Californian hot

Bill Krause

On his day he beat Moss, Gurney and Brabham. He was first to race an AC Cobra, and he had a F1 offer. So why haven't we heard of him? Willem Oosthoek explains

Bill Krause had the potential to be a world-class race driver. Everybody thought so. Said so. Yet, beyond an ageing generation of Californian sportscar fans, his name is virtually unknown today.

Bad luck, wrong choices (although appearing perfectly rational at the time) and often substandard equipment resulted in a string of lost opportunities, and he finally threw in the towel in the mid-1960s. Yet Sir Stirling Moss, no less, remembers him as a fierce competitor, and on one sunny October afternoon in 1960, at Riverside in California, Billy beat the best that the world had to offer.

Born in 1933, he grew up in a racing environment His father ran a machine shop in the LA suburb of Compton and was heavily involved in the local midget racing scene. So it came as no surprise when, aged 18, Krause Jnr began building and racing midgets as well. But after a couple of big shunts – plus a 1955 midget title – family pressure steered him towards the emerging sportscar racing format, which was considered less risky. His dad bought him a brand-new $10,000 Jaguar D-type with 3.4litre engine, and Billy entered a sportscar race. He started it from 13th and, to everybody's surprise, won.

By 1958 professional sportscar racing was taking hold in California, with the Riverside Times Grand Prix in October providing the last round of the new USAC road-racing championship. By now the Krause D-type had been bored out to 3.8, and Billy finished third, behind Chuck Daigh's Scarab and Dan Gurney's Ferrari. Afterwards French ace Jean Behra, trailing him in fourth place, commented that Billy was the best driver in a field of top GP, Indy and SCCA racers.

Benefactors emerged for 1959, in the form of Jack Brumby and Rey Martinez, who had just bought Tony Parravano's Maserati 450S. This powerful car scared Brumby, used to racing Abarths, and he offered Krause a drive in it at Pomona. With only the fairground parking lot to practice in, Billy took the 'Bazooka' to second place behind Richie Ginther's 4.1 Ferrari, beating Ken Miles, Bob Oker and Gurney.

Things looked even better during the USAC season-opener in March, again at Pomona. Krause led a highly competitive field in the 450S until a tyre blew with one lap to go. Now 70, Krause vividly remembers the drama: "A spring leaf came out and cut the right-rear tyre. I did a 360, just missing a large telephone pole." He continued on three tyres and one Borrani wheel and finished fourth! "You talk about a big car. It was huge! It steered so hard that I had to work out all the time. At Pomona it broke the steering brackets right off the frame. There was something wrong with it. You had to steer with the throttle, as you just could not turn the wheel."

The Kiwanis GP at Riverside in July proved equally frustrating. Running second, Billy had to be dragged semi-conscious from the 450S: "We put an extra air scoop on because of the heat. But all the oil and gas fumes went straight into the cockpit. I was dozing off going down the straight!" But his aggressive drives had been noticed, and the fans nicknamed him 'the Compton Comet'.

Krause also continued racing his D-type, now upgraded with a Corvette engine. But his next big opportunity came in 1960, again via Brumby, now service manager of the Maserati agent in Beverly Hills, who had ordered a new Birdcage for the Times Grand Prix. The factory had assembled it in a mere four days, and the team found leftover spaghetti wrappers and an old wine bottle in the cockpit

This was the first time that Billy had a truly competitive car. After a few laps at Riverside he added an old dirt-car trick, a side harness, fastened to the chassis tubes, which allowed him to take the long, banked, 180-degree Turn Nine faster because he no longer had to cling onto the steering wheel. With this mod Krause set the fastest qualifying time — until two new Lotus 19s arrived.

Essentially F1 cars with sportscar bodies, the 19s of Moss and Gurney claimed the first two positions on the grid. Krause: "I saw their tiny brakes and thought that they would fade early if I could put enough pressure on them." And he did. He battled Moss for second place until the first Lotus broke down, and then went after Gurney. When the second Lotus dropped out as well, it was Billy all the way. An otherwise stellar line-up of sportscar racers was relegated to fighting for the runner-up slot

Just one week later the same field met at Laguna Seca, although Gurney couldn't get his Lotus 19 ready in time. It was Moss's 19 on pole, with Jim Hall's Birdcage next to him. Krause, on row two, had qualified with the same time as Hall, but had done so later. Next to Billy was reigning F1 world champion Jack Brabham in a Cooper Monaco.

On this tight course the rear-engined Lotus and Cooper were clear favourites, yet it was the Birdcages battling the Lotus for the early lead. In the end Moss was not to be denied, winning both heats, but Brabham was another story.

Krause: "In the first heat I was running first and second with Moss, back and forth, chucking dirt all over Brabham in third. He got real mad. But I was driving so hard that day that I did not spend much time on my mirror. To keep up with that Lotus I was running off the road on both sides, and I guess the Birdcage was throwing stuff at Brabham. I don't think that caused his flat tyre, but he blamed me."

Krause retired from heat one when a screw fell out of the Maserati's distributor rotor. Starting heat two dead last, he finished third behind Moss and Augie Pabst. Fellow Birdcage driver Jim Jeffords, another hard charger, commented on how he saw Krause trying to overtake Pabst's Scarab three times on the outside of Turn Four, a left-hander without guard rails, bordering a rocky cliff: Jeffords: "He looped three times, but by God he tried!"

Krause concurs: "That was the hardest I drove all my life. I wore through my gloves — and my skin. My hands were bleeding and were stuck fast to the steering wheel."

After the Birdcage was sold in 1961, Billy ran a variety of cars, from 'Old Yeller' to a Lotus 19. Then the Maserati agency purchased an older Birdcage, in which he either broke down or won during 1962.

In that Fall another opportunity arrived. Carroll Shelby hired Billy for his new Cobra team. He did most of the early development and raced the car at Riverside and Nassau.

Krause: "It wasn't that good to begin with. It needed a lot of development And in the meantime Mickey Thompson kept calling me about a deal with Chevrolet involving some new superlight Sting Rays for Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans. And unlike Shelby, Thompson was going to Indianapolis as well, with new rear-engined cars." It sounded good, but Krause's subsequent switch from Ford to Chevrolet essentially ended his career as a professional racer. Instead of being the premier driver of a team that went on to produce and develop the successful King Cobra and GT40, he became a victim of GM politics. His only races for Chevrolet were during the Daytona Speedweek early in 1963.

Krause: "Thompson bet AJ Foyt $1000 that I would lead the first lap of the three-hour Continental. But I didn't! Foyt passed me in Turn Two. My car was full of fuel and bottoming out as though it was about to break in half. And here comes Foyt: I went on the inside of a Pontiac, he went on the outside. Coming out of the last turn we were door to door, but Foyt beat me. But he didn't make the turn into the infield, so I led for a while. Then, halfway through the race, my engine exploded."

After Daytona, Chevrolet terminated the Sting Ray programme, but Thompson still had his new-fangled Indianapolis cars for Billy...

"Mine had those little 12in wheels with real hard rubber. When they let go there was no warning. And while I was doing 200mph on the back straightaway, hot oil would come out all over my face and goggles. I lost confidence. I probably could have qualified the car, but I couldn't have raced it with 32 other guys, because I could not tell where it was going. So I decided to pack up and go back to California." Team-mates Graham Hill and Masten Gregory couldn't manage the cars either, but in Krause's case it had a psychological impact "Indy changed my attitude. I had lost my motivation. I did race after that, but it was never the same."

By now Billy had started a Honda agency, which developed into a big dealership. As a result his racing was confined to selected local events in other people's cars: in the 1963 Times GP he drove Art Snyder's Elva Mk7. Jim Clark had a Lotus 23B, but it was Krause who led the under-2000cc class for most of the race until the Elva's steering acted up and Clark passed him.

Europe almost had the opportunity to witness Krause's talents in grand prix racing. In January 1963, Hugh Powell, owner of Tony Settember's Scirocco team, had invited him to drive in Formula One. The Compton Comet turned him down – Indy was a greater draw.

By 1964, Krause's racing was sporadic, but on one occasion he was at the wheel of a Lotus 30, winning the SCCA race on the Saturday before the professional Monterey GP at Laguna: "Few liked that Lotus 30, but I did. It was hairy, but you could dirt-track it."

Billy also drove the Pacesetter Lola T70 in the 1966 USRRC series at Stardust and Riverside: "I didn't like that Lola. Unless it was a real high-speed corner, you couldn't powerslide it. And I liked to run right on the edge, with the car slipping just a bit. That is what made the Birdcage my favourite. It suited my style. It was so well balanced that I could drive it much like the open-wheel cars that I ran on dirt tracks."

Billy retired from driving but, just to keep in touch, worked as a mechanic for Patrick Racing, on the cars of Gordon Johncock, Mario Andretti, Chip Ganassi, Bobby Unser and Emerson Fittipaldi. And it is a little known fact that he was part-owner of John Paul Jnr's 1983 Michigan 500-winning Penske.

How would he like to be remembered?

"I hope as a strong and colourful driver, who enjoyed matching skills with competitors from all types of racing. I always thought I could find a way to win any race I entered."

Talented and confident, brave but never reckless, he was considered to be the best US driver of the time by both Shelby and Thompson. And Moss said recently: "I want to tell Bill that I remember him as a tough, strong driver. Come and join us in historic racing. But you will have to be less aggressive because the cars are worth a fortune now!" What a shame that Billy did not get the breaks his talent deserved.