How motor sport works
New autobiography is a lively reminder that things aren’t always as they seem on the surface
A friend has a wonderful collection of Porsche 956/962 models, sporting almost every one of the many liveries the cars wore during their front-line lives. Among them, two caught my eye – the John Fitzpatrick/Derek Warwick
J David car that humbled the Rothmans-liveried works Porsches in winning the 1983 Brands Hatch 1000Kms, and a Skoal Bandit-liveried version from 1984. I had just been reading about them in Fitzpatrick’s new book Fitz: My Life at the Wheel (Autosports Marketing Associates – ISBN 978-0-692-72543-6).
Racing driver biographies are always worthwhile, not so much for any recital of past on-track triumphs but for any new behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
The US-based Fitzpatrick team’s Group C exploits were funded by San Diego money man Jerry Dominelli, head of the J David investments enterprise. They ran the contemporary Porsche 956 that Fitz recalls – after first testing it – as performing like “Nothing I had ever driven before. It seemed glued to the ground compared to the 935… It was a difficult car to drive slowly, but as the speed built up it was amazing. It seemed to me that I could just keep on entering the corners faster each lap, and the car just hung on. The gearbox was a dream, and the brakes felt like a huge hand had grabbed the car.
“It wasn’t one you just hopped into and got the hang of after three or four laps. It was probably easier for an experienced F1 driver to master it quickly, as they’d had massive downforce for several years.” In testing Fitz also found, “After 10 laps I could feel the strain on my neck muscles of holding my head up straight. Obviously I was going to have to work on a fitness programme.”
Subsequently Fitz was contacted by ex-F1 driver Guy Edwards, who was building quite a track record for himself as a sponsor finder. He told Fitz he had someone interested in sponsoring a car at Le Mans. Might Fitz be interested in running an extra 956 for himself, Guy and Rupert Keegan? The sum mentioned riveted Fitz’s full attention. The would-be sponsor was US Tobacco promoting its Skoal chewing tobacco brand, seeking European exposure.
Fitz spoke to Porsche and took over a cancelled 956 order, intending to run one J David car and one Skoal car at Le Mans in ’83. The team’s prime backer Dominelli was a an avid Porsche fan who had founded his investment company in the basement of a Mexican restaurant in 1979, while promising returns of 40-50 per cent. J David & Co attracted some 1500 eager investors, but in reality it became a massive Ponzi scheme…
In early 1984 Dominelli would flee to Montserrat to evade Federal investigators, only to be turned away by the island authorities. Landing in Antigua, he was promptly deported back to Florida and arrested by US officials. He was indicted in May 1984. While in jail that October, he then suffered (according to US sources) a stroke – Fitz says a heart attack – but survived to plead guilty to four felony charges in March 1985. He was jailed for 20 years that June, and ordered to pay $82million restitution. In 1996 he was paroled to live in Chicago, but died on August 2, 2009.
Back in 1983, meanwhile, just pre-Le Mans, Fitz was feverishly trying to pay Porsche for the new Skoal 956 but into the last week before the race Porsche was still telling him that no such payment had arrived. Dominelli wasn’t answering ’phone calls, so in desperation Fitz went to his office, only to be told his elusive backer was in London. “I went home, found my passport and drove to Los Angeles. I took the overnight BA flight to London, took a taxi to Duke’s Hotel in Mayfair where Jerry always stayed, and found him in the dining room having breakfast.
“‘Hey John, how’s it going?’– his usual greeting, as if it was nothing unusual for me to walk into his hotel in London at 9 o’clock in the morning…”
Fitz explained that he needed the Porsche payment urgently or it would be too late to run at Le Mans. “‘No problem. Why didn’t you tell me it was urgent?’ What could I say? He opened his wallet, took out a folded-up cheque, wrote it out for $250,000, signed it and gave it to me. I thanked him, ran out of the hotel, took a taxi back to Heathrow in time to catch the BA flight back to LA. I called the bank manager from LA and told him I was coming with a substantial cheque and would he wait for me. Our truck was waiting at Porsche and the next morning picked up the car, took it to the paint shop and then set off for Le Mans. We made it…”
In that 1983 race, the 956 Fitz was co-driving with David Hobbs and Dieter Quester ran fourth, best of the privateers, until a fuel system problem forced them out. He then joined Edwards and Keegan in the new Skoal car, and they finished very respectably, fifth overall. Skoal was delighted and began talking of a full two-car team for 1984 – while Fitz had his work cut out extricating his team (successfully) from Dominelli’s liabilities.
There has always been a great deal more to top-tier motor sport than merely what happens on track.
On a wing and a prayer
A few of the late, great Phil Hill’s recollections about the early days of Can-Am
It’s now 50 years since Jim Hall’s Chaparral 2E Can-Am cars focused motor racing’s attention upon the download benefits of tall, strutted wings. Phil Hill came within an ace of winning the inaugural Can-Am Championship for the Texan team, driving as Jim’s team-mate.
I had the pleasure of working with Phil for many years. He was just a wonderful bloke, and a far more formidable driver than he gets credit for. He was also one of the most intelligent and thoughtful people I have ever known, and for more than 10 years now I have been working to finish a series of books for him, including his detailed autobiography. They are illustrated predominantly by the magnificent colour photographs he took from 1950-62 and anyone interested can follow progress on the internet, at phil-hill-book.com.
Regarding the futuristic high-winged Chaparral-Chevrolet 2E, with its wonderfully organic, fluid lines, Phil recalled: “I had great faith in everything Chaparral did. The car was great to drive.”
These winged Chaparrals made their racing debut at the 1966 Bridgehampton Can-Am round, but it went badly after “Hall had set the Bridgehampton lap record the previous year but now he went out and lowered it by about six seconds. That was fantastic, but when I took my car out during practice it suddenly just flew off the road up onto a hillside.
“And then something occurred that happened to me twice with Chaparral, which I thought was remarkable, yet terrible and awesome at the same time. First, Jim said ‘OK, take my car out.’
“By then it was late afternoon. There were shadows from the sun behind and I remember going down the straight seeing my own shadow stretched out in front of me and all of a sudden seeing the two wing uprights sort of go ‘Voomp.’ I immediately pulled over and stopped. The wing had collapsed.
“It always amazed me with Chaparral that whatever happened to one car would happen to the other in short order. I mean it says a lot for their consistency in approach or their ability to be accurate. Those two cars were just prepared as alike as any two team cars ever could be.”
Phil finished second at Mosport, then at Laguna Seca led a wonderful winged-Chaparral 1-2 finish. Problems intruded at Riverside, but in the deciding race at Las Vegas Phil recalled: “John Surtees and I were tied for the title. Hall and I kind of ganged up on John during practice, going out as a formation pair and lapping together…
“We lined up on the grid with our two white Chaparrals side by side. On the next row were Amon and Surtees, but no way were they going to stay there, because off the startline the Chaparral with its auto transmission was just hopeless. The 2E would go off the startline like a ’41 Dodge Fluid Drive… I mean they were just dead because of that darned automatic gearbox. Probably the altitude of Las Vegas didn’t help either.”
And in Turn One Parnelli Jones’s charging Lola T70 promptly took a huge bite out of Phil’s right-front fender. “Thereafter my car just understeered like a pig. Hall’s wing actuation rod snapped and he pulled into the pits [and] soon after, that Chaparral identical-twin characteristic happened again, and the same thing happened to my wing system.
“I asked Jim what should I do, give it up or press on. He shrugged and said ‘It’s entirely your decision.’. I rejoined, then came in again for them to remove the wing completely. They replaced it with a spacer bar just to brace the empty uprights. But only an idiot would want to go out there then, because without the wing the 2E was the most diabolical-handling car
I have ever driven in my life. I finally finished seventh – and John Surtees and Lola took that first Can-Am title.
“I remember Hall and Sharp and the crew guys being really down and terribly apologetic. No need – we really did sink or swim as a team. At that moment, despite my disappointment at losing the championship, I felt comfortable to have become a Chaparral guy.”