The First Taste
My first big race came a half century ago; an SCCA National on the 1.6-mile Cumberland, Md., airport circuit. Roger Penske won the feature in his F1 Cooper-based Zerex Special. He was gracious and accommodating when I asked (sheepishly) for his autograph; it’s still here ... somewhere. Finally, after nearly a decade’s relentless diet of Road & Track, Sports Car Graphic, On The Grid and Sports Car Illustrated magazines, road racing was no longer just a series of words and two dimensional black & white images. True love.
Four years later, a loaves & fishes-class miracle: Watkins Glen for the 1967 United States Grand Prix. Formula 1 was a long way from Cumberland and Roger Penske’s Zerex Special*. There was even a bonus. Ford brought the Gurney/Foyt Le Mans-winning MkIV to Watkins Glen to drive home the point that its slogan “Total Performance” meant just that. It was parked it on the gravel outside the Kendall Tech Center - big and svelte and menacing in a coat of dark red, a day of Le Mans patina, and big Goodyears.
Next to it, in late September’s arctic sunlight, only Dan Gurney’s Eagle looked fit and finished. Jim Clark and Graham Hill’s Lotus 49s seemed purposeful, minimalist and tightly wound. Then there were the Cooper/Maseratis that looked like a high school auto shop project that got a C-minus (and made me realize that Jochen Rindt was the genuine article).
The less said about BRM’s clunky H-16s, the better. John Surtees’ gigantic “Hondola” (Honda-Lola), seemed almost as big as the red Ford MkIV. It had four exhaust pipes crawling out of the Vee in its massive V-12 that was likely bigger than the mighty 427 in the red 1967 Le Mans winner. Sitting next to the MkIV, the F1 players (except the Coopers and Honda) seemed like delicate precision instruments. The MkIV looked like a weapon awaiting a valid launch code.
I kept going back to the Kendall Tech Center to look at it. It was beautiful and didn’t have a bad angle. It finally disappeared. So I turned my attention to the F1 cars. I was astonished by their speed and by Jim Clark, who remains the best racing driver I’ve ever seen. He won the ’67 USGP with a broken Lotus 49 that any current F1 regular would have parked.
The 1967 USGP took just a bit over two hours, so I was on my way home before dark. That night, headed south, with darkness closing in, it was the abrasive sound of the V- 12 Honda, and the still and silent presence of the Le Mans-winning MkIV that stayed with me.
Happy, tired and alone with a head full of bright images from the best racing weekend of my young life, thoughts of Gurney and Foyt blasting through the French darkness over 200 mph on a public road persisted. Slowly, the seemingly unattainable fantasy of seeing Le Mans in person took firm root.
The average speed of the ’67 USGP was 123.584 mph. At Le Mans things not only went on longer, they went down faster ... in spite of the Ford MkIV’s V-8’s blue collar pushrod pedigree. The 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans was the fastest in the race’s 35-year history: 135.234 mph.
Gurney and Foyt had upped Le Mans’ winning average by 20.25 mph in the short time between my first sports car race and my first Formula 1 Grand Prix; 17.5 percent faster. Progress.
Ford had forced the evolution of the Le Mans prototype because Henry Ford II wanted revenge. Just two years before, the 1965 Le Mans-winning Ferrari – Enzo’s last Le Mans winner – went to the podium wearing archaic (and achingly beautiful) knock-off wire wheels. Ford had changed the rules and done it with brute force, of both the mechanical and financial kind. Budget? What budget?
Formula 1 was glamorous ... even then. It was a brief, sometimes violent sprint without the cares that visit endurance racers or real, everyday motorists who drive cars with insurance, licenses plates, destinations, deadlines and headlights; all with a practical balance of pace and economy. The one thing I learned from Formula 1 at Watkins Glen on Oct. 1, 1967 was that long-distance sports car racing and its rules still cling -- philosophically, at least -- to that old chestnut, “racing improves the breed.”
A year later, Watkins Glen in October proved that the USGP was irresistible. But there had been big changes. My hero, Jim Clark, was gone. His seat taken, at Watkins Glen, by Mario Andretti in his F1 debut. Mario won the pole so suddenly and so easily that certain core beliefs were called into question. The cars had sprouted wings; British Racing Green was gone too, replaced by a cigarette company logo and livery.
When Watkins Glen added the Can-Am and Six Hours a year later, for just $40, I couldn’t resist. Can-Am cars wore tall wings that year, but my most durable (I almost typed “enduring” ... sorry) memory from ’69 Six Hours weekend was Jo Siffert’s Six Hours start in Porsche Salzburg’s 908. Blasting through the uphill esses, the 908 was nervous on full tanks and cool tires on that first lap.
Siffert was running a six-hour sprint pace. He seemed faster in the uphill esses than the F1 cars had just two years earlier. (More progress.) It took him just four or five laps to start lapping cars in the GT classes. He, his Porsche teammate the great Brian Redman and Watkins Glen taught me how to watch the races within a race. And when one divided the price of a $40 doubleheader weekend Watkins Glen “superticket” by the number of sports and GT classes in an endurance race, the Six Hours was a genuine bargain – probably less than a dollar per “race” per hour.
When the Porsche 917K and Ferrari 512S came to Watkins Glen in July 1970, I drove home in the dark knowing I had found the true grail. It’s a pity if you missed the five-liter years of world championship sports car racing. It rained on the Glen Six Hours in 1971, but I got to meet my new hero, Jo Siffert, that weekend. Three months later, F1 took Siffert at Brands Hatch. And then the 917Ks and the 512Ms were gone too. The pur sang Can-Am perished a couple of years later. (Not progress.)
By then I was an orthodox sports car fan with an annual dalliance in F1, at least until 1980 when F1 abandoned the Glen’s rustic climes. It took most of the next decade to witness my first Sebring. (Progress.)
Night racing only confirmed what I learned on July 12, 1969. These were real cars capable of ballistic speeds on public roads for long periods of precious time. Two decades later and yet another sports car miracle: the seduction was complete at Le Mans. While F1 and my beloved World of Outlaws sprint car racing (especially under the lights) are fun and usually entertaining, the sight, sound and even the pleasing aerodynamic concussion of sports cars howling through the night safely at over 200 mph, makes the words of Le Mans co-founder Emile Coquille remain valid and relevant.
The men who gave Le Mans its solid foundation did it not to promote or sell the automobile, but rather to improve it, its systems and its environment. Coquille was the man who first suggested a Le Mans night race.His famous words, were “ … if we are to drive by night,” from nine decades ago, still carry weight, wisdom, foresight and purpose. Le Mans helped force the evolution of efficient and practical lighting systems plus a dense and hefty inventory of other crucial and essential automotive products and subsystems that we take blithely for granted.
Because of that, endurance sports car racing – especially at very high speeds between dusk and dawn -- retains a valid place in the auto industry. That’s a claim no other discipline of motorsport can make.
*Penske’s all conquering Zerex Special was a converted F1 Cooper raced in the 1961 USGP by Walt Hansgen.
Charles Dressing is one of sports car racing’s foremost historians and is a walking, talking encyclopedia on the sport. Part of the ALMS broadcast and production crew, his blog appears every other Wednesday.