At the beginning of October an unusual happening took place on two British circuits, at Silverstone over the weekend of October 1st and at Brands Hatch on October 7th. A group of drivers and cars from the United States of America visited our shores and went through the motions of racing in two events which counted in their own 1978 season championship series. In America oval-track racing is looked after by the United States Auto Club (USAC) and their top-echelon category is appropriately enough referred to as Championship cars. Pinnacle of their activity is the Indianapolis 500-mile race, as it always has been, and these days there are two other 500-mile races held on the Super Speedways at Pocono and Ontario (California). Other banked track events vary from 150 miles to 300 miles, and all carry the accent on sheer unadulterated high speed, laps at over 200 m.p.h. in the world of USAC racing being the norm. rather than the exception. As an experiment in recent years USAC has left the high-speed ovals and tried its hand at an occasional road-type circuit, with left and right hand bends, gradients and sharp corners. USAC never attempted to follow the lead of Grand Prix racing, though over the years GP cars have contested track events with success. With a greater intermingling of Grand Prix people and USAC people, especially during the nineteen-sixties, the design trends of USAC cars has become much more aligned with Formula One, and this has encouraged the USAC teams to try their cars at road-racing.
As a brave experiment, instigated by Motor Circuit Developments (MCD), who control Brands Hatch, Oulton Park and Mallory Park, the idea was born that the British spectators might like to see USAC cars and drivers in action. Agreement was made to include an event at Silverstone (by courtesy of the BRDC) and one at Brands Hatch, these two races to count in the overall USAC season-long Championship series. Way back in 1957 a group of USAC Indianapolis cars and drivers visited Italy, and again in 1958, and ran on the banked track at Monza. At that time the only similarity between USAC cars and Grand Prix cars was that they both had front-mounted engines. The Indy cars only did one thing, they went very fast. They did not stop, steer, corner, or hold the road like the Grand Prix cars of those days, and they didn’t need to, for speed was all that was needed for USAC racing, Independent suspension, efficient brakes, four or five-speed gearboxes and such things were of no interest to the USAC designers. They came to Europe and raced in their own manner on the banked Monza oval, and very impressive they were, running wheel-to-wheel at 175-m.p.h. laps. It was a whole new scene to European eyes, the large 4.2-litre four-cylinder-powered cars having only two speeds in their gearboxes. They took a little time to get under way, but once on song there was no messing about, they thundered round the bankings in an awe-inspiring manner.
Since those days European designers took a mechanical revolution to Indianapolis and Cooper, Lotus, Lola and Brabham set the USAC world on the way towards a Grand Prix-type of car. Lola and McLaren continued the trend until the whole USAC scene was developed around what was, in effect, a large and strong Grand Prix, or Formula One chassis, the McLaren Formula One M23 being the ultimate design move, in the shape of the M24 “Indy” McLaren. With the suggestion that USAC should race at Mosport Park in Canada, it was not too difficult to adapt principles of steering, road-holding and braking from Formula One, with the addition of four-speed gearboxes.
In the engine department USAC continued on its own way, with absolute power being the criterion. America’s own Ford company broke the monopoly of the old four-cylinder Offenhauser engine, when they supplied their 4-o.h.c. V8 racing engine to Lotus and others. To try and combat the V8 power the four-cylinder “Offy,” made by Meyer-Drake, was turbocharged and this started the vogue of turbocharging. Not surprisingly the Cosworth concern got involved in USAC, as described in Motor Sport in February 1978 and the turbo-charged DFX Cosworth V8 has just about monopolised USAC racing, as it has done in Formula One with its 3-litre DFV.
The idea of transporting a whole field of USAC cars and drivers to Britain sounded like a good one, except that there was nowhere to run them in a similar environment to Indianapolis or any of the other high-speed “oval” tracks on which they normally run. To suggest running Indianapolis cars on typical Formula One circuits sounded as optimistic as entering a Shire horse in the Grand National, its sheer weight and power might demolish the “jumps”, but that’s about all. Much play was made in the pre-race publicity about “Indianapolis Cars”, with their speeds of over 200 m.p.h. but any high speeds seen at Silverstone or Brands Hatch were going to be of the “instant” variety. Rather like standing at the end of a quarter-mile Drag Strip to see a dragster go through the lights at 200 m.p.h., as I have often done. “Now you see it, now you don’t.” It is almost too sudden to comprehend with the human eye. An average of 200 m.p.h. round a banked circuit is another matter altogether, that is “real” speed, sustained rather than instantaneous. I would go a very long way to watch a car lapping a banked track at over 200 m.p.h. We were not going to see this in England as we have no suitable track. Speed is what USAC is all about, and to bring the contenders to Britain without suitable facilities for them to show their paces seemed misguided.
To add further to this delusion USAC held a qualifying session on their Michigan 2-mile oval track to sort out the fastest 16 cars and drivers, who would make the trip to Britain. In view of the fact that the British races were to be held on twisting road-type circuits it seemed an odd thing to do, to seed out the 16 fastest on sheer speed. The qualifying at Michigan must have been well worth seeing, for Tom Sneva in a turbo-charged Cosworth-powered Penske PC6 lapped at 209.059 m.p.h., to make the fastest run. Rick Mears in another Penske was second at 206.363 m.p.h. and third was A.J. Foyt in his own turbocharged 4 o.h.c. Ford V8 Coyote at 202.190 m.p.h. The remainder of the 16 recorded speeds down to a low (!) of 196.560 m.p.h. and the average qualifying speed was 200.063 m.p.h. These figures were not “instant” speeds through a timing trap, but were averages for the two-mile oval, so that Sneva was maintaining 210 m.p.h. for the whole two miles. It must have been worth seeing. To then bring this high-speed group to the flatness and curves of Silverstone or the tight little acrobatics of the Brands Hatch club circuit seemed ridiculous. A good wide-screen colour film of the qualifying at Michigan would have been more appropriate!
The 16 USAC runners duly arrived at Silverstone but the weather played havoc with the whole affair. USAC racing does not take place in the rain so the Silverstone event was a disaster from start to finish. Practice was delayed by the rain, qualifying was scrubbed because of the rain, the race was abandoned on Saturday September 30th due to the rain, and took place on Sunday October 1st and was curtailed because of the rain. A small crowd of hardy spectators waited patiently for what little action there was; something like 6,000 people turned up on Saturday, but only 4,000 returned on Sunday when the race actually started. It was due to run over 52 laps but rain once more cut things short. The race stopped at 27 laps when the rain started, began again when the rain stopped and was finally abandoned at 38 laps. It would have been a disaster on a 200-m.p.h. banked track, but on the featureless open spaces of Silverstone it did not fire the imagination of the spectators. When everything was right and dry some of the USAC runners put on a show that had the makings of being interesting, and Danny Ongais set a new Silverstone lap record by reason of bravery in unleashing 800 b.h.p. between the corners. He recorded 1 min. 18.45 sec. (134.55 m.p.h.) and did an “instant” 203 m.p.h. at the end of Hangar Straight. The old Silverstone lap record was done in 1976; we didn’t have a GP there this year and the International Trophy F1 race was washed out, so we do not know what a Lotus 79 could do. If a Formula One car touches 175-178 m.p.h. on Hangar Straight it is going well, so if nothing else the USAC cars really accelerate at high speed, even if they do not corner like an F1 car, due to tyre-width being restricted by USAC rules, and chassis design being three years behind F1.
At the following weekend the weather relented and a dry sunny day saw the USAC teams contesting a race over 100 laps of the Brands Hatch Club circuit. This went off without a hitch but the subsequent Formula Three race provided more excitement! Speeds of 174 m.p.h. (or thereabouts) were recorded on the pits straight, which was impressive in itself, but that was all. Even the sunny day only attracted about 15,000 spectators, so it looks as though the British public are not very interested in USAC racing, or in Indianapolis cars driven by the top names from USAC. At least, not on circuits on which we normally see suitable cars competing. It’s a pity MCD could not have hired the MIRA banked circuit, on which the ill-fated Le Mans Jaguar V12 lapped at 164 m.p.h. many years ago. We might have seen individual high-speed laps over the 180-m.p.h. mark, which would have been more in keeping with the cars.
It was a brave attempt by MCD to offer British motor racing something new, but it would appear to have been misgided. – D.S.J.