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Speedster Racing in the 60s - Part 3
The ambience of racing in the 60s
The handful of pro racing shops that existed were dedicated to pro efforts. Dan Gurney's All American Racers started up in this time frame, and there were a few others dedicated to Indy and other racing venues which paid prize money. More were spawned when the Can-Am series was initiated. But SCCA was strictly amateur in those days; we raced for $10 trophies. At one of my driver-training sessions at Riverside, instructor Bob Challman, a Lotus dealer, briefly waxed philosophical. I don't recall the context, which I think was a little far-fetched in any case, but he said that we were out there to "dispose of disposable income." I was stunned, and the faces of the other fledgling drivers showed the same reaction. Most of us were out there on money that should have gone to buy new shoes for the baby. The idea of that being "disposable income" was startling, at best.
In the upper modified classes, cars were often supplied and sponsored by a dealer who had a lively interest in racing and could benefit from the advertising. John von Neuman, who owned Competition Motors, the Porsche and VW dealership in Hollywood, owned and had his shop prepare the Spyders driven by the late Ken Miles. Otto Zipper, who co-owned a dealership in Beverly Hills, provided Spyders and later a 904 or two for top drivers. Vasek Polak owned and prepared Spyders. Bob Challman Lotus was also in Manhattan Beach. There were a few others, and of course I am speaking of Southern California where I lived. I imagine the situation was similar in the East; I recall reading of young Roger Penske driving Spyders for a dealership in Pennsylvania owned by his father, if I remember correctly.
But in the production classes there were few full sponsors which provided the cars and did all the preparation. The only one which comes to mind is Chick Vandagriff's Hollywood Sports Cars which prepared winning British cars (MG, Sunbeam Alpine etc.). But there were a number of independent repair shops whose owners participated in racing preparation on the side, and sometimes also drove. In the Porsche camp there was Roger Bursch (inventor/supplier of the exhaust systems which bear his name); cars which he sponsored by assisting in the preparation bore the name of his repair shop, "Scientific Automotive." Al Cadrobbi was very active in a similar way, and there were probably others after I was no longer racing. The slogan Al chose for his Porsche/VW repair shop cracked me up. During an era when service at the dealer's shop usually meant exorbitant prices and often shoddy work to boot, Al chose as the name of his prosperous independent shop, "Cadrobbi's Werkstatt - Unauthorized Service." 95% of the drivers did all their own wrenching, relying on a friendly repair shop owner for special tools and equipment beyond the realm of private ownership. For example, Bursch's Scientific Automotive had a Clayton chassis dyno which was invaluable for tuning and testing. Al Cadrobbi built my first racing engine with me at his elbow. He taught me the ropes, sold me an engine stand, even gave me a few tools. From there on I did it myself with Al's consultation and support.
Getting the parts
There was one young doctor running in E production when I was there; his engine had been built by Vasek Polak, personally I think. Vasek was amazing - I don't know when he slept. Even by that time he already owned a couple of very prosperous dealerships and was very active in modified (sports racing) classes with the Spyders and heavy aluminum. The thought of him working late at night, personally building up a 356 racing engine for a customer is just mind-boggling. Yet I have seen a photo of him doing exactly that. Most of the Porsches running were 356A Speedsters, 56 through 58, just six to eight years old in 64. All parts were easily available through Porsche dealers; there were virtually no independent parts suppliers such as we have today. We got "racer's price" from dealerships which supported racing. That was usually the dealer's cost plus 10%. Vasek usually stocked unusual parts that a dealer wouldn't have. I bought my ZF limited slip from his parts department, about $150, if I remember correctly. In rare cases parts would quietly be provided free to really top drivers. For example, after the Spyder days, Ken Miles invaded E production with a Sunbeam Alpine. He was beating the Porsches. It is rumored that Davey Jordan, the top Porsche driver at the time, was given free parts by Competition Motors. It was also said that Davey was skipping lunches in order to finance his shoestring racing campaign. Don't laugh - this was not that uncommon. If I remember correctly, Davey eventually succeeded in beating Miles and returning E Production to Porsche domination.
Close racing with Uncle Bob
As I said in a previous installment, motor homes were all but non-existent; I began to notice them around 65 or 66. Most drivers, with family and helpers, came to the course in a station wagon filled with parts and tools, towing the race car behind. At most tracks there were no permanent rest rooms; we just contended with the hot, stinking "Al's & Annie's." It was anything but comfortable. Now, back to the racing. After Willow Springs, where I brought home a 3rd after briefly leading, it was Santa Barbara, if I remember correctly. I don't recall how I finished, but probably not very high, because I never did well at Santa Barbara. Once I spun late in the race and finished dead last. What I do remember is Uncle Bob Kirby and I having our own private little ding dong in practice. It's great fun to race hard in close company with a buddy, often just inches apart in some turns, with full confidence that he is not going to do something stupid and screw you both up. Even more, I appreciated Bob's feeling confident enough in me to stay that close, especially in practice when it wasn't necessary except for our own amusement and a crunch might have put one or both of us out of the upcoming race. After all, Bob had about a decade of experience on me. Alan Fordney, the P.A. announcer for the Cal Club/SCCA races for many years, had a favorite expression for two cars in such close company: "You could throw a blanket over those two cars!"
A new line at the Pomona track
Next came Pomona. Just a flat course on the huge paved lot of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, but there was one little section of the course that I owned. We ran it counter-clockwise; it seems like I recall hearing that later they ran it clockwise, but I'm not sure about that. At the end of the long straight, turns 1, 2 and 3 were left-right-left in quick succession - virtually a set of S's. Turn 2 went under the bridge. Each turn was slower than the one preceding. In the middle of turn 3 was an up-ramp of about a foot where the pavement changed level. Conventional wisdom was to take it fairly easy through 1 and 2 because you had to be very slow in order to hit the ramp just right and not too fast. I discovered that, by cheating on line, I could make my own tiny little straight between 2 and 3. Probably no more than about 30 feet, but enough that I could straighten the wheels briefly. This allowed me to storm through 1 and 2 like the hounds of hell were chasing me, then, with the car momentarily straightened and balanced on all four, stomp very hard on the brakes. This all took place in no more than two seconds, and I was down to a safe entrance speed for turn 3 and its whoop-de-do. You'd be surprised how many cars I passed as they slowed through 1 and 2 because there wasn't really a straight between 2 and 3 if you used conventional line. I passed Alan Johnson between 2 and 3 one day, but hit the ramp about 1 mph too fast. That tossed the tail up briefly and while I was waiting to get traction again, Alan re-passed. I'm sure that there were other drivers who used the same or even a better technique through that section, but I worked it out for myself and it was more fun than the law allows.
I don't recall my Saturday finish. I think that both Alan Johnson and Bob Kirby were running that weekend, so I probably finished third or lower. Sunday I finished second to Alan Johnson in a hard, pouring rain. I wore an open-faced Bell helmet, with goggles. The lenses remained covered with water, but there were narrow ventilation slots about 1/8" high across the top of each plastic lens. I drove the race peering through the vent slots! Visibility was just a few feet, and at the end of the long straight there formed a junkyard which increased in population with every lap as drivers, unable to see, overshot their braking point and crashed into the other cars already there. Sad to say, some of our POC Race Team compatriots were among those who played bumper cars in the rain. Officials stopped the race when enough laps had been completed to make it official. Side note: some drivers used ordinary Pirelli Cinturato street tires for racing in the rain. The tires had excellent wet adhesion. I didn't even have a spare set of wheels, let alone tires. But the Blue Streaks had a pretty good tread which kept them from being as useless as slicks are in the wet.
Odd as the scheduling may seem, a few weeks later it was mid-June and we were back at Pomona. On Saturday I started on the front row. Rita said our car came off the line like a bullet. I had used a new technique - flooring the hrottle and holding the revs at 5,000 (the bottom end of the torque range) by carefully controlling clutch slippage for that second or two until the car "catches up" with engine speed. Yes, I know it sounds elementary - duh - but I had never used that technique before. It put me into a lead I never relinquished, and I won. At this point, please allow an appropriate digression. The contribution of a wife or significant other to racing cannot be over-stated. Rita ran a hundred racing-related errands while I was at work. A frequent routine on Monday morning was for her to tow the race car to Fred Sebald's body shop in Glendale if I had picked up any scars the preceding weekend. She made the numbers for the car by scissoring them from adhesive shelf paper. She made the lunches, organized the kids and a hundred details. She contributed constant support and enthusiasm, never complaining about the pressure that racing put on the budget for luxuries such as food, housing and clothing. What a great pleasure it was to earn our first checkered flag, and present it to her, on her 30th birthday!
Back to Pomona
We lived only about thirty miles from Pomona, so we went home Saturday night. We taped the flag to the roll bar and towed the race car home on the San Bernadino Freeway to cheers from occupants of other cars, some of them probably race spectators. The kids thought this was just too cool to be believed. They had probably given up on ever saying "Daddy" and "won" in the same sentence. We arrived in understandable good spirits Sunday morning, then got the bad news. They had decided to run D & E Production together. Great. After winning on Saturday, I was 16th on the grid Sunday, behind all the class D cars. But the fun was about to begin. My grid position was so far on the outside that I worried about traction. E.Forbes Robinson Sr., who had approved my first national competition license a year and a half previous, was standing nearby. I motioned him over to the car and asked him to look ahead of the left rear wheel to see if there were gravel marbles or any other debris which would deter my getting underway. He said it looked clear.
The start was something else. As the starter fluttered the green flag over his head and we held the revs up, ready to pop the clutch, a couple of cars crept forward. He slowly lowered the flag and motioned for them to move back into position. Most of the other drivers also let their revs down, expecting him to go through another "ready" phase. I saw no reason to let the revs down. Sure enough, as soon as the errant cars had backed up (and, hopefully, shifted out of reverse!) the starter began waving the flag low, at waist level! I had about two milliseconds of indecision, then figured what the hell, if I make a false start they won't kill me. I dumped the clutch. To this day I don't have the slightest idea how I got around or through the six rows of stationary cars ahead of me. Perhaps I drove around them on the outside, but I was so close to the edge I'm not sure there was room to do so. Perhaps I zig-zagged between them, or jumped over the tops of them! All I know is that a couple of seconds later I was racing, looking at the tail of only one car. That was Johnny Lumkin, an experienced and seasoned driver, in a class D MGB. My first thought was relief that at least one other fool had decided to give it the benefit of the doubt; if they crucified me I would at least have company.
I expected to see red flags before the first lap was completed, after which they would arrest Johnny and me and then restart the race for the others. It was with a great sense of relief that we came around to start-finish and the grid was no longer full of cars! Even better when I realized that they were all behind the two of us. So Johnny and I, with our questionable head start, just ran away and hid. We didn't see another car except those we lapped. After about two laps, at the end of the S-F straight, Johnny discreetly raised one hand barely above his left shoulder - where it wouldn't be seen by spectators - and motioned me around. I was happy to accommodate. So at Johnny's confidential invitation, I led most of the race. With one lap to go he blew my doors off as he came around me on the S-F straight, but I had my class win. Then I was in for another surprise. After the cool-off lap they waved me, along with Johnny, into the victory circle. After he was presented his checkered flag, the party moved to my car and I was also given one, along with the requisite kiss from the race queen du jour. And that wasn't the worst part - her kiss was a lot juicier than the more businesslike type who was dealing them out on Saturday. It's tough work getting kissed by a new woman after every race, but someone has to do it. Then Rita jumped in the passenger seat and we did another victory lap, our second in two days. I still don't know why - never before had I seen anyone except the overall winner given the spoils of victory. I don't know whether they were starting a new policy that day or whether they decided to give it to me because my class E car had led most of the D & E race and finished second. I asked no questions nor did I confess to Johnny's generosity. I grabbed the flag and beat it the hell out of there.
However, all was not well with the engine - later in the week I found both cylinder heads cracked. These were the heads which had come on our 60 super Coupe, and they probably had 40,000 street miles on them before they went on the racing engine; they didn't owe me a penny. Willow Springs was coming up in just a couple of weeks or so, and I couldn't buy and set up a new pair of heads that quickly. Dick Lovell, an active POC member who later founded Performance Products, kindly loaned me a pair of heads which had formerly been on someone's racing engine. They had the pre-A 8 mm valve stems which were used by most of the 356 racers until the mid 60s. Then, back to Willow springs. I felt that the engine was running well enough with the borrowed heads, but a friend in the pits said that my car didn't have a healthy, even-sounding exhaust note.
Again I don't recall how I finished Saturday, but it couldn't have been too well because on Sunday I had to work up through some traffic before I saw the lead car in front of me. I recall passing Bob Kirby on the front straight; Bob was handicapped that day by a sick engine. When I got within shooting distance of the leading car, it was the damned Elva again! No problem. With a couple of wins under my belt I no longer felt uneasy about leading a race. I wanted this guy, and I wanted him bad, to avenge the defeat of the Porsches at the previous Willow running. The driver was no more experienced than I, and I felt confident I could take him this time. As I began closing on him it must have made him nervous, because he spun again, just as he had in the previous Willow race, and at about the same place - between turns 3 and 4. This was beginning to feel like deja vu all over again. I would rather have passed him fair and square, but if he wanted to hand me the lead, I would take it. I expected him to remain out of the way and re-enter the course when clear, per the rules. But, with his wildly spinning rear wheels throwing up rocks and sand, he pulled back onto the track directly in front of me! That's not a fast part of the course - I was probably moving about 60 mph. But he re-entered the track at about 2 mph. I stomped on the binders and my car went sideways, my right door collecting the left-rear corner of the Elva. Former divisional champion Denny Harrison, watching from the pits, told me later that my car left the ground "about a foot" from the force of the impact. I don't think the fiberglass monstrosity was even cracked; the Elva continued on his way, having been given a little extra boost by my car.
The force vector propelled my car off course to the left where the nose climbed partway up the steep slope that came right down to the edge of the track at that point. There was a corner marshall nearby, and I asked him to take a walk around my car to see if it looked OK - that would save me un-buckling, getting out, then getting in and buckling up again. After a brief circuit of the car he said that there was a big bash in the right side but everything else looked OK. I thanked him, backed down the embankment and resumed racing with a fury. I had lost a little time, and now really had a job to do. As I passed start-finish half a lap later, I noticed officials stooping and looking very carefully at my car. Another half a lap and I knew why. Just as I cleared the top of the hill and embarked upon the back straight, my engine quit. I cut the ignition switch, took it out of gear, raised my left arm high in the air and steered for the right edge of the track, wondering how far I could coast. Then people began passing me, each driver pointing frantically to the infield. I thought they were just telling me to get off the track, although I wasn't really in the way at that point. But after two or three signals from very agitated drivers, I became curious and looked in the mirror. My God, my car was on fire!
Later inspection showed that, when the car had been wedged up the embankment, upward leverage on the "stinger" pipe had broken the exhaust system loose at one of the rear cylinders. The air intake of one of the carbs had been burned, indicating that hot exhaust had evidently ignited some over spray from that carb. Without further delay I steered deep into the infield, well away from the track, then jumped out of the car and got the hell out of there - at that point I didn't know if the car was going to blow or what. From a safe distance I could see that the fire was mostly in the engine room and under the car where the fuel line had been burned in two and gas dripping from the tank was feeding the flames. The tonneau cover over the passenger seat was also burning and carrying the flames to the front part of the car. I knew I should shut off the gas valve, but there were complications. I had removed the stock long fuel valve handle and replaced the valve with a simple petcock without an extension handle. So to shut it off I had to reach under the gas tank . But the tonneau I had to get under was burning! And last but not least, I didn't know if I could get the seriously-damaged right-side door open. About that time another competitor (non-Porsche) pulled off - sacrificing his race - and offered me the use of his on-board fire extinguisher (we weren't required to carry them at that time). He didn't carry a very big bottle, but it was better than I had and the course fire truck was nowhere in sight. I explained to the driver that if he would play his extinguisher on the burning tonneau, I would try to get in and shut off the gas. He did so as I tugged mightily on the door, finally getting it open far enough. Just as his fire bottle was exhausted I took a deep breath, got down on hands and knees and crawled under the tonneau, shutting off the fuel petcock. Sure enough, the fire subsided almost immediately. The course fire truck didn't show up for another several minutes.
How about that driver? He sacrificed his own race and saved my car from much more severe damage - possibly total loss of the car. Nobody had much money in those days but I sent him a note of thanks and some money, hoping it would pay for a re-charge of his bottle. At the start of the race, Rita and Diana Kirby had enacted their usual routine when Bob and I were running - they climbed on top of one of the tow cars and lit up cigarettes. But at the time of the crunch and fire, Rita was elsewhere - probably standing in line at one of the portable powder rooms with one of the kids - the usual. Diana found Rita and her first words were, "He's alright - he's out of the car and he's alright." Only then did she relate that I had been involved in a non-routine incident. Rita had probably heard about it on the P.A., but she appreciated Diana's priorities.
On to part 4 - The six hour Enduro at Riverside
These articles were written by Pat
Tobin and have already appeared in '356 Talk', They are reproduced
with the kind permission of the author - firstname.lastname@example.org