American Comment

The Board of Directors Of the United States Auto Club has rejected a recommendation from its Rules Committee that it place an outright ban on turbine-powered race cars. At the same time, however, the Board has given present turbine-powered cars a reprieve lasting only one more season by ruling that, effective January 1st, 1970, all U.S.A.C. cars shall be limited to two driving wheels and that turbines eligible for its Championship circuit shall be of the “automotive type”. The Rules Committee, acting under heavy pressure from the more conservative element in the U.S.A.C. membership, had recommended shortly after this year’s Indianapolis 500 that all U.S.A.C. cars be restricted to internal combustion, reciprocating engines (thus, in effect, banning not only turbines but also rotating combustion engines such as the Wankel and any steam or electric engine designs that might appear). The Rules Committee had also recommended that a special engine size subcommittee be set up to review the various U.S.A.C. equivalency formulae, of which there are nine at the moment, with a view to reducing and/or adjusting them for the 1969 season.

The U.S.A.C. directors did accept this second recommendation and the sub-committee is due to make its report to the Directors no later than their September meeting. This sub-committee was also asked to define “automotive turbine”—which may be difficult since there are no such engines in commercial production at the moment— and also to define “stock block engines”. This refers to such engines as Dan Gurney’s Ford with Gurney-Weslake heads (which Gurney now calls a “Gurney-Eagle”, incidentally) that powered him to second place at Indianapolis and more recently to victory in a U.S.A.C. Championship race on the Mosport road circuit near Toronto in Canada. At present the U.S.A.C. rules say only that such engines must be of “American stock block production design (with) single non-overhead camshaft (and) removable head”. They are limited to 5-litres if unsupercharged and 3.3-litres if supercharged. This rule is open to many interpretations, and while Gurney’s original engine drew its inspiration from a stock block Ford, it is of course far from stock now.

Referring to the engine review sub-committee, Thomas W. Binford, the U.S.A.C. President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, said “This review stems primarily from the Board’s concern with the rapidly increasing speeds accomplished by at least two of the equivalency formulae, which indicates that they are no longer equivalent. The Board is hopeful a reduction can be recommended.” Mr. Binford did not indicate which two formulae the Board considered out of balance, but the results of this year’s 500 suggest that he is referring to the formula governing turbines and that governing supercharged overhead camshaft engines (now restricted to 2.8-litres). The STP-Lotus turbines both made the front row at Indianapolis with average speeds over 171 m.p.h., while Bobby Unser, in an Eagle-powered by a turbocharged Offenhauser, had earlier become the first driver ever to lap the 2½-mile Speedway at over 170 m.p.h. Unser, of course, won the race, and in addition the fastest race lap—168.666 m.p.h.—was set by Lloyd Ruby, whose Mongoose was also powered by a turbo-charged Offenhauser engine.

If the review sub-committee does take the opportunity to change the turbine formula it will be the third time in as many years that this has been done. Turbines were unlimited until 1966, when a rule was introduced restricting the air inlet area to 23.999 sq. in. Last year, after Parnelli Jones came within a whisker of winning the 500 its Andy Granatelli’s original STP Turbocar, turbine air inlets were further restricted to 15.999 sq. in. Granatelli fought the reduction in the courts but lost his case. Although it is late in the day to be changing engine sizes for next season, one possible benefit that could result front the sub-committee’s review would be an overall reduction in all U.S.A.C. engine sizes. This would bring them more nearly into line with the 3-litre Formula One limit and also would bring closer the day when the same International formula would be used in Europe, North America and Australasia.

While the review committee’s work affects all U.S.A.C. formulae, the banning of four-wheel-drive after next year is aimed directly at the turbines. To quote Binford again: “The action regarding 1970 (which also restricts turbines to `automotive type’) reflects the Board’s desire to bring the turbine-powered cars into the mainstream of automotive development as opposed to industrial or aircraft development. When the formula becomes effective, the turbines will no longer require a four-wheel-drive, which is extremely expensive and presently is not being used in passenger cars and has little chance of being used in the near future, according to the experts. The action was delayed until 1970 to give those interested an opportunity to develop an automotive turbine race car while continuing to compete with their present type turbine combined with four-wheel-drive.”

Binford’s remarks produced a bitter reaction from Harry Ferguson Research Ltd., who, of course, supply the production four-wheel-drive system for the Jensen. A Ferguson statement said that listing expense as a reason for the ban is “so lame as to be laughable”. After pointing out the relative costs of a racing four-wheel-drive system and a racing engine, they said “the cost of a four-wheel-drive is, in fact, a mere pretext for the ban….” Their statement concluded: “No U.S.A.C. ban will prevent the eventual adoption of all-wheel control for passenger-cars. It will only place on record in the history of automotive engineering progress that U.S.A.C. did what it could to harm, and not to expedite, this desirable development.” This is a very sensitive point, if not with U.S.A.C. itself then certainly with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ever since Ray Harroun became the first driver ever to fit a rear-view mirror to a racing car—in the first Indianapolis 500—the Speedway has trumpeted the claim that it is a testing ground for automotive progress and development.

Andy Granatelli, too, expressed extreme regret at the decision and called on other principals in U.S. racing to join him in asking U.S.A.C. not to change the rules. Granatelli said: “It was strange indeed that a supercharged engine won Indianapolis in 1946 and finally won again in 1968 (but) in the 21 years that intervened, not a single effort was made to equate supercharged engines with the 50% larger unsupercharged power plants.” He said that more than half a million dollars was spent to meet new turbine specifications for this year’s 500, and a similar amount would be needed to meet any new limitations for next year. He added that his cars were competitive this year because of four-wheel-drive and “the most advanced streamlining and chassis design in history”.

“It must also be remembered”, he continued, “that four-wheel-drive, used in Indianapolis racing for more than 40 years, has now been banned because of its success. The new proposal in effect constitutes an efficient and ambiguous way of barring (my) turbines in the future.” Granatelli then summed up the whole sorry dispute by saying: “These constant changes in rules make it almost impossible for an advocate of progressive engineering ideas to compete any longer in U.S.A.C. racing. Thus, if U.S.A.C. persists in this plan to revamp engine sizes and chassis design again in 1969 and once more changes basic construction rules in 1970, many of us will be hard pressed to continue its the sport which we have built to such importance over the years.”

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To judge by all the publicity generated by the turbine controversy, one would think these cars have been completely monopolising the U.S.A.C. Championship circuit. Granatelli has kept his promise, made at Indianapolis, to campaign the STP-Lotus turbines in every Championship race he could, but the fact of the matter is that a turbine-powered car hasn’t won a single U.S.A.C. race. Indeed, until three weeks ago, when Art Pollard drove an STP-Lotus to fifth place in a U.S.A.C. road race, not one turbine car had even finished a race. This controversy will no doubt continue to rage, but in the meantime the U.S.A.C. Championship circuit has been enjoying one of its best and most competitive seasons. Gordon Johncock won the opening race of the year, and then Bobby Unser put together a string of four victories that culminated at the Indianapolis 500. In the five races since the 500, however, Unser has hardly been able to finish, let alone win. These five races were won by five different drivers—Lloyd Ruby, Dan Gurney, Gordon Johncock, A. J. Foyt and Al Unser—indicating that the leading contenders are closely matched and that the competition will be stiff in the 13 remaining U.S.A.C. Championship events.

The same can hardly be said of the Sports Car Club of America’s two major race series, which have been largely dominated by one team—Mark Donohue driving the cars owned and prepared by Roger Penske’s racing team. Donohue’s domination has been most complete in the Trans-American series for compact saloons up to 5-litres, in which he has driven Penske’s Chevrolet Camaro to victory in six of the last seven races. Fords’ Mustangs, which won the Trans-Am Championship for the first two years, managed to win only the first race this year (run concurrently with the 24 Hours of Daytona) and have since been plagued by mechanical problems and a lack of horsepower. It is significant that when Mustangs won the Championship in 1966 and 1967, the engines and cars were prepared, managed and run entirely by Carroll Shelby’s team. This year, Shelby’s people still manage the cars at the track but the engines are prepared by Ford itself and the cars are set up by Shelby to Ford’s specification. It brings to mind the folk song with the title “When Will They Ever Learn?” The best feature of the Trans-Am series has beets the remarkably successful return to racing by the small American Motors Corp. Their Javelins only began campaigning at Sebring in March but in five of the last six races they have finished second three times and third twice.

Donohue has also dominated the S.C.C.A.’s U.S. Road Racing Championship series for Group 7 cars, although not quite so completely. Driving Penske’s McLaren Mk. 6A powered by a 7-litre Chevrolet, Donohue has won four of the first seven races (the most recent being at Watkins Glen in mid-July), and has earned 39 points in defence of the Championship he won last year. His strongest opposition has come from Chuck Parsons, the 1966 U.S. road-racing champion, and Skip Scott, who drive a pair of 6-litre Chevrolet-powered Lola T70s sponsored by Simoniz. Parsons had 25 points alter seven races and Scot had 24.—D. G.