An American's Opinion on American Racing

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Although I have not been fortunate enough to have seen a race outside the U.S., I have seen and helped with races here for over ten years. This includes many types of our track racing; if you don’t mind, I’d like to give some features of the auto-racing picture here in the U.S.A.

First off, racing is either professional or amateur. The latter is confined to the road-racing group, with the vast majority of drivers and events under the control of the Sports Car Club of America. The professionals race almost exclusively on ovals, with many sanctioning bodies. Let’s examine the “pro.” setups.

Up until 1955, the American representative to the F.I.A. was the American Automobile Association, through its Contest Board. Many of this group formed the United States Auto Club on the demise of the A.A.A. Contest Board, but the U.S.A.C. has not the power to police of the old A.A.A., nor is it a F.I.A. affiliate.

The pattern of “who runs what?, and where ?” is complicated; if we make a tabulation of data it may be simpler to comprehend:

See table ‘What’

This above group we may consider the “Racing-Car Group” —  the second grouping would be the Stock-Car Group. Here things get involved; there’s seemingly endless numbers of local groups, and one big complicating factor: what is a stock-car? Begging the question for the moment, let’s tabulate this group:

See table ‘Late Models’

The modified stocks (jalopies) run the gamut from nearly-stock, late model cars running on pump gasoline, through 1940 Fords modified considerably on pump gas, to 1932/3 Fords and Chevvies with full race, unlimited displacement Cadillac, Chryslers of 1957 vintage running on a fuel just able to withstand a bumpy, dusty dirt oval 1/8,-mile around without spontaneously detonating!

Notice that U.S.A.C. has tight control only at Indianapolis (its “big stick” for policing) and the Championship trail. This year it lost what small control it had in the Mid-West when promoters, drivers, owners, etc., could not get together. Several regional “wildcat” outfits got some of the leavings and a new group has been formed to get the rest; this so far has affected only sprints and midgets. However, I.M.C.A. (the first two letters stand for “International Motor — had you heard of it?) has traditionally sponsored some of the wildest racing seen here, based on championship cars. There is no fuel or displacement limits: would you like to see 300 plus cu. in., nitro-burning Offenhausers race 450 cu. in. Ranger aircraft-engined Specials on a dusty, 30-degree banked, ½ -mile oval? “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots” is very apt — the accident rate is not favourable to longevity.

One distinguishing characteristic of all oval pilots: an over-developed right foot. It’s very hard to pass on these tracks, where blocking, purposely ramming into a concrete wall, or putting a front wheel into a driver’s lap is accepted. These tracks are bordered by concrete walls, timber fences, or steel poles and netting. No haybales or escape roads, blue flags for passing, etc., and the races are short: midgets 10-25 miles, sprints 10-25 miles, Championship 100 miles minimum, 200 miles usually maximum. The speeds? Well, near here is the infamous Langhorne Speedway. One mile, dirt, slightly banked, steel and timber fences, no straights. Lap record is circa 109 m.p.h.; 100-mile record is 100.5 m.p.h., held by a U.S.A.C. Championship car. (Incidentally, a 750-c.c. “alky”-burning motor-cycle has lapped at 98 m.p.h. and a late stock car at 95!) I refuse to watch this place; two drivers I met through a friend I crewed for have since been killed there.

What does all (and there is a lot of it) racing prove ? Not one blessed thing as far as a road-driving car owner can appreciate. Thrilling, yes. It has one function: to put on a show. This it does; providing it doesn’t sprinkle or get dark (unless it has lights enough to turn the whole track into an arena). They all run to the left.

So what is the result ? My Jaguar coupe (55,000 plus miles, XK120) shows signs of designing by men who learned the lessons of road racing, and built for me a well handling, middling-braked, tractable, dependable machine. My Chevrolet sedan (1949, 107,000 miles) is dependable. Its handling, brakes, roadholding, are atrocious, but no worse than the current models. Chevrolet is the only American manufacturer who has really gotten into road racing; they are also the only American manufacturer to sell a four-speed gearbox, and have done some brake research that’s shown up on production cars (optional Cerametallex brake pads on Chevvy, Alfin drums from Sebring car on new Buick 75). Coincidence? I doubt it. But they have so far to go — our cars are sold by styling, advertising, an appeal to not only keep up with but beat the Joneses, and a snob appeal. They are dependable, will take a fearful beating with no owner attention and shoddy garage mechanics. Our racing cars follow suit; they are pretty, well-chromed (or cadmium plated), big-engined, thirsty, dependable (notice how few threw rods or broke cranks at Monza?), slow revving, and archaic in chassis design. Coincidence? I doubt it.

There are fundamental differences in the groups responsible for our racing cars. For one, they are without exception, mechanics and not engineers. They are “cut-and-try” in their approach, and “follow-the-successful leader” also. Their time costs a great deal of money. Your side of the Atlantic has cars designed by teams of engineers. Here there is one engine builder, Meyer and Drake, who build the Offenhausers. Or did you know that the three-main-bearing Novi engine is two “Offy” midget blocks on a common case, with much development? There is one major chassis builder, Kurtis, with Kuzma and others building perhaps a dozen more, total, of all types, per year. Those in the business see no sense in squandering money on new designs and development, and who would venture capital to compete against them? Even if you were to build a new design, who would buy an unknown quantity? Obviously 4.2-litre Maserati and Ferrari engines should more than equally compete, or 91 inches of Porsche 1500RS should more than match the 105-in., 130-horsepower on alcohol Offy. But no one runs anything but Offy. I crewed a 210 cu. in., 16:1 c.r., alcohol-injected, Jaguar-engined sprint car — we had it on the others, except for handling, but no one else built a like car. “We know the Offy inside out, and we ain’t changin’.”

To an engineer like myself, our racing has no interest. The average fan doesn’t know, or care, what the formula is. He and she want close, fast races, and root for their drivers just as baseball fans do for their players. I suspect you have the same situation in soccer. It is a personal exhibition, not a showcase of mechanical engineering skill. Some ideas have shown up here. Back in 1940 disc brakes made their appearance at Indianapolis, but not for the reason they did at Le Mans. At Indy they wanted less weight than drums; several cars have placed in Indy races in recent years sans brakes. Could this have happened at Nurburgring? Four-wheel drive ran there in the late ‘thirties; Miller couldn’t get it working and although obviously the answer no one else has tried it there since. 85 b.h.p. per litre for the Offy doesn’t impress me, nor does 550 b.h.p. from the 2.8-litre Novi, which first ran in 1941 in 3-litre form and developed 450 b.h.p. Your V16 B.R.M. got over 500 b.h.p. from only 1.5 litres, and I couldn’t say which is less than the other in dependability. Solid axles are used for two reasons: they are lighter, and lots easier to set up. With no braking, no wheel tramp.

And why cart a heavy four-speed transmission when a two-speed will do, and you run the race, except for pit stops, in one gear only? Contrary to popular impression, the Offy hasn’t torque, whatever that means. When people commonly use it, to differentiate between the acceleration ability of two cars from a turn, they are really saying that one car has a flatter b.h.p. curve. Gears take care of torque, but a transmission is needed to overcome the effects of a sharply-peaked b.h.p. curve. I believe this to be the trouble with the V12 Maserati: great gobs of power, but concentrated over too narrow a rev. range. Now the Offy suffers from the same ills. At Indy, the engines run a narrow rev, range, perhaps a maximum of 1.30 to 1.00. This lack of flexibility shows up every time someone tries to run an Offy in a road-racing machine, including Briggs Cunningham. For this off-the-track work, a five or more speed box is almost a necessity.

As to our drivers. They are brave, and in their cars on ovals, amazingly skilled. But not too many have the finesse, or judgment needed for successful road racing. I’ve seen ’em at Sebring and a cruder driver than Troy Ruttman in a 4.9 Ferrari I have yet to see. Duane Carter is chiefly remembered for his hours in the sandbank at Le Mans with a Cunningham, although he was very good on the ½-mile dirt tracks. Exceptions there are: the late Bob Sweikert, for one, and currently Johnny Parsons and Jim Bryan. But by and large they are not conditioned for razor-sharp driving. I very much doubt whether any drivers in your racing will be pushed by one of our professionals for some time. Our road-racing amateurs present a different story, however. I think you will hear more from them as time goes on; already you know of Phill Hill and Masten Gregory, and I’m not sure at all that they wouldn’t be beaten again by Carroll Shelby and others if they returned home.

The drivers as a group are in different classes. Most of the jalopy boys are mechanics., etc, by day. The big-name stock-car and racing-car drivers usually are ex-mechanics, truck drivers, farmers, etc., who don’t make their living at racing, but who are far from wealthy either. They usually drive under contract, as a 30,000-dollar car is out of their reach. For this reason, money, they don’t appear at Sebring unless someone like Jock Ensley lends them a car. They can’t afford to come over to Europe, unless they place well in a race and have a car at their disposal. And who on your end would risk the car with an unknown? Our road-racing amateurs, however, are often wealthy and can afford to spend time on your circuits to gain a name.

I fear I have rambled quite a bit, but feel you might be interested in our racing.

Your journal is always interesting; I wouldn’t have spent the few hours on this letter if I didn’t feel you enjoy hearing from your readers. Best wishes for continued success. — John W. Bornholdt.

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