Whatever the future holds, NASCAR still has its rich history, as one episode concerning moonshine in Middle Georgia proves…
For quite some time now, roundy-roundy NASCAR racing has enjoyed a near-stranglehold upon American TV mass-market motor sports audiences. How that market might hold up in future is presently demanding close analysis.
Current NASCAR vehicles based upon the best of presently available production models have, with downsizing, been in danger of losing much of the massive majesty that was once such a defining feature of racing on the high-banked ovals. The 60 per cent effective nationalisation of the rump of collapsed General Motors, and belated acknowledgement that unbridled consumption of fossil fuels is not a right even in a nation groomed to live off the fat of the land, is sending shock waves through future planning. A field of 40 stock cars starting the 2020 Daytona 500 could be so different from today’s.
Worst-case scenario perhaps suggests a fleet of ‘green’ 1098cc hybrid gasoline/electric/fuel cell minicars – fresh from Detroit’s protectionist State-owned Peoples’ Production Car Plants Nos 1 and 3 – whirring past the green flag to start the day-long grind… Coo-err, can’t wait to watch. For me, however, five minutes of current NASCAR race highlights is quite enough. One can only watch so much left-turn-only formation flying at one sitting – but the 60-year history of the Southern States’ major game is still a fascination, packed with sensation, intrigue and perhaps the most ingeniously inventive cheating in the entire motor sporting world.
And of course the cultural background in which NASCAR racing developed and has since thrived throws up all kinds of historical delights of its own. One which has a particular piquancy is an incident which hit the headlines in Macon, Georgia, in November, 1967. The Middle Georgia 500 race went ahead there even though Federal and State officers had just located what NASCAR historian Greg Fielden described as “…a huge moonshine still neatly located under the .534-mile facility” (of Middle Georgia Raceway at Macon). He related in his wonderful four-volume NASCAR history how Peach County Sheriff Reggie Mullis called it “one of the most well-built stills ever operated”. The rozzers had found it in a 125ft-long tunnel accessible only by ladder down a 35ft shaft hidden under a trapdoor in the floor of a Raceway ticket booth to the north of the track. At the end of the tunnel they found a 2000-gallon cooker, a 1200-gallon box fermenter and a 750-gallon gas fuel tank for the cooking process. There was even a yellow-light set-up “…to keep bugs out of the mash”. The still was estimated to be capable of producing 200 gallons of hooch whiskey every five days.
The discovery resulted in track president H Lamar Brown Jr being charged with possession of apparatus for distilling illegal liquor. And when his case came up the month after Bobby Allison had won the Middle Georgia 500 in his Holman Moody Ford – beating Richard Petty’s ’67 Plymouth into second place – Mr Brown was tried before a jury of his peers, and found not guilty. Yee-haaa y’all…
A Silverstone throne not quite fit for a king…
Recession? What recession? Unless we are repeatedly taught the lesson we forget just how severely austerity and shortages of everything have occasionally gripped the countries of the so-called ‘developed’ world. Mindful of the media-directed advertising backdrops which appear for everything these days, from post-match soccer, cricket, rugby and motor racing interviews to horse-race prize presentations and political electioneering, we came across the photo here of the ‘lavish’ royal viewing stand erected at Stowe Corner at the ‘Royal Silverstone’ British Grand Prix meeting in May 1950.
Of course that feature race is much cited these days since the future of Silverstone as a Formula 1 World Championship venue is obscure – to say the least – while ‘Royal Silverstone’ witnessed the inaugural round of the FIA’s debutant Drivers’ World Championship series. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, with their younger daughter Princess Margaret, were driven around the course and taken out to Stowe to watch the works Alfettas crushing all opposition from Maserati, Talbot-Lago, ERA and Alta. But the viewing stand erected for them must have represented an investment of at least 15 shillings – probably a dozen steel scaffold poles, wooden planks and a tarpaulin to keep the sun, or rain, at bay. There it stands on the infield with the head of State and his family watching the racing, the two Royal Humbers behind. And not a single, solitary badge or logo – much less an advertising slogan – was anywhere to be seen. A simple structure, in painfully complex times.
The ‘Flymo’ Ferrari that became an instant winner
Just over 30 years ago, Denis Jenkinson of Motor Sport returned home from the South African Formula 1 round at Kyalami, and declared “I’ve now seen everything! I’ve just seen a couple of lawn mowers finish first and second in a Grand Prix!”
He was in a fairly testy mood, to be honest, having spent almost the entire trip near-prostrate from a bout of ’flu – plus the agonising onset of a kidney stone, from which he used to suffer badly – but look back at the aerodynamic envelope of the 1979 Ferrari 312T4 today and you can see what had rattled his particular cage. The tea-tray body shape looks straight out of the Flymo styling studio.
Its front end treatment was calculated to harness airflow into broad underwing tunnels along both sides of the slim aluminium monocoque chassis nacelle. Front suspension spring and damper units were tucked in tight within a narrower foot box than that of the preceding 312T3 model. The rear suspension units were also tucked inboard to clear underwing airflow exit, and the radiators were raked steeply forward in each sidepod, just abreast of the cockpit. The main bodywork moulding comprised a huge one-piece top cowl intended to contribute almost as much downforce as the underwings below.
The T4s were introduced at Kyalami after old T3s had been used in the season-opening South American races. Gilles Villeneuve drove T4 chassis ‘037’ and Jody Scheckter ‘038’. The race was interrupted by a red flag due to torrential rain. Villeneuve then led the restart on a wet track, while Scheckter’s local knowledge saw him gamble by starting on dry tyres, believing the surface would dry. He was right, but he blistered the tyres after inheriting the lead as Villeneuve stopped to change from wet tyres to dry.
Scheckter clung on to his advantage until a locking brake flat-spotted a tyre and forced him in for a change. His delay handed the race back to Villeneuve, who held off his team-mate to the finish for a Ferrari T4 one-two on its debut. Rather reminiscent of Brawn… but at least Brackley’s finest today is unlikely to be taken for a Flymo.
Lotus goes out on a wing
“The management of aerodynamic downforce is absolutely key to modern racing car performance.” So said Colin Chapman 40 years ago, at the start of 1969. The great man – and despite his variable ethics he was a great figure – was correct in his assessment but in practice not as proficient as he would have liked in achieving that aim. After signposting the way ahead with the Lotus 78 ‘wing car’ of 1977, and dominating F1 with the Type 79 ground-effects car of ’78, he and his people lost the plot with the Type 80 of ’79. Team Lotus’s opposition had been forced forward by the success of the Type 79, as driven by Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson, to achieve higher standards of chassis and suspension rigidity and robustness. These were demanded just to survive the ever-increasing aerodynamic loads being generated by the Lotus-led era of ever-bigger wing surfaces.
The Lotus 80 emerged as an attempt to produce a low-drag ground-effects car which would be quicker along the straights and generate its download from longer, lower-drag underwing surfaces. Initially it had no add-on wings at nose and tail, just a lateral rear trim tab. In early testing a snag was identified in that its full-length lazy-ess curved side skirts inevitably jammed in their vertical slides if one end should be lifted significantly relative to the other – as when the driver took an over-optimistic bite of high kerb. The skirt boards were moulded in carbon/foam sandwich material and without a separate rear wing the Lotus 80 was totally reliant upon the underwings and side-skirt system for its download. The underwings were very long, their area very large, and in use their download effect – and in particular their effective centre of pressure location – proved uncontrollable. The car’s public debut was delayed by unsatisfactory testing until the postponed Race of Champions at Brands Hatch on April 15, when a conventional rear wing was attached by race morning.
The car persistently pitched and porpoised badly. And any pitch would rapidly wear away its undernose skirts. Problems with slide-jamming by the curved-planform main skirts continued. What was effectively a Lotus 80 Mark II was rushed through with more forward-biased weight distribution and shortened sidepods. At Monaco, Mario could only qualify 13th – over 1.5secs slower than Jody Scheckter’s Ferrari T4 on pole.
A Dijon test then revealed, as Lotus aerodynamicist Peter Wright recalled, “the most dreadful bouncing problems”. Stiffening the springs to control porpoising – a self-exciting rhythmic pitch-down/pitch-up condition – rendered the car skittish and hard to control. Team Lotus was locked into a spiral of failure and frustration. Andretti the Faithful persevered with the Type 80 and 80 Mk II, while team-mate Doubting Thomas Reutemann was disillusioned, giving up the 80 as a hopeless case and focusing on his proven, if ageing, Type 79.
But after the French GP at Dijon, Colin agreed to cut Lotus’s losses and park the three Type 80s built. He agreed with Reutemann – and Andretti too, by this time – that they should make the best of the old 79s. So the ‘wingless wonder’ Type 80s were ditched. The bigger the size, the bigger the effect does not always work in one’s favour. Where the unloved Lotus 80 was concerned, the bigger the size, the bigger the problem. Ultimately, it overwhelmed its creators.
Planes, boats and automobiles
Shipping competition cars around the world is today a streamlined business – mere hours by air and your car can be delivered to Australia or Argentina, or indeed in error to Zaire or Zanzibar… We have also regularly shipped cars by surface from the UK to Australia. It’s a case of wheel them into the container, kiss them goodbye, cross your fingers and, thus far, five to six weeks later they are safely dockside Down Under.
I never cease to be surprised at the ambition shown by the great European race teams when surface shipping was the only option pre- and early post-war. Consider the Scuderia Ferrari, Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams which shipped their cars and drivers to race in Brazil, South Africa and to Long Island, USA, during the 1930s. In the ’20s, the factory Talbots had been shipped to race in Sicily chained onto the decks of Algy Guinness’s private yacht.
The development of heavy lift-capacity freighter aircraft during WWII provided the rapid-reaction capability which many manufacturers then exploited, enabling them to make more race starts per car to maximise their earning opportunities. One rare photo shows the big 4.5-litre V12 Ferrari 375 which Maranello shipped to Buenos Aires for the 1953 City GP, run to Fuerza Libre – free formula – rules. Ferrari’s regular four-cylinder monoposti, which would run with 2-litre F2 engines in the World Championship-qualifying Argentine GP, would use 2.5-litre units for the Libre race. Alberto Ascari took pole in the big 375, but his engine suffered in the process and despite overnight work it failed in the race, leaving Farina, Villoresi and new English recruit Mike Hawthorn to finish 1-2-3 in their Ferrari ‘625’s.
After the race, the works Ferraris were returned to Italy for the start of the European season. And to ensure that enthusiastic stevedores and freighter crews did not disport themselves in the cockpits and under the bonnets, the cars were festooned in wire with seals at major intersections. Hmmm, I wonder if it worked?