American Comment

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Ford’s string of four consecutive victories in the first four races of the SCCA’s Trans-Am series for sports saloons was finally broken when Mark Donohue drove one of Roger Penske’s American Motors Javelins to victory in the fifth race of the series at the Bridgehampton circuit on Long Island. Donohue and Penske have won the Championship for the past two years with their Chevrolet Camaros but this was the first victory ever for American Motors in the Trans-Am series. Swede Savage again put the All American Racers Plymouth Barracuda on the pole position and easily dominated the first one-third of the rain-drenched race until sidelined by differential failure. Donohue then took the lead and held it for the remaining 125 miles of the 200-mile race, building up a lead of over two laps in the process. It is significant, though, that although two laps back, the Mustangs of George Follmer and Parnelli Jones were in second and third, which not only put them in a position to take advantage of the slightest miscue by Donohue, but also prevented other teams from picking up points. Chevrolet Camaros occupied the next three places but even the semi-works cars prepared by Jim Hall’s Chaparral cars still were not showing any sign of being a serious threat. Ed Leslie in one of Hall’s cars had scored the best Camaro finish when he was placed second in the second race—a far cry from eight victories for Penske’s Camaros last year and to the year before.

All this changed, however, when the sixth race of the series was held at the Donnybrooke circuit in Minnesota and proved to be just that— a donnybrook. Savage again put his Barracuda on the pole and had built up a lead of over a minute by two-thirds distance when he became locked in 2nd gear. By that time Sam Posey’s Dodge Challenger, Donohue’s Javelin, Jerry Titus’ Pontiac Firebird, Ed Leslie’s Camaro and Jones’ Mustang had all retired, and Milt Minter in an independent Camaro found himself in the lead. It was an unusual turn of events, but Follmer still had his Mustang in second place and when he caught Minter during the final 15 miles of the 210-mile race there ensued five laps of real fender-to-fender and door-to-door combat. Follmer is not new to that sort of thing but Minter can hold his own when he has to, and when the two cars bumped again on the final turn of the final lap it was Follmer who went spinning off and Minter who took the chequered flag. Follmer recovered to finish second, 11 sec. behind, and when he tried to continue his battle with Minter in the pits he was fined and reprimanded by the Stewards. Minter’s team-mate, Roy Woods, was third, two laps back, in another Camaro, and fourth was Joe Leonard in Jim Hall’s Camaro. (Always a realist, Hall had decided that he just didn’t seem to be able to drive as fast as he did before his serious Can-Am crash at Las Vegas in November 1968.)

With six of the scheduled 13 races run, Ford continued to lead the Championship with 48 points, followed by Chevrolet with 26, American Motors with 25, Dodge with 7 and Plymouth with 5. Ford’s early domination had been entirely expected because their team, run by former NASCAR chief mechanic Bud Moore, is the only one that is virtually unchanged from last year. These last two races had shown, however, that a few of the other teams have now got their new cars sorted and are ready to give Ford a run for their money during the second half of the series. Donohue is a constant threat but the Javelins desperately need greater reliability from their Traco-prepared engines. Savage, on the other hand, appears to have few engine problems (he has put his AAR Barracuda on the pole for the last three races and then led all of them comfortably) but needs greater reliability from the transmission and drive train.

In NASCAR’S equivalent of the Trans-Am, the Grand American Challenge series, the situation is a distinct contrast and Chevrolet leads the standings by a comfortable 153 points to 64 for American Motors, 51 for Mercury, 27 for Pontiac and a lowly 11 for Ford. The reason for Chevrolet’s domination is 6 ft. 4 in. Dewayne (Tiny) Lund, who has driven his Camaro to victory 14 times in the first 18 races—including a string of 10 consecutive wins and 13 times on the pole position. Despite this impressive record, though, Lund only leads the Grand American Challenge series by 994 points to 968 for Ken Rush, who also drives a Camaro and has consistently finished in the top six.

In NASCAR’S senior circuit, the Grand National Division, the battle for both the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ Championships is even closer, and at the halfway mark in the season (26 out of 52 races) James Hylton and Bobby Isaac are actually tied for the lead with 2,059 points! This is a tremendous achievement by Hylton and his crew because his Ford is independently entered and, unlike Isaac’s Dodge, receives no factory support. Quite apart from that, Hylton has kept himself in contention despite the fact that he has only one victory to his credit compared with seven for Isaac. In the Manufacturers’ Championship (which is based on the familiar 9-6-4-3-2-1 points system) Chrysler has a family feud on its hands since Dodge leads Plymouth by 152 points to 144. Ford is third with 122 points, followed by Mercury with 46, Chevrolet with 4 and Buick with 1. Ford’s financial cutback earlier this year and their decision only to contest the major races has paid off to the extent that they have won five major events of 400 miles or more (the ones that attract the huge crowds and receive heavy press and television coverage), compared with four for Plymouth and only one for Dodge. On the other hand, not one of Ford’s works-supported drivers is even in the top 20 in the Drivers’ Championship, and unless Hylton can work a miracle with his independent Ford the factory doesn’t have a chance in the Manufacturers’ Championship either.

The SCCA’s Continental Championship for Formula A (5000) cars continues to suffer from a shortage of top-flight names to pull in the crowds but the drivers that are taking part are fairly evenly matched and this has produced several closely-contested races. Gus Hutchison in an ex-Jacky Ickx Cosworth-Ford Brabham BT26 has won the last two races and as a result has moved into a narrow three-point lead in the Championship over Canadian John Cannon, who drives a Chevrolet-powered McLaren M10B. With six of the 14 races run, Hutchison has 53 points, Cannon 50 and Ron Grable, who drives a Chevrolet-powered Lola T190, 46 points. Each of these drivers has won two races. John Gunn, whose Surtees TS-5A finished second to Hutchison in each of the last two events, is in fourth place in the standings with 42 points; television comedian Dick Smothers, who drives a Lotus 70, is fifth with 32; and Dave Jordan’s Eagle has earned 29 points for sixth place. Hutchison’s two victories were the first ever for a 3-litre Formula One car in the Continental Championship, but with a McLaren and a Lola also having scored two wins, and six different makes in the top six places in the standings, the competition is obviously close. But it would only take one superior driver to give a clear indication of the real standard of competition, and David Hobbs may be that driver. Last year Hobbs missed the first five races in the series but then came over and won four of the next eight and finished second in the Championship. Hobbs missed the first five races this year, too, but appeared for the sixth and had built up a lead of well over a minute when a rocker arm broke in his Chevrolet-powered Surtees TS-5A. He carried on until the engine suddenly died with only five laps to go and as a result did not finish. Nonetheless, he had clearly shown his potential and it will be interesting to see how the American drivers compare with him in future races.

Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser continues to hold a clear lead in the USAC Championship with 2,390 points, but his older brother Bobby, the 1968 Champion, and Mario Andretti, the 1969 Champion, are fighting it out for second place with 1,500 and 1,485 points respectively. Bobby Unser saw the winner’s circle for the first time in 12 months when he won a 150-mile race at the 1-mile Langhorne, Pa., oval by just 73/100ths of a second from his brother, who had led most of the way. Andretti (McNamara) and Gordon Johncock (McLaren) disputed third place for much of the race but fell back with tyre and fuel problems respectively. Andretti had no problems at the next race, though, and scored his first win of the year when he drove his McNamara to victory in a 150-mile race over the 2.6-mile road circuit at Continental Divide Raceway in Colorado. Andretti took the lead from Al Unser after 16 of 57 laps and pulled away to win by 41 sec. from Swede Savage, Dan Gurney’s protege who was driving the AAR Eagle while Gurney was competing in a Can-Am race. A. J. Foyt’s Coyote finished third, two laps down, followed by Bobby Unser’s Eagle and Al Unser’s Colt. In the next event, run over 100 laps of the banked, 2-mile oval at Michigan International Speedway, young Gary Bettenhausen surprised his peers by winning the pole position with his turbo-Offy Gerhardt at 180.451 m.p.h. and then tucking his nose right in behind Johncock’s McLaren, which started from the second row but took over the lead on the third lap. One hundred and seventy-five miles later he was still there, and when the right rear hub on Johncock’s McLaren failed with just nine laps to go Bettenhausen took over to score the second Championship of his career. Andretti and Al Unser were both eliminated by accidents but Bobby Unser brought his Eagle home second, just ahead of Johnny Rutherford’s similar car.—D. G.

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