Although not as well publicised as the continual embitterment of Grand Prix racing, the rift between America’s International Motor Sports Association and FISA is nevertheless significant.
It hasn’t been the out and out war of FISA vs FOCA vs GP drivers, but more a subtle battle, fought quietly on a number of fronts by IMSA’s genial, almost urbane, founder and President, John Bishop. Bishop is a tenacious fighter, and by his own admission a person who knows how committee systems can be manipulated.
That is why IMSA is run as a business. Committee meetings are the exception rather than the rule; the five man board of directors meets just twice a year, and is very much a rubber stamp for the decisions taken by Bishop and his small team who operate from an attractive 84-year-old New England style house in Connecticut.
Basically Bishop saw enough committee systems with the Sports Car Club of America. He was the SCCA’s first Competitions Secretary, but left two decades ago after a row over the administration of new championships. The result was IMSA, a business very much devoted to road racing. One of Bishop’s first steps on establishing IMSA was to create a new series, a six race GT Championship which pitted American performance cars such as Camaros. Mustangs and Firebirds against European sports machines, Ferraris, Porsches, Alfa Romeos and Lancias.
That was in 1971 — Hurley Heywood and the late Peter Gregg were joint winners — and since then the series has grown like Topsy. Today it has 20 rounds, a £125,000 prize fund and increased interest from competitors and spectators alike. Last year the 16 qualifying races were watched by a record 500,000 spectators — large by road racing standards, although a drop in the Atlantic compared with NASCAR races. Nevertheless, IMSA is proud of its achievement, much of which is due to the continued support of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco giant through its Camel brand. Reynolds has supported IMSA GT racing every year, bar one, since 1972 and in the process has paid out more than £342,500 in prize monies.
Success has however brought problems. Gradually the championship became something of a Porsche preserve. Literally from the outset Porsches have been winning IMSA GT races. At Daytona a Porsche of one type or another has won 11 of the 20 races to date. An impressive record which reached a peak in 1980 when no other marque managed to win a single race. “It wasn’t just Porsche in first place”. “It was Porsche, Porsche, Porsche…” says Bishop.
The time had come when something had to be done. Such domination would inevitably turn crowds away, and any interested manufacturers would feel the challenge of taking on Porsche in what had become its own territory a little too much to tackle.
New cars had to be brought into contention, and Bishop saw hope in FISA’s proposed new Group C sports car regulations. Basically encouraging out and out sports prototypes this would have fitted the bill, but as time wore on it became increasingly obvious to IMSA that it would have to go its own way. Continual changes in regulations (still going on today) plus little sympathy for the cut and safety factors applicable In American racing eventually resulted in IMSA drawing up its own roles for GT Prototypes. With this parting of the ways came the inevitable consequence that the traditional World Endurance Championship opener at Daytona would no longer count towards the FISA series. For a tune it seemed as if America would be in the ridiculous situation of not hosting a round of either the Endurance Makes or Manufacturers’ Championships, but after the Daytona 24 Hours came news that Watkins Glen has asked to run a qualifier in July.
Despite the divergence of opinion on the rules affecting crowd pulling prototypes such as the aerodynamic lobster-claw March 82G, or the brutal Lola T-600, Bishop doesn’t see the split as permanent. He is genuinely hopeful that in time the two sides will come together and reach a compromise. Indeed Bishop is adamant that IMSA would not have gone its own way but for the delays in formulating Group C regulations.
“The trouble is they (FISA) cannot leave the damn rules alone. We’re over here in the Colonies, and you can’t write a rule in October and expect a whole bunch of cars to appear for Daytona two or three months later. If we’d made the 24 Hours a World Championship round, the first GpC cars would not have been ready to race. These rules should have been out in 1979,” extolls Bishop.
At Daytona, Bishop was speaking from a position of power. The first round of the new World Endurance series had yet to be run (Brands Hatch on March 14th), so there was no way of knowing how much support it would attract.
The inaugural round of the 1982 IMSA Camel GT series had a record 96 entries — so many that it was decided to hold a qualifying race for the final ten places on the grid, a fruitless exercise as it turned out — and of these, 90 made scrutineering. After seemingly endless practice sessions an impressive 69 GT cars formed up along the vast Daytona pit lane in readiness for the start on a pleasantly warm afternoon.
Heading the field was one of the new GTP cars — a six-litre Chevrolet engined March 82G, put there by Bobby Rahal with apparent ease. Of course, pole position means little in endurance races, but psychologically it augured well for the GTPs. The new breed GTPs had in fact burst into IMSA racing in May last year when Brian Redman won first time out in a Lola T-600, again with Chevrolet power. Redman won five races with the Lola, and took the IMSA title, before announcing his retirement. There are those who contribute last year’s record attendances to the arrival of the Lola, certainly there is no evidence to contradict this theory.
Apart from the Bob Garretson the reigning World Endurance Champion, in fact) prepared pole position March there mass similar 820, but BMW 3.5 litre powered, lower down the field, as well as Redresses Lola from the previous year. A couple of factory supported Rondeau 382s were also on hand — both using 3-litre Cosworth engines, and not new development 3.9-litre DFLs — but as ever it was the Porsche 935 Turbos which dominated the front part of the grid. Of the first 12 places, nine were taken by these flame-spitting, twin-turbocharged machines, fastest the example of now Californian domiciled John Fitzpatrick who had brought in David Hobbs and American Wayne Baker to share the driving in his K3 example.
The 24 Hours promised much; so much that at the start the vast spectator infield section had to be closed. It had reached its 75,000 capacity, the whole area turned into an elephants’ graveyard for motorhomes. But the promise unfortunately was never fulfilled. There were brief flashes of excitement, particularly in the opening stages when Fitzpatrick fought tooth and nail for the lead with four times Daytona winner Haywood in another 935.
Fitzpatrick, however, retired before the end of the second hour when a pin locating the camshaft drive fell out. As darkness fell Haywood also struck problems with a cracked gearbox casing which had to be welded. Later in the race the 935 engine began smoking badly, and the Porsche eventually staggered into 13th place.
It was therefore left to the JLP Racing 935 of father and son, John Paul Snr. and Joe, together with Rolf Stommelen to literally stroll to victory. They took the lead at around the two hour mark, and from then were never really threatened. On the way to a new distance record (719 laps, 2760.96 miles) and a record average speed of 114.794 m.p.h., they only experienced one problem when the talented 21 year old Paul Jnr. ran over a bottle on the banking. He managed to keep control and headed for the pits to change the deflated tyre.
Trailing by 11 laps was another 935 driven by Bob Akin, Craig Siebert and 1981 Le Mans winner Derek Bell — a trio which also finished second last year — whilst third came, yes another 935, crewed by Mauricio de Narvaez / Jeff Wood and Garetson. The so called Stuggart Express rolled to another win. What of the new GTPs? The pole winning March eventually retired with front suspension problems after being third in the early stages, the BMW example retired with a bad vibration from the engine, and the Lola suffered piston failure.
Despite these setbacks the new GT Prototypes are bound to make their mark as the season progresses. The writing is on the wall for the all-powerful Porsche 935s, but iris going to be no easy task to make them loosen their grip. In the meantime comparisons between the IMSA and FISA championships will be inevitable. It will be interesting to gauge at the season’s end which series has been the most successful. — M.R.G.