Gordon Kirby – The US Scene

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A road trip to remember

The historic weekend at Road America in Wisconsin is one of my favourite events in the American racing season. It’s known these days as the Kohler International Challenge with Brian Redman and this year there were celebrations of Lola’s 50th anniversary, of Formula 5000’s founding 40 years ago, and of the Scarab marque. A tremendous turnout of competitors helped attract a healthy crowd to the July event, and the now-traditional Friday evening drive by some competitors from the track into Elkhart Lake village for the Road & Track concours d’elegance draws the biggest crush of people the little Wisconsin vacation town sees all summer.

“I don’t think there’s anything like it in the country,” says Road America’s president George Bruggenthies. “There’s a tremendous esprit de corps around this event. I think it’s the best in the country. It’s unique because we bring the racing cars back to the circuit where all this started in 1950, ’51 and ’52. In those days the races drew 100,000 people and I still can’t fathom that because there were no grandstands or anything like that.

“I think we got about 30,000-35,000 people for the Friday evening concours event,” Bruggenthies adds. “It’s a little nervy for us because they are race cars and things can happen, so we pay special attention to keep it safe and have it continue. There were no problems at all this year. Everyone understands how important it is. This year it went off perfectly.”

The four-mile Road America circuit in the Dell country of central Wisconsin is the US’s longest and finest road course. It was laid out and constructed in 1955 by local builder Cliff Tufte who designed the circuit himself, basing most of the corners on turns in the local roads on which organised road racing began around and through Elkhart Lake village in 1950. Today, Road America’s essential layout remains unchanged and unblemished by a single chicane, as it was when Tufte designed the track.

It’s the perfect place therefore to properly exercise big-banger Can-Am and Formula 5000 cars, and there was a wide selection of these and many other types of big-bore sports cars from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s at Elkhart. The F5000 contingent included one of almost every type of said car, and everyone had a grand time driving around the fine old race track and trading stories well into the evenings.

Three-time American F5000 champion Brian Redman is the grand marshal of the Elkhart weekend and he reminisced heartily about his years in F5000. Brian raced Ford GT40s for Peter Sutcliffe and John Wyer in 1966-’68, winning the Kyalami Nine Hours in ’67 and the BOAC Six Hours at Brands Hatch and Spa 1000Kms in ’68, all with Jacky Ickx. He joined Wyer’s factory Porsche sports car team in 1969 and won five of 10 World Championship races, co-driving with Jo Siffert. In 1970, Redman won four more long-distance races with Porsche, driving the new 917K and a 908/3 in the Targa Florio which he won with Siffert. The following year Redman was badly burned in an accident on the Targa Florio aboard another 908/3. In 1972 and ’73 he drove for Ferrari’s sports car team, adding four more world sports car wins to his resume, co-driving primarily with Ickx.

But after running a handful of Grands Prix for a motley collection of teams between 1968-’71 and attempting a brief retirement in South Africa following his Targa accident, Brian was hankering after a good single-seater ride. Early in 1972 he asked Derek Bennett at Chevron if he could build a Formula 5000 car. Bennett said he could and Redman asked how long it would take and what the price would be.

“Bennett said it’ll take 10 weeks to build and whatever it costs me,” Redman recalls. “So I bought that car for £3000 and Sid Taylor provided the engine and gearbox. The first time we took the car out it broke the Oulton Park track record which was quite typical of Chevron in those days. They were really quite fantastic.”

Redman then took the prototype Chevron B24 to America. His first American F5000 race was at Watkins Glen where he won the first of two heats and led the second until he was stopped by a dead battery. “We had seen there was US$20,000 first place prize money at Watkins Glen, so off we went,” Brian grins. “We shipped it out on an open trailer to New York, bought a $500 station wagon and towed the car to Watkins Glen. I think it was a combination of two races and I had a pretty good lead but the battery went flat with five laps to go.”

Brian finished second at Road Atlanta and Lime Rock before winning the season-closer at Riverside, where he met US Lola importer Carl Haas. “Carl said he was running an F5000 team with Jim Hall in 1973 and asked me if I’d be interested in driving for him. In many ways I felt bad about it because there I was instigating the production of the Chevron F5000 car and now I was turning away to go to Lola. But I couldn’t refuse it. I knew that, obviously, it would be a great effort.”

And it was indeed. Driving Haas/Hall Lolas, Redman won five American F5000 races in ’73, but was beaten to the championship by Jody Scheckter after missing two races because of sports car commitments with Ferrari. But in 1974-’76, Redman won three straight F5000 championships, twice beating Mario Andretti to the title and taking his third championship from Al Unser. Brian credits a superb team of mechanics and Jim Hall’s genius and racing savvy for much of the success.

“Jim’s knowledge and understanding of everything was extremely valuable. I remember at Mosport I hit a parked car in practice and did quite a bit of damage. In the heat race the handling was not good and after the race Jim asked me how it was. I told him what it was doing around the track and we played with the suspension. The car was actually not straight. I had bent the chassis in the accident so it was impossible to make it right.

“But Jim made changes to the suspension and in the final it was good. It handled beautifully! Not everybody can do that. We had some great times together.”

Thanks Brian, for so many fine memories.

*****

Stewart turns his back on Toyota

Two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart announced in July that he will leave Joe Gibbs’ Toyota team at the end of 2008 to become co-team owner of Haas CNC Racing, which will be rebranded as Stewart/Haas Racing. After one year of racing Toyotas for Gibbs, Stewart will return to the Chevrolet camp and attempt to transform the Haas team from grid-filler to serious contender. At mid-season, only one of the two Haas Chevrolets was in the top 35 in the points, and in six and a half years the team has had just one top-five finish.

Stewart was made an offer by Haas CNC’s general manager Joe Custer to become a co-owner without a dime of investment. Custer runs the team for owner Gene Haas, who is serving a two-year prison term for federal tax evasion.

In 10 years at Gibbs – his NASCAR career to date – Stewart has won 32 races, all in Pontiacs or Chevrolets. Toyota’s racing boss Lee White offered Stewart full backing for his own team, but Tony said no, making it quite clear that he’s not a fan of Toyota.

Stewart’s move comes as Toyota is starting to hit its stride. He’s leaving one of the sport’s most successful teams to join one of its most marginal. Many people are asking how long it will take Stewart to push his new team into contention, and has his patriotism got the better of him?

*****

GM cutbacks a cause for concern

Also in July, General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner announced cutbacks totalling US$15 billion. GM faces the prospect of bankruptcy in the next few years and is cutting back on engineering, salaries, health care and pensions. All NASCAR event sponsorships and pace car programmes will be cancelled, while the Corvette GT1 ALMS programme will be reduced to the major endurance races in ’09.

Ford and Dodge are also in trouble, and if Toyota thrashes the Detroit brands on the track, will their bean counters continue to spend money on NASCAR? As reported in this space last month, Toyota’s immense financial and engineering resources are just starting to be unleashed on NASCAR. Its new chassis and aero development shop in North Carolina will come on stream later this year and should result in steady improvements in performance next year.

Neither GM, Ford, nor Dodge have the depth in money and engineering to compete with Toyota. What will NASCAR do about the coming sea change in the history of American stock car racing?

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