American Comment

The three major racing organisations in the United States, and most of the leading competitors, have now completed their plans for the coming season and it looks like being both a busy and an interesting one for all concerned. Motoring sport as a whole has been mushrooming on this continent for the past two or three years and, while there is every sign that this boom will continue, the organising bodies are also facing up to the fact that too great a proliferation of cars competing in different races for different Championships can lead to confusion and a dilution of interest on the part of the paying spectator, the Press and potential sponsors. Quality, rather than quantity, is the philosophy. The United States Auto Club, for example, has reduced the number of races on its Championship Trail from 24 last year to 20 this year, while at the same time insisting that the individual promoters raise their guaranteed minimum purses. The latter edict naturally generated grumbling among the promoters and led directly to the cancellation of the opening race at Phoenix in March after it had been entered on the Calendar. Two weeks ago the Championship Trail was reduced to 18 races when a group that planned a new circuit on the shores of Lake Ontario near downtown Toronto abandoned the project in the face of legal complications. The imaginative project was to have utilised public roads in and around permanent exhibition grounds, and the pits and paddock would have been in the centre of a 30,000-seat football stadium. (The Canadian Grand Prix was also to have been run on this Lakeshore Raceway course, but negotiations are now under way for it to be moved to the Mosport circuit on the other side of Toronto.)

The Sports Car Club of America, like U.S.A.C., is also consolidating its racing programme, and its professional events will be concentrated in three main series, each for a different type of car. The National U.S. Road Racing Championship series for Group 7 cars, which was a poor relation to the International Can-Am series for the same type of car, has been dropped completely to make way for expansion of the Can-Am series from six races to 11 covering the entire season. (The Continental Correspondent, not without some justification, claims that Americans judge everything in terms of dollars. Nonetheless, the success achieved by the Can-Am series in just three years is due largely to the fact that the realistic scale of prize and accessory money makes it attractive to entrants and sponsors. This year’s 11-race series will have more than £400,000 in prize and accessory money.)

The S.C.C.A.’s entry into professional racing for single-seat, open-wheeled cars is relatively recent, having occurred in 1967 when it introduced Formulae A, B and C—which were roughly equivalent to Formulae One, Two and Three. Only last year, however, did this Grand Prix series catch on, when Formula A cars were allowed to use 5-litre stock block engines in addition to 3-litre racing engines. The change brought about an immediate increase in popularity because the stock block engines are readily, and economically, available. For this year, the series has been expanded from eight races to 12, renamed the Continental Championship, and will form the basis for the U.S. Road Racing Championship. With one notable exception—Donohue will not defend the title he has won for the past two years in Group 7 cars—most prominent road-racing drivers in America hope to compete in the series. With the Canadian Drivers’ Championship also based on Formula A races and a number of European drivers with Formula 5000 cars interested in taking part (Hobbs will drive one of Suttees’ TS 5000s for film star Jim Garner’s American International Racing Team), the Continental Championship should not be lacking for full and highly competitive fields.

The third of the S.C.C.A.’s professional series is the Trans-Am Championship for sports saloons, the success of which can be judged by the increasing number of works or semi-works entries. Ford, for example, is doubling its effort to two two-car teams of Mustangs in a bid to retrieve the title it won in 1966 and 1967 but lost in 1968 to the Chevrolet Camaro entered by Penske and driven by Donohue. Shelby Racing Co. will prepare two of the Mustangs for drivers Kwech and Revson, while N.A.S.C.A.R. car builder Bud Moore will field the other two for Jones and Follmer. Although Penske is noted for his meticulous preparation—Donohue won 10 of the 13 events last year—he is taking no chances this year and will enter a second Camaro for former Honda Formula One driver Bucknum. American Motors, whose team of two Javelins only joined the series last year but nearly knocked Ford out of second place, will be back with stronger cars this year although they lost both Revson and Follmer to Ford. Another very strong entry will be a pair of Pontiac Firebirds driven by the U.S.-Canadian team of Titus and Fisher. Pontiac, like Chevrolet and all other General Motors divisions, is officially out of racing, but it is giving the Titus/Fisher programme a great deal more than just moral support.

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Of the three major racing organisations, only the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing is not reducing its schedule this year. Indeed, the Grand National division for late model cars will be increased by one to an even 50 races, and the Grand Touring division, which was launched last year for Camaros, Mustangs, etc., will be expanded to 27 races. The biggest change in N.A.S.C.A.R. this year, however, is that Petty, after driving for Plymouth for 10 years and winning more Grand National races (92) than anyone else, switched over to the Ford camp. Partly as a result Plymouth has decided not to enter Grand National races this year, and the Chrysler Corp. banner will be carried by its Dodge division.

Petty’s debut with Ford could hardly have been more auspicious. Competing in last month’s Motor Trend 500, N.A.S.C.A.R.’s first major race of the season and the only one held on a road circuit, Petty drove a Ford Torino to a convincing 85-second victory over U.S.A.C. driver Foyt in a similar car. Jones, who relieved 1968 N.A.S.C.A.R. champion Person after 113 of the 186 laps over the 2.7-mile course, was two laps behind Foyt but made it a 1-2-3 finish for Ford Torinos. Foyt won the pole position with an average speed of 110.366 m.p.h. (down slightly from Gurney’s pole-winning time last year because Grand National cars are now restricted to one 4-barrel carburetter instead of two) and dominated the first half of the race until the right rear shock dampers broke when he was forced off course by a backmarker. From then on Foyt’s car handled erratically under braking and Petty took over to lead the last 93 laps. There wasn’t a single yellow caution flag during the race and as a result Petty averaged a record 105.516 m.p.h. for the 500 miles, 5 m.p.h. faster than Gurney’s winning time last year. After winning the race five times in the past six years, Gurney was never in the hunt this year. He had qualified on the second row next to Petty but was plagued by brake and transmission problems before his engine expired after 67 laps. Petty has dominated the stock car ovals for several years, but with this victory he also showed that he is a force to be reckoned with on a road circuit.

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The drag-racing world has provided an interesting contrast in styles recently. At Firestone’s test track at Fort Stockton, Texas, Art Arfons, the former World Land Speed Record holder, used a new jet-powered car to break his own World ¼-mile drag-racing record with an elapsed time of 6.41 sec. and a terminal speed of 267.85 m.p.h. To do it he used a 17,500-pound thrust General Electric engine. The contrast was provided at the National Hot Rod Association’s Winter Nationals meeting in California last month, where John Mulligan, driving a typical slingshot dragster, won the top fuel eliminator category with a best run of 6.85 sec. and a top speed of 222.27 m.p.h. Mulligan was using an exotic blend of nitromethane and alcohol for fuel but his engine was only a 6.4-litre supercharged Chrysler.

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The Donohue/Parsons victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona, described elsewhere by M. J. T., graphically underlines the soundness of Penske’s first rule for racing: “In order to finish first, you must first finish.” Although the Lola-Chevrolet was 44 laps behind after only nine hours—the result of a cracked exhaust manifold—Penske pressed his team on and produced the first major endurance victory for Broadley’s design. Penske ran Lolas in 1966 and 1967 but last year switched to McLarens. Now that he is back with Lolas he is more or less the unofficial works team in North America and surely one of the busiest car owners in the World. In addition to running the Group 4 Lola-Chevrolet in the three World Sports Car Championship races in America, he will have a Group 7 Lola in the 11-race Can-Am series, two four-wheel-drive Lolas for the Indianapolis 500 and other U.S.A.C. events, and finally two Camaros for the 12-race Trans-Am Championship. Of the two Indianapolis Lolas, one will be new and the other a 1968 model. A turbocharged Offenhauser engine will be used at Indianapolis and a 5.25-litre stock block Chevrolet in U.S.A.C.’s road races. The only other new four-wheel-drive Lola to be built for this year’s 500 will go to Bobby Unser and his car owner Bob Wilke. Unser has campaigned Wilke-owned Eagles for two years—and won both the 500 and the U.S.A.C. National Championship last year—but had to look elsewhere when Gurney decided to build only three new Eagles for this year’s race. Penske helped arrange the Lola for Unser and in return Unser’s high-rated mechanic, Jud Phillips, will prepare Penske’s Offenhauser engine.—D. G.