The SCCA has launched its 1971 professional season with the first two (out of eight) Continental Championship races for Formula A (5000) cars, and the first (out of 11) Trans-Am Championship events for sports saloons. The premier series, the Can-Am Championship, does not begin until the middle of this month, thus avoiding a clash with Indianapolis, most of the World Manufacturers' Championship events and all the World Drivers' Championship races. The Continental series, which this year is known as the L&M Continental 5000 Championship because L&M cigarettes is putting up a bigger bag of gold and because 5000 is the more common name internationally than Formula A, is now into its fifth season but unfortunately it has yet to capture the imagination of the public in the way that the Trans-Am and Can-Am have.
The main problem undoubtedly is that for one reason or another (insufficient prize money, the counter-attraction of USAC's single-seaters or clashes with other SCCA series) the Continental series has failed to attract a sufficiently large and stable number of North America's well-known "name" drivers. John Cannon, Tony Adamowicz, Sam Posey, George Wintersteen and Gus Hutchison are about the only ones who fall into that category, and few of them have stuck with the series for more than two years. Mark Donohue and George Follmer, plus overseas drivers David Hobbs, Peter Gethin and Andrea de Adamich have added lustre to the entry lists at various times but only Hobbs has competed at all consistently. Compare this with such names as Donohue, Parnelli Jones, Follmer, Peter Revson, Dan Gurney, Jim Hall and Vic Elford in the Trans-Am and virtually every well-known road racing driver in the Can-Am at one time or another (until last year)—and the problem of promoting the Continental series becomes clear.
A 75% increase in the average purse to $34,000 and a much stronger publicity campaign by L&M (being handled on their behalf by Jim Kaser, formerly the SCCA's director of professional racing) may well make a difference this year but it is too early to tell just yet. Certainly the first race at Riverside wasn't lacking for cars, although this is not truly indicative because every old racing car in the world seems to find its way to California eventually. Many of those trotted out for this first race were obviously poorly prepared and their inexperienced drivers equally so. With defending champion Cannon having left the series to run Formula Two in Europe, Hobbs has taken over both his car (Chevrolet-powered McLaren M10B) and his position as the driver to beat—particularly since this year, for the first time, Hobbs plans to run the entire series. (He finished second in 1969 and third in 1970 despite the fact that in both years he missed the first one-third of the races.)
Of the drivers who have taken part in previous Continental series, the only ones who seem likely to give Hobbs consistently serious opposition are Posey in a Surtees TS8, Ron Grable in a Lola, 1968 Continental champion Lou Sell in a Lola and perhaps Canadian champion Eddie Wietzes in a McLaren M18 (all Chevrolet powered). To this slim list could be added newcomers to the series Skip Barber, Brett Lunger and Jim Dittemore. He has the advantage that his Lola T192 is prepared by Kas Kastner.
This initial assessment of the likely contenders was partly borne out at Riverside, but only partly, because early-season nervousness that appeared to affect competitors and officials alike turned the race into something of a shambles. Hobbs duly won the pole position, lowering Cannon's 1970 qualifying record by over 1.5 seconds, but an inoperative clutch put him out even before the first heat began. He did start the second heat but retired after five laps with a jamming throttle adding to his troubles. Definitely not his day.
But it wasn't much better for the others. Posey tangled briefly with Barber and lost a lap in the pits getting a new nose, and then a lap later, as Sell and Barber were battling for the lead, they were involved in a crash with a tailender they were lapping for the second time. All three cars were wrecked. That enabled Grable to come through and win the heat from Australian Frank Matich, in the Repco-Holden-powered McLaren M10B that he drove in the Tasman series, who took second from Dittemore on the last lap.
In the second heat Posey quickly carved his way up from eleventh to take the lead from Matich and Grable, and they stayed that way until three laps from the end of the heat, when another tailender chopped Grable off while being lapped, and converted the Lola into a motorcycle (only two wheels). Posey carried on to win the heat from Matich, Wietzes and Dittemore, and the combined results of the two heats made Matich the overall winner from Dittemore, Posey, Grable and Wietzes,
A total of at least 10 crashes during the weekend must have sobered everyone up because a week later at Laguna Seca the second round was completed with admirable decorum. Grable's crew somehow converted the Lola back into a car, but their hard work went unrewarded when the camshaft drive sheared while Grable was in second place. Posey shared Grable's misfortune, for after qualifying second to Hobbs for the second week in a row he was delayed by a deranged gear linkage and a broken distributor rotor.
Apart from these two, though, the race went very much according to the form book. Hobbs again broke Cannon's 1970 qualifying record, this time by slightly less than one second, and then went on to win both 76-mile heats by comfortable 26-second margins from Matich. Lunger was third in both heats and Dittemore combined his sixth and fourth places to take fourth overall. As a result of consistency rather than outright speed, Matich and Dittemore then led the standings after two races with 35 and 25 points respectively. Hobbs was next with 20, Posey and Lunger had 12 each and Grable 10.
However, Matich has now returned to Australia for business reasons and this reduces even further the opposition that Hobbs will meet in the remaining six races. That is not to say, of course, that Posey or Grable can't catch him, but if there is to be a surprise in this series it might well come from Barber. The car in which he crashed at Riverside was the ex-STP March 701. He missed the Laguna race, but if he receives his March 711 in time for the third event at Seattle, and if it is reliable, he stands a good chance of confirming—shown at the Questor Grand Prix—that on average a good Formula One car will beat a good Formula 5000. But, of course, Mr. Kipling has already written the definitive treatise on the word "If".
Much of the interest in last year's Trans-Am series was generated by the fact that there were full works teams from American Motors, Ford, Dodge and Plymouth, plus unofficial teams from Chevrolet and, to a lesser extent, Pontiac. There was therefore considerable concern for the success of this year's series when all but American Motors decided to withdraw from the fray. The independent entries, obviously, would stand a much better chance, and they might even provide closer racing among themselves than there was last year, but equally obviously Mark Donohue in the Roger Penske-prepared works American Motors' Javelin was likely to knock all of them into a cocked hat. Penske and Donohue, however, are not the types to get caught flat-footed, and they prepared their 1971 Javelins (one car a reserve) as if they were going to take on every works team in the business.
It was perhaps a good job they did because three weeks before the first race at Lime Rock, Bud Moore, who prepared the works Ford Mustangs that Parnelli Jones and George Follmer drove to last year's Trans-Am championship, announced that he had found sufficient sponsorship to enter two new Mustangs for Jones and former Porsche expert Peter Gregg. It was supposed to be for only one race, but it would he an unwise man who bet against them appearing in subsequent events. It was a tribute to both Penske and Moore that the best of the privateers were driving cars that they prepared last year. Peter Revson and Tony Adamowicz were in ex-Penske Javelins now owned by American Racing Associates, while Tony DeLorenzo and Jerry Thompson were driving two ex-Moore Mustangs. Along with Marshall Robbins in a well-prepared Camaro, they qualified right behind Jones, who missed taking the pole from Donohue by a tick of the watch.
Unfortunately the race itself didn't provide an accurate indication of what can be expected from this year's series because it rained throughout. This made the very tight 1.53-mile circuit even more treacherous than usual and probably masked the true potential of several cars. Jones, for example, got knocked off course on the second lap and retired three laps later. Adamowicz and Thompson both got stuck in mud (although Thompson did get out after an hour's labour) and Revson retired with electrical trouble. For Donohue, though, there were no "ifs, ands or buts". He took the lead on the first lap and stayed in front the whole way to score a very impressive five-lap victory over DeLorenzo's Mustang, Warren Agor in a Camaro, Gregg's Mustang and Robbin's Camaro. Last year, his first with the American Motors Javelins, Penske predicted Donohue would win seven races. This year there are no predictions, just production.