An enthusiast visiting the USA can never fail to be enthralled by the fascinating array of different categories of racing available to the spectator. There are the big road racing events, like the Grand Prix at Watkins Glen and the Can-Am series, there is that multi-milliondollar Indianapolis attraction and countless other USAC events; one should not forget the car-shattering drag meets and, in the Southern States, those big saloon cars called NASCAR stockers race around the speed ovals close on 200 m.p.h. And in a recent visit to the States, for the Daytona 6 Hours, we took time off to return to the grass roots of American racing. We went to Florida State Fairground in Tampa for the Winter National Sprints.
The Florida State Fair track is like hundreds of others up and down America—a dirt oval. The track surface is red clay and calcium chlorate mixed together, the latter retaining the moisture and preventing the whole show turning into a dustbowl. The Tampa track is a 1/2-mile oval situated within a fairground. The programme proudly proclaimed that this was its 52nd year.
The Winter Nationals were a series of five meetings held within ten days and run under the rules of the grandiosely named International Motor Contest Association, which is just one of several sanctioning bodies for this kind of thing, but just about the best established, having been in existence for 57 years.
The cars are big, garishly-painted, front-engined jobs with injection ram tubes spouting from the bonnet and drivers who look as wide as they are tall. There is a different tyre on every wheel, a huge chrome roll-over bar, and they remind one of the Speedway Roadsters of yesteryear. While USAC now boasts sophisticated machinery like the McLaren M16, the latest Eagles and Maurice Phillipe’s new Viceroys cars, back where it all started history and development have stood still. There is no room for advanced design—if it came it would ruin the whole spectacle. You can still see the men fight with the steering wheel, the big cars buck up on to two wheels as the surface ruts up and there is little to compare with the sight of eight “sprints” all wheel to wheel and on full-opposite lock.
The cars use heavy four rail (tube) chassis and the rule book says that a Sprint car is “a racing vehicle with streamlined body and tail whose design and appearance denotes a primary Sprint Car function built upon a Sprint Car racing chassis and mounted on racing wheels equipped with safety hubs”. The wheelbase has to be between 84 inches and 96 inches, but there is no limitation on engine displacement. This means that, if you want to build a new car, build it like the old ones. Actually, the cars tend to go on and on, although there are now fairly stringent rules regarding safety fuel tanks, safety harnesses, and annual magnafluxing of the chassis. Almost universally the engines used are 5.4-litre Chevrolet V8s, with Hillborn injection. Nitro-methane is now banned, so a less-potent alcohol fuel is used. The suspension hardly breaks any new ground, being either torsion bar all round or with a transverse leaf spring and beam axle at the front. There is provision for the driver to adjust the nearside rear torsion bar from the cockpit and this they do frequently while the race is in progress, to alter the handling characteristics to the changing circuit. Both Goodyear and Firestone make the special racing tyres and as mentioned, no two wheels have the same pattern or size. Much of the art is in choosing the right tyres for the conditions, and minutes before the start drivers can be seen cutting extra grooves into them to alter the tread pattern. No-one seems to worry too much about compounds, thank goodness!
We spotted some quaint passages in the rule book like “Pit crew members shall be dressed in special racing uniforms or whites when they report to the race track. Blue jeans or other apparel will not be allowed”; no one under 21 is allowed to compete either as a driver or mechanic, and smoking is definitely taboo. Further “Any IMCA driver, car owner, pit-crew or individual whose language, behaviour or conduct is not in the best interest of IMCA will be permanently suspended”. What was striking was the friendliness of everyone concerned; all the drivers seemed to be willing to help each other with problems and absolutely everyone was enjoying themselves. Nevertheless, within its own terms, it was professional motor-racing, from which many of the drivers earned their regular income, and presumably hope to emulate Al Unser, Mario Andretti, and Joe Leonard one day. In fact some of the big Indianapolis names still race on the dirt quite regularly, although in USAC rather than IMCA-sanctioned events.
Something over 50 drivers and cars turned up at Tampa, with the aim of making the 40-lap feature race at the end of the programme, while the one grandstand was packed to a capacity 8,000. The drivers came from a wide area but predominantly from Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio. In the morning there had been time trials, which qualified drivers for one of the three 8-lap heats, eight cars in each heat. The first four in each race go through to the final. If a driver failed to qualify amongst the first twenty-four then there was another heat which was, basically, for the rest and, thereby, rather hectic. Again the first four went through to the final along with another four made up from another heat which, as far as we could gather, was made up from those amongst the first twenty-four in qualification who had failed to qualify in their heats. Thus, there were 20 of the best cars for the big feature race upon which the money hung.
Sprint racing has none of the finesse of Grand Prix but it is certainly exciting to watch. The cars are all push-started by support vehicles and then burble round getting themselves into line for a lap or two, waiting for the starter to flag them off. Then, all hell is let loose, for the acceleration is shattering, the noise unbelievable, and the racing spectacular. The cars are thrown into opposite-lock slides well before the corners, and then slither round the bends, under throttle control, the drivers’ arms pumping the steering wheels the whole time. As they exit from the bends they snake viciously as 350 b.h.p. is turned on, then there is a burst of acceleration down to the next corner; there are no gears to worry about, just a simple in and out box. Naturally, with 5.4-litres of eight-cylinder motivation, the drivers have developed a terrific appreciation of engine braking and torque effects; it takes time to learn how one plants the right foot down heavily in one of these primitive and colourful devices. However, that time is well spent for the magnified traction and cornering problems on dirt are good practice for the powerful USAC cars that some of the drivers graduate to. Drivers also learn to ignore uplifted wheels as any sort of sign that the limit has been reached !
The condition of the track changes as the constant cornering churns up the surface and the clever drivers alter their lines as the “groove” changes. Also, because of the tyres he has chosen, one driver will run high in the loose stuff, while others will tend to keep to a tight line. As the race goes on the cars and drivers become plastered with the red clay and discard goggle lens after goggle lens. At Tampa the feature race saw a run away win for a Californian, Jan Opperman, but some of the heats were fought wheel-to-wheel with the lead constantly changing. — A. R. M.