Stock blocks and smoking barrels
Cars quicker than F1 machinery, star drivers, great races – American Formula 5000 had it all. Forty years on from its first season, we celebrate this powerhouse series
By Gordon Kirby
At Formula 5000’s American apotheosis in the mid-1970s, Mario Andretti and Brian Redman were able to hustle their Lola T332C-Chevies around serious road courses such as Watkins Glen and Mosport as fast, or even a shade faster, than the Formula 1 cars of the time. A handful of F1 vs F5000 races were run in America and the UK in those days, and at its height in motor racing’s pre-ground-effect era the American F5000 series in particular offered powerful, spectacular cars, full fields and plenty of ‘name’ drivers.
The peak of the mountain for F5000 was Chris Pook’s inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix in September 1975 which attracted more than 40 cars built by seven constructors. The series was on a roll with similarly large fields and big crowds at Laguna Seca and Riverside two and three weeks later. Brian Redman was the man to beat, winning three F5000 titles in a row from 1974-76 with Haas/Hall Racing’s Lola T332Cs, defeating among others the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Lolas driven by Indy stars Mario Andretti and Al Unser. At Long Beach in ’75, Redman scored a famous victory by successfully nursing his car’s failing differential to the finish while Andretti’s transmission gave out, Unser uncharacteristically hit the guardrail, and a surprising young pacesetter named Tony Brise led but dropped out because of a broken driveshaft.
For a few years surrounding the first race at Long Beach there was talk about the United States Auto Club adopting F5000 as its Indycar formula. In 1974-76 USAC co-sanctioned the American F5000 championship with the Sports Car Club of America, but the two bodies never saw eye-to-eye. Eventually, at the end of ’76, they went their separate ways resulting in the sudden death of F5000. Today, 40 years after its creation, Formula 5000 is a curiosity to many, but from 1968-76 it played an increasingly important, if fleeting, role in American racing.
The SCCA replaced F5000 with the ‘new era’ Can-Am series – Formula 5000 with fenders – which staggered on through to its death in 1986, while USAC stuck with its old ways for a few more years running almost exclusively on ovals with a big-boost turbo formula. And, of course, in 1979 a group of disgruntled team owners created CART and broke away from USAC to start their own series, which is another story…
Here, we present some of the key drivers, cars and races from a classic era of American open-wheel racing.
“I thoroughly enjoyed Formula 5000. They were great cars to drive. At some places I was quicker than in a Formula 1 car. At Riverside where I had a lot of time and testing in the 5000 car, I never could match the F5000 time with our F1 car. Those F5000 cars were good-looking and there were a lot of different car builders. There was the Shadow, and All American Racers built a number of different Eagles. Then there was the Talon and some others too, which made it pretty interesting. Ryan Falconer was a great engine builder. We had the power, sure, but I think he was trying a little too hard in some areas. Some of it was his fault, but a lot of it wasn’t. We had some failures that were really weird, like a pinhole in the head casting which took me out at Pocono, and a valve stem falling in at Laguna. Any of those races would have meant a championship for me both times. I should have won that championship but Brian [Redman] cashed in every time and I wound up second. But whenever I finished, most of the time I won. I loved that car. I think we really had it nailed. Let’s face it, any time you’re in a series where you can win almost any race you enter, you always remember that fondly. And that’s the way I feel about Formula 5000.”
“A couple of things stand out from F5000 in 1973. Watkins Glen was the best, and the worst was at Seattle where I crashed three cars. I remember in the newspaper it said, ‘He doesn’t crash once, he crashes three cars!’ They used it as an advert for the race. It was exciting because I was young and reckless, and a lot of good memories come back from that year. I was a bit wild, I suppose. I was new over there in the USA and I went quickly and crashed. I guess the press and the people liked that. At the time, I didn’t really know what it all meant. I was in Sports Illustrated, which if I look back was quite something. It got tougher towards the end of the year. I wasn’t as quick after Watkins Glen, for whatever reason. I don’t quite know why. I do remember not getting any of the prize money. I told Sid Taylor and Jerry Entin to keep it because I didn’t want to take cash with me, and they never paid me! I learned a lesson, I suppose. But they were fun times. Going up the ladder is always easier and more fun than being at the top. It was a very good year, driving in lots of different formulas and doing well.”
“Often people talk to me about Can-Am and my sports car career, but I always say, ‘actually, I’m rather more proud of my F5000 career.’ A curious look crosses their faces and they ask, ‘What’s that?’. It was a fantastic time. The cars were great and there’s no question that our crew – Franz Weis, Troy Rodgers, Davey Evans and Tony Connor – were incredible. Today, you’d have 15 people doing the work they did and, of course, Franz was a brilliant driver. I could’ve gone to any race and not done practice. All I had to do was take off a bit of rear wing, or stiffen the rear roll bar because he liked more push (understeer) than I did. Otherwise, the car was exactly right for every track. Long Beach ’75 was a huge field, and very talented too, wasn’t it? We were lucky because in practice the car snapped sideways when I landed after that big jump before turn one. I told Jim [Hall], ‘it’s probably the differential.’ He said, ‘I hate to strip it the night before the race.’ About 10 or 12 laps into the race I was sitting in fourth behind Mario, Al and Tony Brise, and it broke again. So I had to back off, not just over the jump but also going up the hill to the last turn onto the pit straight which was very rough. I was on part throttle, keeping the car down and being gentle with it. And due to that, we won the race.”