American racing in the 1960sby Gordon Kirby on 19th August 2013
Last week I touched on some of the reasons why the 1960s was such a great decade for Formula 1 and motor racing in general. Your enthusiastic responses prompted me to write this week about the '60s in America in particular where the sport hit historic heights in all categories – IndyCar, Can-Am and American sports car racing, the original Trans-Am, NASCAR and drag racing too. And the United States Grand Prix also enjoyed the first of two golden decades at Watkins Glen.
The sport took off in America through the '60s as technology revolutionised both the Indy 500 and the Can-Am series and a huge panorama of great drivers seared their names into the USA’s popular culture. Speeds and performance increased dramatically at Indianapolis and elsewhere as the arrival of rear-engined cars and monocoque chassis was followed immediately by the appearance of wider, low-profile tyres, turbine engines, wings and aerodynamics.
Jim Hall defined the revolution with his winged Chaparral Can-Am cars but it could also be seen in the dramatic differences between the first Lotus Indycar, the skinny-tyred, cigar-shaped 29 from 1963, and the last, the wide-tyred, wide-bodied, wing-festooned 64 from 1969. After crashing heavily in practice at Indianapolis when a rear hub broke, Mario Andretti renounced the 64 and went on to win the 500 in Clint Brawner’s well-developed Brawner Hawk while the Lotus 64 never raced, marking the end of Colin Chapman’s seven-year flirtation with the Indy 500.
We witnessed similar dramatic changes in Can-Am as the classic McLaren M1B morphed into the mighty big-block, all-aluminum Chevy-powered McLaren M8F and M20, and the early rear-engined Chaparral 2s were transformed into the very effective high-winged 2G followed by the 2H ‘sucker car’ driven by Jackie Stewart and Vic Elford and and the wildly experimental 2J, much despised by John Surtees.
Of course, part of Can-Am’s attraction were the many experimental cars that appeared from factory teams and backyard builders, ranging from a brace of misconceived Ford prototypes to the four-engine Mac’s-it Special to the original tiny Shadow Mk1 Can-Am car, pedaled by the intrepid George Follmer, to Hall’s 2H and 2J Chaparrals.
All this wild stuff drew huge crowds to the Can-Am races. The SCCA sanctioned Can-Am and also launched Trans-Am in 1966 for American ‘pony’ cars. For a few years the American car manufacturers spent more money in Trans-Am than they did in NASCAR with factory teams from Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, Plymouth and American Motors run by the likes of Penske, AAR and Jim Hall. Trans-Am peaked in 1969 and ’70 with Mark Donohue and Parnelli Jones duking it out for Penske and Bud Moore’s teams.
During this time Formula 5000 was also growing fast in America and for a short while it looked like the SCCA would emerge as the most powerful force in American motor racing. As American road racing boomed, USAC decided to expand its IndyCar championship onto road courses, starting in 1965. Half a dozen road courses were on USAC’s calendar in 1968 with that year’s championship comprising no fewer than 28 races on paved ovals, dirt ovals and road circuits. In fact, the six USAC Championships between 1965-’70 won by Andretti (three times), Foyt, Bobby and Al Unser were probably the most diverse and demanding championships in racing history.
But as the '70s arrived USAC, in its infinite wisdom, decided to throw out the road circuits and dirt tracks to concentrate on paved ovals only. It turned out to be an unsuccessful move repeated with an equal lack of success by Tony George 25 years later.
It was sad to see the dirt tracks vanish from the world of Indycar racing because one-mile dirt ovals had formed the backbone of America’s national championship for forty years. Dirt track racing reached its apotheosis in the '60s with powerful cars running on skinny tires and well-groomed tracks driven by dirt maestros like AJ Foyt, Don Branson, Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Gary Bettenhausen. There were no wings or aerodynamics of any kind and those cars not only required delicate throttle control but were brutally tough to drive over 100-lap races at tracks like the infamous Langhorne in Pennsylvania.
A mastery of a wide variety of cars and tracks is the mark of any truly great driver and like the F1 stars of the '60s America’s best from that era raced regularly in multiple categories. Guys like Dan Gurney, Donohue and Andretti characterised the '60s, racing in as many as seven or eight different categories some years. The fans and media loved it and today we cherish those memories.