Elliott Forbes-Robinson is one of the most consistently successful drivers North America has ever produced. Gary Watkins reveals how he’s still winning big at 61
He beat Gilles Villeneuve in Formula Atlantic, Keke Rosberg and Alan Jones in Can-Am. He claimed championship honours in Super Vee, Trans-Am and sports-prototypes, and has competed in everything from the Daytona 500 to the Pikes Peak Hillclimb. He helped teach Paul Newman how to race and was once sponsored by Evel Knievel. Sounds like an amazing career, but you know the most remarkable thing about Elliott Forbes-Robinson? He’s still winning big races at the age of 61.
Forbes-Robinson added another victory in the Grand American Sportscar Series to his bulging CV at Daytona in June. The win aboard a works-run Crawford followed on from another at the Barber Motorsports Park last year, a triumph that meant he had taken a major international victory in five consecutive decades.
There have been longer careers, but few drivers have retained their raw speed and been so successful at such an age. Forbes-Robinson, or EFR as he has been known for 30 years, retired from the cockpit 15 seasons ago only to come back and win the Daytona 24 Hours twice and claim a major sportscar title.
EFR couldn’t believe it back in 1999 when he triumphed in both the American Le Mans Series and the Daytona 24 Hours driving a Dyson Racing Riley & Scott. But then he was taken aback 36 years ago, when he found himself standing on the podium alongside Mark Donohue in only his second season of racing: victory in Trans-Am’s under-2-litre division at Sears Point in 1969 began the sequence of big wins. EFR was approaching his 26th birthday at the time. Which makes his longevity all the more amazing.
He may have been a late starter, but racing was in the blood. His father, also called Elliott, was a veteran racer on the West Coast who worked with Richie Ginther, competed against Dan Gurney and was a one-time team-mate of Archie Scott Brown. “My dad bought an AustinHealey Sprite to get me started, but a wheel came off when he was testing at Riverside,” says EFR. “The car was destroyed and dad sustained head injuries. He slowly recovered, but was never right.”
The younger EFR, who was “20 or 21” at the time, wasn’t put off. “I felt it was just one of those things,” he explains. “It didn’t diminish my drive at all because I had been brought up in and around racing.”
Graveyard shifts in the viewing rooms at Universal Studios in Hollywood, checking the miles of celluloid shot each day, provided the money and the free time to build up his first race car, an AC Cobra.
EFR began as he meant to continue. His debut at the Stardust Raceway outside Las Vegas yielded a victory and set in motion a whirlwind rise up the ranks. His successes led to drives in a Porsche 911S owned by a California car dealer and those first Trans-Am outings at the end of 1969.
“I finished second in one at Laguna Seca, won the class at Sears Point and then had an oil pump go at Riverside after I’d taken pole,” he remembers. “That was my introduction to professional racing.”
EFR moved onto another 911S run by West Coast Porsche and VW distributor John von Neumann, whose race programmes happened to be run by old family friend, Ginther. The Formula One veteran not only took Forbes-Robinson Jnr to Le Mans in ’71 but also gave him his single-seater break: “Richie had a Zeitler Super Vee and asked if I wanted to have a go. I ended up running the final couple of pro races in ’71.” Elliott fails to mention that this was his first time out in major single-seater events — his win at Riverside came after just one regional outing in the car.
Part-seasons with a new Lola T252 followed in ’73 and ’74, but funds were not forthcoming to build on his successes. The car changed hands, but EFR went with it and claimed the championship. The T252 is sometimes referred to as a Lynn-Lola or alternatively just a Lynn. EFR explains: “We did a lot of modifications to that car. We cut four inches out of the rollhoop, laid me down in the tub and built a low-line body over the top. The factory didn’t want to help us so we thought, ‘Why should we call it a Lola?’ The wife of the guy who owned the car was called Lynn…”
A graduation to the ultra-competitive world of Formula Atlantic followed in 1975. That put EFR up against the likes of Villeneuve and Bobby Rahal at the beginning of the classic era for the category. He notched up two wins at the wheel of his Penthouse-sponsored Lola T360 in Villeneuve’s backyard at Mont-Tremblant and Mosport, but EFR’s best memory of that season was the friendship he fostered with the future F1 legend. “His kids, Jacques and Melanie, were around the same ages of my two boys and we ended up hanging out,” he recalls. “We’d travel together and park our motorhomes next to each other.”
A stop-start Atlantic season the following year was combined with some F5000 outings, following on from a short stint in one of Dan Gurney’s Eagles in ’74. “Francisco Mir was a Ferrari dealer who put me in his Lola,” says EFR. “He had a lot of celebrity clients. Evel Knievel was one and he sponsored our car.”
F5000 morphed into the second iteration of Can-Am for 1977 and, with the backing of another show-business legend, EFR began what was arguably the most celebrated phase of his career: Paul Newman had been racing with an ex-Group 44 Triumph TR6 and Forbes-Robinson helped tutor the movie icon. That made him the obvious choice of driver when Newman linked up with team owner Bill Freeman to run a Lola T333.
EFR was at the forefront of the series for four seasons with a team that eventually turned into Newman Racing, the forerunner of the ultra-successful Newman-Haas Champ Car squad. With the Lola, which was subsequently rebodied and dubbed the Spyder NF-11, he won three races and notched up 16 podiums up to the end of ’79, the year he finished runner-up to Jacky Ickx in the points.
“Everyone says that it wasn’t the same as the old Can-Am,” offers EFR, “but the cars were fast and the racing was excellent. If you were on the podium you knew you’d beaten some good guys. You were racing against Jacky Ickx, Alan Jones and Geoff Brabham, and that’s without mentioning Danny Sullivan and Bobby Rahal.”
Formula Two hotshot Teo Fabi joined those names the following year when he arrived at Newman as part of a deal with March, leaving EFR without a drive. That coincided with an offer from Grey Egerton, his car owner back in ’74, to switch to NASCAR’s Winston Cup, a category he had first sampled back in ’76. “We did a few races (11 in total) but never really got a good car and life was never made easy for a road racer like me.”
A successful return to Trans-Am yielded the title at the first attempt at the wheel of a Huffaker Pontiac and he continued winning in the formula until 1987, dovetailing his campaigns with forays in IMSA sportscars: Forbes-Robinson was Don Devendorf’s second paid driver when he started out with Nissan on the path to domination of the GTP category. EFR won at Miami at the start of ’87 together with Geoff Brabham but walked away at the end of the year: “We kept having blow-outs and I didn’t feel I could race on a tyre I didn’t trust. I signed up to race for the Hendrick Corvette GTP programme only for Nissan to ring back and say they had swapped to Goodyears. I knew they would be unbeatable.”
They were: Nissan and Brabham took four straight GTP titles. Hendrick, meanwhile, quit sportscars and EFR made an unrewarding switch to Mazda for 1989. Before the end of the following year he had hung up his helmet. “I wasn’t having fun anymore,” he remembers. “I never intended to return.”
The newly-retired driver didn’t turn his back on the sport: a chat with oval racing impresario Humpy Wheeler led to him becoming the central figure in the development of the entry-level Legends category. It remained his full-time employment until ’98, long after his ‘comeback’ was in full swing.
EFR was never quite an ex-driver. He made a one-off start in the 1991 Nürburgring 24 Hours in a Porsche — “I couldn’t say no to that” — before another old friend persuaded him to get back behind the wheel on a regular basis: John Schneider had been his team boss and team-mate in Trans-Am and now they joined forces in a pair of works-blessed Nissan 300ZXs in the World Challenge GT series.
EFR ended up winning the title at his first attempt, but Schneider had bigger ambitions: “John wanted to do Daytona and we agreed to drive a second Dyson Riley in ’97. It was just going to be John, myself and Rob (Dyson, the team owner) in the car. No one figured we would do well, but we ended up leading.”
A regular seat at Dyson was an accidental by-product of that win. No fewer than seven drivers shared the laurels at Daytona, but EFR was the only top-liner to score points: “The pits at the Sebring 12 Hours the following month were allocated according to championship position, so they kept me in the car!”
EFR remained a permanent fixture in the Dyson line-up for the next five seasons. He rates the ’99 ALMS title as perhaps his most significant success, though again it came about almost by accident.
“Dyson wasn’t meant to do the full series,” explains EFR, who didn’t win an ALMS race that year, “but we finished second at Sebring and kept notching up the points.”
The runaway success of the Grand-Am series has now given him a new lease of life. EFR had been tutoring the owner of one of the factory-run Crawfords and joined the team at Daytona last year. Then, when the wealthy amateur stepped down, the old stager was brought in to partner Butch Leitzinger full time.
So is Forbes-Robinson the world’s oldest professional racing driver? “I’m not sure that’s something to be proud of,” he laughs. “I’m just lucky that each winter someone looks down on me and gives me another season. It doesn’t matter how I do because I race for recreation these days.”
That may be so, but this grandfather just can’t stop winning.