Speedster Racing in the 60s – Part 2


What racing in the 60s was all about

This will not be a blow-by-blow account of every turn, every race. I will try to convey what it was like to race in 64 – 66, and recall only anecdotes that I feel are interesting, or better yet, funny. And we did have some good laughs. First of all, I want to say what racing in the 60s was not. It was not driving the car to the track, unloading the wife/girl friend with the picnic lunch, popping off the hub caps, taping up the headlights and going racing. That was club racing in the 40s and maybe early 50s. Even when Rita and I came to California in 58 and began hanging over the fence watching, production class racing was n dedicated cars which were rarely driven on the street. I’m talking about the front runners. It was still possible to bring out a car that was almost stock and race, and as long as required safety equipment was in place and the driver had a competition license. A few did so, and had their own little race back in the pack. I supported them gladly; feeling that they had as much right to be out there as I did so long as they stayed out of the way. There was no rule which said that you had to build your car to the max in order to come out and enjoy racing.


The racing rules

Until about this time a valiant attempt had been made to keep production class cars almost showroom stock. Protests occurred and engines were torn down for inspection. But all the front-runners were running racing cams, and everyone knew it. Finally the club just gave up and allowed any cam to be used, except roller. At the same time any compression ratio became legal. Remaining restrictions were severe, however: .040″ over stock bore, stock carburetor type and throat diameter, stock valve diameter. Zeniths had to be run on any 356A car. One guy, Terry Hall, ran a B roadster with Solexes and Super 90 heads, but suffered a weight penalty. Much later, Alan Johnson brought out a B roadster. But those are the only two I remember. We could use the Carrera GT (60 mm – wide) front brakes, but I never had them until I was out of racing! No disc brakes – they hadn’t even appeared when I started racing in 64. We were allowed only the wheels used on the Carreras – I think 5.0 inches was the limit, maybe 5.5 by 65 or 66. But again, I never had anything but the stock 4.5″. The new Goodyear Blue Streaks had supplanted the Dunlops which had been the racing tire for many years. Caldwell’s in Pasadena did racing-quality recaps on the Blue Streaks, and that’s what I ran. Former divisional champion Denny Harrison told me that new Blue Streaks were good for 1 to 2 seconds a lap over recaps, but I was raising a wife and two kids and racing all on a single salary – I couldn’t afford a set of new tires, no matter how important the race.


Safety regulations

Safety regs weren’t nearly as numerous. No special fuel tanks were required; we didn’t even have to carry a fire extinguisher! An aircraft lap belt and two shoulder straps were required, and they were fairly picky about roll bars. Some of the tech inspectors had a cleanliness fetish. They might not notice that the cotter pins were missing from the rear axle nuts, but God help you if there was a speck of dirt on the suspension!


Race preparations

I covered the setup of my Speedster pretty well in the last episode, but may not have mentioned the clutch. By the time I set up for racing, the Carrera 2s were out, and they used 200 mm clutches. That made it easy to get the 200 mm disc and pressure plate, which I ran in the race car from day 1. I had the flywheel turned out (but not lightened much, if any, on the outside) and the pressure plate fitted to the flywheel by two precision pins in close-fitting holes in order to maintain accuracy of balance as the pressure plate was removed and replaced many times.


My first race was at Riverside. I was momentarily startled by the relative violence of the start. All the competition driving I had done to up to that time – time trials, racing training – had used “soft” starts. Suddenly the flag fell and all hell broke loose. All these other guys were trying to get ahead of me! And they were none too polite about it, either. Didn’t they understand courtesy of he road? Late in the race the tail got loose. Noting a considerable increase in tire pressures after practice, I had foolishly let them down. Turn 1 at Riverside was banked a little only at the inside. If you weren’t on the inside line, the track was flat. I somehow got up onto that part and the tail of the Speedster traded some paint with the Armco metal barrier. Damn! Drew blood the first time out. I’m sure I finished umpteenth, if not worse. Driving home we were a disconsolate group. Then to round out a less-than-perfect day, I found the red lights of a CHP motorcycle cop in the mirror of the tow car. In our downcast mood we had forgotten to bolt the towing lights onto the luggage-rack sockets of the Speedster. Fortunately, a buddy with us was a police officer, so they got it sorted out without penalty and we installed the towing lights on the shoulder of the freeway. All considered, it was an underwhelming first effort.

San Luis Obispo

The next race was at San Luis Obispo – a nice little town in Central California. During the race I found that my steering wheel had about 1/4 turn of free play! Anyone in his right mind would have stopped, but I decided to carry on unless some vital part fell off. It turned out that when I lowered the front end of the car I had not secured the center torsion bar locks firmly, leaving the torsion bars free to shift endways a little, which changed the direction that the steering was pointing. Midway in the race the oil flag came out. “I know what that means,” said I proudly, “watch for oi — WHOOPS!” as I pirouetted gracefully out into the boonies. I had been watching for oil – a puddle of oil! That’s how green and naive I was – it never occurred to me that oil leaking out of a moving car would be a streak, not a puddle. Almost as bad as the time much later, in practice at Pomona, when I simply drove into a hay bale next to a light pole. Why? Hell, I don’t know. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. The next time I came around to that turn, the marshall narrowed his eyes, leaned forward and looked me over REAL good! That’s the only time I ever wanted to slink down into the car and disappear.

The other circuits

For several months racing was fairly routine. Riverside, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Del Mar, Pomona. Ontario hadn’t been built yet and I couldn’t afford to go as far as Laguna Seca. For some reason that I don’t recall, Willow Springs was not open for a few months. The first version of the engine was not fully competitive with the leaders, but I was learning to drive and having a lot of fun.


No special underwear was required in those days – only neck to wrist and ankle coverage in an approved flame-resistant suit. Or – believe it or not – the rules allowed fire proofing ordinary clothing in a bath of easily-available drug store chemicals and water. I, and most everyone else, wore the light blue two-piece racing suits sold under the Dunlop name. Many drivers wore boxing or other athletic shoes. I wore ordinary leather shoes on which the soles had been replaced with “Neolite” neoprene re-soles. I had found Neolite to be just the right grip – I left the rubber covers on the pedals and athletic shoes with sticky soles had too much grip against the rubber. The Neolite offered enough grip but not too much, which allowed easy sliding around between the brake and accelerator pedals in the delicate toe-dance of competition driving.

Topless in a Speedster!

On a hot summer day at Santa Barbara I came in from practice, stripped off the upper part of the driving suit and slung it over the snow fence which separated the paddock from the spectator area. Nearby were two young women who seemed anxious to talk. I recalled how, in my spectator days, I felt shut out of the action across the fence, and was happy to visit a few minutes. The young ladies were from University of California, Santa Barbara. An hour later, it was time to get ready for the race. The upper part of the driving suit was gone from the fence, and so were the young women! It didn’t take long to figure that one out. Had it been the pants missing (don’t ask) I might have faked it – I had occasionally driven a practice in regular pants, which couldn’t be seen outside the car, with the Dunlop top. But I had to have a top! The only driver nearby who wasn’t running in this race was Pete Cordts who raced, believe it or not, a Ford Falcon in sedan class. He was glad enough to loan me the top of his suit. The only problem was, Pete was at least two sizes smaller than me! I wasn’t able to close the neck at all. The top was so tight in the chest, shoulders and arms it was like driving the race in a strait jacket! I hope that top looked good on the girls’ dorm wall.

Painful Spyder

Technically, kids under 12 weren’t permitted in the pits and paddock. But Cal Club officials were nice about looking the other way as we came through the gate with Janice, 7, and Brian, 4, hunkering down, trying to be invisible in the station wagon. The kids were well-behaved and taught to stay close to our tow car and not go wandering. Once Vasek Polak drove slowly by in a Spyder he was taking to the pre-grid or somewhere. Just as he passed near Brian, Vasek blipped the throttle hard a couple of times to clear the plugs. After the car had passed Brian complained, “I don’t like that car – it gets in my ears.” At the time we thought his quaint expression was just 4-year old talk. But later in life we learned that Brian’s threshold of hearing pain was somewhat lower than average. Probably, the awful rap of the Spyder caused pain which he felt as a physical presence in his ears.


Sneaking across the track

One time we were leaving Riverside while another race was on. We were all packed up – everyone in the Ford wagon and the race car hitched on behind. We were in the infield, and of course crossing the track was not allowed until the race was over. I drove slowly down to a position near the end of turn 9 and the beginning of the start-finish straight – about as far from the nearest turn marshals as it was possible to get. Then we stopped and sat there, appearing to watch the race. But I had Rita looking behind us, watching the back straight and turn 9. “When there is no car approaching turn 9, say Now!'” I told her. I was watching the portion of track in front of us. A couple of times “Now!” came when there was a car about to pass in front of us. But then there was a pretty good gap. “Now!” Rita said. I gunned the Ford and we darted across the track and were in the wind. About a minute later, when we were safely out of authority’s reach, Brian paid me the highest compliment possible considering the daily activities of a 4-year old boy. In tones dripping with sincerity and admiration, he gushed, “That was a good sneak, Dad!” Rita and I almost fell out of the car trying to camouflage our laughter.

Wonderful Willow Springs

Then an upcoming race at Willow Springs was scheduled. I had heard so much about the treacherous nature of this track I figured I’d better get out there for a private get-acquainted session. So I took a day off work, paid the $15 or whatever it was and, on a weekday afternoon, shared the track with only one or two other cars doing testing. Willow Springs. I can’t imagine where the name came from – to the best of my knowledge there is neither a willow nor a spring for fifty miles in any direction. The name sounds like another real estate developer’s wet dream. This is raw desert, folks, blazing hot in the summer or a cold, cutting wind in what passes for winter in these parts. I never enjoyed a day of comfortable weather at Willow.

A circuit of Willow

But after one lap I was in love with the track. Part of the course runs up into some small hills so there is the added interest of up and down grades. Turn 1 (third gear) and turn 8 (fourth gear in a 356) are very fast. Turn 1 is great for drifting – in fact you must do so to be competitive. There’s a picture in an old Porsche Owners’ Club Newsletter of my car drifting through turn 1. Most of turn 8 (the long sweeper – I think it is turn 8 altho I don’t remember the turn numbers for sure) is flat-out in a 356, so there’s no power left to drift. Just get in, sit down, hold on and shut up. Starting down from the top of the hill is a short straight stretch on a steep downward grade. Bill Huth, who owned or managed the course at the time, told me that he judges a new driver by whether or not he (she) accelerates down that short, steep hill. Uncle Bob Kirby, writing in a club publication, mused that if a car were to lose its brakes on that stretch the driver would be lucky to get it stopped short of the Rexall drugstore in Pearblossom (a nearby desert metropolis). And the track had lots of grip – the pavement was sticky, smooth and uniform, a far cry from the parking lot and airport courses which were often bumpy and changed surfaces several times per lap.

Healthy respect

In short, Willow is a drivers’ course. But it can also be a killer. At driving schools held there, students were sternly instructed that if they find themselves losing it on the fast sweeper, they must straighten their wheels and drive off the course with all wheels pointing in the direction the car is moving. One of the instructors of that time didn’t take his own advice. In a race he went off sideways in a Cobra, Corvette or some big V8 iron. The car flipped, the roll bar buried itself in the desert sand, and the driver paid with his life. As much as I liked Willow, I always maintained a healthy respect for the course.

The outside edge

But in a practice session one time with faster classes, as I entered the sweeper I saw Scooter Patrick in my mirrors in a modified of some kind – a much faster car. I moved to the left – the outside – to let him nip past on the fast line. But he didn’t – he slowed and followed me, staying toward the inside. So I went around turn 9 with my left wheels about a foot from the edge of the pavement. I knew where I was and was comfortable with the situation, although wishing he would get the hell around me. But after practice Scooter came to my pit, still a little pale, and chewed me out royally. It had scared the daylights out of him to have a new driver navigate the sweeper on the outside edge, flat out for my car.

Something broken?

But I’m getting ahead of the story. Near the end of my introductory private practice session, disaster struck. Suddenly a severe engine vibration shook the whole car! I limped back to the pits. The engine seemed to run OK and there were no extra noises. Puzzled, we packed up and hit the road. It was late afternoon as we headed directly for Al Cadrobbi’s Culver City shop. It was after closing time, but Al was still there, talking with a customer about an upcoming major overhaul. The four Tobins sat around with long faces. Finally the customer was gone and we had Al’s attention. I started the engine and the whole car shook. Al signaled me to shut it down. He removed the fan belt and asked me to start it again. No vibration! After I shut it down again, Al reached around into the fan intake and, with the flourish of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, he pulled out a rag! Obviously I had left it laying in the engine room and, at racing speeds, it had been jostled around and eventually sucked into the fan. It had taken Al less than two minutes to find the trouble. How do you spell relief? Al had said that, seeing our long faces, even while talking to the customer he was taking mental inventory, “Let’s see, I think I have a good case, and I have a crank and rods…” He was going to get us running for the race at Willow even if my engine was in little pieces.

A low octane start

Since there had been no race at Willow for a number of months, there was a meeting of the POC Race Team at which former divisional champions Alan Johnson and Denny Harrison offered tips on driving the course. Alan concluded his remarks by advising me and the other new drivers not to take the sweeper flat out – “your car is not ready yet.” A polite, face-saving way of putting it. I didn’t bother to tell him that I had already been there, done that. Then, race weekend. Early Saturday morning I hitched up the race car (we didn’t have a trailer – always pulled it on its own wheels) and drove to the neighborhood Standard Chevron station to gas up both cars (apparently the gas truck was not going to be at the course). Gas was still leaded in those pre-historic times, and “White Pump” was a little over 100 octane – that is what we raced on. The Ford wagon got middle grade; then, overly tired and groggy from too little sleep after a late night with the wrenches, I also filled the tank of the race car with middle-octane gas! Hey, we’re off to a great start.

Some idiot!

Going underneath the race car, I disconnected the fuel line and, during the tow of 80 miles or so, allowed the tank to drain by gravity onto the highway. However, the flow was slow due to having to run through the electric fuel pump which was not activated. At a Chevron station in Lancaster, last town before Willow, I found that the tank hadn’t completely emptied, so in a far corner of the service station lot I allowed it to finish draining with a little help from the electric pump. Then I drove around the rear of the station and back in front to the pumps. While filling the race car with white pump, the attendant began telling me about some idiot who, just a few minutes before, had been leaking gas from a race car onto his asphalt lot. About halfway through the tale he suddenly took a closer look at my car, then looked again at the spot where the cars had been just a couple of minutes earlier, and stopped in mid-sentence! I didn’t say a word, but was embarrassed and should have apologized. I hadn’t realized that the raw gasoline would soften the asphalt paving for a while. Actually, not too long in that desert locality where the sun bakes the asphalt, and everything else, for hours each day.

That’s my daddy!

I don’t recall much about Saturday, including how I finished. Could look it up – I have all these result sheets put away in a folder somewhere. But Sunday was something else again. Uncle Bob Kirby hadn’t been able to attend Saturday but was there Sunday – the first race he and I had both participated in since I had bought the Speedster from him, battered and with the engine in a basket, about a year previous. Bob had never seen the car finished and kept saying to wife Diana, “Look – that’s (previous owner’s name)’s old car!” By that time I had found a few more horses in the engine and had begun optimizing the gearing for each course. Also, I was feeling a few more oats myself, loving Willow Springs as I did. Sunday I quickly found myself running second behind an Elva. With me hot on his tail, the Elva driver spun. Meanwhile, back in the pits, it was accepted that just as any race started, one or both kids would suddenly need to go to the bathroom. Chata, the wife of a couple of good friends who were with us, volunteered to take Janice so that Rita could watch the race. At that time the only sanitary facilities at Willow were the familiar portable powder rooms. Chata reported that just as the P.A. announcer said, “…and that puts Pat Tobin in the lead…” the porta-potty shook with the intensity of a young voice booming from inside, “That’s my Daddy – That’s my Daddy!” Chata said that everyone within earshot cracked up.

You should have won it!

Pretty soon I saw “Fred,” Bob Kirby’s Speedster, in my mirrors. Since he didn’t run on Saturday he had to start at the rear on Sunday, and had worked his way through the pack. To my great surprise he didn’t drive around me but followed, evidently having a look at the “new” guy. But after a few more laps I over-cooked it slightly down the steep stretch at the top of the hill and hit the following left turn a shade to hot, and while I was sorting it out Bob came around. But that wasn’t the worst of it – the damned Elva got his act together, passed us both and won! A sorry day of shame for the POC racing team. I don’t know how he got around Bob – his engine must have gone sour. Bob later said to me, “I never would have got around you if you hadn’t bobbled.” Nice of him to say it, even the I didn’t believe it. Nevertheless, it was my first “trophy” finish (top 3) and I felt it was a good enough day’s work. In the pits soon after the race, Alan Johnson, who wasn’t running that weekend, came driving up in his latest toy – one of the very first air-conditioned VW beetles. I gave him a smile and wave. Alan rolled down the window. “BOO!” he shouted. My smile withered; what did he mean by that? Was he telling me I was driving too hard and shouldn’t have finished that far up? “BOO!” Alan cried again; “You should have won it!” He had a point there. I had never before led a race. It came as a surprise and I was not psychologically prepared to fight back after my bobble and put forth a winning effort.

On to part 3 – The ambience of racing in the 60s

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