason for the other subtitle: “How the HANS Helped Save Racing.” I worked directly with HANS inventor Dr. Robert Hubbard and his business partner, five-time IMSA champion Jim Downing, to write the book. But the thesis is entirely mine. Resolving the issue of basal skull fractures was the one thing sanctioning bodies could not figure out entirely on their own. During the 1990s, this type of injury was the most frequent cause of death or critical injury in all forms of major league racing around the world.
There’s no doubt all the elements of safety developed by NASCAR came into play on this year’s Monday running of the Daytona 500. The cockpit safety cocoon with its carbon-fiber seat, six-point harness, the head surrounds and a head restraint were the first line of defense. The SAFER barrier did its job—which includes sufficiently reducing g-forces so that the cockpit restraints could do their job without being compromised. The impacts of Newman’s Ford getting hit in the door and then the final impact of landing on its roof – in addition to the initial impact with the wall – all showed the value of NASCAR’s Gen 6 car construction requirements.
When it comes to safety, NASCAR operates from its own dedicated Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., which makes it the world leader. (The FIA’s Formula 1 and IndyCar must rely, in part, on vendors instead of a fully equipped staff under one roof.) Although it’s not really feasible, I, for one, would like to see the in-car video from Newman’s cockpit taken by one of the recent innovations of a digital camera installed to observe what happens to the driver during a crash.
It’s not as if the safety revolution stands still. F-1 has introduced the life-saving Halo and IndyCar enters the 2020 season with the first generation of the Aeroscreen in place. Roger Penske’s ownership may yet lead to improvements in track fencing for open-wheel cars. Competitors to the HANS have emerged and the cost of a certified head restraint continues to decrease without a compromise in safety. (My favorite new arrival is the innovative Flex made by Schroth.) Weekend warriors can no longer offer the excuse that head restraints, which are needed in all forms of auto racing, are too costly, too uncomfortable or don’t fit in their vehicle.
History reminds us that far too many drivers died while Rome was burning and before the major sanctioning bodies recognized they needed to apply their technical and financial resources to greatly reduce the chance of death behind the wheel. The sanctioning bodies realized they had to act to save a sport dependent on the fan appeal of star drivers and dependent upon participation by car manufacturers, TV networks and corporate sponsors. This Daytona 500 was a reminder they did the right thing.
(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram is entering his 44th year of covering motor racing. His seventh book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt—How the HANS Device Helped Save Racing” is in current release. His Amazon bio is located at https://amzn.to/2wwPQ3V . To see “CRASH” excerpts, visit www.jingrambooks.com.)
In the Ferrari factory yard in Maranello on September 27, 1947, this new sports car is the final envelope body iteration of, we believe, chassis 01C, the very first Ferrari sports car. This latest body, showing its new hood scoop to feed the three centrally located Weber carburetors of its now 1.9-liter motor, was modified in-house at Ferrari by Aristide Govoni who may well be sitting in the passenger seat, looking somewhat nervous. At the wheel is Signor Armando Pastorino di Tortona, owner of a tool company and a friend of Enzo Ferrari, so he gets to sit in this important sports car just to have his picture taken. The new motor is simply an enlarged version of its original V12 of 1.5 liters, as first created by Gioacchino Colombo, a highly successful engine design that will endure at Ferrari in various iterations for the next 20 years.
But this car is not for show. It has just been rolled out of the Racing Department where it has been prepared for the Circuito di Modena for sports cars on the next day with its race number 16 visible on the hood and the left side as shown here. This race would be held on the streets of nearby Modena where this car will be driven by one of Ferrari’s good clients from Modena, Ferdinando Righetti.
Unfortunately, Righetti will crash the Ferrari and be forced to withdraw. During the following F1 race, there was a more serious accident which resulted in the deaths of five spectators. As a result the Modena Grand Prix was not held again inside the city but was moved to the Modena Aerautodromo starting in 1950.
However, Righetti’s car will return to Maranello where it will be repaired and again modified with a different body and another new engine to become a cycle-fendered 166 Spyder Corsa. And of course it will then have its chassis renumbered so it could be sold as a “new” racing car.
Photos from the Archivio Corrado Millanta ©The Klemantaski Collection – http://www.klemcoll.com
The following contains excerpts from “IMSA 1969-1989” written by Mitch Bishop and Mark Raffauf, and published by Octane Press, which tells the inside story of how IMSA got started and its first 20 glorious years. Available from Octane Press or wherever books are sold.
When IMSA started sanctioning GT races in 1971, the big prizes on the horizon for the organization were always the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Daytona. Both events had achieved international fame by then, attracting the best and brightest drivers from Formula One, world endurance racing, USAC, and the SCCA. But for different reasons, both events were in trouble by 1973. The FIA had dictated track and safety improvements at Sebring, which led the Ulmann family to announce that the 1972 race would be the last. IMSA picked up the pieces in 1973 thanks to the backing of John Greenwood, the organizational efforts of Reggie Smith and the work of IMSA founder and president, John Bishop.
In the meantime, ever-changing FIA technical rules for world endurance racing were limiting interest and even the length of the Daytona event, which ran as a six-hour event in 1972 due to concerns that the fast prototypes from Ferrari and Alfa Romeo wouldn’t last a full 24 hours. Other manufacturers like Porsche had long decided to pull out of the event.
Once IMSA joined ACCUS in 1973, it successfully lobbied to take over organizing the 24 Hours of Daytona starting in 1974. Unfortunately, in October that year, Saudi Arabia- controlled OPEC organized an oil embargo in retaliation for United States support of Israel during the Yom Kippur war. Over the next few months, the price of oil spiked globally and long lines formed at the pumps as shortages spread. Things got so bad that a rationing system based on the last digit of license plate numbers dictated which days people could purchase gasoline.
The shortage quickly put pressure on motorsports, which some saw as the wasteful use of a now precious commodity. Recently promoted NASCAR President Bill France Jr. organized an effective lobbying campaign in Washington D.C. to keep Congress from legislating NASCAR and other sanctioning bodies out of business. He pointed out the reality that it took less energy to put on a race than to fly an NFL football team coast-to-coast. The strategy worked, but concessions had to be made during the embargo, which lasted until April of 1974. Some races were shortened such as the Daytona 500, which ran only 450 miles.
IMSA’s two major endurance races were canceled outright in 1974. Even though IMSA had become a full member of ACCUS and had won the right to sanction the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1974, the race was shut down due to the shortage; Daytona’s owners could not guarantee a supply of fuel to support the thousands of fans expected to attend the event. Sebring was canceled for similar reasons, making the Road Atlanta round the opening race of the 1974 Camel GT season. The event was stretched to 6 hours in homage to Daytona and Sebring and was won by Al Holbert and Elliott Forbes-Robinson in a 3.0 liter Porsche Carrera RSR.
George Dyer’s Porsche Carrera RSR at Daytona in 1975 at sunrise on Sunday. Yes, there used to be trees visible in the infield section of the road course. Photo: MarkRaffauf
Thus, the 24 Hours of Daytona became the opening round of the Camel GT Series in 1975 and marked the first time that IMSA sanctioned the event. A healthy field of 51 over- and under-2.5 liter GT cars started the race on Saturday, February, 1st. There were no prototypes running in IMSA at that time. Although the first All-American GT cars were beginning to be built, none showed for the twice-around-the-clock endurance event. Horst Kwech would debut the first production AAGT DeKon Monza later that year at Road Atlanta.
The winning Brumos Porsche Carrera RSR enters Turn One during the 24 Hours of Daytona in January 1975. Note the crash damage caused by an incident earlier in the race with Hector Rebaque that required a lengthy pit stop to repair. Photo: MarkRaffauf
Twenty-one of the entries were Porsches. By then, Porsche had been building a very successful customer car program under the direction of Jo Hoppen, the head of Porsche Motorsports USA. Hoppen aggressively drove a customer car program that became the de facto model for other manufacturers in the sport. When the International Race of Champions switched from Porsche to Camaros for the 1974 season, 15 Carrera RSRs instantly became available for IMSA racing. They had rolled off the production line at a German factory ready to race; anyone with the right-sized checkbook could buy one. The cars were sorted, reliable and fast. Hoppen placed the cars with good teams, which filled up IMSA fields for the next few years with strong entries carrying the Porsche banner. He also arranged for a fully stocked Porsche parts trailer to show up at every IMSA event, ensuring that all the teams were well supported.
John Greenwood’s Corvette was one of the Porsche antagonists. Seen here under braking for Turn One during the 1975 24 Hours of Daytona, it featured a paint scheme promoting the 12 Hours of Sebring a few weeks later. Greenwood’s big-block Corvettes with wild bodywork were fast (he won the pole for the race) but didn’t last the distance, completing just 148 laps. Photo: MarkRaffauf
In other news, one of the newcomers to IMSA at Daytona in 1975 was the first factory “super team” from Europe. Jochen Neerpasch brought the latest factory BMW CSL team to the premier IMSA series with pilots Brian Redman, Hans Stuck, Ronnie Peterson, Dieter Quester, and Sam Posey. As the U.S. market recovered from the gas crisis, BMW wanted to use racing to underscore its core marketing message: “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” The addition of BMW and top European drivers to the series also had the effect of raising the competition level significantly. A proven entity in Europe, the CSL had struggled in the U.S. in 1974 without proper factory backing.
Unfortunately, neither car finished the 1975 24 hour race, with the Redman, Petersen car dropping out after just 29 laps and the Stuck, Posey car ending up in 33rd spot. After the disappointing results against an army of Porsche Carreras, the BMW team regrouped and moved its U.S. operations deep into NASCAR country: the shops of Bobby and Donnie Allison in Hueytown Alabama. The team spent a month modifying the standard European-version of the CSL into a potent IMSA contender by removing weight, stiffening the chassis, improving engine reliability and tweaking aerodynamics. The changes worked; BMW won the 12 Hours of Sebring in March and became a contender throughout the rest of the 1975 season.
The winning factory BMW CSL of Hans Stuck, Sam Posey, Brian Redman, and Allan Moffat navigates the wide-open runways of Sebring in 1975 when Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-4s lined the course unprotected between Turns One and Two. Photo: Mark Raffauf
Against this backdrop, the 1975 Daytona 24 Hours was an all-Porsche affair. The only drama was: which Porsche would win. Peter Gregg tangled early on with the RSR that had won the Mexican round of the FIA’s World Championship of Makes the previous year. The No. 5 Café Mexico Porsche was driven at Daytona by Hector Rebaque, Fred van Beuren, and Guillermo Rojas. After the incident, both cars spent many laps in the pits to repair damage and fell back in the standings.
Peter Gregg leads the similar machine of Rebaque/Rojas/van Beuren during the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1975 on Sunday morning. The two cars came together early in the race, requiring extensive repairs to both. Hurley Haywood and “Peter Perfect” came back to win with a car that was not so perfect. Photo: MarkRaffauf
Throughout the evening the Brumos car gained ground back with Gregg and Hurley Haywood alternating behind the wheel. A thick fog rolled in as the night progressed and visibility became a real issue. Haywood got into the car just past midnight for what was expected to be a three-hour stint since Gregg was never a big fan of driving at night or in lousy weather. Haywood, who had extraordinary vision, always seemed to get the nod in those conditions.
Despite the fog, Hurley kept circulating at close to qualifying speeds through the night. He drove longer than expected and probably longer than technically allowed. In the process, he dragged the battered No. 59 back onto the lead lap and eventually into the lead, the entire time his car barely visible to race control.
When asked his status by IMSA officials over the radio, he continued to report, “I can see everything fine down here on the ground,” which may or may not have been entirely true. Haywood drove an epic six hours straight, taking the lead and ultimately winning the race for the Brumos team. It would be one of five victories for each of the hall of fame drivers at the storied 24-hour event. In the end, Porsches occupied 13 of the top 15 spots in the results.