The United States Auto Club’s 1969 Championship Trail got off to an unexpected start when Follmer won the opening 150-mile race over the 1-mile oval track at Phoenix, Ariz. It was unexpected for two reasons. First, Follmer is primarily a road-racing driver (the 1965 U.S. Road-racing Champion) and he was competing in only his fourth oval track race. Second, his space-frame car, built by Howard Gilbert, used a relatively inexpensive (£2,250) Chevrolet stock block engine to outlast and outrun turbocharged Offenhausers and Fords costing up to six times as much. It was the first victory in Championship racing history for a Chevrolet-powered car and the first time since the 1946 Indianapolis 500 that a Championship race had been won by other than a Ford or Offenhauser-powered car. Since it was the first race of the season the attrition rate was high—pole position winner Al Unser in a turbo-Ford-powered Lola, Andretti in a turbo-Ford-powered Hawk and U.S.A.C. Champion Bobby Unser in a turbo-Offenhauser-powered Eagle all led the race before retiring. Nonetheless, Follmer did qualify second fastest and he finished three laps ahead of Dallenbach’s turbo-Offenhauser-powered Eagle at a record average speed of 109.86 m.p.h. Follmer’s Chevrolet was prepared by the California tuner Al Bartz and his victory came as a great tonic to advocates of stock block engines, but it remains to be seen whether they can regularly beat the turbocharged engines on oval tracks.
U.S.A.C. narrowed the gap slightly last autumn when it raised the size of non-supercharged stock block engines from 5-litres to 5.25-litres and at the same time lowered the size of supercharged overhead-camshaft engines from 2.8-litres to 2.64-litres. No one denies that the supercharged engines are still far more powerful (roughly 675 h.p. against 575 h.p. for a stock block engine) but the important point is the amount of usable power, not the absolute power. The stock block engines produce their power over a broader r.p.m. range and this flexibility makes them much more suitable for the great speed variations encountered on road circuits. On the other hand, the supercharged engines produce their greater power over a much narrower r.p.m. range, which makes them ideal for the more constant speeds encountered on oval tracks. (The power and torque of supercharged engines fall off so rapidly as the r.p.m.s drop that virtually no supercharged engines are used in U.S.A.C. road races.) Another interesting development this year is the appearance of turbocharged stock block engines, which are permitted a size of 3.3-litres. Car and engine builder Jerry Eisert claims over 700 h.p. on the dynamometer from his turbocharged stock block Chevrolets, and if he can produce reliability to match the power these engines should be far more economical than Ford’s turbocharged overhead-camshaft engines, which cost about £14,000.
The second round of the Championship, a 150-mile race over the tri-oval at Hanford, Calif., ran closer to form but also produced a surprise when Andretti gave Andy Granatelli his first Championship victory in 23 years of trying. Driving the Brawner Hawk (a Brabham copy) that Granatelli bought from him in March, Andretti won the pole position and then led the race from start to finish. The Hawk was fitted with the turbocharged overhead-camshaft engine on which Ford was pinning its Indianapolis 500 hopes. Since their failure in last year’s 500, these engines have been modified considerably—including the fitting of an AirResearch waste gate on the Schwitzer turbocharger. (AirResearch makes the turbochargers for the rival Offenhausers.) Ford claims these engines are developing over 700 h.p. at 10,000 r.p.m. with better fuel economy and a 75% reduction in the time lag between application of the throttle and response from the turbocharger. Further race testing of the engine before Indianapolis became impossible when the third Championship race of the season at Trenton, N.J., was postponed to July because the re-paved track surface was not ready.
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By the time the U.S.A.C. contingent arrived at Indianapolis for the month-long practice and qualifying sessions leading up to the May 30th 500-mile race, the entry list had swollen to 84—the second largest in Speedway history and only six short of the 1967 record of 90. It was also one of the most varied fields in a long time. Less than 10 years ago the cars at Indianapolis were so similar that only the paint schemes differed. One bought a chassis from A. J. Watson, an engine from Offenhauser, and tried to make the combination faster than all the other similar cars. This year there were no less than 25 different types of chassis and to different types of engine. The most popular chassis were Gerhardt (16) and Eagle (12). Offenhausers were the most common engine (39, all turbocharged), followed by Ford with 25 (2 of them turbocharged), Chevrolet stock blocks with 11 (three turbocharged), two Repcos, two stock block Plymouths, one stock bloc Gurney-Eagle, one turbocharged stock block Rambler, and one Allison turbine engine with an inlet area of 11.85 sq. in. Despite the fact that U.S.A.C. has restricted four-wheel-drive cars to 10-in. wheel rim widths this year (compared with 14 in. for two-wheel-drive cars) and banned 4-w-d altogether in 1970, 13 of the 84 entries had 4-w-d. Firestone helped its customers get around the 10-in, wheel restriction by producing a racing version of its LXX passenger-car tyre. This tyre has a very low 60% aspect ratio and cantilevered sidewall construction that enables the tyre to project well beyond the width of the wheel.
Practice got off to a very slow start this year, despite perfect weather, and at the end of the first week less than one-third of the entries had passed technical inspection. Among those who were ready were three-time winner Foyt and his team-mate McCluskey with their two-wheel-drive, turbo-Ford-powered Coyotes. After just three run on the track Foyt was running 169.237 m.p.h.—which compared very favourably with the one-lap record of 171.953 m.p.h. set by Leonard in last year’s STP-Lotus turbine. Al Unser, in the same turbo-Ford-powered 4-w-d Lola he drove last year, also got into the 169-m.p.h. bracket, but then Andretti began getting his turbo-Ford-powered, 4-w-d STP-Lotus into its stride. His was the only STP-Lotus that did any practice for the first 11 days, and on the same day that Hill made his first appearance Andretti ran 170.197m.p.h. The next day Andretti raised that figure to 171.494, which was then the third fastest lap in the Speedway’s history.
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After a series of informal talks that were a well-kept secret, the Sports Car Club of America and the United States Auto Club have formally announced that initial steps are being taken toward a possible merger of the two sanctioning organisations. Both clubs have passed a resolution saying: “We . . . intend our organisations to co-operate together in a manner that will best develop, direct and unify the areas of the sport over which we presently exercise separate authority. This may include possible contractual arrangements, merger, the creation of a new entity, or other alternatives which may seem appropriate.” A six-man joint committee has been appointed to pursue the matter. The possibility of a merger came as a surprise to members of both groups and is bound to meet opposition, but as an S.C.C.A. spokesman pointed out: “The S.C.C.A. sees various clubs in the sport on a close collision course as racing is growing up geographically. There is a tremendous investment from industry and all the clubs are vying for it. There is presently a clash in dates available and driver availability for a specific race.” Although U.S.A.C. does have a small Stock Car Division, it is primarily concerned with single-seater, open-cockpit racing. The S.C.C.A. is primarily a road-racing organisation, and a merger of the two clubs could consolidate all formula and sports-car racing under one roof, leaving N.A.S.C.A.R. to run the late model stock-car races as it does now.
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In a move designed to encourage competition by cars more representative of those for general sale, the Automobile Competition Committee of the United States has announced a higher minimum production requirement for stock cars in 1970 and an overall reduction in engine size for 1971. In 1970 the minimum production requirement for car bodies will be raised from the present 500 to either 1,000 or a figure representing one-half the number of franchised dealers of the make, whichever is larger. (Ford, for example, with approximately 5,900 dealers, would have to produce 2,950 examples of a model to get it accepted for late model stock-car racing.) Engines will only need to be produced in quantities of 500 (the present requirement) but, starting in 1970, the maximum size will be reduced from 7-litres to 6-litres. Taken together, these two moves may discourage the major manufacturers from producing special racing cars disguised as homologated stock cars.—D. G.