The regular gang was back again at Road America in 1968 for the June Sprints. I had decided that, at least for me, this was going to be a tradition. I had come to love road racing and wanted to see as much of it as I could. The Sprints were great for that because there were usually 8 or 9 races over the two-day weekend. The fact that they were amateurs meant nothing because the racing was close and exciting. There were also some professional teams competing on this level, such as Group 44, which raced small-bore British cars including MGB's and Triumphs.
Group 44 would show up in their tractor-trailer rig to compete with local guys who towed their cars to the track on open trailers, did their own race prep in their garages by themselves with no professional mechanics to be seen. Group 44 drivers were all paid professional drivers, and the crew members were all professional mechanics. Very few of the rest of the field could say that. Some of the wealthy amateurs, like Jerry Hansen, did hire professional mechanics, but most of the field consisted of weekend warriors with friends and family acting as crew members. For them, it was really just a hobby.
Jerry Hansen was probably the top amateur driver in the country. He was an investment banker from Minneapolis and had the money to buy the best equipment to be had. The year before, he had purchased a Lola T-70 Can-Am car from Roger Penske and used it to win his first national championship at the SCCA Runoffs held in Daytona that year. Very few of the other "amateurs" could afford to do that and very few raced in both SCCA Nationals and Pro Races like Hansen did. In fact, Hansen often ran cars in two or more classes at the Sprints and the Runoffs. Hansen holds the record for National Championship wins at the Runoffs with a total of 27! Duane Davis is second with a mere 13 victories, but he is still active.
This year, the SCCA had a new class dubbed Formula A. This class was for single seat, open wheel cars with American pushrod V8 engines of up to five liters displacement. The Formula A race on Sunday would be the first time this new class would be run at Road America and I was looking forward to seeing an American version of a Formula One car.
There would be two formula car races this year because FV had grown so much that they were given their own race. The car to have in FV was a Zink, and they swept the top three places in their race on Saturday. We also saw Freddy Baker win B Sedan in a Porsche 911, of all things. The 911 was hardly a sedan but rather a pure sports car. SCCA still considered it a sedan because of the two small jump seats in the back which could hold little more than a couple of bags of groceries. This illogical thinking persisted for two more years before the 911 was re-classified. Group 44 collected wins in two classes on Saturday with Bob Tullius winning C Production in a Triumph TR 250 and John Kelly taking D Production in an older TR4.
Eric, Ernie and Tuna were all there again this year and Ernie had brought along a friend from work. He was a nice guy but not a particularly good drinker. He made the mistake of trying to keep up with us and was soon plastered.
At the end of the on-track activities on Saturday, as we were packing up to head back to the campground, Ernie’s friend picked up the beer cooler. I said, "Let me give you a hand with that." He said, "That’s OK, it isn’t that heavy." Well, I knew it was a heck of a lot lighter than when we had carried it down the hill that morning and this guy had done more than his share to lighten the load. Even so, there was still a fair amount of beer and ice in the cooler and I knew carrying things up the hill was a lot harder than going down.
He picked up the cooler in both hands and started to stagger up the hill. About a quarter of the way up, he lost his balance and started to fall over backwards. To save himself, he took a step back, and then another step back. All his momentum was now headed in the wrong direction, and soon he was running backwards down the hill with the cooler.
Amazingly, he stayed on his feet till he hit the fence at the bottom. This catapulted him upside down and backwards over the fence, sending beer and ice flying everywhere. He climbed to his feet with a sheepish grin and just started picking up the scattered beer. This time, he let me help him carry the cooler up the hill.
The big formula race kicked things off on Sunday. Jerry Hansen was in it with a brand new Lola T-140 but the car blew a head gasket and did not finish the race, which was won by Stew McMillan in an Eisert. Bob Sharp won the small production race in a Datsun while Group 44 added a third win when Mike Downs took GP in a Triumph Spitfire.
The feature event of the weekend was the big sports racers. Jerry Hansen was entered with the ex-Penske Lola T-70 he had driven to the SCCA championship the year before. We had seen Hansen lead before, and in fact, he had led the race the two prior years but failed to finish either of them. That was not to be the case this year as he led from flag to flag in his orange Lola. Jerry Hansen winning a race at the June Sprints was going to become a very familiar story. Ron Courtney finished second in a McLaren Elva MK III, and Freddy Baker was fourth overall and first in BSR in the same Porsche 906 in which he had won the Doug Revson Trophy the year before.
A month later, we were back for the RA 500 and Badger 200, minus Ernie’s friend who had probably had enough of the hill in Canada Corner. Saturday’s featured event was the Badger 200, which had been switched from production cars to formula. It was to be a round of the new Formula Continental Championship featuring the new Formula A cars which had been renamed Formula 5000. The race was also run to a distance of 200 kilometers rather than miles. This equated to approximately 120 miles, which was about as far as the F-5000 cars could go on a tank of gas.
Proving he was perhaps no "amateur," the race was won by Jerry Hansen in his traditional orange colored Lola T-140. The Smothers Brothers comedy team had gotten the racing bug, or at least Dick Smothers did, and had entered an Eagle for Lou Sell who went on to win the championship that year.
Possibly the most interesting thing about the 500 on Sunday was that the race was being filmed for a movie. A new McKee Mk X debuted, driven by Charlie Hayes and Charles Gibson. The car had a very distinctive wedge shape resembling a piece of cheese. The car lasted only ten laps in the race before blowing off its oil filter but it will live on in the movies. It was the car driven by Paul Newman to win the "Redbourne 500" in the movie "Winning."
McKee Mk X driven by Paul Newman in the movie Winning
The film had clips of the car on track from this race including one or two other cars coming through Canada Corner. The car wins the race in the movie and Newman is seen spraying champagne on the podium in front of the Road America Pagoda. It was the filming of this movie that gave Paul Newman the racing bug.
Skip Scott and Chuck Parsons won the real race for the second year in a row for the pair and Parsons’ third straight victory in the RA 500. Mark Donahue, in a Penske McLaren M6A, led at the start and lapped the field before turning the car over to "amateur" Jerry Hansen. Unfortunately, the car began to smoke and finally on lap 56, Hansen had to take the escape road in corner five with the car out of oil. Donahue went on to win the next and final race of the USRRC at Mid-Ohio and win the championship.
The Can-Am was set for September 1 that year and was to be the first of a six-race season. The same group of drivers from last year was present, and was joined by Mario Andretti and the great Mexican driver, Pedro Rodriquez. Andretti was equipped with a Lola T-160 with a 5.0 double overhead cam Indy Ford engine entered by George Bignotti. Rodriquez was in a Ferrari 350P4. This would be the first time I would see these two famous drivers. Formula One driver Joakim Bonnier was also there, entered in a new M6B.
McLaren was back with a new car, the M8A, which was designed to take the 7-liter aluminum Chevy V-8 mounted on the rear bulkhead as a stress-bearing member of the chassis. They had put last year’s car, the M6A, into production as a customer car and designated it as the M6B. There were five of these entered, led by the Penske entry for Mark Donahue and one entered by Carroll Shelby for Peter Revson. Jerry Hansen, to no one’s surprise, had purchased Penske’s M6A with which Donahue had won the USRRC and which he co-drove with Donahue in the RA 500 earlier in the year.
In qualifying, Hulme and McLaren served notice that they were still the team to beat with both of them landing front row starting positions. Bruce was on the pole with a lap time of 2:09.8 for a speed of 110.940 mph. Jim Hall, in a revised Chaparral 2G, and Donahue made up the second row. All four cars were faster than last year’s pole qualifying time.
Sunday morning, we awoke to dark skies and pouring rain. It was not a pleasant situation for the fan but we figured it should make for an interesting race. It might even level the playing field with the McLarens. But, it was not to be.
Carrying coolers down the hill at Canada Corner is challenging in the best of weather, but try it in a pouring rain and muddy hillside. It was a struggle, but we made it to our chosen spot. There was plenty of room on the hillside, no doubt because the rain kept less hardy fans away. Still, I heard there were some 41,000 in attendance. Most of them probably chose less muddy and precarious viewing locations. No matter - we had a nice, relatively level spot, our rain gear on and our beer. We were ready. Let the race begin!
Once again, we were not surprised when the first cars into our corner were the two orange McLarens, followed by Andretti and Revson who had moved up from the fourth row. We were surprised that Donahue was missing. Then we heard that he was running third when he spun in the carousel. He finally came by in eighteenth place.
It turned out to be an interesting race indeed, with several cars spinning off the wet track in front of us. Donahue impressed me by cutting his way back through the field like a hot knife through butter. By lap 15, he was in fourth place behind Andretti. He was unable to get the measure of Andretti but stayed on his tail until lap 48 when Andretti’s Ford blew up and sent a connecting rod back through Donahue’s radiator.
Hulme won the race, followed by his boss, Bruce. Donahue was able to limp his overheating machine home third, while Revson came in fourth. Jim Hall's car had gotten water in its injectors and had a lengthy pit stop, but was still able to finish fifth. Lothar Motschenbacher had gambled and started the race fifth on the grid with dry tires, figuring the only way he could best the orange duo was if the rain stopped and the track dried out. He would then have an advantage over those still on rain tires and others, including the McLarens, would have to pit to match his rubber. It did stop raining about halfway through the race, but not soon enough for Lothar, who dropped all the way back to 19th. Once the track dried, he was on the move as planned, but only got back up to 6th before the checker fell.
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen