George Lucas’s 1973 breakthrough film was based on the exploits of West Coast sports racer Allen Grant, for whom the movie mogul once acted as crew chief
By Richard Heseltine
Where were you in ’62?’ ran the tag line for American Graffiti. To former Shelby alumnus Allen Grant, the movie has close parallels with his own life. In part, it was his life. This celluloid gem centres on one night in his hometown of Modesto, California, as John Milner cruises the strip aboard his ‘Piss Yella’ ’32 Ford looking for a challenger. In Harrison Ford’s Bob Falfa he finds one, the film’s climactic drag race seeing the latter’s ’55 Chevy getting way out of shape before turning turtle. Just as it did that same year when director George Lucas emerged from his own crumpled road racer. It was simply art imitating life, and Grant was his muse.
Except in reality, the future cinematic colossus drove something altogether more pedestrian. He had a twin-pot Fiat. “George rolled it and cut off the top,” recalls the affable Cobra tamer. “He then installed a rollbar which probably saved his life when he had his big wreck.” Drawing on his teenage experiences, Lucas crafted a coming-of-age classic, in which Milner is a close nod to Grant.
“Yes, that was me. George says so in [the book] Skywalking. I was the ‘autocross champion of California who won almost every race he entered’,” he smiles. But then ‘The Beard’ was Grant’s crew chief, so there was plenty of inspiration to draw upon. “We met in 1959 at Foreign Service, a local shop that specialised in repairing European cars. It was a hang-out for young sports car racing enthusiasts. Since I was the fastest driver, George took a liking to me and we became friends.”
Together they would take the fight to the sports car racing elite on the West Coast before going their separate ways; Lucas to Hollywood and Grant to Le Mans. “I had a 1950 Pontiac and would enjoy cruising around,” he recalls. “Then one day I went for a ride in the mountains with a friend in his MGA. On the way back he asked me if I wanted to try it. In the Pontiac
you just sort of heaved on the steering and there was a delay before the car actually changed direction. In the MG it went where you pointed it. I was hooked. I started saving money and bought a new Austin-Healey in September 1959.” That same month, Grant made his competition debut in a local gymkhana (driving test). And won.
“After that I realised that the AC Ace-Bristol was the car to have. I had a lot of success in autocross, but what I really wanted to do was race, so I went to the Sports Car Club of America’s driver’s school. I corresponded with AC Cars and ordered new suspension parts, blueprinted the engine, polished the heads and so on.”
The groundwork paid off, Grant winning 12 times from 14 starts and earning SCCA Rookie of the Year honours. Then came the lure of a drive with Carroll Shelby. Problem was, he hadn’t been offered one. “I’d decided to go back to school but, as an AC owner, I was interested in what I’d been reading about a Ford V8 being put into the Ace. So, in January 1963, my room-mate and I took a trip to Venice, Los Angeles.”
Displaying mountainous self-confidence, our hero intended to doorstep motor racing’s most famous Stetson wearer and request a drive. “We arrived at Shelby’s place at 9pm. A couple of guys were still working so we asked if we could look around. The man who let us in was Ole Olsen, the chief mechanic. They were assembling engines for a race at Riverside and were wearing white coats; they looked more like doctors than mechanics.”
Suitably impressed, Grant arrived the following morning, his spiel to Shelby eliciting an unexpected response. “He told me that he already had enough drivers,” smiles Grant, pausing momentarily for effect. “Carroll then said he was looking for welders; could I weld?” He could. “I made it clear that I wanted to be on the race team and within a few weeks I was a racing mechanic.” It would be the first of many ‘promotions’.
Despite Grant constantly imploring Shelby for a factory drive, none proved forthcoming. Instead, Grant swiftly landed a seat behind a desk, being responsible for ordering chassis from AC, engines from Ford and arranging deliveries to dealers. One of these was Coventry Motors of Walnut Creek, just south of San Francisco. Grant devised a plan whereby he would sell an ex-Dan Gurney car to the firm’s principal Jay Brown on the proviso that he got to race it. Brown agreed.
“That was in the summer of ’63,” recalls Grant. “George came down to help me get the car ready to race and to apply for admission to the University of Southern California Film School. I was living in an apartment in Santa Monica at the time and George slept on my couch.” Lucas conceived the yellow and black livery, the ‘Executor’ tag being derived from Grant’s desire to annihilate the competition. “I told everyone at Shelby’s that I was going to blow away the factory team. The guys in the shop used to call me ‘Cassius Clay’.”
Going their own way on engine set-up, the new team readied the car in time for an SCCA event at Santa Barbara. Shelby advised Grant to sit back and drive past the dozen Corvettes ahead of him along the back straight. ‘Cassius’ won convincingly, repeating the feat the following day and again at Candlestick Park a fortnight later.
Then came the biggie, the LA Times Grand Prix meeting at Riverside. Having entered Executor in the one-hour GT support race, Grant was up against the works cars of Gurney, Bob Bondurant and Lew Spencer, which blanketed the front row. Grant lined up behind them. By the first corner he was second only to Riverside-meister Gurney before a hefty tap from Bondurant saw him spin out. He returned trackside in last place.
Down came the red mist. “I let it all hang out, picking cars off one by one. About halfway through the race I spotted Gurney off to the side of the track.
I was catching Spencer and, about three-quarters of the way through the race, I passed him. Now I was gaining on Bondurant at about a second a lap: I closed to about two seconds on him when the race ended. I returned to the pits ready to tear Bondurant apart but my crew calmed me down: Shelby said that I would be driving for the factory team for the following season.”
Then came an unexpected hitch. After taking two further wins that season at Laguna Seca, Grant returned to the venue soon thereafter, only this time he was marching past
the circuit alongside 500 other recruits from Fort Ord: he’d been drafted into the National Guard. Predictably the Shelby American drive had been taken by the time he returned to Civvy Street in May 1964. “Carroll wanted me to come back in an administrative position but I wanted to pursue my driving career. Bill Thomas had seen me race at Riverside and offered me the chance to drive his factory Cheetah.”
Conceived in a Mexican restaurant, the sinking of mucho tequila would likely explain the wild appearance of this Chevy-powered monster. Intended as a Cobra beater, on the rare occasions that the two cars met, it was the Cobra that usually won. But only because it held together. For the rest of the ’64 season, Grant slugged it out with his former comrades, most famously at Riverside against
Ken Miles’ ‘427’ Cobra, only for the
car to expire. “It was evil to drive,” laughs Grant. “The track was wide
for the wheelbase and it gave very
little warning as to when it was going
to break loose.”
Nonetheless, his efforts had done enough to land him another shot at a Shelby American seat with the Daytona Cobra. Paired with Ed Leslie
for the 1965 Daytona 2000Kms, Grant retains vivid memories of practice: “All the drivers who’d raced there before said you could go onto the banked oval at the end of the straight without backing off. When it was my time to put in some hot laps, I couldn’t keep my foot on the floor. It just backed off automatically. A couple of more times around and I did it.” That first visit netted fifth place and third in class. The same line-up placed 13th
in the Sebring 12 Hours a month
later after losing time thanks to an errant Volvo.
For his first ever race in Europe, Grant teamed up with his old nemesis, Bob Bondurant. Armed with an Alan Mann-entered Daytona Cobra the duo took the fight to Ferrari in the Monza 1000Kms, but Grant was altogether
more concerned with the track surface. “The banking was so rough that you couldn’t keep your butt on the seat. I’d be going full blast and have the car in
a grip. Then I’d hit one of the high
edges and all of a sudden it would come off the ground and my helmet got all scuffed up from the beating on the roof.” Their efforts were rewarded with victory in the GT class.
Elation turned to frustration at Oulton Park and the Tourist Trophy. Shelby had arranged a deal for him to drive an ex-works roadster for Radford Racing. “It was a dog. I had to hang that thing out the whole time. I remember Denny Hulme coming up to lap me along the back straight. I moved over a little but I was in the air as the track was rougher than a cob. When I came back to earth I shot across the track, corrected it and went back across the track sideways. Just as I was about to go off the circuit, I did a complete lock in the other direction. Luckily there was a right-hander at that point and I just drifted it into the turn. Next time around, I got a standing ovation…” He placed sixth on aggregate.
Sitting out the Nürburgring 1000Kms, then came the 1965 Le Mans 24 Hours. Paired up in the Ford France Daytona Cobra with Jo Schlesser, theirs would
be an early bath after the clutch
expired. Nonetheless, competing in
the endurance classic left its mark. “I was the youngest driver on the team and just in awe of the historical significance of driving there.”
It would be his final race. While still in his mid-twenties, Grant quit motor sport to honour a promise made to his parents to complete higher education. A successful career as a land developer beckoned. But it wasn’t entirely the end of his competition endeavours. Or those of his former crew chief. “George and I put together Lucasfilm Racing in 1989. We bought two Swift Formula Ford cars for Jimmy Vasser and Ken Murillo to drive. It was our goal to run a couple of Indy Lights cars the following year, and then Indycars the season after that. We did that first year but then the real estate business turned bad, and George was so busy that he never made a race, so we decided to put the programme on hold. It still is.” He is, however, actively working on his own breed of supercar, the Grant Spyder.
Though his number of starts never stretched as far as triple figures, Grant was one of the fastest sports car drivers on the West Coast, one who proved he could cut it on the international stage against motor racing’s upper tier. And
he still owns stacks of memorabilia
from his racing days. That and a close crib of Executor. Close in all bar one conspicuous detail. “When we did it originally, the signwriting read ‘Driver Allen Grant’ and ‘Mechanic Ole Olsen’, and
I think it really upset George that he didn’t get
a mention. This time around I made sure his name went on the side.”
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