14 August 2013

Trans AM Memories

The 1970 season was the height of the incredible Trans Am Series. Sam Posey watched it from the best seat in the house.


Almost nothing but the body — and more on that later — remained from the original cars. Non-stock components included massive brakes, wide racing wheels and tires, special transmissions and differentials, adjustable shocks, revised suspension geometry and high-revving 305-cid V-8s that put out more than 450 horsepower. The roll cage was there ostensibly for safety but really was a space frame designed to stiffen the chassis.

I raced in the Trans Am from 1968 to 1970, three years during which its popularity and significance grew exponentially. In 1968, I drove a Camaro for Roger Penske’s championship team as a backup in case one of the Ford guys took out team star Mark Donohue. In 1969, driving a Shelby Mustang, I won the only race I entered, which turned out to be Carroll’s last pro win. In hindsight, however, all the excitement and intrigue of the races of the late 1960s, so important to me at the time, would come to be seen merely as curtain raisers for the grand opera of 1970.

In 1970, GM, Ford, Chrysler and American Motors all descended on the Trans Am as if winning it was the Holy Grail, a surefire way to enlarge their share of the lucrative pony car market. Chevrolet was the defending champion, but Penske had surprised everyone by forsaking GM and making a rumored $5 million deal with American Motors to run its Javelin. Chevy turned to Jim Hall, and he prepared for battle under the Chaparral banner. Pontiac signed 1967 Trans Am champ Jerry Titus. In earlier years, Ford had gone with two teams, but it didn’t renew Shelby and concentrated its budget on NASCAR veteran Bud Moore. Chrysler’s original plan was also for just one team — Dan Gurney’s All American Racers — preparing a Plymouth Barracuda for Dan’s promising protégé, Swede Savage. But the Dodge division lobbied successfully for a slice of the action for its Challenger and I got to drive it for Ray Caldwell’s Autodynamics team. Add a dozen top-notch privateers, and you had an entry list that read like a Who’s Who of its day.

You’d Better Win on Sunday
A stock pony car was priced within reach of young men and women buying their first car. The advertising strategies all focused on a sporty image, and one after another the manufacturers decided to go racing. The trouble was that second place was useless to the ad boys, and the strength of the entry list made winning as difficult as it was significant. Week after week, Dodge readied their full-page ads (“Posey Drives Challenger To Trans Am Win”) but never got to use any of them. Except for a pair of Camaro wins, Penske’s AMCs and Bud Moore’s Fords swept the boards.

All of us who were driving for factory teams also raced in other series — Indy, Can Am, F5000 — in which the cars were far faster. We called the Trans Am cars taxicabs, and at first we regarded driving them as a kind of busman’s holiday from the dangers of our other rides. But the pressure from the factories was relentless; executives who headed up the programs dreamed of huge bonuses one moment and feared for their jobs the next. The term “taxicab” was soon taboo. What few of us could grasp at the time was how the Trans Am would have such staying power — that 40 years later, for example, there would be a Trans Am vintage series with full fields and fans content to witness a mere simulacrum of the original. (Now, finally, my old Challenger gets to feel what it’s like to win with current owner, Ken Epsman.)

The emphasis on the manufacturers masked how critical the driver was. In many ways, the Trans Am was the best test of driving ability of any series of that era. Finesse, fitness, car control — it took all that, but it also called for using the car as a battering ram; it was a rare race that didn’t see us finish with a bent spoiler or deep gouges in the doors. The races took more than three hours, and because the engines were up front the cockpits were so hot that you could sweat off 10 pounds. The exhaust pipe ended right under the driver’s door, and halfway through the race you’d be totally deaf. The ride was harsh, the brake pedal effort high. Pit stops offered no relief — they only took about 15 seconds.

The great designer Colin Chapman once said that rules are for the interpretation of wise men and the obedience of fools. In the Trans Am, cheating was widespread and never posed a moral dilemma — in fact, it was often the source of entertainment. The SCCA sanctioned the series, and officials weighed the top three cars after each race. If you were running below the minimum weight limit — and many were — one popular gambit was to use the post-race confusion to mask a lightning-fast change of all four wheels — to four whose tires were filled with water. George Follmer had a helmet full of lead that a crewman would substitute for the real one — the joke being that the lead and George’s head were much the same thing. And then there were the secret fuel tanks — ours, good for an extra lap or two, was cleverly hidden under the dashboard.

In addition to cheating, we were obliged to lie. Chrysler’s rep made it clear that I was never to admit to a blown engine. Never. Suppose we had just put a rod through the side of the block and were coasting to a stop, pouring smoke. My job was to be ready with something else to blame, and I actually kept a list of possibilities in the back of my mind, including “failed transmission seal,” “jammed throttle linkage” and “seized windshield wiper motor.” No writer was ever fooled, but the whole charade seemed to satisfy our bosses in Detroit.

Our mission at Autodynamics was to support AAR. In Chrysler’s eyes, we were to tag along, accepting whatever secondhand technology AAR handed down to us. Our lowly status was confirmed when the car colors were assigned. AAR was given an elegant dark blue, while we were stuck with a bilious shade of green. Dodge was calling it “Sublime” — our crew called it “Puke Green.” I had the hood and roof painted flat black and designed oversized, NASCAR-style numbers, and in the end we managed to cover up quite a lot of the green. It could have been worse. Chrysler was the last of the major manufacturers to get on the pony car bandwagon and they were trying painfully hard to be hip; in addition to Sublime, Dodge brochures offered purple (Plumb Crazy) and orange (Go-Mango). The color affair ordinarily wouldn’t have been a big deal, but in the chemistry of the moment, it pissed off our guys that we were supposed to defer to AAR, and we became determined to beat them. “Beat Your Teammate” is a familiar mantra in racing, and now it was our goal. No reflection on Dan Gurney — he was a hero to every man on our team — but that didn’t keep us from wanting to beat AAR. In fact, our zeal led to a mistake that would come to haunt us.

An early — illegal — step in building the car involved submerging the body in a large tank filled with acid — the acid ate at the metal, thereby thinning it and saving some weight. We spied on AAR and found out how long their ’Cuda was in the tank — and made sure the Challenger was in it longer. “Longer” was too long. The first race was at Laguna Seca, and when the tech inspector leaned casually on the roof it gave way, making a small dent. The inspector told us we’d have to have a new roof by the next morning or we wouldn’t be allowed to qualify. What to do? Steal a car off the street? Believe me, we were so wound up, we considered it. Instead, we rushed to the local Dodge dealer, who looked a little blank until we called Detroit, then suddenly he was all smiles and cheerfully surrendered a car right from his showroom floor — that was the power of a Trans Am team in 1970.

We cut the roof off our borrowed car and welded it onto the race car — an all-night job, but we even managed to get it painted. Unhappily, the acid dipping had made the entire car brittle, and every time we ran, cracks opened up that were big enough for me to see through the floor to the track. Our welder spent hours patching things up. Several races went by before we were able to complete a second, undipped, car. It was better, but stiffening the frame exacerbated the car’s other weakness: the geometry of the rear suspension. As I braked for certain turns, the rear brakes locked up, causing the axle assembly to jump from side to side, leaving skid marks on the track. All I could do was to brake gently, which of course let anyone following me go right by.

The brakes cost us an easy win at Elkhart Lake in midsummer. Our engine that day was so strong that on Road America’s long straights I easily passed Mark Donohue’s Javelin, then Parnelli Jones’ Mustang, to take the lead. But the axle began to skip around again, and I had to settle for third. At that point in the season we were neck and neck with AAR, but Swede Savage finished second at Elkhart and AAR pulled ahead of us in the points. Chrysler had just told us that for 1971 it would be cutting the team that finished lower in the championship. At the time, we didn’t know — and they didn’t either — that they would wind up cutting both teams.

Head of the Class
I’m often asked who was the Trans Am’s best driver. If I were to pick a team, I’d choose Donohue to test the car and get it set up. Then I’d sign Jones to race it. A 1970 Trans Am car was the result of six years of development, much of it by Mark himself, and along the way it had become a highly specialized object that very few people really understood. The technology of other forms of racing wasn’t much help — the cars were lighter than oval-racing stock cars but heavier than a sports car or any of the single-seaters — and the races were shorter than an endurance race but longer than a sprint. Mark had an uncanny feel for these often conflicting factors. Many of his early successes with Penske were in the Trans Am. He identified with the series; it was in his DNA. It helped a lot that he was a graduate engineer and that he spoke the language of engineering — all the bright guys at GM’s think tank liked to work with him.

Parnelli Jones was Mark’s natural rival. It was Mark the good guy vs. Parnelli the spoiler, the hired gun — tough, mean, glowering, a man who wouldn’t hesitate to put you off the road, especially if your name was Donohue. Anyhow, that was Parnelli’s race face. Turns out he was super smart and even a bit sentimental. But in the car — and this is the reason I’d pick him over Mark — he very simply put the pedal to the metal harder than anyone, and kept it down longer. He was a force out there, and slower cars scattered the moment he appeared in their mirrors.

His greatest drive came at Riverside, the last race of 1970. With about 15 laps to go, Parnelli was forced off the road by a back marker who hadn’t seen him coming; he shot into the desert at 160 mph. He lashed the car around among the boulders and ditches and regained the track trailing dust and gravel, the front of his car pushed in. His teammate, George Follmer, had a 20-second lead. It was going to be a Ford one-two, confirming the series championship they had already clinched. Most of the spectators had left, and the smog was oozing up from the valley below, a kind of man-made dusk. But Parnelli was slicing through the gloom in his school bus-yellow Mustang — now with its sides streaked with oil.

George had many of Parnelli’s characteristics — especially the threatening aura. And he, too, was successful in other forms of racing; he would be my pick for third best Trans Am driver of all time. But on this day, Parnelli was in a world of his own. I didn’t see the pass, but one moment George was still out front and the next, like magic, it was Parnelli.

During that summer, a tectonic shift took place in the industry: The ponycar market suddenly lost its momentum. The manufacturers reacted swiftly, canceling contracts right and left — including AAR’s and ours. Of the factory teams, only AMC would be back in 1971, and its victory was both overwhelming and totally meaningless. As for us, we won our private battle with AAR, which should have meant so much but which meant nothing at all to anyone.

Fittingly, the Challenger broke down early at Riverside, and I was standing in the pits when the race ended and the cars began to trickle in. Hunter S. Thompson once wrote about a great wave sweeping up a beach, leaving a high-water mark, where finally it broke and rolled back. Parnelli’s drive that late afternoon in the desert at Riverside was the high-water mark, and when the wave rolled back it took the Trans Am, in all its glory and frenzy, with it.

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