This is Part TWO of the behind-the-scenes story of how sports car racing emerged in America during the post-war era, who organized the races and the all-out war that erupted for control. This post is excerpted from the book: “IMSA 1969-1989: The Inside Story of How John Bishop Built the World’s Greatest Sports Car Racing Series”, authored by Mitch Bishop and Mark Raffauf, scheduled for publication in January 2019 from Octane Press.
There was plenty of professional racing going on in the world by the late 1950s. Outside of the U.S., international racing was governed by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). Some Americans like Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby achieved professional status by racing in Europe against the best drivers of the day, but for most drivers in the U.S. racing for money risked the loss of their SCCA licenses.
Bringing international caliber drivers to the U.S. became an obsession for early race organizers like Bill France Sr., the founder of NASCAR, and the leaders of the FIA correspondingly saw the U.S. market as a huge opportunity. With the withdrawal of the AAA from race sanctioning in 1955, representatives from the FIA came to America in 1956 with the intention of hitching their wagon to one of the established sanctioning bodies already functioning in the U.S.: NASCAR, USAC and the SCCA.
The emissaries from Europe met with France Sr., Colonel Arthur Harrington, former president of the AAA Contest Board and one of the founders of USAC, and Jim Kimberley, who represented the SCCA. The leadership at USAC saw this as an enormous opportunity to take control of professional road racing if they could convince the FIA representatives to give them their seal of approval. But France Sr. had other ideas. He understood that if just one organization owned the FIA relationship, it would quickly put the others at a disadvantage. He instead proposed a committee comprised of all three sanctioning organizations, each with the ability to apply for the FIA’s international listings for their events. The FIA agreed and the Automobile Competition Committee of the United States (ACCUS) was formed in 1957. ACCUS continues to operate today as the representative of American racing to the FIA, albeit with more member organizations.
Shortly after the creation of ACCUS, race organizers secured FIA listings for Formula One Grand Prix events at Sebring in 1959 and Riverside in 1960, running them under the FIA banner without a U.S. sanctioning body. These professional events were groundbreaking; they introduced world-class race drivers and their exotic machines to American audiences. By 1961, USAC had taken over the sanction of the L.A. Times Grand Prix and a similar event held at Laguna Seca.
The first Watkins Glen-based Formula One race was held in 1961 under direct FIA sanction. These races, along with Alec Ulmann’s 12 Hours of Sebring held in March, became a powerful magnet for American drivers who wanted in on the action.
Despite the success of these major events, SCCA races were still understood to be strictly amateur. Drivers began to bristle at the draconian restrictions being imposed on them by the Club. They wanted to compete at the next level of motorsport, test themselves against the best from the rest of the world and make some money along the way. But was the penalty for participation worth it?
In response, in the summer of 1961, the SCCA began to ease its restrictions on members participating in certain, designated professional events. But confusion reigned – it wasn’t clear which events were approved and which were not. Ultimately, after much hand-wringing, the Club’s Board once again withdrew public support for professional racing, leaving American drivers in limbo. Privately, however, the Board voted that summer to move forward with a plan that had been drawn up by John Bishop. It was a blueprint for professional racing that put a high priority on reclaiming the sanction of the most important races in the U.S. operating at the time: the 12 Hours of Sebring, The L.A. Times Grand Prix at Riverside, The U.S. Grand Prix at Wakins Glen, and the San Francisco Examiner Grand Prix at Laguna Seca.
Roger Penske on his way to winning the L.A. Times Grand Prix in the Zerex Special at Riverside International Raceway in 1962. The race was sanctioned that year by USAC. Photo credit: IMRRC Archives
USAC held six road racing events in1961 with limited support from SCCA drivers, although some did cross the line. The SCCA licenses for these transgressors were promptly revoked, further fanning the flames of discontent. But the door had been cracked open and it was now just a matter of time before professional racing became a reality at the Club.
There was mass confusion during the 1962 season as USAC and the SCCA sparred over dates, rules and drivers. In the December 1962 issue of Sports Car magazine, the Club announced the formation of the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) to be run the next year in classes of cars with engines over 2.0 liters and under 2.0 liters. This was the Club’s first openly professional series, starting with the Daytona Continental in January of 1963.
Bob Johnson leads Dave MacDonald during the 1963 USRRC event at Watkins Glen. Both are driving Shelby Cobras, a mainstay of the series in its first year. Photo credit: IMRRC Archives
With full FIA listings and open invitations to professional drivers from both the U.S. and Europe, the USRRC quickly became the go-to sports car racing series in the country. Support for USAC’s road racing events withered, never to return. Over the next two years, the SCCA took over the sanction of the L.A. Times Grand Prix, the San Francisco Examiner Grand Prix at Laguna Seca, the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen and the 12 Hours of Sebring. SCCA drivers that had been patiently sitting on the fence were now able to put both feet in with the new series.
The start of the USRRC race at Watkins Glen in 1964. Photo credit: Ozzie Lyons/© Pete Lyons at petelyons.com
The SCCA quickly followed up the USRRC success with the Can-Am, Trans-Am and Formula 5000 series, further cementing its status as the sanctioning body with the most competitive professional road racing circuits in the U.S. by the late 1960s.
After the end of World War II, sports car racing experienced a renaissance, unlike anything America had ever witnessed before. The post-war economy was booming. And when combined with a growing workforce of educated, skilled workers created by the G.I. Bill, it helped create a vibrant American middle class. For the first time since the Great Depression, families began to have money for more than just the basics, including sports cars, which were beginning to show up from exotic places such as Italy, Britain, Germany and other countries.
The small trickle of imported machines grew steadily and the inevitable happened – races started to emerge. This is the behind-the-scenes story of what happened next, how sports car racing emerged in America during the post-war era, who organized the races and the all-out war that erupted for control.
My father, John Bishop, started his career with the SCCA in 1956, at the very beginning of the knock-down fight between the SCCA and USAC over control of professional road racing in America. He later would take over as executive director of the SCCA at the beginning of 1962, putting him squarely in the middle of the drama. What follows is an account of that period, excerpted from the book: “IMSA 1969-1989: The Inside Story of How John Bishop Built the World’s Greatest Sports Car Racing Series,” authored by Mitch Bishop and Mark Raffauf, scheduled for publication in January 2019 from Octane Press.
The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) was founded in 1944 by a group of wealthy sports car enthusiasts from Boston as a kind of gentleman’s club, according to Peter Hylton, SCCA archivist and historian. The original members were all friends that shared the same economic status and liked cars, the more exotic the better. Joining was not easy. Prospective members of the SCCA had to be formally endorsed by an existing member and voted into the Club by the rest of the membership.
Those first meetings consisted of shared meals and conversation followed by rallies on public roads. Soon, the footprint of the SCCA began to grow as it began to sanction races over fixed courses on public roads. The Club expanded westward and southward by formally chartering regional chapters. But even as the Club grew, it always adhered to the notion that racing was strictly an amateur activity and for Club members only.
By 1955, the SCCA had become the sports car road racing alternative to the American Automobile Association (AAA), which sanctioned champ car, sprint car and midget racing on ovals and to the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), which ran stock car races in the South and through alliances with promoters in the Northeast, Midwest and on the West Coast. In many respects, the early success of the SCCA reflected the post-war economic boom. As the economy grew, so did the ranks of the middle class. New prosperity brought increased interest in European sports cars like MGs, Jaguars, Porsches, Ferraris, Alfa Romeos, and others. And once these cars were on the street, competition was inevitable.
Racing through the streets of Watkins Glen began in 1948 and Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin in 1950, but racing on public roads was deemed too dangerous after a spectator fatality at Watkins Glen in 1952. Demand for road racing venues escalated quickly, but there were simply not enough purpose-built tracks at the time – building permanent race tracks was an expensive and slow process. The shortage was partly relieved with the help of Curtis LeMay, an Air Force General in charge of the Strategic Air Command (and car guy), who opened up a few decommissioned WWII airfields for racing events.
The 12 Hours of Sebring was held on a decommissioned B-17 training base south of Orlando, Florida starting in 1952. As this photo shows, the condition of the pit area had improved only slightly by 1957. Photo credit: IMRRC Archive
Mike Hawthorne in a D-Type Jaguar during the 12 Hours of Sebring held in 1955, when the race was sanctioned by the AAA. After the debacle at Le Mans later that year, Alec and Mary Ulmann formed the Automobile Racing Club of Florida (ARCF) as an entity to produce and promote the race. The SCCA took over sanction of the Sebring event in 1964. Photo credit: IMRRC Archive
The landscape changed dramatically and suddenly with the infamous disaster at Le Mans in 1955. Pierre Levegh, co-driving with American John Fitch, made contact with a slower car on the main straight, vaulting his Mercedes-Benz into the air, which struck a retaining wall and exploded, sending components into the crowd. Levegh and more than 80 spectators were killed. As a direct result of this horrific accident, the AAA decided to drop out of race sanctioning altogether. This left a void in the sanctioning world that was quickly filled by the newly formed United States Auto Club (USAC), organized at the behest of Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman.
But rather than just focus just on the AAA’s former turf, USAC had bigger ambitions. It had designs on becoming the single dominant player in all forms of motor racing – short tracks, stock cars and road racing. Knowing the SCCA was committed to amateur racing, USAC announced a professional road racing series for 1958.
USAC ran its first road races at Lime Rock Park, Marlboro Motor Raceway and the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Circuit in 1958, which caught the attention of the top drivers of the day. The concept of racing for money instead of just trophies was enticing. The SCCA Board of Governors hotly debated whether to respond with the Club’s own professional series or to maintain strict, amateur-only status.
In the end, the Board decided to keep the status quo. But as part of this decision, the Board of Governors decreed that SCCA licensed drivers and corner workers who participated in, or assisted with, USAC events would be banished from the Club. Further, it was announced that any SCCA region participating in a racing event where remuneration was offered would have its charter revoked. This form of harsh excommunication was designed to keep the membership in line. Ultimately, this strategy failed, but a seven-year war for control of road racing in America had been formally declared.
TO BE CONTINUED…