Speedster Racing in the 60s – Part 1


Buying the Speedster and tow car

So after earning my SCCA National Competition license in the stock Convertible D at Riverside in 63, we began looking for a Speedster. Luck more than smiled on us. Uncle Bob Kirby had a stock 58 Speedster with some body damage on the rear and the engine in a basket. Perfect. $800 brought it home. But we also needed a tow car, which would double as the family driver. For the first time since 1957 our daily driver would not be a Porsche. Alan Johnson was about to sell his 58 Ford wagon, stick shift. This Ranch Wagon had an interesting history. Originally it was owned by Clyde Freeman, Hamms Beer distributor for the Pasadena area. The sky-blue wagon had been emblazoned on the sides, “From The Land of Sky Blue Waters.” But on weekends it went racing, towing Clyde’s 4-cam Spyder. After later towing Alan’s Speedster to the track for a few seasons, it was ours for $600. For all three owners the Ranch Wagon worked during the week and then tugged Porsches to the races! There’s a mutt with a pedigree by association. Later, it took my daughter Janice to college for a couple of years. And would you believe I still have it? If you knew me better, you would believe it.


I’ve always wanted a yellow Speedster!

After laboring fruitlessly on the body damage of the Speedster for several weekends in a friend’s shop, I re-discovered what I had known all along: I could build an engine with my eyes closed but couldn’t knock out a dent if my life depended on it. So we took a deep breath and put it into the shop of the father of a guy in the Porsche parts business. The car was blue; I wanted a light color, but not white. Alan Johnson opined, “A Porsche looks good in any color except yellow.” I had liked the cream color of the Conv. D, so picked out a representative chip which was met with a notable lack of enthusiasm on the part of the shop owner who was touting the new Corvette yellow. When I went to pick up the car it was – you guessed it – Corvette yellow. Since Alan is the one who had referred me to that particular body shop, I told him that if he didn’t like the color to take it up with his friend. I checked the several holes I asked them to fill, such has where a radio had been mounted in the dash. The holes were backed up by – are you ready for this – masking tape! When I complained, the man who did the work said he couldn’t weld on a metal backing because the body was aluminum! How I wish he had been right! Made them do that part over. Oh well, it was cheap, and the car was basically the shape of a Speedster. I decided that it was not inappropriate for a yellow driver to have a yellow car.


The engine transpant operation

Once again I switched engines, selling the Conv. D with the rebuilt normal engine which came with the Speedster. The Super engine from the 60 Coupe was rebuilt by Al Cadrobbi and me into our racing engine, version I. I also switched transmissions, gaining the improved 716 from the 59. My Christmas present from Rita was a set of .040″ overs from Mahle. The only other piston available at the time was by M & C, who specialized in custom pistons for motorcycles. The original barrels were bored to fit the 40-overs and cut to set the compression at about 10.0:1. We had to run on commercially available pump fuel, but that was not a problem; Chevron “White Pump” was plenty good in those days and Chevron brought a tank truck of it to SCCA races and gassed up the competitors free.

Some sort of crank?

At the time, a roller crank from a pre-’58 356 Super was considered a necessity. I was told it had to do with the roller big ends surviving momentary loss of oil pressure. But by the time I was setting up, the S-90 slosh valve was available, as were extended push-rod tubes and the larger oil pump. (I won’t mention the baffle of sheet aluminum I installed in the case, which, fatigued from vibration, broke off and lay loose in the sump until the next time I split the case, which was far from every race in those days!) Also, I had the main bearing shells grooved in the center so that there would be a constant, rather than pulsing supply of oil into the crank to the rod bearings. Being stubborn in my convictions, I decided to have a go with a plain crank. I went with a friend, also setting up a racing Speedster, to pick up his rebuilt roller crank. In response to inquiry, I replied that I was going to go racing with a plain crank. “Oh,” said the rebuilder, “then you’re not ready to run up front.” That stung. I believe that I was the first in this area to run up front (a year later) with a plain crank. Then I just didn’t hear any more about the rollers.

Choosing a cam for racing

Any profile on the original cam was legal, and but choices were few. I chose Racer Brown; most others used Iskenderian. Carbs on 356A cars had to be Zenith with the original throttle body diameter; any other mods were OK. Heads and manifolds were ported, probably doing more harm than good in some cases. Conventional racing practice was to run valves with the skinnier 8 mm stems from pre-A cars; again I remained conservative and stayed with the newer 10 mm stems. Stronger valve springs were used, and much attention was given to correct length push rods, rocker geometry etc. Or it should have been. I ran long alloy (short steel end) push rods for quite some time, wrong for iron cylinders, which probably kept the valves from seating firmly when the engine was good and hot. Lightened the flywheel and changed to the 200 mm clutch. But that was about it for engine mods. The strongest E-Production Porsches were putting 100 hp on the road, measured in second gear on Roger Bursch’s Clayton chassis dyno.


A basic chassis

Not much was allowed on the chassis in those days. I installed the sturdier, roller-bearing spindles from the ’59. Wheels were limited to the original width of 4.5″, so there were no fender flares. Most of us ran stock wheels – not a wise move, but we had no choice. On the new Goodyear Blue Streaks, I cracked several wheels, right across the “spoke” area. Never had one let go at speed, but it was always a worry. And the wheels weren’t that old – only 6 or 7 years, same as the cars. Hurts, doesn’t it, to think of racing Speedsters that young? We didn’t have to worry about rust and a lot of today’s other geriatric problems. And even a running stock Speedster could be picked up for about $3,000; they didn’t cost much more than that new! Eat your hearts out, Baby Boomers!But to be fair, the Speedster was considered the bottom, not the top of the 356A line. They were the “entry level” Porsche and no one who could afford another model would be caught dead in one with that ugly top and side curtains! So what if they did look neat with the top down; remember, in those days 99.5% of 356s were only-car daily drivers! The Speedster allowed the young couple with a VW to get into a Porsche a couple of years sooner. Period. I don’t know of anyone who bought one because they preferred it to the civilized 356s.


Setting up for racing

Back to setting up for racing in 63: Disc brakes were not yet allowed, partly because they didn’t yet exist! GT (60 mm wide) front drum brakes were OK, but I didn’t have a set until I got out of racing! All shoes were re-lined with “Fren-do” (not “Ferodo,” although I don’t know what the difference is). This stuff was great – for street as well as competition. The stock linings were rock-hard and squealed like mad after they acquired a glaze in street driving (probably still do, for any of you who still have them). The Fren-do was softer, no squeal, a better bite, and high fade resistance. I discussed with Al Cadrobbi the lesser life that could be expected from the Fren-do in street driving. “Yeah,” he said, “the original stuff lasts 100,000 miles and the Fren-do only goes 50,000!” We changed the rear wheel cylinders to VW 17mm dia (from the Porsche 19mm); that was our improved braking differential. Which reminds me – when (if) I get back to the Speedster this summer, I must see if I remembered to go back to 19s when we put the car back on the street. If not, I doubt that I will find them for under $10, which is what we used to pay for the complete cylinder with all parts.

Discs or drums?

A couple of years later, when disc brakes became legal on the A cars, Bob Kirby installed them on “Fred.” He opined, “I don’t think they stop any better than the GT brakes, but they’re more even – when I stomp on them I don’t have to wonder which way the car is going to lurch.” I came up with an idea that made the drum brakes a lot more liveable. Noting the axial vent holes around the faces of Spyder and GT Carrera 60mm front drums, I wondered if recently-liberated lining material, having no convenient exit on the stock A drums with no forced ventilation, might swirl around, becoming trapped in batches between shoe and drum when the brakes were applied, resulting in a flaky and unpredictable alteration of coefficient of friction from one application to the next.

A useful modification

My solution was to provide vent holes, but not axially (parallel to the axle, or spindle). From the inside of the drums at the “corner” where the iron drum band meets the alloy drum face, I drilled 1/4″ holes outward at 45 degrees. I made a template to position the holes so that each of the ten peeks out through one wheel opening, between “spokes.” My reasoning was that the centrifugal force of air within the angled holes would induce outward air flow, providing circulation and taking the lining powder with it. From that day forward I had perfectly even braking on the track and later on the street. Further, when restored to street use, the brakes no longer had the tendency to “oval.” I don’t know if my vent holes had anything to do with that or not.

Other Changes

Of course, the front torsion bar anchor was altered so that the car could be made level after de-cambering a conservative 1-1/2 degrees. We were not yet into re-machining the uprights for front camber. External oil coolers were not yet allowed, so there was no body butchery to accommodate them. We bought a new ZF limited slip from Vasek for $150 (racer’s price); after a few races I ordered gear sets for the 59 716 trans through Competition Motors, the Porsche dealer in Hollywood. Cost plus 10% to racers. Even though the 58 gearshift was shorter and stiffer by virtue of its more rearward mounting, we added a short-shift adapter. Steering wheel? This will get a laugh out of you younger tigers – we just run what we brung. Not only was it the skinny original A wheel, it wasn’t even the smaller diameter Speedster wheel! For a reason unknown to me this Speedster had the huge coupe wheel. I was used to it, and those things just weren’t that important. I did remove the horn ring.

Ready to race

Of course there was the roll bar, cut-down windshield, mirrors on the fenders etc. I installed a direct-reading oil pressure gauge. Most of the guys used the accessory VDO electric, but it was so sluggish that you could be out of oil pressure for five seconds and not know it. Especially with the plain-bearing crank, I wanted the news on a timely basis if it was sucking bubbles in the turns. Never happened. I reinforced the driver’s seat. Even at that tender age the wooden frame would come un-glued when presented with keeping an energetic driver in place during high cornering forces. And that’s about it. Simple, compared with what became legal (therefore mandatory for front-runners) within just the next few years. Upgrades were made to the car during my short racing career – Forgedtrue pistons became available with a high-compression crown and “Step-Seal” upper ring. I changed cams a time or two. But never blew an engine.

On to part 2 – What racing in the 60s was all about

These articles were written by Pat Tobin and have already appeared in ‘356 Talk’, They are reproduced with the kind permission of the author – [email protected]
Pat Tobin is a major contributor to the 356 Talk Forum

and a leading supporter of the Porsche 356 Registry