The Color Of The Sport
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Jan. 27th, 2009 | 10:11 am
posted by: quidditchref in roaringracers
For me, it’s always been about the colors. I was first attracted to sports in general by the bright primary colors of the uniforms. It was only natural for me to become addicted to auto racing when I discovered that racing cars came in many colors, and that they were trimmed with stripes and numbers and decals. Secretly, that is the only reason I went to races in the early years.
And I was lucky. A man named Les Griebling, who owned a struggling little import car dealership in Mansfield, Ohio, went walking around a piece of Morrow County farmland one day in 1961, and by instinct alone, laid out one of the finest road racing circuits in the world, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. I always wished Les had come up with a more colorful name…something like Mohican Raceway or Heart of Ohio Sports Car Course. But at least Mid-Ohio was near Lexington, and Lexington was just 45 minutes from home. I never missed a single race at Mid-Ohio from the second weekend it was opened in 1962 until I went to Europe for a season in 1970.
So many colorful cars and colorful people visited Mid-Ohio during those years. I saw my first Ferrari there. It was not red…it was, of all things, bronze. I always loved the sports cars best. Formula cars, at least those raced by Sports Car Club of America amateurs at that time, did not have enough bodywork to be very colorful, and of course, the SCCA threatened to expel any member who accepted money or sponsorship until at least 1965 or 1966. But there was an endless string of MGs, Triumphs, Jaguars, Alfas, Minis and bathtub Porsches painted in every color of the rainbow, trimmed with flames and checkered flag motifs. And there were the sports racers!
Every sports racer I have ever seen was incredible, and I have seen some truly awful sports racers. If this sounds like a contradiction, it is simply the addict’s admission that there is more to a sports racer than success or clean preparation. But begin with the swoopy bodywork that makes the application of vibrant colors even sexier and appealing; add in the exotic noises; then add a dollop of mechanical curiosity, and you have without a doubt the finest type of racing car there is. Don’t get me wrong…I also like Grand Prix racing, the Indianapolis 500, Championship cars and NASCAR. But nothing ever got, or gets, my blood flowing like the sports racers.
I am certain this attraction became an obsession at a July, 1966 SCCA National event, and of course, at Mid-Ohio. The race was between Jerry Hansen in a sports racer called a Wolverine, and Ralph Salyer in a Cooper King Cobra. I hope everyone in the vintage racing community will forgive me if it turns out Salyer was not really the second driver, but I believe he was. In those days, these cars would have been “C” sports racers, which was the highest of three classes. Basically, they were either European sports chassis or homebuilts using some sort of US stockblocks or the more exotic racing-only engines of the time. This is actually the class of sports racers that over the time between 1958 and 1966 evolved the American road racing special of the early ‘50s into Group 7 professional sports car racing in the United States Road Racing Championship, and of course, the Canadian-American Challenge Cup, or CanAm. These early “sports car” races also usually included some production-based vehicles, such as Ferraris, Cobras and Corvettes, racing for their own class win.
The Wolverine was actually one of the more sophisticated backyard specials of the time. It was burgundy red, very stylish, with a long flowing nose and rather chopped off tail. As I recall, it was actually put together by some engineering types at one of the Michigan universities. Some of them may have been involved with Chevrolet, as I am pretty sure it had a Chevy engine. General Motors was never “officially” involved in sports car racing at that time, but under-the-table support was obvious in many Group 7 cars powered by GM engines. The Wolverine was brought to this particular SCCA National as a shakedown for the Mid-Ohio USRRC race that would be held in August.
A word or two about Jerry Hansen is in order. I am not sure if he was a stockbroker by that time, or involved in some way with the engineers who built the car. However, he could drive, and was probably, in retrospect, one of the fastest “amateur only” drivers of the ‘60s, ‘70s and even into the ‘80s. A few years later, he ended up in Minneapolis where he was, indeed, a stockbroker. He was one of the original investor owner operators of Brainerd International Raceway in Minnesota, but far more famous for buying a string of very fast Corvettes, Camaros and big-bore formula cars with which he ran off an unprecedented (and I think unduplicated) string of SCCA National Championships during the years the event was held at Road Atlanta. I suspect Hansen probably won more races, or at least races that are remembered, at Road Atlanta that anyone else. Maybe someone has a record book?
The King Cobra in this story also deserves a few words. Gene Crow and Ralph Salyer combined to build a number of quick sports racers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and this car may actually have been one of their first collaborations if I am right about it. I do know it was that beautiful metallic dark blue favored by other US racers like Carroll Shelby, and that it was fitted with a Ford V8 with a set of straight pipes poking up through the rear deck. Coopers of this type, fitted with a US engine, were very popular in US sports racing circles that year, but they were on the way out with the more serious racers who had McLarens and Lolas available to them as customer cars for the first time. The Coopers, Genies, Elvas and earlier Lotuses were finding their way down the ladder in amateur circles where they still could compete with the backyard specials.
One thing I remember about both these cars is that they had a cooling fan mounted in the rear deck, over the engine. It is easy to remember this because I watched at least half the duel between them from the auto bridge over the end of the Mid-Ohio pit straight. Yes, in those days, a pedestrian could walk over this bridge, and stop to take pictures as the cars charged right under his feet. Of course, what might happen to such a spectator eventually became too big a risk, and measures have since been taken to make watching from bridges over racetracks almost impossible, but it was a great vantage point and I used to have some unique photographs.
The race between the Wolverine and the King Cobra that day was the sort that would make anyone with casual interest into a fan for life. Both cars thundered underneath my feet 12 or 15 times, and almost every time, they had swapped the lead between them. Truth be told, I don’t remember which one of them took the checkered flag. I have been blessed with the chance to see many famous, not so famous, and exciting races in person (the 1970 German GP; Elliott Forbes-Robinson spinning backwards across the finish line to win at Daytona; Mario Andretti passing Jody Scheckter to win at Long Beach; Al Holbert, Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood swapping the lead at Mid-American Raceway; Al Unser, Jr. and Gordy Johncock at Indy) and this amateur race on a hot July afternoon in 1966 was as good as any. This was the race that turned me from a fan into a person with commitment to become involved in racing, and make some aspect of it into a career.
Hansen brought the Wolverine back to Mid-Ohio in August and struggled around in the middle of the USSRC field among the Lolas and McLarens. Lothar Motchenbacher won that race in a beautifully turned out red customer McLaren-Oldsmobile. I rooted for Hansen, and for some guy named Mark Donohue who showed up with a gloriously painted Sunoco Blue Lola T70 entered by a former Clevelander, then from Philadelphia, named Roger Penske. Donohue failed to finish. Not to worry. The next year, Donohue won in the Lola, and Hansen, now driving a McLaren, was second. That bronze Ferrari did finish, however, 6th in the hands of Charlie Kolb. There were several Porsches, one driven by a newcomer named Peter Gregg. Salyer was also in the 1966 USRRC race, now driving a McKee, and if I read the entry list correctly, the Cooper King Cobra also raced, and Arch Scyler took it to 14th.
The last time I know for sure that the Wolverine raced was on September 11, 1966, when it finished 20th in the very first official CanAm race ever run, at St. Jovite near Montreal. The car probably had a long and distinguished career in amateur races after that, but I have no records and it was no longer in my life. Perhaps it soldiers on in the vintage races of today.
But what it put in my life was priceless. The color of that day stayed with me through 23 years of motor sports writing, photography, editing and publishing, ended only by the color exciting of another wildly popular sport with which I am now involved. Through all that time, that race was one to which I compared all others when I tried to communicate the color and excitement of racing to readers. You see, races are colors themselves. They can be dull and dark, or bright and vibrant with contrast. For me, it has always been about the colors, and I hope there are other fans like me out there.