So, for the 1969 Daytona 24 hours, we parked our motorhome in the infield, just outside of the entrance to the paddock and garage area. Since I was an ordinary little kid, I was able to slip unnoticed past the security guards and into the garage area. I met Chuck Parsons, a grizzled veteran of sportscar racing who, for some reason, took a liking to me. Must have been my starry eyed enthusiasm.
Chuck had seen the wars. He was a tough old coot and his very visible limp told me he had gotten hurt in racing at least his share of times. Somewhere along the line I asked him where the limp came from, and he just answered "Pain builds character, son."
Chuck sneaked me into the Penske pits, where he was driving a brand new Sunoco sponsored Lola T-70 Mk.III with another racing legend, Mark Donohue. Donohue was an engineer by trade, but hooked up with Penske and began a remarkable relationship that yielded multiple Trans Am championships for Chevrolet and American Motors. Donohue was instrumental in the development of the Can Am Porsche 917/30, a car that was so dominant that it killed the series.
As a driver, Donohue was the 1972 Indianapolis 500 champion. Donohue won multiple Trans Am championships, the 1973 Can Am championship, and International Race of Champions, back when it really meant something. After a sterling career he retired from driving to become the director of competition at Penske.
Donohue was famous for his polite, friendly, easy going nature. If there was ever a man who was too nice it was Mark Donohue. In fact, the motorsports press often called him "Captain Nice." He was shy and quite, but upon occasion he could be quite playful, and stories of his firecracker pranks are legend. While Penske was Donohue's age, Mark would always address him as "Mr. Penske." Mark would almost never have any run ins with other drivers, and was a media darling because, well..........because he was so dammed nice to deal with.
Everyone loved Mark Donohue. Everyone.
When Penske went Formula One racing, the lure was too much, and Donohue returned to the cockpit. He very sadly secumbed to head injuries after a crash in practise for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix . Donohue had been one of my absolute heroes from the very beginning and the entire racing world was devastated. Everyone loved Mark Donohue. Everyone.
I was sitting in the corner of the Penske pits when Roger came strolling in and noticed me. Actually, it was more like Penske walked in and imposed his presence on everyone. The moment he walked in, everyone, even those who were too busy working to look up, knew that Roger was in the house.
Though Penske had not yet built his formidable reputation, it was very clear that this man was really someone who was quite extraordinary. There was just an air about him, much as one would feel, I suppose, in the presence of someone like Elvis, or the president of the United States. Of course, when Roger looked over at me, I was like a deer caught in the headlights.
"Who's the kid?" Penske asks.
"Oh, he's a big fan, Roger." Parsons replies "Why don't we make him our mascot or something?"
Penske scratched his chin thoughtfully and then replied “Sorry, kid. If you’re not working, you’ve got to go.” Now, I was pretty excited that I had weaseled myself into position with my favorite team, and just before the start, I was going to get tossed out. I could feel my face becoming flush with the tears building up behind my eyes, and right before the damm burst, a man walked up behind me, handed a helmet to me and says “Put a nice shine on that, will you please?” and, of course, it was Mark Donohue. “Ok, Mr. Penske, he’s working. Can he stay?”
Through all of 1969 Mark Donohue wore a Sunoco blue helmet with a nice primer grey spot on the back, evidence of the enthusiam with which I applied myself to the job at hand. Yeah, I got sent out for donuts and coffee a few times too, probably just to get rid of me for a few minutes, but I always managed to sneak past the security and get back to the pits.
Penske's Lola was pitted against the legendary Ford GT40s that had steamrollered the entire world for the last three years, but technology moves fast in racing and the GT40 was no longer the fastest car. By now, the GT40 was a technical dinosaur, but it was so well developed that it would run almost forever without so much as a hiccup. They were, however, not fancied as the favorites for this race.
The white Armada
Instead, most thought the race was already over. The Porsche team came with their armada of 908 longtail coupes, five of them, lovely cars with beautiful, flowing lines and blistering speed. These cars were painted in the official German racing white livery, with different colored panels on the nose to differentiate one from another. They had lost the championship, and the prestigious 24 Hueres Du mans, the world's greatest sportscar race the year before to John Wyer's Gulf GT40 team, mostly because of reliability issues at the worst possible times.
No one wanted to win as badly as Porsche. They would come to every race with a supply of brand new cars. Brand new! Such was the pace of their engineering, innovation and development that last week's car was useless to them, and there was a long line of privateer entrants, money in hand, eager to buy nearly new and sorted race cars with all the latest factory developments. In 1969 they introduced the 908 spyder, the all conquering 917, the Porsche 914/6 road car, and moved their facility to the legendary Zuffnenhausen location.....all in about two week's time. And, of course, the 908 was updated on almost a daily basis. For a small, family owned concern, it was remarkable, and they were probably spread pretty thin.
Clearly, Porsche was pushing the outer edges of technology and development, and paid the price by having sure wins blow up in their face. There is the old motorsports adage "fast, but fragile," and at this point in time it applied to the Porsche 908. The car was still early in it's development, though it later went onto a crushing series of wins that secured the Stuttgart firm's first world championship. The 908 became, in my view, may be the most important sports prototype in Porsche motorsports history, though most Porschephilles would argue for the 917.
And, of course, there was the Lola T-70 coupe. This car was a descendant of the famous Lola T-70 spyder, which won the Can Am championship in 1966. Donohue had also driven a Penske operated Lola T70 to win two United States Road Racing Championships. The initial batch of cars were nothing more than a T70 with a roof put on, but Penske had the very latest version, a T70 MkIII. Very pretty car, and one would suspect that with all the development and sorting the T70 had received over it's lifespan that it would be nearly bulletproof, especially with the near perfection of Penske preparation. Still, the effort came together so late that the team had virtually no spare parts for the car, which would come into play later in the race.
Donohue had qualified the car on the outside of the first row, in second position. Up against the formidable Porsche 908s, this was an incredibly encouraging sign. In the early going, Donohue mixed it up with the Porsches at the front of the field, but it was only a matter of time before they established their superiority with outright speed and Donohue fell behind them. Still, it was a long race, and the 908s had broken before.
Well, it was a long race, but it was probably longer for the Penske guys than anyone else. About halfway through the first stint, Donohue had brought the car in, unable to get any fuel to the engine and had only just gotten back on the reserve tank. After a bit of poking around, the chief mechanic surmised that the left side fuel cell, where the gasoline is carried, had collapsed, and the car could only burn about half it's fuel before it could no longer deliver any to the power plant. Making matters worse, it was burning the fuel off of only the right side of the car, which left it unbalanced.....and unstable. Now, the Penske Lola would have to stop for fuel about twice as often as the Porsches, and we were already dropping back.
By nightfall, we were in a reasonable position behind the 908s and the GT40s, but the car was becoming more and more ragged as it suffered several small collisions with slower cars, running over debris, and running off the track due to it's poor handling. By now, it was held together with duct tape and safety wire, because there were no spare parts to replaced the damaged ones. Near midnight, the car cracked it's intake manifold, and the car was pushed back to the garage where, because they had no spares, the crew was forced to weld up the crack in the manifold.
This was roughly a 30 minute job, so Mark, Chuck and I headed off to the speedway cafeteria in the infield. With all the chaos unfolding around us, this was the first chance since noon that any of us had to grab a bite to eat. Nowadays there is merely a series of vendors to provide food, but back then it was a real cafeteria.....only it wasn't very well stocked. All they had left at that time of night was beenie weenies, which even under the best of circumstances would apparently give Chuck plenty of ammunition for fart pranks.
Chuck would squeeze off a long, slow, loud, stinky one, grunting, visibly straining, and holding one foot off the ground for effect, and then he would look around the cafeteria hoping someone would notice, and say in a loud voice, "Good lord, Mark! You'de better go check your underwear." Donohue was such a shy and polite man that he turned red with embarrassment, in front of the entire cafeteria, of course. Still, I think he appreciated the artistry of Parson's humor, but it was probably a damm good thing that Penske never saw what was going on.
The car went back out, ran for a bit and then returned with the intake manifold cracked in another place. The crew was already overworked and the car by now was totally ragged out and about as sorry looking as you could imagine, so it was decided to pack up and go home. By about now, my parents were in the motorhome wondering just what the hell kind of trouble I was in, so I had to get back anyway. Donohue, Parsons and Penske thanked me for my "help," and I headed out.
It was already going to be an awesome memory, though I went to sleep in the motorhome sad that we were no longer in the fight. I suppose I would just have to wake up in the morning and watch the Porsches dominate the rest of the race.
Morning comes and I see the Sunoco Lola is back on the track, and has fought it's way up to seventh place. Apparently the team decided to fix the car and use the rest of the race as sort of an extended test session. Of course, I had to hurry back to the Penske pits, because they would be out of donuts soon enough.
While I was at the cafeteria rounding up coffee and donuts, I heard over the PA system that the second placed Gulf GT40 had crashed upon exiting the pits and was out of the race. At the time, this was encouraging, though the best we could hope for would still probably only be sixth place. The Porsches were now running like clockwork, in positions 1-5, with over a one and one half hour lead on the Sunoco Lola, with only about 6 hours left in the race. The invincible white army kept circulating round and round, leaving the rest further and further behind.
When I arrived at the Penske pits, all the mechanics were really glad to see me as they had all been so busy that no one had the time to round up some grub. It was just greasy day old donuts and burnt coffee, but I was a pretty popular guy. I turned to Mark and I say "You've got this thing won," Whereupon I do a little dance and chant "Eeenie oonie wanna! Eeenie oonie wanna! Shakka zulu!"
Donohue looked puzzled, but Parsons knew a zoodoo curse when he saw one, and the entire crew laughed hysterically.....right up until the lead Porsche rolled down pit lane and stopped with whisps of smoke rolling out from under the rear of the car. The mechanics poked around under the rear deck, and there was lots of grumbling, which must have been swearing going on in German. After a few minutes, the deck went down, and the car was pushed off, out of the race.
One of the crew looks at Roger and says "Hey, Roger, this guy is our good luck charm." Penske looks over his shoulder at me and says "Got any more, kid?"
Within the span of the next ten minutes, every single one of the factory Porsches rolled down pit lane, with the cursing becoming more and more vocal, until the entire team simply vanished. They were taken out by identical intermediate idler gear shaft failures, a small little shaft which an idler gear in the valve drain spun on. It broke, the gears fell off, the valvetrain stopped turning while the engine kept screaming, and the pistons chewed all the valves into tiny little pieces, which ground up the entire inside of the engine.
A $5 part. Utter, irreversible, catastrophic destruction.
I had to get back. My father had given me the riot act because I came back to the motor home so late the night before, and he promised I would get a good lashing if I did it again. I said my goodbyes, and as I turned to leave there was a presence behind me, and a firm hand on my shoulder holding me back. Of course, it was Roger Penske, who says "Our good luck charm isn't going anywhere until this thing is over."
This from the guy who almost threw me out the day before.
One and one half hours later, the bruised and battered Sunoco Lola swept into the lead that it would keep until it rolled into Daytona's victory lane. The team was ecstatic, and I was swept along with them as we pushed the car to victory lane. Once there, a security guard noticed I wasn't wearing the proper credentials, and I wasn't let in.
The story of my motorsports life: on the outside, looking in, even when I had won.
Thirteen years later, my wife and I were at the Atlanta CART race. I was a grown man now, sporting a mustache and looking nothing like the little kid who didn't show up in the 1969 Daytona 24 hour victory lane. As we strolled down the pits before the race I come up behind a Penske car and stopped to take a closer look. Suddenly, there is a presence, and a heavy hand on my shoulder. It's Roger, of course, who smiles, and says "We already have someone to polish helmets. Can you do wheels?"
My View Of The 1971 Daytona 24 Hours
As 1971 rolled around, Ferrari had developed it's 512S model into a very formidable contender, though now named the 512M. The car had dominated the 1970 world championship race in Austria before suffering an electrical failure, then won the 9 hour non-championship in Kyalami, South Africa, so the car now had good endurance to go along with it's new found speed.
Ferrari had taken such a pounding from Porsche in 1970 that the factory wanted nothing more to do with racing them, and all the 512Ms were sold off to privateers, one of which landed with Roger Penske and his partner Kirk F. White, who was a Ferrari dealer in, errrrr, I dunno.....maybe Connecticut or something.
Of course, John Wyer was back with his Gulf liveried 917s, complete with revised bodywork and full 5 liter engines. New to the team was former LeMans winner Jackie Oliver (one of the tandem that robbed Porsche at LeMans in 1969) and a man who would go on to win 5 lemans and two world driver's championships, Derek Bell.
The Porsche contingent was further augmented by the Martini and Rossi Team, who had taken over the Salzburg operation. There were also a battery of cars from Alfa Romeo and Matra.
The Polish Connection
Another Ferrari, a year old 512s, was purchased by Luigi Chinetti's North American Racing team (N.A.R.T.). Chinetti was Ferrari's North American importer, and a winner of the 24 Hueres Du Mans in his own right. In 1970, my buddy Chuck Parsons had driven to class victory at Sebring and LeMans in N.A.R.T.'s little 312P coupe along with and another great American driver, Tony Adamowicz.
For the 1971 Daytona 24 hours, Tony was paired with Ronnie Bucknum won the very first Indycar race at Michigan International Speedway, which was a prestigious distinction.
Tony was an interesting character. He had won the very first professional championship for Porsche's 911, the first of about 1000 that model would win, and still counting. After that he moved into the SCCA's Formula 5000 Continiental Championship, which was an open wheeled series much like Indycars, though they raced on road circuits instead of Indianapolis and other oval tracks. The engines were different, but the cars were similar and they were terrifyingly fast. Tony won the 1969 championship with an underfunded effort in a clutch performance against much better funded and fancied teams. In later years he would compete in just about everything, seemingly all at once, being at five different races at the same time. The guy was everywhere, racing in World Championship Sportscar, Trans Am, Can Am and F5000. He also tried to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, but was screwed by an errant yellow flag coming out on his attempt. To this day, he is the only man ever to complete a qualifying attempt for the Indianapolis 500 under a yellow flag, a distinction he would probably have rather avoided, though he at least maintains a sense of humor about it. Yet another case of racing not being a fair sport.
I had been at Sebring in September 1969 for the final F5000 race when Tony clinched the championship by manhandling an ill handling car in the blistering Florida sun. Tony only needed a 6th place finish, and considering the pig he had to drive that day, that 6th place finish was a worthy championship gut check. Tony and the team had overcome so many insurmountable odds that he became an instant hero, and I was thrilled not only to have the privilege, through Chuck, to meet him, but also he took me into the team for the race as......you guessed it....helmet polisher and donut fetcher.
I found out pretty fast that while Tony had already achieved considerable success and notoriety, he remained completely unaffected by it, and no matter who he was around, Tony was just just a regular guy. I imagine one day he will wake up in the morning, go into the bathroom to shave, look into the mirror and exclaim "Oh, My God! I'm Tony Adamowicz!"
Tony was also the tall, dark, handsome type, and he always seemed to have a super model on one or both arms. Flying around the world, driving the world's coolest cars on the most demanding circuits on the planet, surrounded by beautiful women. Yeah. Racing is a hard sport, but I wouldn't have minded having Tony's job.
N.A.R.T's Ferrari 512s was a 1970 model, though this particular one had the roof cut off and was considered a spyder. When the car first came out it was not as good as the highly developed Porsche 917. Not at all. Tony and Ronnie found themselves starting the race in a car that wasn't quite good enough last year, and such was the pace of motorsports development in the early 70s that even last week's finest would be hard pressed to keep up this week's newest wundercar.
Endurance racing is a funny sport, though. You can have everything going for you one moment and the next your mechanics are cursing in German as they load your still smoldering heap into the hauler. And sometimes when you think everything is lost, your mascot will do a voodoo dance and pull you back into the fight.
We were not having a very spectacular race in the early going. Penske's new Ferrari and Pedro Rodriguez in one of John Wyer's Gulf Porsches were setting a staggering pace, burning around Daytona's banks at over 200mph and eating up the slower traffic. The second Gulf Porsche sat back a bit, taking care not to overtax itself or get involved in someone else's accident.
And speaking of which, that's exactly what happened to Vic Elford around midnight in one of the Martini Porsche 917s. A little 911 had an accident and got collected by Elford, instantly putting them both out of the event. Also caught up in the melee was Mark Donohue in Penske's Ferrari. The car was horribly smashed and crawled back to the pits, smoking. hobbling on three wheels, with the nose cone gone and all the doors askew, scraping along the inside guardrail because it was so torn up that Donohue could barely steer the thing. The crew surveyed the damage and set about screwing it back together, which was sort of unbelievable considering there wasn't much left to work on.
Meanwhile, our car was chugging along very nicely, though at nowhere near the pace Rodriguez was setting in the lead Gulf car. Tony and Ronnie were setting a pre-determined conservative pace. During 1970 the original 512s models suffered a myriad of problems ranging from electrical, engine and gearbox woes...........and our car was one of the original cars that had never been updated.
Individual racecar histories from that period tend to be a little.......errrrrrrr, unreliable. The teams would play a little game of swapping the car identification plates around because it made it easier to get them through customs. From what Luigi Chinetti told me, his 512s was the car that Nino Vacarrela finished second with in the previous year's Targa Florio, a race around the treacherous "roads" of Sicily. The race was 10 laps, or about 500 or so miles around narrow, bumpy and pothole filled roadway. There were all sorts of wayward things to hit on the 54 mile course, like concrete mile markers, curbs, signs, buildings, and even a goat or two if you were unlucky. The Targa was probably the most brutal race that ever was, so Luigi's 512s was probably already beaten to within an inch or so of it's life expectancy even before he got it.
Things were looking pretty good for most of the night with our car holding stay behind the two Gulf cars. The car just chugged and chugged along, slowly falling a bit further and further behind the Porsches every hour. Still, a third place finish against the works Gulf team would really be a worthy result for the small team, and we were all pretty excited at the prospects.
During all of this we ran short of personnel. N.A.R.T. had also entered a little Ferrari 312P spyder for Luigi Chinetti jr to drive. Since there weren't enough crewmen to service both cars, the pitstops were staggered so the two were never pitting at the same time. Tony and Ronnie's car suffered a major electrical failure, and the car was getting some new electronics installed as the little 312P was nearly ready to run out of fuel. Since they were going to be short of men on the stop, Luigi sr gave me a drink bottle to hand to the driver and squirt bottle and a rag, telling me to clean the driver's visor and rearview mirror when it came in.
Oh, boy! I'm getting to go over the wall and into the hot pitlane in the Daytona 24 hours! Now I was a real part of the team!
Luigi jr screamed into the pit and we all jumped on the car like rats on a block of cheese, wheel wrenches whirling and fuel guzzling into the car. I handed jr the water bottle and set about cleaning the mirror, then ran back in front of the car to go back over the wall. Just then, I saw a big piece of newspaper stuck in the front radiator, something that could block airflow and overheat the engine. I turned to go after it and never saw Luigi sr give jr the signal to go. Before I knew it I was on top of the little 312P, hurling down pitroad at about 60mph, desperately clutching at the mirror for all I was worth until jr realized what had happened and stomped on the brakes, sending me flopping down pitroad and sliding on my ass to a stop about three pitstalls down from ours.
Of course, every crewman in the pits was over the wall and rushing to my aid, and by the time Luigi sr got there about all I could think to do was hold up the newspaper and exclaim "Don't worry. I got it. I got it." I got a pat on the back from every member of the team, but they never let me go over the wall again after that.
The little 312P chugged and chugged it's way around the speedway, never missing a beat and pausing only for fuel and tires, and of course, to occasionally punt an errant crewman out of the way. The car won it's class, so I guess I was directly responsible for contributing to the result. The elder Chinetti sadly died a few years ago, but junior is supposedly living in Orlando or something. If you are reading this, Luigi, at the very least you owe me a beer.
Our 512 lost a lot of time with the electrical repairs and it seemed a good result was going to be difficult. This became even worse when about daybreak the rear bodywork blew of the car while Ronnie was driving. Tony was in the corner, sitting on his helmet and catching a few Zs when Ronnie came in, unbelted and got out of the car. The crew was furiously thrashing about trying to get the ill fitting spare bodywork snugly onto the car while a rudely awakened Tony was searching in a panic looking for his helmet. Finally he comes over to me and yells "What did you do with my helmet, kid?" I had been snoozing too, so I had no idea, and a few tense moments passed before Tony remembered he was using it for a bench just moments before. I was pretty relieved that it wasn't my screw up, but still, no one was amused.
Somewhere along the line, something happened to the second Gulf Porsche and a few of the other challengers and we found ourselves incredibly back into third place. The Sunoco Ferrari was still falling apart from it's previous crash damage and it would pit for repair, we would move into second, and then they would steam back around us, only for something else to fall off of Roger's car and then we would find ourselves right back into second place again.
Pedro Rodriguez in the #1 Gulf Porsche was long, long gone and there was never going to be any catching him unless he pulled over and took a nap, and incredibly, that's exactly what he did. The Porsche's gearbox had ground itself to bits and Pedro pulled into the pits, switched everything off and fell asleep right there. The Gulf mechanics furiously ripped into the car's transmission and set about repairing it, but it was a long job that would require hours and hours, so we were looking pretty good. Luigi send me down to the Gulf pits to observe the repair, because replacing the entire gearbox was not allowed. All you could do was replace the internal components.
While I was there a lean looking Englishman in a Gulf jacket told me to "get lost, kid" and I told him to "get......" well, you know. He was furious, and there was almost a scuffle, but the rest of the team got between us and that was the end of it..........until 30 years later at the Daytona historic races when I ran into Gulf team engineer John Horstman again. We relived the story and he told me many, many others until I felt guilty for taking up so much of his time and excused myself. He is probably one of the finest gentlemen I have ever had the pleasure to talk to, but we sure got off to a rough start. I hope I get to run into him again sometime.
The Gulf mechanics pulled off a miracle and had the gearbox back together in about ninety minutes. Horstman went to the front of the car and smacked the windshield three times, whereupon Rodriguez woke and set about the drive of his life, which for Pedro, was saying something.
Incredibly, in all the chaos, our 512 had emerged into a clear lead. We were about two laps ahead of Rodriguez, and quick math showed that in the remaining hour, we could not be caught. Well, not if everything went right, that is.
Sadly, things don't always go right, and something happened to the engine. I don't remember exactly what it was. It bent a valve or cracked a cylinder head, but every time it would flash past our position in the pits and braked for turn one, we could see a huge fireball shoot out of the exhaust pipes with a loud bang.
Boy, this could get ugly quick. Tony was forced to cut his rpm, thus slowing our lap times and allowing the others to close in. Chinetti was furiously scribbling the mathmatics on a scrap of paper and saying "We'll be ok. We'll be ok."
First, the Sunoco Ferrari caught us, but it suffered a fuel pump belt failure and had to pit, putting us back into the lead. Then, with about 30 minutes to go Rodriguez passed the ailing 512s to take the lead. It began to rain, and when Rodriguez pitted for wet weather tires, Chinetti gambled that the shower wouldn't last, and left Tony out. It almost worked, but when the track dried, Pedro was flying, and battling with a now temporarily healthy Sunoco Ferrari. With 15 minutes to go, Pedro caught Tony and streaked into the lead. The Sunoco Ferrari had yet another fuel pump belt failure, falling back to a third it would never recover from. Considering almost the entire car was held together with duct tape and safety wire, it was a pretty amazing effort.
Chinetti realized he had left his camera in the garage. He wanted to document the occasion, so with about 10 minutes to go he sent me to the garage to retrieve it. Unfortunately, I had been caught hopping the fence by one of the security guards the day before, and when he saw me come out of the pits he threw me right into the back of a Volusia County Sheriff's car. That was the end of the race for me and I was kept there for a couple of hours so the lesson would sink in.
So this time I wasn't out the outside looking in. This time I was inside the police car, looking out at the celebrations that were going on without me...........again.
Tony and Ronnie finished an incredible second with an uncompetitive car that was on it's last legs. To this day Tony talks about it as one of his greatest achievements, and it was certainly a damm good one. Later in the year he would race a N.A.R.T. Ferari 512M with at LeMans, paired with yet another great American, Sam Posey. Against what was the strongest field LeMans had seen in about a decade, they pulled off a very smooth 3rd place. This was an astounding result considering it was a private entry and Porsche, Alfa Romeo and Matra had all brought a battery of factory supported cars.
Are We Laughing Yet?
One of America's grand tracks is Road Atlanta, a beautiful rolling circuit that winds through the Georgia countryside. The track snakes it's way up hill and downhill, and up and downhill all over again. In several places they just carved the track out of the landscape, almost like they strip mined it. There were a few corners where if you went off you would be greeted by a sheer vertical wall of red Georgia clay. Road Atlanta has never been a good place to crash, but in the early 70s when racing was supposed to be dangerous, lots of us were wondering just what the hell we thought we were doing rolling the dice like that.
Now, having said that, the place has been freshly refurbished and those sheer walls moved back. Road Atlanta today is one of the safest and best kept circuits in the country.
When I was going to school in Valdosta I raced enduro karts there a few times and it was one spookey place. Enduro karts were designed to race on full sized racetracks and run at incredible 140mph+ speeds. To cut wind resistance, the driver was reclined (and out of the airstream) as much as possible, and it was almost like being flat on your back with your head propped up. In that position your whole perspective of the road, the trees, everything......everything looked different and it seemed like you were doing 300mph. All of this while you are going up and down hill around blind corners with your stomach in your thorat. It was like a roller coaster, except I was driving it.
But, oh, was it ever one fun place to go fast. There are places where you turn into the corner without being able to see it because it is on the other side of a hill. The corners come one right after the other, which each one faster than the one before until you have to slam on the brakes, crank the wheel over and head back uphill again onto a lung busting straight away with a huge dip in it that slams you so hard into the seat you wonder how many laps you could go before you broke the chassis. The kicker of them all is the bridge turn where you turn under a bridge into the corner and then the world falls out from under you as you plunge downhill so fast your stomach rises up into your throat. The first 20 or so times that I went throught there it was absolutley terrifying, but after that it was mererly thrilling and exhilirating.
Road Atlanta is such a gut clenching high speed rollercoaster that every time I got out of the kart I had to go behind the pits and throw up from motion sickness. Then, I'de get some fluid back in me as fast as I could because I couldn't wait to get back out there and scare myself silly all over again. It is truely a magnificent circuit.
Years before even that, though, I had gone to Road Atlanta to see the 1973 Formula 5000 race. This was the series formerly called the Continental Championship, which was won in 1969 by Tony Adamowicz. Tony was still racing in the series with a different team and car. Tony had the latest Lola T333 chassis, which in this series was the one to have. The car was painted in black/red/white Carling Black label colors and was the most stunning car on the grid. The thing was simply beautiful.
For opening practice we were standing on the outside of turn five. Five was at the bottom of a hill after a series of high speed esses. The road turned 90 degrees left and went right back up hill again, so it was a really challenging turn. About five feet outside of the turn was a sheer four foot earth embankment, so you didn't want to get that turn wrong. Of course, on top of that wall was were we were standing behind a fence that was right on the edge of the wall.
We were standing just to the left of where the picture ends. we were probably even there when this was taken............
Tony comes streaking through the esses and when he hit the brakes for turn five, all four tires simply stopped, and in a blinding cloud of dust and white tire smoke, Tony slid off the track at high speed, and slammed into the wall with a sickening thud. Tony started to exit the car when a small fire broke out in the rear, but little fires on a race car turn into big ones really fast. As Tony scrambled up from the car, my friend Dave and I reached over the fence and gave him a hand over.
Tony pulls his helmet off, recognises me and smiles. We spoke for a couple of seconds, but understandably he had to get back top the pits and get the car looked over. Unfortunately it was so badly damaged that it was done for the weekend.
As Tony walked off, the last thing he said was "twenty years from now we'll laugh about this."
Well, that was the last time I actually saw Tony, but about thirty years later I found him through his website, and eventually Tony called me so we could share a few laughs. I asked him if he was ready to laugh about Road Atlanta and he says simply "Nah. It's still not funny,"
A few years ago I went to Sebring the day before the 12 hour race to do some model business with the vendors and some of the drivers I build for. Generally, all the drivers are approachable no matter how famous they are. They are just guys and I have something they want anyway, so they are happy to see me. Hey, somebody has to do it.
After I got done with business, it was late and we needed to head back. I stumbled across French racing driver Bob Wolleck, who was chatting with some journalists and packing his gear. Very famous guy. Had won just about everything except LeMans, but had raced there something like 28 consecutive years. Multiple Porsche Cup champion and three Daytona 24 hours wins.
He was known for being a mad cycling enthusiast. He would travel to most of the the European auto races on his bicycle, sometimes hundreds of miles, and then race the car for 1000k. And then ride home. He even kept a bike in the states for when he would fly over here for a car race. So I had to have a quick word with him about bicycles.
I wandered up and just asked him if he liked a steel or titanium frame. He immeadiately waved everyone else away, "Go! Go away!" and we sat on a stack of tires for about a half hour, just two guys talking about bicycles. We were at one of the most important events of the year and it was like auto racing didn't even exist for us.
It was getting dark and he was desperate to get out of there so he could get a ride in. Tomorrow was the car race and he wouldn't get to ride. It was almost like he didn't enjoy motoracing because he couldn't cycle every day. He made me promise to meet him and some friends at the airport on Sunday morning and join them for a ride. So, I couldn't say no.
I was pretty excited to get home (two hours by car) and tell my friends about my latest adventure. I was on the phone and taking my shoes off, waiting for the computer to boot when my home page, Speedvison, came up "Bob Wolleck killed in traffic accident." It was a drunk in a motorhome.
He was 56. I was probably one of the last people he ever spoke to.
I like to remember him and share the story of when we met. He was an interesting guy with a big cycling heart.