Gordon Kirby – The US Scene

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Driven to race far from home

Phil Hill’s passing near the end of the summer got me thinking about the great era of motor racing that his career straddled, and the large role played in the sport in those days by American drivers, cars and teams. Through the 1950s and ’60s, Phil was a true pioneer of American road racing. Before earning a seat with Ferrari’s factory sports car team, he set the standard for the rapidly expanding Californian sports car racing scene, and was also a mentor and motivator for west coast Ferrari racers Dan Gurney and Richie Ginther. They both followed in Hill’s tyre tracks, graduating from Californian Ferrari drives to factory Ferrari sports cars and then Formula 1, before going on to win Grands Prix for rival constructors; Gurney for Porsche and Brabham and also aboard his own All American Racers Eagle, and Ginther for Honda.

As well as winning the 1961 World Championship aboard the sharknose Ferrari, surely one of the most elegant F1 cars of all time, Hill won a dozen World Championship sports car races co-driving equally classic front-engined Ferrari Monzas, Testa Rossas and 250 GTOs, as well as early rear-engined Ferrari 250P sports-racers. In his last two years of racing Phil also won races in three different Chaparrals: the 2E in which he scored Chaparral’s only Can-Am series win at Laguna Seca in 1966, the 2D coupé which he co-drove with Jo Bonnier to win the Nürburgring 1000Kms the same year, and the high-winged 2F he shared with Mike Spence to win his last race, the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch in ’67.

During this time when the best drivers used to race F1 cars one weekend, sports cars the next, and maybe something else in between, Hill, Gurney and Ginther raced and won in many types of cars in Europe and around the world. A handful of second-level American drivers like Carroll Shelby and Masten Gregory also competed with some success in Europe in those days and, of course, Roger Penske raced successfully in the UK and Europe a handful of times in the early 1960s. Chaparral founder Jim Hall also raced a Lotus-BRM F1 car in Europe in 1963.

Back in the ’50s and ’60s, American drivers, cars and teams were common sights in Europe. Lance Reventlow’s Scarab operation took a brief fling at F1 in 1960, and through that decade we saw race-winning performances from All American Racers’ Eagles, Jim Hall’s Chaparrals and the Cobra and Ford GT40 MkII/MkIV teams run by Shelby, Holman Moody and John Wyer.

As Hill retired, Gurney was hitting his stride with All American Racers and the new Eagle F1 and Indycars. AAR started building Eagles in 1966 and Dan scored an unparalleled victory in the ’67 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, becoming the first and only American ever to win a GP driving a car and engine that he brought to life. Furthermore, the ’67 Eagle-Gurney/Weslake V12 is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful F1 cars ever to race.

But Goodyear was AAR’s primary sponsor and the tyre giant wanted Gurney to race his Eagles successfully at Indianapolis rather than in Europe. After a frustrating 1968 season where Dan was invariably fast but too often failed to finish, Goodyear insisted AAR focus on Indycar racing in ’69. So ended the all-too-brief Formula 1 episode.

Looking back, it’s indelibly clear that the ’60s, and specifically the eight days in June of ’67 when Gurney shared the winning Ford MkIV at Le Mans with A J Foyt, then went on to win at Spa the next weekend aboard his own V12 Eagle, stand as the high point of America’s participation in international racing. Remember, too, that this rare achievement occurred at the same time that the ground-breaking Chaparral sports cars were racing and winning in Europe. From those heady days, it’s been a long and increasingly precipitous decline to the point that the only US driver or team now racing internationally with any distinction is Johnny O’Connell and the factory Corvette ALMS squad.

Through the ’70s, America remained seriously engaged in international racing. Mario Andretti spent most of the decade chasing the F1 World Championship, finally achieving his goal with Lotus in 1978. Andretti won four races in ’77 and six aboard the Lotus 79 in ’78. His last win came in the Dutch GP at Zandvoort in August ’78, and that remains the last Grand Prix – 30 years ago now – won by an American.

Before rejoining Lotus in the spring of 1976, Andretti had started his F1 career with that team in ’68, and then drove part-time for Ferrari for a few years before orchestrating a serious attack with the California-based Vel’s Parnelli Jones Indycar team in 1974-75. Firestone played the same role at VPJ that Goodyear enjoyed with cross-town rival All American Racers, but the VPJ F1 team survived only a few months after Firestone pulled out of racing at the end of ’75. Three years later, after revolutionising Indycar racing with the F1-based Cosworth DFX-powered Parnelli VPJ6B, but still not finding any major sponsor to replace Firestone, VPJ stopped building Indycars as well.

Peter Revson was another American to race regularly in F1 for a few years, winning the British and Canadian GPs for McLaren in 1973 before dying at the wheel of an F1 Shadow in ’74. Mark Donohue also raced F1 for a couple of years, driving, of course, for Roger Penske. Donohue was killed in Austria in 1975 and Penske continued in F1 for a short while, winning with John Watson in Austria a year later. But Roger’s sponsors also wanted him to focus on American racing – Indycars and NASCAR. Carl Haas’s brief F1 fling in 1985 and ’86 with sponsor Beatrice and Ford engines aside, that was the end of the line for American teams in F1.

After Mario left F1 at the end of 1982 to spend the last 12 years of his career racing Indycars with Newman/Haas, the line of American F1 drivers also began to run dry. Through the ’80s, Eddie Cheever became the most experienced American F1 driver in history, but by the end of the decade Cheever had moved on to Indycars. In 1993, Michael Andretti infamously raced for McLaren alongside Ayrton Senna before throwing in the towel near the end of the season and returning home to race Indycars for the rest of his career. Since then, other than Scott Speed’s brief spell courtesy of Red Bull, American drivers have vanished from F1 and, as I look around the sport, I’m afraid to say I can’t imagine we’ll see a competitive American F1 driver or team ever again.

*****

Grand-Am looks to NASCAR support

Grand-Am and its sports car rival the American Le Mans Series were created 10 years ago out of the ashes of IMSA. The godfather of Grand-Am is Jim France, the younger son of NASCAR founder Bill France and brother of Bill Jr, who ran NASCAR from 1972-2003 and who passed away last year after a long battle with cancer. Jim is NASCAR’s vice-chairman and its executive vice-president, but is also the chairman and CEO of the International Speedway Corporation, the publicly-traded company that owns a dozen race tracks including Daytona, Talladega and Watkins Glen.

Echoing NASCAR’s concept of restricted rules and close competition among similar-looking cars, Grand-Am formally comes under NASCAR’s control in 2009. Jim France hopes the move will help to market and expand the series, and he is encouraging some NASCAR teams, notably Richard Childress Racing, to run Grand-Am cars or build engines for the series as well as trying to attract the odd Sprint Cup star to race in Grand-Am beyond the Daytona classic.

This year’s Grand-Am title was won by Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas in Chip Ganassi’s lone Lexus-Riley (above). It’s Pruett’s second Grand-Am title and Ganassi’s third in five years. Ganassi’s cars have also won the past three Rolex 24 hours at Daytona – but the hope is it will soon have some added competition.

*****

Time for Atlantic to sink or swim

The 2008 Atlantic championship went down to the wire at Road Atlanta in October, where it was claimed by 24-year-old Finnish rookie Markus Niemela (above). By scoring a decisive win in the finale, Niemela leapfrogged title rivals Jonathan Bomarito and Jonathan Summerton, neither of whom finished the race. Bomarito led the series for most of the year, but dropped out at Atlanta with a mechanical failure, while Summerton crashed with two laps to go while trying to retrieve second place.

Champ Car revitalised the Atlantic series two years ago with a new Swift chassis, Mazda/Cosworth engine and a $2 million champion’s prize, but with Champ Car’s final failure last winter Atlantic found itself an orphan. Nor did the $2m bonus survive. This year’s series was sanctioned by IMSA and ran as a support event at a motley collection of ALMS, Grand-Am, IRL and other races. Atlantic continues, but its role in the ladder system has been badly muddled. Without a strong calendar or clear identity, it’s unlikely that it will continue to attract the sort of young drivers and sponsors who have given the series a healthy boost in recent years.