American Comment

Most of the last eight weeks have been spent following the Canadian-American Challenge Cup and a number of the United States Auto Club’s championship events, so since this is my first American Comment I thought it would be interesting to give a brief background to the motor-racing scene on this side of the water.

In the United States the governing body for the sport is A.C.C.U.S., the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States, which is made up of representatives of the S.C.C.A. (Sports Car Club of America), U.S.A.C. (United States Auto Club), N.A.S.C.A.R. (National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing) and the N.H.R.A. (National Hot Rod Association). The formation of A.C.C.U.S. produced a rather stormy marriage at first. None of the individual groups adapted easily to accepting rulings from an overall governing body, even an American one, and as for the in Paris . . . well, their views on that subject were not printable in a family journal. Over the past five years, though, the four sanctioning bodies have learned to live together in reasonable amity. The general principle of an overall governing body is accepted and there is fairly close co-operation on such things as rules, driver interchange and the growing problem of trying to find 75 racing weekends in a 52-week year.

For the most part the four groups specialise in a particular form of racing, but there is some overlapping and there promises to be more this year (which may introduce some friction in their relationship). As the name implies, the S.C.C.A. is interested mainly in road racing as Europeans know it. Its principal events are the U.S. Road Racing Championship and the Can-Am series, both for Group 7 cars, and the Trans-American Championship for saloons. The S.C.C.A. shied away from saloon racing for a long time and it was only in 1966 that it launched the Trans-Am series. It got off to a good start, quickly attracted works entries, and in two years has established itself as one of the most popular forms of S.C.C.A. racing. The cars are divided into two main classes: up to 2-litre and 2-litre to 5-litre. There is a maximum wheelbase of 116 inches, so the principal contenders are the Ford Mustangs and the rest of the highly popular group known over here as “Ponycars”—Chevrolet Camaros, Mercury Cougars, Plymouth Barracudas and Dodge Darts. This year even the staid American Motors Corp. (the father of the “compact” and, under former President George Romney, a vehement opponent of competition) is going to get in on the act with its new Javelin. In the season just passed, the series went right down to the 12th and final race before Ford’s Mustangs squeaked through to a 64 to 62-point victory over Mercury’s Cougars. Porsche won the under-2-litre division from Alfa Romeo.

The S.C.C.A. has also been slow to establish a national series for open-wheeled cars, which many probably consider the only “true” racing car. However, it did take tentative steps in 1967 to establish a series of races for its Formula A, Formula B and Formula C cars, which are very roughly equivalent to Formula One, Two and Three. And this year the S.C.C.A. has high hopes for a new open-wheeled formula powered by stock block (production) engines of up to 5-litres.

Part of the reason for the S.C.C.A.’s reluctance to get into openwheeled racing in a big way may have been that this has traditionally been the sphere of U.S.A.C. The United States Auto Club has a number of divisions, but the only one of International interest is its Championship Division. These are the cars that run in the Indianapolis 500, and since Jack Brabham started the rear-engined revolution at Indianapolis in 1961 they have increasingly come to resemble a slightly fat version of a Formula One car. The basic rules call for 2.8-litres supercharged, 4.2-litres unsupercharged, and 5-litres if derived from a stock production block. The minimum wheelbase is 96 inches and the minimum weight 1,350 pounds. Incidentally, I see that the R.A.C. has finally approved advertising on the side of the cars, so I assume the Indianapolis and Formula One cars will look even more alike this year. One U.S.A.C. practice that still sits uneasily on my digestive tract is the practice of naming cars after their sponsors rather than their manufacturers—the Vita Fresh Orange Juice Special, for example, or the Thermo King Air Conditioner Special. However, if you win £60,000, as Graham Hill did at Indianapolis in 1966, I don’t suppose you really care if the car is called the American Red Ball Special!

U.S.A.C.’s acceptance of rear-engine cars, albeit reluctantly, has had two interesting side effects. For one thing it has virtually sounded the death knell for the dirt-surfaced oval tracks. The old U.S.A.C. “roadsters” were built like lorries and could stand the tremendous pounding and almost constant broadsliding that the dirt tracks called for. The rear-engined cars can’t, so all but two or three of the ovals used by the Championship Division have been paved. The second, and much more interesting effect has been U.S.A.C.’s increasing involvement with the S.C.C.A.’s speciality—road racing. The championship cars ran four road races this year. Two of them were in Canada, at Mosport near Toronto and at St. Jovite north of Montreal, and two were in the States, at Indianapolis Raceway Park near the Indianapolis Speedway and at Riverside in California, where Dan Gurney scored a tremendously popular victory about a month ago.

While I was at Riverside I had a long chat with Henry Banks, the Competitions Director of U.S.A.C., and he confirmed that U.S.A.C. plans to do a great deal more road racing this year. In addition to the four circuits just mentioned, there will definitely be road races for the championship cars at Continental Divide Raceway in Colorado and at the Stardust track in Las Vegas. Talks were also being held with the owners of the Road America course in Wisconsin, where the 1967 Can-Am series opened, and the Lime Rock course in Connecticut. If all these plans materialise U.S.A.C. will have a total of eight road races—more than one-third of the 23 races on the Championship Trail.

Since the cars were becoming closer to Formula One machines and they were racing on similar tracks, I asked Mr. Banks if there have been any discussions, either with A.C.C.U.S., the R.A.C. or the F.I.A., with a view to settling on one, common International formula. Three and a half litres came to mind, if only because that is about halfway between the 3-litre Formula One and the 4.2-litre size of Ford’s overhead cam Indianapolis engine. Such a change could not be made for three or four years, of course, because the present Formula One would have to run its course, but if it did come about there could be many advantages—greater technical advances, more driver interchange, and even a partially interlocking calendar. Mr. Banks did not dismiss the idea, but he wasn’t optimistic either. “Approaches have been made,” he said, “but there has been nothing really serious. I don’t foresee any changes . . . there is nothing in the offing.”

In other respects, though, U.S.A.C. is slowly adapting to the different parameters imposed by the road circuits. For one thing, races will be run rain or shine this year—at least on the road courses. The reasons given for not racing in the rain up to now were (a) safety and (b) lack of rain tyres. The second reason just didn’t hold water, because obviously such tyres have been available in Europe for years. Now, however, the calendar has become so crowded that alternative dates are no longer available should a race get rained out. In another move connected with tyres, Mr. Banks said that effective June 1st, U.S.A.C. will permit the use of wider wheel rims. Up to now the limit for rear wheels has been 9½ inches, which is one reason why the championship cars were so much slower than both the Formula One cars and the Can-Am cars at Mosport. This year the limit will probably be raised to 14-in. rims at the back and 10-in. at the front. The exact sizes haven’t been finalised yet, but the decision means that the championship cars will be able to use the superwide tyres that Firestone and Goodyear produced for the Can-Am series. Firestone’s tyre is a 6.00/13.50-15.00 and Goodyear’s is 5.75/12.35-15.00. The first figure represents the sectional height, from bead to tread, and the next two figures the maximum tyre width, from sidewall to sidewall. In both cases the actual contact patch is slightly over 12 inches wide. One problem with these tyres is keeping that much rubber on the road, and there are more than a few people who believe that it may be necessary to revert to solid axle suspensions in order to do so. Two chaps who have done this are Ray Caldwell and Sam Posey, who built an interesting Group 7 monocoque car for the Can-Am series that had a solid front axle and a de Dion rear suspension. The car suffered from a number of mechanical problems so they weren’t able to prove (or disprove) their theories, but at Laguna Seca Posey was credited with equalling Bruce McLaren’s lap record.

One final note on U.S.A.C. I stopped briefly in Indianapolis on my way back from California and while I was there Andy Granatelli, the President of Studebaker’s S.T.P. Division, was conducting another of his tests designed to show that U.S.A.C. had been downright discriminatory when it changed the rule applying to turbine engines by reducing the permitted inlet area from 23 square inches to 15 square inches. Mr. Granatelli and his supporters claim that U.S.A.C. has “banned” the turbine car and is “stifling” automotive progress. For one thing, U.S.A.C. never banned the car—the rule change applied only to the engine. Admittedly, the turbine rule as it stood was very rudimentary and Mr. Granatelli was clever enough to take advantage of it, but in changing the rule U.S.A.C. was only doing what every ruling body tries to do—equalise the competition among all the myriad formulae, classes and divisions that pervade every sport from motor racing to boxing and soccer. Mr. Granatelli’s object in this recent test was to show that U.S.A.C. had, at the very least, imposed too great a restriction. “Our tests show that 480 h.p., the very maximum we can expect to get from the small 15-in. turbine now mandatory by U.S.A.C. rules, would not let is qualify for the race. We deliberately cut our power to 480 h.p. in this test (by adjusting the fuel regulator valve) and Jimmy Clark drove more than 130 miles and cruised easily at 155 to 157 m.p.h., peaking out at 160-161. Last Spring he cruised the same car at 159-162 with 550 h.p. in the engine. We might do well in the race, but 161 m.p.h. won’t qualify.” Mr. Granatelli is probably right there, because Parnelli Jones qualified the car at 166.075 m.p.h. in last year’s Indianapolis 500 and the slowest qualifier got in with 160.602—but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the S.T.P. Turbocar in the Indianapolis line-up in May.—D. G.