Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Wild Colonial Boy

Having won the ATCC at a canter, Dick Johnson knew he now had the perfect stick to shove through the spokes of the European touring car scene. Accordingly, during the mid-year break between the ATCC and the start of the enduros, he crated up DJR3 and had it flown to the U.K. for a very special event. It was time to take a gun to a knife fight.


The RAC Tourist Trophy is in fact the oldest surviving motorsport trophy in the world, first awarded by the Royal Automobile Club in 1905 and handed out on an on-again/off-again basis pretty much ever since. It makes even Indy's Borg-Warner Trophy (est. 1936) look like a recent upstart by comparison. It has cycled through from Grand Prix to sports cars, to GT, to touring cars, then back again a couple of times, but in the 1980s it was a touring car event, one of the British rounds of the prestigious European Touring Car Championship. This of course was the stage upon which Ford of Europe (based in Cologne) and BMW (Munich) had waged a long and bitter war for tintop supremacy, one fought with the hatred of the Kursk salient and more or less ongoing since the BMW 3.0 CSL "Batmobile" first lined up alongside the Ford Capri RS3100 in the early 1970s. We'd caught a hint of the animosity between them during the WTCC last year, and with all the controversy surrounding the result at Bathurst, it would be fair to say neither side had calmed down much.


The field for the 1988 running of the TT was typically impressive: among the entrants in Class 1 were Tom Walkinshaw and Jeff Allam in the #46 Herbie Clips Holden, Tom's vaunted new fuel-injected evolution of Holden's VL Commodore SS Group A (we'll be getting to that). There was also Win Percy and Allan Grice in the works #23 Nissan Skyline HR31 GTS-R (we'll be getting to that too). Most of Class 1 however was made up of Sierras, 17 in all, a veritable fleet of Fords. Most feared among them were of course the black Texaco cars built and run by Eggenberger Motorsport, three of them for Klaus Ludwig/Klaus Niedzwiedz (#1), Steve Soper/Pierre Dieudonné (#2), and Gianfranco Brancatelli/Bernd Schneider (#3). Eggenberger was Ford's works team in the ETCC, and they were here to ensure the drivers' title went to Dieudonné and not BMW's Roberto Ravaglia. With the Tourist Trophy the penultimate round of the championship, Dieudonné could clinch it here, as long as he won the race: in the smaller M3, Ravaglia merely had to win his class, and with BMW stage-managing the works Schnitzer and Bigazzi teams from behind the scenes, it seemed very likely he would. Tensions were high.

Source

It was not the ideal time for other Ford teams to stick their noses in, but that's what they did. Andy Rouse had entered what was basically his home event (for much the same reasons as Dick – recovering lost pride), and had brought along Frenchman Alain Ferté to co-drive his #33 Kaliber Sierra. His BTCC teammate Guy Edwards was sharing the #39 with Brit Pack F1 driver Jonathan Palmer, and both were a serious threat. This was Silverstone, after all: the BTCC had held four rounds here last year, and including the F1 support race, would hold another four in 1988; on top of that this was where many teams did all their testing, and now the TT race as well. The British drivers could all lap Silverstone in their sleep, and given this was the old Silverstone, all long straights and sweeping bends, a British driver in a Sierra was a pretty safe bet to win here today. In 1988, Silverstone was a Sierra circuit: everyone else was just driving on it.

Source

There was also the #4 AM Motorsport Sierra of Germany's Wolf Racing Team, to be driven by Harald Grohs and former Bathurst winner Armin Hahne, which really completed the trifecta: with Eggenberger, Rouse and Wolf, the Tourist Trophy entry list now counted Ford's works teams from the BTCC, ETCC and DTM alike.

Source

And to that they could now add the works team from Australia, too: Dick Johnson, and his Tasmanian teammate and co-driver John Bowe.
I had never seen so many rabbits. Maybe they were hares. What the hell did I know? I was used to kangaroos and wombats. Whatever they were, they bounced across the lush green grass, over the rolling hills and endless plains of the English Midlands, which led to one of the most famous motor racing tracks in the world.

The Silverstone Circuit was legendary. Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jackie Stewart – they were all part of the magic.

I had conned my way there, intent on restoring Australian pride, and flogging these arrogant know-it-alls. It began when I phoned Ross Palmer.

Ross Palmer was launching his company in the U.S. and the U.K., and was about to hit the two whopping markets with a product called Redkote.

"What better way to launch yourself in the U.K. than have me go over with a car and give it to them?" I said.

"You reckon you can match it with the Europeans?" he replied.

"My oath. You know I can."

He agreed. Shell also offered to pay.

The race was for the Tourist Trophy at Silverstone, and took place on 4 September 1988.

With a decent budget, a dream and a truckload of Aussie fighting spirit, I loaded all my gear into two air-freight containers, grabbed my passport and headed straight into enemy territory.

I had never been to Silverstone and was astounded by the magnificent track when I arrived. Surrounded by rich verdant countryside, rabbits (or hares) roaming the plains and rain lashing the ground, I edged through the gates and was met by one of the most prestigious circuits in the world. Built on an old World War II airstrip, the track was long, fast, sweeping and technical. Being a naïve Aussie, I asked a local a dumb but important question.

"Clockwise, of course," he answered. "How could you not know that?"

I began testing on the Tuesday. After unloading my gear and piecing it all together, I took to the track – and made sure I went clockwise. I was cautious at first, learning the long straights and the hard braking points, and figuring out just how fast I could go into the sweepers. I soon had the tyres squealing and the brakes burning. After a few laps I felt I was doing okay, when I noticed a high-profile spy.

Sitting in an F1-like compound, full of computers and technology, Rudi Eggenberger’s team engineer was hunched over endless screens monitoring my every move. I had no idea why he was doing this until someone told me I was nudging the lap record on my very first fling.

I beamed.

Full of fire, and revenge firmly on my mind, I went out and ragged my Sierra. These guys I was up against knew Silverstone like I knew Lakeside, so they must’ve been embarrassed when they found out I was more than a second up on them. The entire European field shook their heads in disbelief.

I was on top of the world. To watch people like Rouse, the bloke who had dudded me, look panicked and scared, was just priceless. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
That's not the grin of a man halfway down the timesheets

On the fastest track of the year the #41 Redkote Steel Tubing Sierra absolutely smashed them; they took pole by nearly a second, then sat back and watched the others tear through dozens of sets of tyres trying to catch them up.
For the first time in this year's ETCC campaign, the entry was over-subscribed. There was no doubt from the outset that this would be the race of the year; the entry boasted the best of Group A cars from Europe, including the cream of the British championship cars, with the added interest of Dick Johnson's ATCC-winning car.

Johnson felt humiliated last year at Bathurst when the Eggenberger Sierras almost arrogantly swept the locals aside, while his cars were out virtually at the start. Pride dictated that he should try to recoup lost prestige, not only for himself and his team, but for Australian touring car racing in general. There was a point to make.

The tension began to mount mid-week when word started to filter through that Johnson had lapped under Rouse's existing 1m39.29s lap record. It climbed further when the Australian led the times in Friday's free test sessions. Notice had been served that this was no empty threat ... a mistake ruined the first run, but then the second set heads turning when a time of 1m35.49s was announced, at that time the best part of a second ahead of the opposition. Klaus Ludwig chimed in with a time of 1m36s dead, but it was too late and too slow. – Auto Action, 16 Sep 1988
There weren't many better places to start a race than from pole, and fastest time in the morning warm-up suggested the car was still up for it on race day.


The locals' last chance to discombobulate the Australians was with the unfamiliar rolling start, but when the Pace Car pulled into the pits Johnson gunned it and pulled away, like he'd been doing it all his life. The Redkote Sierra simply left them behind, zooming into an immediate and substantial lead – a full second by the end of lap 1. Johnson led easily from Steve Soper, Klaus Ludwig, Armin Hahne, Andy Rouse, BTCC regular Robb Gravett, Jonathan Palmer, and then Tom Walkinshaw in the Holden, the best-placed non-Sierra in the race. All of them realised, to their horror, that they were now in a race for 2nd.

The Poms do have a way with words, however, and after 10 laps the commentator in the video was moved to observe that Johnson, "hadn't managed to pull out more than a couple of seconds on Klaus Ludwig." Yes, what a poor showing, to be "only" two seconds ahead of the million-franc factory team on their home turf. Shame really. Well, if Johnson hadn't rammed the message down their throats yet, he was about to get another chance. Romeo Carnathias in the #6 Jolly Club Bergamo Sierra was abruptly seen in the gravel, having apparently suffered a steering failure. The RAC thought this warranted a full-course yellow and released the Pace Car, claiming Carnathias was in "a dangerous place." I wouldn't put it past the RAC to go all NASCAR on us and call a caution simply to bunch up the field again, especially with the Aussies walking all over them like this, but who knows? Maybe the #6 really was in a dangerous place.

Either way, the field was brought back together, and at the restart Johnson had to build his lead all over again – which he did, easily. In fact, this time he even set a new lap record, a time that nobody else would beat all day – 1:36.57, or 178.12km/h.
We went to Silverstone for the Tourist Trophy in 1988 – you have to remember that this was a world championship touring car race [sic] – and Dick came past on the first lap so far in the lead that we thought he must have jumped the start. I remember following one of the Eggenberger cars through one of the fast corners, Klaus Ludwig or someone – and they were like heroes – and I just drove past him and disappeared. It was awesome. Really awesome. – John Bowe
Unfortunately, having claimed pole and fastest lap, the DJR team would have to settle for two out of three: it was at the first scheduled stop that things started to go wrong. Johnson pitted around lap 38 as planned, letting Andy Rouse through into the lead, but the stop was slow with a fuel feed problem. John Bowe climbed in for his stint, but because of the refuelling problem he was slow away, and rejoined only 11th.

That seemingly burst the bubble, as for DJR things quickly went down the tubes. By lap 64, Bowe was back up to 4th place, but he and race leader Klaus Ludwig both pitted at the end of the lap. Ludwig's stop was smooth and untroubled, Klaus Niedzwiedz taking over without a fuss, but further down pit lane the Redkote car's bonnet was up and mechanics were pouring fresh water into its steaming reservoir. Johnson was strapped in and ready to go, but had to sit tight and wait for the mechanics to finish their tasks. It would later emerge that a water pump gasket of a kind you could buy in any Ford dealership in the U.K. – but not in Brisbane – had failed, killing what could have been a dream result. The car had to keep returning to the pits to top up its water, losing so much time that it finished the day only 21st – a long way from where its pace could've put it.

For want of a nail...

Although leaving with the silverware would've been the ideal finish to the weekend, Dick had to settle for impact alone, and that they still talk about today. After all, a broken water pump gasket said nothing about Dick's ability as a tuner, car builder or driver.
The only drama was they wouldn’t supply us with new water pumps and we unfortunately ended up with one that failed on us and started leaking and that was why it was overheating and hence the extra pit stops. But mate, they know damn well exactly what the deal was there. We were on pole position by a considerable margin and my favourite photo of all time is one of me coming down the Hangar Straight comfortably in the lead with the opposition all in the background. – Dick Johnson, AMC #77
So at the front, the race went on without the Aussies, and despite everything it was good one. Andy Rouse had started only 5th, but he'd risen steadily since then, dispatching Armin Hahne under brakes on the entry to Stowe, then resumed his usual battle with Steve Soper. This was yet another round of the ongoing row between these two (their scrap at Brands Hatch was, it must be said, magnificent), and although both had to be careful not to use up their cars in such a long race, the intensity never dipped. Rouse managed to get past Soper with the same move he'd pulled on Hahne, only for Soper to grab the restart with both hands and launch himself straight back up to 3rd. It was well and truly on between these two.

The Brands Hatch race. Don't think, just go and watch it.

Rouse eventually got the place back, and by the time the first round of stops loomed at one-third distance, Ludwig was 2nd, with Rouse 3rd, then Soper 4th, Gravett 5th, Brancatelli 6th in the extra Eggenberger car, Palmer 7th, Hanhne 8th, and Win Percy 9th in the Nissan, the highest-placed non-Sierra at that stage. Walkinshaw's Holden was well off the place in 14th, which the formidable Scotsman dealt with by pitting for a change of tyres and a fresh load of fuel, and putting Jeff Allam in the driver's seat. Silverstone of all circuits should've played to the Commodore's brute power and uncompromising new aero package, while minimising the penalty of its weight and iffy brakes, so such a humbling performance was a bad sign for a new model as important as this.

An awesome photo of them building the thing, courtesy of Facebook page, "VL SS Group A SV - Walkinshaw."

The Nissan team was likewise in trouble: after 30 laps, Win Percy brought his Skyline into the pits, but stayed strapped in instead of hopping out: the car had a problem. It turned out the gearbox was stuck in 3rd, a crippling handicap on a circuit as fast as this, and not one that could be fixed in time to rejoin the race. The Nissan challenge had fizzled, and teammate Allan Grice never even got to drive.

Back at the front, Rouse kept the pressure on and soon put a move on the inside of Klaus Ludwig – again, at Stowe. The sharper, more hard-edged suspension tune needed for BTCC sprint races definitely gave Rouse the edge on handling, but would it come with a penalty for his tyre life? Only time would tell. In the meantime, he'd moved up to 2nd place just in time to make his scheduled stop and hand it over to co-driver Alain Ferté, who rejoined behind Soper, who'd now swept through into the lead.

Soper wasn't far from his own pit stop, however, and soon he brought it in to hand the #2 car over to Pierre Dieudonné. Soper was interviewed immediately after, where he was told, "Apparently there's a problem with the Australian car," which prompted the quote of the day: "Is there? Oh, I'm ever so upset!"

Soper/Dieudonné at the Donington 500, earlier in the year

He might've spoken too soon. Ferté was a good choice of co-driver, bringing Rouse's #33 Kaliber Sierra back to the pits without so much as a scratch on it. When it all shook out, Dieudonné was leading in the closing laps, but Rouse was on a mission to catch him and put the hammer down, sliding raucously out of his pit box and back onto the track. With 25 laps to go, Rouse was all over the back of the Eggenberger car and hounding him mercilessly, although he was wise enough to contain himself while they were still threading through the backmarkers. One of those was the Walkinshaw Commodore, in 10th – the Sierras had lapped every car up to P10!

With blue flags flying to another batch of backmarkers, Rouse took a punt and made his move on Dieudonné on the run from Copse up to Becketts. There was no sign his engine was about to pack it in, or that his tyres were wearing out, so there he stayed to the chequered flag, crossing the line for the 105th and final time to take the RAC Tourist Trophy for 1988. Whatever I might've said about the bastard, I never said he couldn't drive.

But here's the thing – if I'd been a Ford executive in the 1980s, I would've had a button installed in my desk in Cologne. I'd've watched the live feed of every touring car race from my office, and any time I saw Andy Rouse move ahead of my Eggenberger car, I'd've pressed the button and sent a remote signal to blow his engine sky-high. Rouse's victory had just deprived Ford of a coveted ETCC title: by moving ahead of the works team, Andy had taken away some crucial points for 1st place, and that effectively anointed Roberto Ravaglia European Touring Car Champion on the spot. Coming only a year after his shenanigans had arguably cost Ford the WTCC, it really is a wonder no-one tried to burn down his motorhome while he was asleep in it.

Yeah, I'd wear that face too, Pierre

But, if they'd done something like that to Andy, they would've done it twice over to Dick, who'd been the real threat to Eggenberger all week long. The whole experience was summed up by
the best moment in the video, exactly 13 minutes and 45 seconds in. As he cooled off after his first stint, a pitlane reporter came over to talk to the sweaty-faced Johnson, who gave one of the great interviews of all time.

"Oh, well the car's fine," he said, rattling off the usual racing driver stuff. "It’s just that we had a fair bit of trouble with slower traffic, and someone dropped a heap of oil before you come up under the bridge there. It was dripping all the way around on-line, which sort of made it pretty difficult for a couple of laps, but other than that it was fine."

The reporter nodded, then put in a stellar bid for the most condescending question ever asked: "Were you surprised to be so competitive over here?"

Dick was momentarily taken aback. Much as we might talk about "Mother England," it still takes you by surprise when they actually treat you like a child. But then the Poms never really adjusted to the loss of their Empire, and still expect you to call them nkosi or bwana if you address them in a funny accent.

"Uhh... yeah, okay," was all Dick said, smiling resignedly, a sinking "like that, is it?" sort of tone in his voice. But not knowing to quit while he was behind, the reporter then pressed on: "No, you’re obviously quite a match for the other Sierra Cosworths?" And having gathered himself by this time, Dick was able to give the answer his questioning deserved – the answer Australia can still give today, if we put our minds and backs into it.

"Mate, we convicts can do anything, I think."

Sunday, 13 May 2018

DJR3: New Frontiers in Crushing Dominance

It's not mere parochialism that has me dubbing Dick Johnson's Shell Sierras the fastest of them all (though of course that is a factor) – it's a measurable, scientific fact. It was an achievement goaded by the sting of his poor showing at Bathurst in '87, as he tells us: "The big European teams came out with all the factory backing and the big bucks. And they came out here and made us look stupid," said Dick. "We needed to improve, in a big way." And so they did, cherry-picking the choicest parts from Europe, the U.S. and our own local suppliers to create a stone-cold monster – DJR3.


But first, heads had to roll. Gregg Hansford's touring car career got a big jolt when Shell requested that another driver be found for the #18. The change was controversial, and there were reports Hansford didn't find out about his sacking until he read about it in a newspaper, but Dick categorically denies this.
I sacked Gregg at the Jack Newton Celebrity Pro-Am, a charity golf tournament [at Noosa] on the North Coast. It was an extremely awkward day. I hit woods and irons, fired balls into the sand, crippled by anxiety. He was with me the whole time, not a care in the world, and was really enjoying himself. I was a wreck because I knew what was coming. I meant to tell him on the course, but I couldn’t work up the courage so I waited until I had a stiff drink in my hand.

I grabbed a glass from the cupboard, threw in some ice and filled it to the brim before tipping my head back and downed the high-proof bourbon. I poured another and passed it to Gregg. I waited until he had a sip and then I gave him the bullet.

"What I have to say isn't real nice, mate," I blurted, the warm bourbon in my belly giving me courage.

"But I have to say it. I've been talking to the boys at the top, and we've come to the decision that we have to go in another direction. You won't be driving for us next year. I'm sorry."

Gregg went white. "What do you mean?" he said. "Are you serious?"

"Afraid so. It isn't totally my decision, but this is the way it has to go."

The poor bugger took it hard. He looked as though he was going to cry. I felt terrible. I had never sacked anyone in my life and to fire a bloke like Gregg was just heartbreaking. He was a good driver, and we had only given him a year to prove himself in what was ultimately a shit car.

I felt for him but I had no choice. The decision had been made. Shell was tipping in huge money and was very disappointed with the year we'd had. Gregg was an easy target and they told me he had to go. My hands were tied. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
Gregg as he spent the 1970s, in Kawasaki green. He chased Ron Toombs up and down Mount Panorama before he ever chased Peter Brock.

So leading up to Christmas '87, drivers still on the market had a sniff there might be a job opening at Dick Johnson Racing. Some took advantage better than others.
Not long after an envelope was lobbed over my way. Inside was a Christmas card, which was strange because I'd never received one addressed to the workshop before.

"Merry Christmas Dick," it said. "Heard you had a drive going? Would love to be involved. Best wishes, John Bowe."

I had a bit of a chuckle when I put the card down because John was pretty good when it came to playing the game. He was one of those blokes who was always hanging around the bigwigs, loitering with the journalists, and doing anything he could to further his name. He even had his own personal public relations agent, a bloke called David Segal, known as the "seagull." I would go as far as saying John Bowe was the best politician in motorsport. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
He wasn't too shabby a driver, either. Bowe was a two-time CAMS Gold Star winner (1984 and '85), and at one point had driven the only ground-effect Formula 5000 car ever built, the Elfin MR9.

Source

He'd also been Australian Sportscar Champion for 1986 in a frightening machine called the Veskanda C1, which still holds outright lap records at many tracks across Australia. Some said he could've taken over from Alan Jones as Australia's representative in Formula 1, but he'd elected to go tintop racing instead, and was best known as a former number two at Volvo and co-driver at Nissan. "I used to do a good Christmas card," Bowe laughed later. "In fact it kept me employed for 11 years!"
He probably didn't need to send me the card because he was already in my sights. John had been hanging around the Shell brass, never one to miss an opportunity. He told them how good he was and what he could do for the team. Even before we told Gregg he was no longer required, Shell had earmarked Bowe as their man.

I can remember sitting with him on the way to the first race of the year.

"No, you drive, mate," he said. "I have work to do."

He pulled out this gigantic machine, all black box and twisted cords.

"What's that?" I asked.

"A phone," he said, surprised. I didn't know what his Motorola MicroTAC mobile phone was.

He spoke on the damn thing all the way to the track, selling and buying cars. When he wasn't making calls, he had his head buried in the classified ads. He was every bit the used car salesman. Needless to say, a good one at that. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
Digression: since the Motorola MicroTAC wasn't released until 1989, and was quite compact by the standards of the day, Dick is probably remembering it wrong. From the description it sounds more like a Mobira Cityman 900 or similar, like the one Danny Glover used in Lethal Weapon.

The '80s really were glorious.

Anyway, with the other side of the garage settled, the next job was to sort out the car, starting with the ECU. The engine management system was the key to squeezing more power out of the humble Ford block, but they were dependent on chips supplied by Andy Rouse, half a world away.
We needed more horsepower but had no clue how to get it. We weren't able to program our computer (even the ex-Gibson employee wasn't up to speed with the equipment we had) and, like I said, we became dependent on Andy Rouse and his company in England.

So I called him up in desperation.

"Mate, we need more power," I said. "We're getting flogged."

"No worries," he said. "I'll send you the new customer chip. It'll do the job."

We sent Rouse $1,000 for the new chip, waiting anxiously for the parcel to arrive from England and thinking it was the solution to all our problems. We thought we could whack the little card into the engine and the car would be going two seconds quicker each lap. But we were wrong.

The chip did little. We didn't have the machinery to program the thing ourselves and could do nothing to adjust the engine. I called Rouse once more and forked out another $1,000, but again the new chip was no silver bullet.

The situation was a complete joke and we were being held to ransom because we operated under the Zytek engine management system, and the chips he sent us weren't specialised for this particular program, but simply upgrades he sent to everyone when he felt like making a buck. We tried to go around the problem by tricking the computer into making changes to other parts of the engine. It worked in theory, but in practice it was a disaster. We ended up blowing 37 turbos in the first year! – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
Ideally DJR would've been mapping their own engines, but Rouse wouldn't allow that because the program was owned by him and built by Zytek. That might've been okay, except that Rouse had what you might call a British Empire moral conscience, and the computer chips he dispatched were an outright scam. He billed his customers thousands for chips that kept the horsepower well down and ensured they could never steal a win from his own Kaliber Ford team. Andy Rouse Racing wasn't a business, it was a racket.

His bank manager had the same smile.
I was at my wits' end and grabbed Jillie and my passport and jumped on the plane to the U.K. looking to start a fight.

"This is bullshit," I said, striding into Rouse's offices, trying hard to keep my cool. "I need to be able to have the machine in order to program the chips myself. I'm getting belted over there and this is the only way forward. I'm willing to pay you whatever you like so I can control things myself rather than rely on the customer chips you send out."

He shook his head.

"What do you mean no? I've spent a fortune on this!"

Rouse stayed silent and shook his head again.

I could feel my blood boiling.

"You are the biggest c*%t I have ever met in my life!" I screamed. "You can jam the whole deal right up your arse."

Jillie was there too and reckons that was the angriest she had ever seen me. I don't think I'd ever used the c-word in my life, and right there and then I blurted it out in front of my wife. I walked out of the office, feeling totally dejected, and with an icy breeze chilling me to my core, I looked to Jillie.

"We're stuffed," I said. "This could be the end because I really don't know where to go now."

Desperate, I called Doug Jacobi from Ford and told him of my seemingly hopeless situation.

"It's a long shot," Doug said. "But since you're there, why don't you pay John Griffiths a visit? He’s involved with the Sierra program for Ford."

So I followed Doug's advice and Griffiths ended up putting us in touch with the man who would become our saviour: Graham Dale-Jones. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
Dale-Jones had been contracted by Ford to work on the Group B rally programme, and the answer to Dick's woes lay in expertise and technology developed for the stillborn RS200 rally car. It was a Bosch 1.2 system that he would provide for a fee, then set up (and train them to use) free of charge. It wasn't as sophisticated as Rouse's Zytek system, but it would do the job.
He went to America to do the Pikes Peak Hillclimb with a DFV Cosworth there with two big 1.2 systems on it. They were only basically for a four-cylinder car. On the way back from America to England I convinced him to to come via Australia and that's how he taught us to do it and we eventually got things happening.

They were using a Bosch basic system, which was a lot different from what we had. He gave us a couple of lessons to Neal Lowe and myself and we started doing our own thing in Australia. – Dick Johnson, AMC #77
Within a year the Sierra was seeing up to 2.4 bar of boost in qualifying, and up to 2.0 in the races – well short of the 5.5 being achieved in Formula 1 at the time, but still impressive for a production block (at the time the average road car could barely handle 0.5). Claimed power outputs vary wildly, and given Dick drove the Sierra for six years and never stopped tinkering with it, probably varied quite a bit in practice too, but most estimates start at 450 kW, or 600hp. By comparison, Andy Rouse only found "about 520bhp for sprint racing": Eggenberger had no more, but made it last 500km instead of the 80 or so of the British series. There was just no comparison.

"That really unlocked the potential of the car," said Dick. "That's when we really started making inroads, because we had been restricted by not being able to make our own maps on the computer. It absolutely transformed power delivery."

Looks so innocuous on its own, doesn't it? (Source)

That much boost came at a price, however, and that price was catastrophic lag. In the '80s turbo lag wasn't measured in milliseconds, it was measured in seconds, and that required a unique driving style.
On the dyno we used to run the cars with absolutely no turbo hooked up at all and flat-out they'd honestly have 90 horsepower. Hook the turbo up, give it 2.4 bar boost and suddenly it’d have 680 horsepower. Many good drivers would jump into one of these things, and they wouldn't get around a lap before spinning it. They'd put their boot into it and it would go from nothing to 600-plus horsepower in a nanosecond and they'd be backwards somewhere. – Dick Johnson

I'd driven the Volvo and Nissan turbos in the two seasons before I joined DJR so I was familiar with the turbo style of driving, but I remember clearly the first time I ever drove a Sierra and being totally amazed by the lag. It had absolutely no boost below 4,500rpm, but when you hit that it was like being fired out of a cannon!

Basically it was the complete opposite to any other car. Let's take Turn 1 at Sandown, for example [a basic 90-degree left-hander]. You brake and go down through the gears and before you even really start to turn in you come off the brake and push the throttle to the floor. Then you coast into the apex and as you start to leave the corner the boost comes on in a rush, so you suddenly have another 400hp in a millisecond. So as the boost comes on you actually wind off the throttle rather than progressively put it on, as today's drivers do. If you didn't, the car would break into wheelspin and fire you in the opposite direction. – John Bowe

We now had the Bosch system and were growing more confident with our ability to control it with every passing day. But computer aside, there were still problems with the car. We were still blowing things left, right and centre. Components were breaking and we needed to improve them if we were to redeem ourselves. The biggest issue was the diff: we were using an extremely expensive Rudi Eggenberger model and it was rubbish. Apparently the best Ford bit in the world, it had a limited range of ratios and there was always something wrong with it. The piece of metal just couldn’t handle the power. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
In fact, even before the RS500 was homologated it had been clear that the existing 7.5-inch "Morris Minor rear end" couldn't withstand the massive torque of a race-tuned Cosworth. Rudi Eggenberger had responded with a diff made of what he called "panzer steel," which since "panzer" translates literally to "armoured," suggests some sort of expensive heat or chemical treatment. Either way, it still wasn’t up to the job.
So we decided to build our own. I spoke to master engineer Ron Harrop and came up with an idea.

"I reckon a nine-inch ring and pinion will do the job," he said. "It will be strong, and it'll give us flexibility with the ratios."

He built it and the diff was ironclad. Indestructible. But we still had to homologate it. We rang Ford and they agreed to help.

"Send it over and we'll get the job done," they said.

Ford did and the new diff was bulletproof. A godsend. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
The Ford 9-inch diff, originally from the F150 "pickup," had been standard fit on V8 Falcons from the Phase II (1970) through to the XC Cobra (1978). It was now technically out of production, but they had lived on in the XD and XE Falcon touring cars because they were cheap, you could order ratios from the U.S. for peanuts, and they were simply unbreakable. Dick probably had a couple sitting on a shelf at Acacia Ridge already. Since diffs were free under the rules, provided they could fit in the standard housing, the new homologation papers could only have been for the housing itself, cast by Harrop to fit in the normal position on the Sierra (although the unit used for the homologation photos was allegedly a fibreglass mockup). Since it was a spool diff that locked both wheels together, it wasn't quite as user-friendly as a proper LSD, but once the driver re-calibrated their brain the handling it offered was at least predictable.

After all the trouble with viscous LSDs, the answer came from Detroit muscle. (Source)

In fact, there were two different 9-inch diffs homologated that year, a British one made by FF Developments, and the Harrop-made "Dicky diff," as the British teams would come to call it. Confusion has led to claims Harrop's diff ended up on every racing Sierra in the world, but that wasn't quite true, as plenty of teams opted for the FF instead (although it proved almost as fragile as the original). But apparently they did end up fitted to Rudi Eggenberger's cars. Stop and bask in that for a moment.
With Ford's help we also homologated a Holinger 6-speed gearbox. The Getrag unit we were using was hopeless, the sort of thing you would find in a BMW road car. The Holinger was another giant leap forward and gave us reliability and added performance. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
After struggling along with the Mustang and American insularity, it was nice for Dick Johnson to have the factory behind him again – even if that factory was on the other side of the world.
John Griffiths, from Ford over in England, was pretty accommodating. They were very co-operative and he got to a point where we would ask for something and he could see what we were trying to do and pushed it through the FIA. We had tried to do a few things with the Mustang, with the Americans; to them, Group A was something they weren't interested in at all, but the Poms were still keen to see the Sierra become a winner. – Dick Johnson, AMC #77
With the driveline sorted Dick started sourcing brakes: ventilated discs all-round, 330mm rotors up front and 300 at the rear.
It stopped really well. It had six-pot callipers at the front and four at the back, but the stopping power was limited by the small tyre. The brakes were good, though. – Dick Johnson
In 1987 the Sierra had embarrassed Dick by dominating one week and then blowing up the next. But once he found the sweet spot between maximum power and reliability, he had what were quite simply the fastest Sierras in the world. "We really thought outside the square and pushed everything to the limit," said Dick. "We pushed the rulebook, but all the cars were legal at the end of the day. Once we got our point across, anyway…"
Ford had finally developed the car they had wanted. It looked as though it was going to be a real weapon, and we had the best of the best thanks to some Aussie ingenuity. It will come as no surprise that we went into the season full of hope, brimming with optimism. We had the cars, the drivers, the money and, most importantly, a point to prove. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography


Unleash the Beast: ATCC '88
He certainly proved it. Dick took everything he'd learned in 1987 and poured it into a brand-new car for the '88 season, chassis DJR3. Bowe got Dick's old car from last year, DJR1, with the hapless Gregg Hansford's left-hand drive experimental, DJR2, kept as the team spare. With 450+ kilowatts DJR3 was in a class of its own, and Dick led the opening round at Melbourne's Calder Park, and then the second round at Tasmania's Symmons Plains, from lights to flag. He might've done the same at Winton Motor Raceway in rural Victoria, had a first-lap altercation with Larry Perkins' HSV Commodore not taken both of them out. In the boss's absence, Bowe proved his selection wise by stepping up and taking the win, giving DJR three wins from three.

Dick was back on form a fortnight later at WA's Wanneroo Park, where Allan Moffat's much-feared Eggenberger Sierra made its debut. It failed to impress, DNF-ing with a clutch failure, leaving Dick free to romp home to another win.

*Sad trombone*

But it was Round 5 at Adelaide International Raceway that really put the cherry on top of Johnson's season. With its long front straight AIR was all about horsepower, and a 1-2 for the Shell Sierras proved they had the legs on everybody – Bond, Longhurst, Miedecke, the lot. But poor Moffat, he had it the worst, not just beaten, but lapped – yes, he finished a full lap down, in an Eggenberger Sierra.
I can still remember the look on Allan Moffat’s face when I lapped him at Adelaide International Raceway. I was running first and Bowe second, the next challenger ten seconds behind. I came onto the straight and saw Moffat in front, almost a lap behind. He was driving a Sierra, an Eggenberger car he had paid more than $1 million for. Moffat was halfway down the straight when I turned the corner. With my foot flat to the floor, I passed him.

Whoosh!

My Sierra looked like an F-111, his like a Corolla. I could see the steam pouring from his ears, the anger consuming his face. Moffat had the shits and I was over the moon. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
Johnson was riding high as he headed to his home Queensland round, but at Lakeside – a track he all but owned – the DJR steamroller finally hit a snag. Although starting from pole, a long hold on the start line led to a slipping clutch and some creeping before the green. That earned him a 1-minute penalty for jumping the start, so although he still won on the road, once the penalty was applied he worked out as only a 2nd place. Despite a brief spin that cost him 10 seconds and left him crossing the line behind Johnson, Tony Longhurst was declared the winner, making him the only driver to break the DJR stranglehold on the championship.

Another 1-2 for Johnson and Bowe at Melbourne's Sandown Raceway set them up for a championship run, and although Dick developed a misfire at Sydney's Amaroo Park and dropped back behind his new teammate, they still finished 1st and 2nd to clinch it for DJR. A dominant drive at Oran Park a month later merely made it official, anointing Dick Johnson Australian Touring Car Champion for the fourth time in his remarkable career – the first Australian to win the title under Group A regulations.

Longhurst, the only other driver to win a championship round, seen here at Oran Park. (Source)

1988 was a year of crushing dominance in motorsport, and some might huff that 8 out of 9 ATCC rounds can't compare with, say, McLaren's 15 out of 16 in that year's F1 championship. But consider that no-one else in Formula 1 was driving what was (in theory) the same car – no other team had the McLaren MP4/4, and only one other team had the advantage of the Honda engine. Johnson's 1988 was different: like Michael Schumacher in 2002, Dick never finished lower than 2nd (as long as he finished at all), and he did it against a grid of other Sierras. In fact, of the top 45 finishing positions in the championship, Sierras had filled 30 of them; five out of nine rounds had seen Sierra drivers occupy all three steps on the podium. Formula Sierra was here, but one of them had proven more equal than all the others.

And yet DJR3 wasn't quite done. Before Dick could consider his revenge complete, he'd have to rub Andy Rouse's nose in it in his own backyard – in the U.K.

Monday, 7 May 2018

1988: Welcome to Formula Sierra

I entered the 1988 season with vengeance on my mind... – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
If you're wondering why I haven't been covering the events of the 1988 Australian Touring Car Championship this year, it's partly that work has been coming down hard on me again, and partly that season '88 just doesn't need the same kind of in-depth analysis as '87. How things got to this point makes for a good story; what happened once we got there, not so much. (Also, if you're not wondering why I haven't been posting on 1988, congratulations on having a life. It's not something I ever mastered.)

Mostly, the '88 ATCC looked like this – Johnson and Bowe 1st and 2nd, with daylight 3rd.

The short version of 1988 is that Dick Johnson won, a lot. Out of 9 championship rounds, Dick's Shell Sierras won 8 of them, with 6 falling to Dick himself, and two others going to his new teammate John Bowe. The only other outright winner all year was the former water-skiing champion Tony Longhurst in another Sierra, making it a clean sweep for Ford's turbocharged road-rocket. Since the car's debut at Sandown last year, everything else had been an also-ran – but that didn't mean they weren't giving it a red hot go.

Peter Perfect, Gentleman Jim and BMW Australia
If you ever needed proof that Group A was a weird era for Australian motorsport, when everything was all wrong, look no further than this: for 1988, Peter Brock was driving a BMW.

Look upon it, McPhillamy crew, and despair.

Brock had entered 1988 with a huge millstone around his neck – the Bertie Street workshop, former home of Holden Dealer Team Special Vehicles, with its expensive rent that was no longer being paid for by the construction and sale of high-performance Holdens. Even back then land prices in the capital cities were pretty crazy, and racing is of course an expensive business to be in; taken with a useless factory in the Port of Melbourne, Peter would go bankrupt soon if something wasn't done.

Thankfully, his luck hadn't deserted him and he found a buyer for Bertie Street – of all companies, Lada, the Soviet manufacturer of low-budget transport that wanted a foot in the door of the Aussie market. "We probably found the only person in Australia who was prepared to buy the business," admitted Brock's right-hand man, Alan Gow. Lada didn't buy the HDT name, but they did buy the facility to use as their base for importing cars into Australia, a deal signed the day of qualifying for Bathurst '87. Brock did his part in the venture by undertaking "pre-delivery" of Lada's vehicles, which originally meant Australian Design Rules compliance, but soon became a euphemism for addressing the awful Soviet build quality. After they hit the market in July, Brock even sweetened the deal by modifying some 6,000 of Lada's Samara hatchbacks with tweaks to improve the car's low speed ride, creating the "Lada Samara Sedan Brock Delux," but they never really took off. The Porsche-derived 1.3-litre engine gave only 47 kW, enough to boot the car down the 400m in a dizzying 19.2 seconds, a far cry from the kind of vehicle that hitherto had come with a Brock signature. How the mighty had fallen.

Yours for just $13,995. Or for $600 less, you could have a KE Laser with 49 kW and Mazda build quality. Your choice.

But then, in March, Peter got a cheque for winning his last Bathurst. "It was a fairytale," said Gow. "After Bathurst we thought we’d got 3rd place, and considered it wasn’t a bad result, but it wasn’t going to settle our debts for the cost of doing the race. Subsequently, a few weeks after the race, we got the win, and the increased prize money cleared up all the debts."

But there was no way HDT was going to survive another year like 1987. Luckily, JPS Team BMW boss Frank Gardner was ready to get out of racing following a period of ill health, and BMW Australia head Ron Meatchem wanted Brock to take over.
Frank contacted us because he wanted to get out. He was going through some health issues at the time. We thought it was a great idea because we didn't have a deal with Holden, we couldn't have continued to run privately with the funding we had. Peter and I flew up to Sydney after Frank said he wanted to have a meeting with us. The BMW team was manna from heaven for us, because we had manufacturer's support and Mobil sponsorship. It made sense to us.

Peter and I jumped on a plane and headed over to Munich. We were literally there for one day, discussed it with the heads of BMW Motorsport, and then flew back again and did the deal. The BMW was never going to win races outright on its own merits. It was a class car. We knew it wasn't the best alternative for us, but it was really the only alternative for us.

I'm sure he was frustrated, but he certainly didn't show it. He went into everything with 100% enthusiasm. Anything that was his idea, or a new idea, was great as far as Peter was concerned. He enjoyed driving it, he really did, and he didn't sit there bemoaning that he couldn't win a race or couldn't win a championship with it. He just got stuck into it and really enjoyed driving the car. – Alan Gow, Wayne Webster’s Peter Brock: How Good Is This!
With Brock running on Mobil sponsorship, the sinister black & gold John Player livery made way for a crisp white Mobil scheme. Also with the cars came their driver, the reigning champion Jim Richards, who shrugged and rejoined his old HDT teammate, driving the #1 BMW M3 to Brock's usual #05. Last time Brock and Richards had paired up they had won Bathurst by a record six laps, so it's not like they couldn't work well together.


Interestingly, Richards remained faithful to Gardner's setups even after he moved to Brock’s outfit, in stark contrast to his new boss.
Frank always went his own way. The suspension on the 635s and M3s was totally different to the German cars, front and rear. When I say that, the components were the same, but the shock and spring package was totally different. Frank’s cars were a lot lighter sprung, and we had less camber than the German cars.

When the cars went to Brock, he was, "Schnitzer, Schnitzer, Schnitzer – I want everything Schnitzer." My car stayed exactly as it was when we finished with Frank, with the same spring/shock package. Brocky went totally to the German setup – more camber, twice the poundage of spring rate – but I was quicker in my car. I wasn’t offered any other setup, they were tinkering with Brock's car, but I was buzzing along and was quick enough. – Jim Richards, AMC #93

Just Holden On – Commodores in '88
The Commodore remained the mount of choice for the weekend warriors, but that was largely attributable to how cheap it was to run, because there was no hiding 1988 was a bit of a gap year for Holden. Only a year on from the Polarizer scandal Peter Brock was still persona non grata at Fishermans Bend, and their "B" driver Allan Grice was busy in Europe this year, driving for the factory Nissan team in the European Touring Car Championship. That left just one man to be the Holden tentpole for the year, Larry Perkins, driving for a new organisation calling itself Holden Special Vehicles.

Seen here in Round 1 at Calder Park.

By now it was common knowledge Holden were focusing all their energies on the deal with Tom Walkinshaw and his upcoming Commodore evo, which included creating a new tuning company to handle the high-performance market formerly served by HDT Special Vehicles, but with the greater oversight afforded by keeping it in the family à la AMG. Holden had released the tender in May 1987, and by October TWR had signed a ten-year agreement to create Holden Special Vehicles, both a subsidiary of and competitor to the main Holden factory. TWR would own 75% of HSV, and Holden the other 25%. John Crennan left his job as National Marketing Director to become HSV Managing Director, while the all-important marketing and public relations job was given to a man hand-picked by Walkinshaw, Brock's lieutenant and co-driver from the old days, John Harvey.

While they put together a factory to build the cars and a dealer network to sell them, HSV's recognised they'd need at least a token presence on the racetrack to keep the brand visible. With Brock and Grice both out of the picture, Perkins was the best in a field of one, a man who'd already shown he could fly the flag for the lion with a string of good results in 1987. As the builder and co-driver of Brock's Commodores in the early-80s golden age, his engineering and driving cred was beyond reproach. Knowing what a stable income was worth, Larry took on the thankless job of being Holden's flagship team for 1988, committing himself to driving an uncompetitive muscle car right as the turbo Sierra came into its own.

It should be noted, however, that this was not quite the start of the famed Holden Racing Team, which was wound up just last year (2017). Under the skin the outfit was really Perkins Engineering, with HSV signed on basically as a sponsor. The car, PE 004, was a new one built by Perkins late in 1987. It had debuted at the Calder Park WTCC round with Perkins and Denny Hulme driving it to 6th place. There hadn’t been any major improvements since then, so Perkins' best result in 1988 was a 3rd at the Sandown sprint round, and through consistency he finished the championship 3rd overall. Other Commodores worth mentioning included PE 003, Perkins' first customer car, owned by Bill O'Brien and raced in his pale blue Everlast Batteries livery; and HDT 16, the car in which Brock had won Bathurst, now sold to Chris Lambden and raced in Beaurepaires colours.

Toyota's Tiddlers
After the events of 1987, the incentives for small-car manufacturers to compete in the ATCC were fairly marginal. Given the lack of promoter and media interest in the standalone 2.0 litre championship, CAMS abandoned it and instead awarded drivers in the ATCC points for outright placings, 1st to 10th on a 20-15-12-10-8-6-4-3-2-1 basis. As a result no Corolla driver scored a single point all season.

John Smith racing TTA3 at Sandown in 1989. Production of the AE86 had ended in late 1987, prioritising the hatchback, but the rear-wheel drive Sprinter was faster and stuck around longer.

However, Toyota Team Australia continued to fly the flag in 1988 with multiple entries in the ATCC. Why? Because after a character-building '87 season, they'd been thrown two significant bones. Firstly, because CAMS had reverted to a three-class structure for the Manufacturer's Championship, the Corolla was no longer being unfairly pitched against the M3 in an unrepresentative "Under 2,500cc" class. Secondly, Gibson Motorsport, the works Nissan team, had abandoned their 2.0-litre Gazelle programme to focus on the upcoming HR31 Skyline, leaving Toyota free reign in the restored Class C (Up to 2,000cc). The marketing value of being the first 1,600cc car home outweighed the technicality that they were basically racing against themselves, as their only competition was privateer Colin Fulton in what was presumably Mark Skaife's old Gazelle. Fulton was no Skaife, so he hardly made a dent against the Toyota juggernaut.

It's surprisingly tough to find images of the hatches. Maybe a TRD fan will correct me, but I'm 90% sure Smith is driving an E90 series in this one, apparently taken at Sandown.

Ergo, Toyota Team Australia's two AE86 Sprinters regained their place as the small-car benchmark, John Smith the first tiddler home at Calder Park in TTA3, while the same car with John Faulkner at the wheel was first in class at Adelaide and Amaroo. Drew Price drove it to another class victory in the season finale at Oran Park, by which time Smith was out of favour at TTA for getting himself a Bathurst drive with Dick Johnson instead. By then Smith had already cleaned up the other five rounds in the front-wheel drive hatchback, so he'd already given the Corolla a clean sweep of class victories for 1988, and Toyota its first Australian manufacturer's title – albeit shared with equal points-scorers Ford and BMW. Because the ManChamp classes were scored equally and independently, Ford took a clean sweep of Class A and BMW of Class B, meaning all three ended the series on 72 points. Apparently three heads really can wear one crown.

Sierras for Everyone
Worldwide, the age of the Ford Sierra RS500 had begun in earnest. In the BTCC, the car famously won 41 straight races – the last two rounds of 1987, then every round for seasons '88, '89 and '90 – basically all the remaining races of the Group A era in Britain. In Australia it didn't clean up quite so completely, but it was still eye-opening how quickly the other brands vanished as the drivers turned their loyalty to Ford. Since 1985, Volvo, Alfa Romeo, Mazda, Rover and Mercedes-Benz had all come and gone, and although Nissan would be back mid-season, for the first four rounds the works Gibson Motorsport team were MIA as they hurried to finish their new HR31 Skylines. Privateer Murray Carter was left to run his outdated #14 Netcomm Skyline alone.

The DR30 no longer had the gutsiest engine on the grid, so the results dried up, 'cos that's the only trick it knew.

One of those who'd switched to the Sierra was former Alfa Romeo spearhead, Colin Bond. Last year's Alfa 75 was palmed off on Sports Sedan racer Joe Beninca, while Bondy did himself a deal to take over Andrew Miedecke's original Oxo Sierra, MM1, and run it as the #4 with his ongoing Caltex sponsorship.

In the pits at Amaroo Park.

MM3 had likewise been leased to a customer driver, Andrew Bagnall, who kept the Oxo sponsorship and raced it as the #8. (As you'll recall, MM2 had been written off at Sandown last year.)

Round 3 at Winton.
Miedecke himself however was driving a brand new car, MM4, built during the off-season for the '88 championship. The colours had been reversed, and the number on the doors had changed to a #6, but it was still an Oxo Sierra.

In the pits at Bathurst, late in the year. Although a Rouse-spec car, Miedecke's co-driver for that race was Steve Soper. Go figure.

The most recent addition to the Sierra ranks, however, was also the cheekiest. With JPS Team BMW wound up, the team's junior driver Tony Longhurst had found himself out of a job, so he'd leveraged the contract team boss Frank Gardner still held with Amatil into a brand-new team all his own. The new Tony Longhurst Racing outfit was to be based near his home on the Gold Coast, but Gardner's involvement as an "advisor" was kept quiet at first, lest it set off alarm bells at Ford. It was Gardner who'd led the protest that had cost Ford the James Hardie last year, and with it the World Touring Car Championship. Any hint that he was trying to arrange a car with a Blue Oval badge would've torpedoed the project broadside, so Longhurst used the London-based, Czech-born Australian Tomas Mezera as a go-between, sourcing everything he needed to screw together a Rouse kit-car with the chassis number TLR1. With Ford snookered, the new #3 Sierra emerged dressed in the crisp white-and-red of mining giant Freeport, and as the season progressed Frank Gardner returned to his accustomed role of team manager, and eventually owned a stake.

Round 1 at Calder Park, which seems to've used a variation on the WTCC circuit, combining the road course with the Thunderdome infield rather than the banking.
Good as they were, however, all of these were just Rouse kit-cars. The really shocking one didn't show up until Round 4 at Wanneroo Park, WA – Allan Moffat in a customer Sierra built not by Rouse but Eggenberger! Exactly how he managed to convince Rudi has never been recorded, since the Swiss tuner had always flatly refused to provide customer cars, but the huge "ANZ" signage on the doors probably had something to do with it, because the car was rumoured to have cost $300,000. It was also rumoured to be a former Texaco car, explaining the black roll cage visible in some of the photos, but it's hard to be sure because I've not been able to find a chassis number (the second ANZ team car that debuted the following year was EGMO 7/89, the seventh car built in 1989, but this one remains anonymous). Built for the 500km events of the European championship, however, the car was out of its depth in the ATCC's sprint rounds, and Moffat wisely ran a conservative programme to keep his powder dry for Sandown and Bathurst. The clock was ticking on Moffat's career, and he knew he only had a couple of chances left to take home the trophy they all craved.

It also gave away its European origins by being left-hand drive, which was unusual in Australia.
Yet even this mighty machine was just a blur in the mirrors of the cars that really mattered in 1988, the blood-red Shell Sierras of Dick Johnson Racing – put simply, the fastest Sierras ever built.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Half Speedway and Half Free

Wow. There's fish out of water, and then there's this:



How awkward do they look? That's the beginning of a race I'd heard about but never seen, the Daily Mirror Indy Trophy at Brands Hatch, 7 October 1978. Yes, a United States Auto Club championship car race, but in Kent, the U.K. It was the second half of a double header following the Daily Express Indy Trophy, which had been held at Silverstone a week earlier. Convergent evolution had turned the IndyCar into something that looked a lot like its Formula 1 cousin, but under the skin there were some significant differences. These cars were a fair bit heavier (minimum weights for F1 were still in the future, so the flimsiest F1 cars were pushing 550kg, compared to 750 or so for the USAC machines), and without a Colin Chapman their chassis tech was a few years behind, think early 1970s state-of-the-art. One area where they were well ahead, however, was power – the USAC series had made the switch to turbocharging a lot earlier than F1, so in 1978 their single-turbo Fords and Offenhausers were already proven and reliable, pushing nearly 800bhp to F1's 500. They were also optimised for oval racing, so I wouldn't be surprised to learn components like the oiling system were asymmetrical to keep the weight transfer even through the high-G left-handers. Basically, USAC cars were built to do this...

Start of the 1971 California 500, confusingly at a place called Ontario Motor Speedway
...so it's not that surprising they were all thumbs on the tight, mostly right-hand turns of Brands Hatch. Silverstone must've been spectacular though.

Apart from being the first visit to Europe for American open-wheelers since the Races of Two Worlds in 1957 and '58, these two races were significant for another reason. They were very nearly the first USAC road races in a decade.

Yep, according to my notes – and I'm open to being corrected on this, because not all the tracks are familiar to me – the previous road-course event for USAC had been a single race at Canada's Mosport Park in July 1977. Before that, you have to go all the way back to a 150-miler held at Indianapolis Raceway Park, in July 1970. Any earlier than that, and the token road race was literally held on a road, as in 1969 the Pikes Peak Hill Climb was still part of the championship.

Mario Andretti qualifying for it like the badass he is (Source – why aren't you reading Primitipo already?)

So by my count, from the start of 1970 to the end of 1979, a whole decade, the USAC Indy championship cars did just five road-course events in total (there was also the Kent Oil 150 at Watkins Glen in '79). But once Dan Gurney's infamous "White Paper" got CART jump-started, they did six in 1980 and '81 alone.

This is significant, because the CART takeover was apparently the prompt for Tony George's nunfuckery in the 1990s and 2000s – the Series War, the destruction of CART and IRL both, the rise of NASCAR, all of that. At least that's the message I got from Ed Hinton's excellent Honor, Blood and a Brewing Battle, which details the split from ground level from its beginning in 1996, through to the Danica Patrick era, just before reunification. The sense of doom he lays over the whole thing makes it clear George's decisions courted disaster from the start, but Hinton also gives George enough empathy to make it clear why he did what he did, painting him more as a tragic figure than the damn fool I see him as. In the early '90s CART was stable, commercially successful and rivalled F1 for TV viewers, especially after Mansell defected and took a huge chunk of the British public with him. When Senna tested a Penske at the same time Bernie just about had a heart attack. But by the time Dubya stole the 2000 election, "The 500" was at Daytona, not Indianapolis, and F1 stood alone as the world's biggest TV event. As Hinton tells us, Sports Illustrated was debating whether to even send anyone to Indy that year, where previously the only question was whether it would be on the cover or not.

Why? Because of that old bugbear, American insularity. Tony George wanted to make the 500 a "full-fledged, and certainly prominent, member of the worldwide racing community" – and he wanted to do this by returning it to its roots as an all-American extravaganza. Anyone with half a brain can see it's a case of "pick one," but Tony didn't see it that way. At the root of it all, so he believed, was the "CART barons" and their preference for road racing.
Traditionalist racers and fans had always resented CART as something of an occupying force on the hallowed ground of Undy, usurpers, dripping with opulence and arrogance and racing more for profit than passion.
...
Quickly the USAC "championship trail" of other races died out, replaced by the CART series. CART owners unabashedly tried to emulate Formula One, with emphasis on road courses and street circuits in addition to oval tracks.

The street circuits especially made business sense, because events could be held in and near major cities by simply laying out temporary courses, rather than building permanent racetracks.

But road and street racing also meant a different kind of driver. The tough Americans, who'd come up to Indy off the heartland oval dirt tracks, were phased out, displaced by Europeans, South Americans and Australians who'd been trained from childhood as road racers.

Slowly, American fans grew apathetic toward the imported personalities, and yearned for a resurgence of the Foyt ilk. But the Americans would never return in significant enough numbers. – Ed Hinton, Honor, Blood and a Brewing Battle
I'm sort of sympathetic – if Bathurst became dominated by foreign drivers instead of Aussies and Kiwis, I doubt the bogan backlash would be pretty – but at the same time I have to doubt the "fans switching off" aspect of the story, because as I said, CART was booming, the most commercially successful era the sport ever saw. And bear in mind, most of USAC's "championship trail" looked like this:



That's the start of the 1970 Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, and it looks suspiciously 1940s for a race from the Vietnam era. At that time Indy was already being run by mid-engined cars with wings, but most of the championship involved this front-engined dirt-oval stuff, stuck in the past. That's what happens when blokes of a certain age graduate to management of a series – their idea of what racing should be was formed when they were wide-eyed youngsters having their first encounter with it and realising it was awesome. For the forty-something guys in charge of USAC in 1970, that mental image was probably from 1950. In the same way, Tony George's plans in 1996 were probably based on a mental image from 1976.

But it's probably not an accurate mental image. Something that's only just occurred to me in the last few days – and I've been reading Hinton's article on-and-off for a few years now – is that not once does it mention Formula 5000. Odd, right? Formula 5000 looms large in the memories of us Aussies, but it was actually invented in the U.S., where it emerged from and displaced what had started as Formula A, for mothballed F1 cars (Formula B, for production-based 1,600cc engines, was somewhere between F2 and F3 in speed; Formula C, for 1,100cc engines of either kind, was basically the second coming of Formula Junior).

Lou Sell's Formula A Eagle-Chevrolet, 1968 (Source)

To keep costs down the SCCA raised the Formula A engine limit to 5,000cc – the same as their juggernaut Trans-Am series – so it quickly became dominated by American V8s, which had as much power and more torque than the 3-litre F1 engines of the time. From there the formula just kept growing, and become the SCCA's headline act after the collapse of Trans- and Can-Am. In the mid-1970s, it was even co-sanctioned by USAC (which I'm guessing means USAC scrutineered the cars, with the SCCA providing the flaggies). But by 1978 it was an orphaned series, as USAC had pulled out leaving the SCCA to run it alone. But the Sports Car Club, naturally, wanted to run sports car races, so in a story that was recently detailed in Australian Muscle Car (worth a Pressreader search), they instead rebooted Can-Am by making everyone add fenders to their Formula 5000 cars. That went about as well as you might expect.

So in other words, that split between road and oval racing existed even in Indy's golden age in the 1970s – it's just that the road racing was easy to ignore in the history books, being literally split off into a different series. If you followed both halves, the '76 season looked an awful lot like a latter-day CART schedule:

USAC Championship on the left, Formula 5000 on the right

So even back then, road racing was putting bums on seats, and the CART barons were wise enough to realise that, with the demise of Formula 5000, they were ideally placed to make those events their own. That went double from 1984, when CART picked up the former F1 race at Long Beach. To hell with tradition, they made the Long Beach Grand Prix their season-opener, and today it's a blue-ribbon event almost as prestigious as the 500 itself. And let's not forget, the first race at Long Beach wasn't for F1, but a non-championship dress-rehearsal run in 1975 for... oh yeah, Formula 5000.

To be fair to Tony George, I'm not sure there was necessarily a solution to the problem of getting the dirt-oval heartlanders back to the biggest race of the year. That's the cost of professionalisation – it's not like an ordinary regional dealer can enter Bathurst anymore, either – and the career ladder to IndyCar is still something of a problem, although the Mazda Road to Indy programme is a valiant effort. But I'm not sure commercial suicide by trying to turn the clock back on your premier series was ever a smart move, even in 1996 when it all seemed so promising. Surely you have karting over there, Tony? Wouldn't getting young American drivers into karts have been a better move?

Or maybe the swing to NASCAR was always inevitable? As Hinton noted, the various breeds of dirt-oval racing no longer did much to send drivers to Indy, but it made a near-perfect ladder to NASCAR. And the slow descent of the once-proud Rust Belt, coupled with the political and commercial rise of the Deep South, was always going to shift the centre of gravity. The industry that underpinned the Midwest is long gone, not-at-all replaced by Reagan's "service economy"; Walmart is based in Arkansas, not Indiana, and didn't open their first store in Pennsylvania – home state of the Andrettis – until 1990. It's a long way down from there.

But in 1978, all that was in the future. The present was this hesitant, awkward, baby-steps return to the American tradition of road racing. I wonder what they would've said, if they could've known.


Update, 7 May: After further reading – most notably of Gordon Kirby's blog – it seems my basic hunch was right, but the specifics were even more interesting than I realised. USAC did indeed split off the road and dirt track events in 1971, mostly because of pressure from the team owners, who were concerned at the cost of fielding two different cars for dirt and tarmac, and the spectre of soon needing three to cover the road races as well. USAC did them a favour by separating off the Indy-centred National Championship, and creating the parallel National Dirt Championship, while basically leaving the road events to the SCCA. This arrangement lasted until 1979, when the teams rebelled and created CART: USAC responded by renaming their IndyCar series the Gold Crown (more than 20 years after CAMS founded their Gold Star, by the by), and also renamed the dirt championship the Silver Crown. Since the two IndyCar series were reunited for 1980, A.J. Foyt was the only driver to win the Gold Crown over multiple races, but the title lingered for many years after that, awarded at the only race still administered by USAC – Indianapolis itself. For nearly two decades, the Indianapolis winner was by default also the Gold Crown winner, ending only in 1997 when the kerfuffle over the result of that year's 500 finally destroyed USAC's credibility, and the IRL stepped in to sanction the race in their stead. So the Gold Crown passed into history, but the Silver Crown is still around, and the cars are rather beasty and apparently not that expensive to run, but you get to have, "all the joys of dealing with USAC," so the forumers say. It seems NASCAR isn't just dominant because of the Cup; it's because they do the basic, unglamorous grassroots stuff so much better too. There's a lesson in that, I think.

But IndyCar historians should nevertheless start covering Formula 5000. I stand by that.