American Comment

Ford remains the favourite in the SCCA’s Trans-Am series but Mark Donohue has lowered the odds considerably by driving one of Roger Penske’s Javelins to successive victories in the seventh and eighth rounds of the series at Road America and St. Jovite. The victories gave American Motors three wins in four races and handed Ford their fourth consecutive loss (Milt Minter having won the sixth race in an independent Camaro). Altogether a very different picture from the beginning of the year when Ford, their team and cars virtually unchanged from last year, swept four straight races while the opposition, all with new cars and/or engines to sort out, were plagued by problems. Donohue has not been alone in fighting Ford. Although not quite matching the Javelins, Swede Savage in the AAR Plymouth Barracuda, Sam Posey in the Autodynamics Dodge Challenger and Jim Hall’s Camaros have all been much more competitive in recent races. As a result, Parnelli Jones and George Follmer have had to drive their Mustangs much harder and some of the cars’ weaknesses—among them brakes and tyres—are manifesting themselves.

At Road America the Mustangs resorted to softer tyres to capture the front row starting positions but the race was only one lap old when Posey, who started in the third row, charged to the front in his Challenger and quickly began pulling away. Savage, too, was going extremely fast, soon ousting Jones from second place and confirming that on fast circuits such as the 4-mile Road America one they definitely have an edge in horsepower. Posey and Savage held down the first two places for almost one-third of the race but were then overtaken by Donohue, whose Javelin may not have been quite as fast but whose refuelling stops, directed by Penske, were far superior to anyone else’s. Donohue was never headed after that but Posey and Savage hung on to take second and third, with Hall fourth in his Camaro. With two unscheduled stops for tyres, the best Jones could manage with his Mustang was fifth and even then he was only 13 sec. ahead of Minter’s Camaro— the first six cars all being on the same lap.

Interest in the St. Jovite event was considerably increased by the appearance of Vic Elford in one of Jim Hall’s Camaros. Elford was originally to have partnered Posey on the Autodynamics team but after Chrysler’s budget cutback killed that plan, Hall, having decided that he is not driving as fast as he would like, invited Elford to take over his car. Elford thoroughly enjoyed himself and described driving the Camaro as very similar to driving a rally car, particularly a Porsche, on an icy or dirt road. Several mechanical problems in practice prevented him qualifying any higher than seventh but once the race had settled down he worked the Camaro into a strong fourth place. Unfortunately an error by a junior crew member resulted in the car not restarting after its second refuelling stop and that was the end of Elford’s first Trans-Am. However, he will be driving for Hall in the remaining three races and a win is by no means out of the question.

The race itself proved a relatively easy victory for Donohue, who said later that his Javelin had performed flawlessly for the first time. Donohue qualified second fastest to Jones’ Mustang and for over one-third of the race had to fight off both Jones and Follmer. But as Donohue’s pace brought on both tyre and brake problems for the Mustangs, the Javelin pulled away to a comfortable 61.5-sec. victory over Follmer, with Jones one lap down in third place. Posey was fourth, on the same lap as Jones, but Savage retired with differential failure and it was apparent that the Chrysler cars’ speed on the fast circuits is not, so far, matched by their cornering on slower courses like the twisty, 2.65-mile St. Jovite circuit. Donohue’s consecutive wins raised American Motors’ score to 43 points and with only three races remaining it may seem unlikely that they can catch Ford, who have 56 points. The Javelin, however, is very near the standard of excellence always demanded by Penske, while Posey’s Challenger and Savage’s Barracuda are approaching that level. Add Elford in Hall’s Camaro, plus, of course, Jones and Follmer in the Mustangs, and one has all the ingredients necessary for some superb final races.

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The two most recent Continental Championship events, held at Road America and St. Jovite on the same weekends as the Trans-Am races, may have signalled an entirely new chapter in Formula A (and Formula 5000) racing. This stemmed from the appearance, in the hands of George Follmer, of the Ford-powered Lotus 70 first driven by Mario Andretti in the final Continental race of the 1969 season. The car reappeared as the result of an arrangement between Lotus Components and the Los Angeles tuning firm of Falconer & Dunn, under which the latter undertook development of a 5-litre Ford engine for use by the former. Lotus Components could hardly have made a better choice. Ryan Falconer has been a tuning specialist for several years and John Dunn was in charge of all Shelby Racing’s Ford engine development. Indeed, much of the development work on this engine was performed at Shelby Racing before they closed down.

The most significant feature of the engine produced by Falconer & Dunn is that it was specifically developed to run on Weber carburetters —almost a heresy in a day when virtually all the all-conquering Chevrolet engines used in Formula A rely on fuel injection. The target, however, is the Formula 5000 market, where fuel injection is not permitted, but Falconer & Dunn believed that they could produce a carburetter-equipped engine that would still be able to knock the wind out of the fuel-injected Chevrolets in Formula A. It was a tall order and there were many sceptics in the paddock at Road America. After all, apart from two victories by Gus Hutchison on a Cosworth-powered Brabham BT26, every Formula A race since the introduction of stock-block engines in 1968 had been won by a Chevrolet-powered car. Follmer certainly gave the sceptics something to think about, although the significance of his performance was overlooked by many whose attention was diverted by a tremendous dice between John Cannon in his McLaren M10B-Chev and David Hobbs in a works TS5A-Chev.

Cannon qualified 1 1/2 sec. faster than Hobbs, who was handicapped by having to use intermediate-pattern Firestones, but at the start of the race these tyres warmed up more quickly and Hobbs scrambled into a narrow lead. There was hardly a second between them throughout the 100 miles and although Cannon took command after the halfway mark when Hobbs’ tyres became too warm, the Englishman was just 2/10ths of a second behind the Canadian at the chequered flag. Somewhat unnoticed behind this great battle, Follmer, with virtually no pre-race chassis tuning, quickly moved up from sixth at the start to third and stayed there to finish 20 sec. behind the leaders.

If there were any doubts remaining about the potential of the carburetter-equipped Ford, they were obliterated at St. Jovite when Follmer put the Lotus 70 on the pole and then led every lap to win effortlessly by 27 sec. from Cannon’s McLaren. Hobbs, still handicapped by intermediate pattern tyres on a dry track, had shared the front row with Follmer and then fought another great duel with Cannon, though for second place this time. It was Hobbs in front for the first 10 laps, then Cannon by a whisker for 13 laps, then Hobbs again for one more when the Srttees’ handling suddenly went awry. A pit stop revealed nothing wrong but it was later suspected that the intermediate tyres had simply become too hot during the torrid dice with Cannon. The pit stop dropped Hobbs to 13th place (also cooling the tyres) and in his climb back to seventh at the finish Hobbs had the satisfaction of setting a new Formula A lap record of 99.27 m.p.h. More significant, nonetheless, was Follmer’s clear-cut victory in the carburetter-equipped Lotus 70-Ford. Chevrolet’s stranglehold on Formula (and Formula 5000) racing had been broken and hopefully this heralds a new and more competitive chapter in this type of racing. John Cannon’s first and second place finishes in these two races vaulted him into a clear lead in the Continental Championship with 85 points. Behind him are the three drivers that finishes third, fourth and fifth at St. Jovite—Ron Grable (Lola T190) with 66 points, Gus Hutchison (Brabham BT26 then Lola T190) with 63 and John Gunn (Surtees TS5A) with 52.

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There has been only one USAC Championship race since last month but it proved to be the best of the year. Run over 60 laps of the 15-turn, 2.5-mile Indianapolis Raceway Park road course, it was significant for a number of reasons: Mario Andretti using a Gurney Eagle-Ford in his McNamara for the first time; a tremendous performance by Swede Savage in Gurney’s similarly-powered car; and the fact that although the last 13 laps were run in the rain, the battle was so intense that no one dared stop for rain tyres. Andretti demonstrated the power of Gurney’s stock-block Eagle-Ford by putting his McNamara on the pole, but only by 11/100ths of a second from Indy winner Al Unser’s d.o.h.c. Colt-Ford and Mark Donohue’s stock-block Lola T153-Chevrolet. Savage, who continues to show all the earmarks of becoming the next American super-star, was only another 6/100ths of a second behind in fourth place. Andretti’s race ended early with a broken halfshaft but Savage fully lived up to his promise as he took the lead from Unser on the ninth lap and for the next 25 laps fought off the very best that USAC veteran Unser and A. J. Foyt (Coyote-Ford) could throw at him. Foyt did get the lead on the 34th lap but lost it to the Unser when the rain began on the 48th lap and then ran out of fuel. Unser and Savage both spun twice during the last eight laps – swapping the lead again in the process – but Savage’s final spin left him stranded off-course and Unser eased off to win his third race of the year. Donohue, troubled by cockpit overheating throughout the race, was the only other driver on the same lap at the finish. He was followed by Gordon Johncock’s Eagle-Ford and John Cannon’s Vollstedt-Chevrolet. With Bobby Unser failing to start and Andretti failing to finish, Al Unser raised his score in the Marlboro-sponsored USAC Championship to 2,690 points. Bobby Unser has 1,500 points, Andretti 1, 485 and Gurney 1,000.–D. G.