One of the nicest things about the boys at the Sports Car Club of America is that whenever Detroit puts out a new class of automobiles, sooner or later they'll find a way to get it to a racetrack. That, in brief, is the history of the Trans-American sedan championship series, nonexistent two years ago except in the minds of a few quixotic souls, but already promising to become one of the most popular auto-racing circuits in the country. The reason is simple enough. Two and three years ago the other auto divisions recognized the success of the Ford Mustang and came out with their own cars in the Mustang class—Chevrolet Camaros, Plymouth Barracudas, Mercury Cougars and the like—and it was only natural that some sort of competition should develop among them.
Jim Patterson, deputy competition director for the SCCA, said, "We jumped into this thing faster than we've ever jumped into anything. But we had to. We were suddenly faced with a whole new class of cars."
The first year's results were hardly spectacular. The seven-event 1966 Trans Am series paid somewhat less than $50,000 in purses, and promoters took frequent baths. But they saw its potential and were eager to give it a try again this year—so eager that there are now 12 races in the series, and prize money, official, unofficial and from accessory companies, is well over $150,000. And that doesn't include $25,000 and $10,000 non-point races at St. Jovite, Canada and Daytona Beach.
Last Sunday the halfway mark in the current season was reached at the Bryar Motorsport Park in Loudon, N. H., a town 85 miles north of Boston with a population of 1,194, and in one weekend all the ingredients of the Trans-Am series were in evidence. The cars themselves were a cross between racing sports cars and Grand National stock cars (at least in the over-two-liter class; there is also an under-two-liter class). The atmosphere was likewise mixed, combining the moods of the high-pressure, dollar-rich events that mark the racing calendar with SCCA club meets where wives keep lap charts and friends of the family change the sparkplugs. And finally, the level of competition ran all the way from factory teams like Bud Moore's Cougar outfit and Carroll Shelby's Mustangs to local amateur (and occasionally amateurish) talent.
"Most of these drivers know they can't win," said Patterson, "but they still run. Their cars look good, and when they lose to a factory car they've got a readymade excuse."
The best-financed teams, of course, were the main attractions in Loudon. Mustang led with Jerry Titus, a part-time driver and full-time magazine editor (Sports Car Graphic) who had won two of the five previous races, and Dick Thompson, a Washington dentist. Its sibling rival, the Lincoln-Mercury Cougar, chose Peter Revson and Ed Leslie, who looks and acts like the stereotyped race driver, from the way he handles a car to the curl of his lip. Camaro had Mark Donohue in a car set up by Roger Penske, the former sports car ace.
Besides the drivers, the track itself was a major talk piece. Opened in 1965 by Keith Bryar, a steel-haired Laconia tire dealer known locally as the best competitive dog-sledder around, the course winds for 1.6 hairy miles in full view of the grandstand. There isn't much in the way of straights, and this sharply reduces the advantage the big cars usually have over the under-two-liter Alfas, Porsches and so forth. As Titus said with a slight frown, "We can't use fourth gear here. We've even got a problem getting maximum performance from third."
Leslie said, "This isn't a Mickey Mouse course. It's a good course that simply doesn't have straights. It's not much fun to be in a turn for four hours straight—especially when you're going sideways about half the time. I'm not even gonna race the small cars. You can't get much of an edge on the straights, and if you get caught in traffic or lose the car just a little bit you've lost your advantage. The only ones I'm after are the Mustangs and Camaros."
Donohue's Penske Camaro, with probably the most powerful engine of all, was nearly eliminated from the race a day early. During Saturday's qualifying, Donohue's rear axle broke in the middle of the final (Clubhouse) turn. Donohue spun twice and slammed nose-first into a wooden guardrail.
Donohue, unhurt, immediately came to the officials' stand and picked up a telephone.
"Hello," he said. "This is a credit card call, please...area code 215...for Mr. Roger Penske.... Hi, Roger...."
The rest of the conversation from Donohue's end sounded like a Bob Newhart monologue. Luckily all of the damage was repairable, and by working through the night Saturday Mark's crew had the Camaro ready to race when the green flag dropped Sunday afternoon.
Titus, of course, was favored. He won the pole with a 1:16.0 qualifying time (75.789 mph), but sitting near him were the Cougars of Leslie and Revson, both only a fraction of a second slower.
The race divided itself into three distinct parts, thanks to periods of threatening rain, a very heavy rain and finally clearing skies. Of the major contenders only Leslie chose to begin the afternoon with rain tires. Titus, with a quicker car and the right tires, was able to dominate the first 15 laps, run on a fairly dry track.
Then the skies opened up and turned the track into a series of puddles. Every car had its problems and many of them spun out or got broadside somewhere on the track—usually in the Clubhouse turn, the same one Donohue had visited a day earlier. Every car, that is, except Leslie's. While Titus, Revson and the other big cars pitted for rain tires, Leslie drove boldly into the lead on the 16th lap and did not relinquish it until an hour and 45 minutes later when his engine blew and he retired.
"I had the race wrapped up," Leslie said. "The engine is one thing you shouldn't have to worry about on this course. I think I'll commit hara-kiri and bleed over everybody."
By then Titus also had been eliminated in a wild dice with Ken Duclos' Mustang. After spinning at the head of that same Clubhouse turn, Titus' Mustang spent the rest of the race in a ditch on the inside of the turn.
During the rain the lead went briefly to Bert Everett in a Porsche, but when Everett pitted a few laps later, Revson's Cougar went ahead—and won by a margin of one lap and 20 seconds.
There was considerable excitement during the last 50 laps of the 156-lap race when both the Revson and Everett pits calculated—erroneously—that Revson was still a lap in arrears after Everett's pit stop. Revson settled that by passing Everett (who ran the entire race on rain tires) on the 130th lap.
"I wasn't sure where I was," Revson told Everett afterward, "so I thought I ought to get by you for good measure." "You mean it was that easy?" Everett said. He wasn't too disappointed, though. He finished second overall, won the under-two-liter honors and further solidified Porsche's preeminent position among small cars racing today.
The Trans-Am is strictly a manufacturers' championship, and Revson's nine-point win bolstered the shaky one-point margin Cougar had held going into the Loudon race. With six races left, Cougar has 39 points and a four-point lead over the Mustang. Thompson placed third with the best Mustang finish, worth six points.
Donohue, despite the emergency repair job and the presence Sunday of Penske himself, was never a contender and finally retired on the 92nd lap with the same problem he had had on Saturday—a broken axle. Camaro wound up third in the standings with 27 points.
Nearly 10,000 spectators turned out for the race despite the weather, giving proof of the series' popularity. It appears the only thing that can hurt it is factory participation to the point where other competition is virtually eliminated. It has happened before. Already the Barracudas and Darts are out of the real running, but if promotions like Loudon's continue, along with the more affluent Daytona Beach and Sebring events, there is good reason to hope that the Trans-American will be as successful on the track as its competing cars are in the market place.
MARK DONOHUE'S CAMARO SPINS INTO A TURN WITH BROKEN AXLE, LOSING WHEEL, THEN CRASHING INTO WALL. DONOHUE ESCAPES AS FIREMAN SPRAYS SPLIT GAS TANK