TWO OF THE Sports Car Club of America’s professional series opened on the same weekend in California, the Trans-Am Championship for sports saloons at the twisty Laguna Seca circuit south of San Francisco and the Continental Championship featuring Formula A (Formula 5000) cars at the much faster Riverside circuit east of Los Angeles.
The Trans-Am series has come a long way since it was launched in 1966. At that time there was relatively little interest shown by the manufacturers, who devoted most of their budgets to NASCAR late model stock-car racing. Shelby Ford Mustangs won the series in the first two years but then Roger Penske entered the scene with his Chevrolet Camaros driven by Mark Donohue, and in both 1968 and 1969 there was no stopping Donohue as he won the Championship convincingly for Chevrolet. The Trans-Am cars, however, have a very sporty, go-ahead image and, although their total share of the market is not large, they appeal strongly to the young driver buying a new car for the first time—and it is precisely these buyers whose loyalty each manufacturer wants to capture right in the beginning. For this reason, all the major manufacturers have now plunged into the Trans-Am series and as a result of the strong bidding for the best available talent there have been considerable shake-ups amongst virtually all the teams.
Carroll Shelby has dropped completely out of racing, but Ford is still left in a strong position with the two Mustangs prepared by former NASCAR chief mechanic Bud Moore. The cars are refined and improved versions of those used last year and Moore’s two drivers, Parnelli Jones and George Follmer, are back with him, so Ford has good reason for confidence. After winning the Championship for Chevrolet for the past two years, Penske has been lured into the American Motor camp with a three-year contract reliably reported to be worth over $1,000,000. (Penske is still a Chevrolet dealer in Philadelphia and not only is he running American Motors products in the Trans-Am, he is using a Ford engine in his Lola at Indianapolis— which is as good an indication as any of both his astuteness as a business man and the confidence placed in him by the manufacturers despite the apparent conflicts of interest.) Donohue, of course, remains as Penske’s number one driver and he is joined this year by Peter Revson, who drove for American Motors when they first entered the Trans-Am series in 1968 and last year was a member of the Shelby Mustang team.
The role of semi-works Camaro campaigner has been taken over by Jim Hall (though both Hall and General Motors continue to stress that GM is not in racing and that Hall is running the two-car team strictly on his own). Hall himself is driving one of the cars, the first time he has returned to competition since he was severely injured in the final Can-Am race or the 1968 season, and as his team-mate he has chosen veteran SCCA driver Ed Leslie, who drove for Penske in some of last year’s races. Although not necessarily the fastest driver on the circuit, Leslie has many years of experience and will never give way during the bumping and boring that sometimes develops in these very competitive races. Hall’s team is at something of a disadvantage, however, in that they have never competed in the Trans-Am series before and have to start from scratch learning some of the preparation secrets that others have gathered over the past three or four years. The other semi-works GM entry in the series are the Pontiac Firebirds of the T-G Racing (driver Jerry Titus and Canadian businessman Terry Godsall), though it appears they are receiving somewhat less “unofficial” help from Pontiac than Hall is from Chevrolet.
In addition to these four teams, Chrysler has jumped into the Trans-Am series with both feet this year after an absence of three years. Such is the rivalry within Chrysler Corporation, though, that lather than concentrate all their efforts on one team, they are entering one team each from both Plymouth and Dodge. Dan Gurney’s All American Racers are representing Plymouth with a pair of Barracudas to be driven by Gurney himself and by his protégé Swede Savage. Dodge has chosen the Autodynamics team run by Ray Caldwell to campaign a pair of Dodge Challengers that will be driven by Caldwell’s partner, the eloquent Sam Posey, and by Vic Elford. Elford is the first European driver to be offered a works drive in the Trans-Am series and his experience adds considerable strength to the Dodge team. Although Plymouth and Dodge are making their first serious effort in Trans-Am racing in three year, their engine programme has been shortened by the experience gained developing a Plymouth engine for one of Andy Granatelli’s Indianapolis cars last year.
A number of modifications have been made to the rules with the object of both reducing costs and making the conditions the same for everyone. The first concerns the engine size limit. This was and remains 5-litres but this year any series produced engine can be used as long as it is increased or decreased in size to the 5-litre limit. Last year only Ford had a 5-litre on general sale to the public and in order to compete Chevrolet was forced to produce a special 5-litre engine in sufficient quantities to get it homologated. American Motors had to use a smaller engine, increased to 5-litres. while Chrysler’s smallest engine was 5.6-litres and they could not take part. This year, however, American Motors, Chevrolet and Chrysler can all use their regular 5.6-litre engines suitably reduced to the 5-litre limit—which eliminates the high cost of producing special engines. The second change increased the minimum weight from 2.900 lb. to the much more realistic figure of 3,200 lb. Most of these cars weigh close to 3,200 lb. in racing trim but since no one could afford to give up any advantage several teams last year were going to the expense of dipping the entire bodies in acid in order to reduce the weight as close as possible to the 2,900-lb. limit. The Bud Moore Mustangs were the favourites for the first ram which was run over 91 laps of the 1.9-mile Laguna Seca circuit. Parnelli Jones put his Mustang on the pole and then led all but three laps to win comfortably by 40.3 sec. from Donohue’s Javelin. Follmer in the second Moore Mustang was third, two laps down, followed by Savage in the AAR Plymouth Barracuda, an independent Camaro, Posey in the works Dodge Challenger, and Titus in his Pontiac Firebird. This put six different makes in the first seven places and it was apparent that when everyone got their new cars sorted out, they would provide stronger opposition to the Mustangs. Some of this opposition appeared at the second race of the series, at the Lime Rock circuit, when Donohue put his Javelin on the pole with a time of 58.8 sec. around the 1.53-mile MUM, almost half 3 second ahead of Gurney’s Barracuda and 1 ½ sec. in front of Jones’ Mustang. Leslie (Camaro), Revson (Javelin) and Savage (Barracuda) all qualified within half a second of Jones, and no less than six drivers including Titus (Pontiac), Follmer (Mustang), Posey (Challenger) and Hall (Camaro) were all tied at 60.0 sec. In the race itself, however Jones still proved to be the strongest and, using part of the track and part of the verge, he passed both Gurney and Donohue going into the first turn and then all the way to win the 214-mile race by over a lap from Leslie’s Camaro. Posey’s Challenger was third, followed by Hall’s Camaro and two more independently entered Cameros.
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The competition in the Continental Championship was not as equally matched, at least not in the first race at Riverside. John Cannon, who won the Formula A race there last year, was the first customer to take delivery of a new M10B McLaren and he put in more than 600 miles of testing at Riverside before this year’s race. The benefits of the testing were immediately apparent as Cannon qualified his Chevrolet-powered car over a second faster than the rest of the field and then led all the way to win the 102-mile race by over a lap from Dave Jordan in a Chevrolet-powered Eagle and Chuck Parsons in a Chevrolet-powered Lola T190. Last year the Continental Championship produced some of the closest racing in the SCCA but this year it is suffering from a lack of top flight drivers. Tony Adamovicz, the winner of last year’s Championship, lost his ride when his sponsor found the costs too great, and is now trying to make a name for himself in USAC. Sam Posey, who finished third last year behind David Hobbs, has switched Co the Trans-Am series, and even Cannon wants to increase the number of USAC races he is competing in.
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In the third race of the USAC Championship, and the last before the Indianapolis 500, the veteran Lloyd Ruby drove his turbo-Offenhauser Mongoose to a close 1.4-sec. victory over Mario Andretti’s turbo-Ford Hawk, with Al Unser’s turbo-Ford Colt only 2.2 sec. further behind. The 200-mile race was run over 134 lops of the 1.5-mile Trenton Track.
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The United States has temporarily, lost a bid to hold two Formula One races counting towards the World Drivers’ Championship. The application to hold the second race in 1971 was made to the FIA by ACCUS (the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States) for a race to be sanctioned by the SCCA and run at the new Ontario Motor Speedway near Los Angeles in March or April. ACCUS was told that the application was received too late for inclusion in the 1971 calendar but that the FIA would be glad to entertain an application for a second US World Championship race in 1972. The present US Grand Prix will continue to be held at Watkins Glen.-D.G.