Nothing but the Holbert truth

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Those who want to chart the rise and fall of American road racing can take one of two approaches. Either they can study the defunct series that once wore the proud banners of Can-Am, GTP and CART (not to mention today’s American Le Mans Series, now languishing on life support), or they can examine the three-generation career of the Holbert family.

Patriarch Bob was one of the first stars of American road racing, campaigning Porsches in the 1950s and later giving the Cobra its maiden win in major international competition. His son Al trained with Roger Penske and Mark Donohue, then went on to claim the most wins of any driver in IMSA history, also pocketing three Le Mans victories along the way.

Al was killed in a private plane crash in 1988, but not before his son Todd spent countless hours in the shop where the ill-fated Porsche Indycar was developed. Todd followed in his father’s footsteps, earning a mechanical engineering degree and pursuing a career in motorsport. He now works, though, not with Indy cars or sports racers but NASCAR pick-ups, part of the show that is killing road racing in the US.

The saga begins more than 50 years ago on circuits such as Watkins Glen and Bridgehampton, where sportscar racing took root in the United States after WWII. Bob Holbert, a Navy veteran working as an auto mechanic in suburban Philadelphia, attended a few of these early races and said to himself, “Darn, that looks like fun”.

In 1952, aged 30, Bob showed up for an SCCA race at Thompson, Connecticut, with an MG TD. ‘They couldn’t find my entry,” he recalls, “so they told me to start at the back of the pack, but I won the race anyway.”

Five years later, after notching countless wins in MGs, Bob moved up to the first in a series of giant-killing Porsches. He and these nimble racers were a perfect fit. By this time, he owned a Porsche (and Volkswagen) dealership, and he quickly mastered the notoriously twitchy chassis. “The Porsches were so much faster in the comers than the big Ferraris and Jag D-types,” he said, “and I could beat them if the races were long enough for them to run out of brakes.”

Bob soon emerged as the region’s top Porschemeister’ — the East Coast counterpoint to Ken Miles, the British expatriate who was California’s premier Porsche stud. Considering how successful they’d been in these underpowered cars, Carroll Shelby figured they’d kick ass with his hairy-chested Cobras, so he hired them to drive his new roadsters.

In 1963, Bob gave the Cobra its first win (at Laguna Seca) in the US Road Racing Championship, the precursor to the Can-Am series, and went on to win the inaugural USRRC title. The next year, he and Dave MacDonald whipped the Ferrari 250GTOs and co-drove to a GT class victory at Sebring in the Cobra Daytona ooupé.

Then it all spun out of control. Seven weeks after Sebring, while shaking down MacDonald’s car at Kent, Washington, Bob suffered the worst crash of his career. Three weeks later, MacDonald was killed in a fiery wreck at Indianapolis. Bob’s business was growing, and he wanted to spend more time with his family. So, at the age of 42, he called it quits.

At this point, Bob’s eldest son, Al, was just getting started. He served his apprenticeship in Penske’s nearby race shop, working under his role-model Mark Donohue. Like Donohue, Al earned a mechanical engineering degree, after which he went club racing in a Porsche 914/6 at the relatively advanced age of 25.

Like his father, Al won first time out. He soon turned pro and, after some seasoning, won back-to-back Camel GT championships in 1976 and 1977 in IMSA’s high-flying rival to the fading Trans-Am series. Emboldened, he moved up to the recently resurrected Can-Am series. He twice finished second in the championship, and twice third, posting wins over guys such as Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jnr.

“Al was very good, very fast, very consistent and very easy on equipment,” reports Lee Dykstra, who designed several of his Camel GT and Can-Am cars. “He was also interested in the engineering side, and he was able to apply his knowledge in setting up his car and choosing the right strategy during the race.”

In 1983, Al was selected by Porsche to partner Hurley Haywood and Vem Schuppan in one of three factory 956s (of 11 altogether) at Le Mans. Al and company were treated very much like a junior crew, but when the other factory cars ran into trouble, the Australian-American team hit the front. Then a door nearly blew off on the Mulsanne Straight, causing damage that resulted in the intercooler running dangerously hot.

Al did the final stint, driving as slowly as he could while staying ahead of the fast-closing 956 of their works partners Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx, who knew all about close Le Mans finishes. On literally the last lap of the race, Al’s engine seized. Thinking fast, he popped the clutch, rammed the gear lever into second and limped home. He took the chequered flag at 20mph, with smoke billowing out the back and the Ickx/Bell Porsche just coming into view.

Al would prove that the victory was no fluke, winning Le Mans again in 1986 and ’87 (Haywood took three Le Mans wins in three different decades.) That said, Al wasn’t one of those spectacular drivers who could transcend his car in the manner of, say, a Hans Stuck. Driving a mid-pack stock car, his early-career foray in Winston Cup was disappointing. Later, he spent a year in CART, but despite finishing fourth in the Indy 500 — two laps behind the leader — he was never really competitive. However, Al’s talents were perfectly suited to the freshly minted IMSA GTP series — essentially an American version of the World Sportscar Championship, with a challenging mix of sprint races and enduros run on an eclectic collection of street circuits, road courses and modified ovals. The cars and even the drivers were equally motley: several prominent racers ended up going to jail for drug-related crimes. But no matter who or what was on the track, Al ran at or near the front.

With his unique combination of driving talent and engineering know-how, Al became the most successful exponent of the IMSA-spec 962, the derivative of the 956. Naturally, the major mods were made by Porsche back at Weissach, but Al further modified the 962 to optimise it for the slower and tighter North American tracks. For example, he developed a roof intercooler to reduce throttle lag and reconfigured the rear wing to increase downforce. It’s no coincidence that he went on to win three GTP championships in four years.

By this time, Al was running Holbert Racing out of a building on the property shared by the car dealerships where he continued to hold down a day job. Despite the team’s impressive record, the operation was modest in comparison to the nearby Penske shop. In its heyday, Holbert Racing had only six employees, and a great deal of the work was done by a loyal cadre of weekend warriors. And by Al himself.

“Al would often come in at lunch, roll up his sleeves and start working on the race cars,” says Tom Seabolt, who began his career with Al on the Winston Cup programme and who ended up serving as his team manager. “When it got down to crunch time, you’d get to work in the morning and find out that he’d been there all night”

Seabolt, like many others, recalls Al with great affection for his fun-loving nature and generosity of spirit. So it’s a surprise to hear Haywood, whose career oddly paralleled Al’s, say that his longtime Porsche rival was once a party-hearty wild man with a hair-trigger temper. “Then he became a born-again Christian,” Haywood explains, “and it turned his life around 180 degrees.”

Al didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, but he made no bones about his principles, even on the racetrack. “Of all the guys I’ve raced against, I enjoyed racing against Al the most,” Haywood says. “He was fair. He always raced you clean. He never did anything to put you in a difficult situation. Not that he’d wave you past: he was very competitive. I’d say to him, ‘Give me a break! God’s on your side!’ And he’d just smile and say, ‘No, it doesn’t work that way’.”

In 1985, Al was tabbed by the brass in Stuttgart to run Porsche Motorsport North America. In ’86, he justified the factory’s faith in him by winning not only the GTP championship but also the 24-hour classics at Le Mans and Daytona. With Porsche’s road car sales in North America at an all-time peak, Al was able to convince the company to mount an assault on CART and the Indy 500.

Flush from its domination of sportscar racing, Porsche decided to develop its own chassis. Big mistake. “At first, we were all concerned,” says Derrick Walker, who was Penske’s vice-president of racing at the time, “but Porsche didn’t understand how racing worked over here. And when we saw that their car didn’t have any ground-effects, we realised it wasn’t going to be competitive.”

The Porsche Indycar that was given its debut at the end of the 1987 season predictably proved to be a disaster. Al convinced the company to develop a Porsche-powered March for 1988. Driver Teo Fabi’s performances improved slowly over the course of the season. Al hired Walker to serve as his team manager and, in late September, Fabi posted his best result of the season: fourth at Nazareth.

Five days later, Al was killed when his twin-engine Piper Aerostar crashed to the ground. Without him to keep nudging the factory in the right direction — and with production car sales plummeting in the States — Porsche’s Indy programme died with hardly a whimper. By the end of the decade, Porsche was also reduced to also-ran status in GTP by the factory efforts of Nissan and then Toyota. By the mid-1990s, IMSA had folded and CART was imploding thanks to the split with the Indy Racing League.

Fast-forward to autumn 2000, though, and I’m working on a story about Dodge’s imminent and much-ballyhooed return to Winston Cup racing. I’m at the North Carolina race shop of Bill Davis Racing, interviewing the engineer in charge of putting together one of these brand-new Dodges. He’s young (26), enthusiastic, well-spoken and university-trained — in short, the antithesis of the good ol’ boys who used to dominate stock car racing. It turns out that his first love was road racing, especially GTP cars. This strikes me as so odd that we chat about it for a while. Then, before closing my notebook, I ask him to spell his name for me. “Todd Holbert,” he says. “H-O-LB-E-R-T”

“Really?” I say absent-mindedly. “Any relation to Al Holbert?”

“He was my father.”

A little more than a year later, one of Todd’s cars became the second Dodge to win a Winston Cup race. Among other duties, Todd is now the race engineer for a Craftsman Truck Series pick-up driven by three-time Winston Cup champion (and TV commentator) Darrell Waltrip. Back in 1977, Waltrip competed in the International Race of Champions — a made-for-TV series for identical Chevrolet Camaros — against none other than Al Holbert. Oh, and by the way, Cale Yarborough, who also competed in that IROC series, raced at Daytona in 1964 against — yep, you guessed it — Bob Holbert. Small world, racing. And what goes around, comes around.