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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ A work in progress

by Gordon Kirby
Over the past few months I've done a lot of reading about racing in America in the fifties and sixties for a book project I'm working on with Joe Freeman at Racemaker Press. As we all know, those were very different times. Racing was much more dangerous and the sport took many lives in those days. It was also much more open technically with elegantly slim rulebooks compared to today and in both oval track and sports car racing and Formula One too we were blessed with many great American drivers, teams, car and engine builders.

In Indy cars some of the greatest drivers of the ages--A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby and Al Unser--were making their ways from the dirt tracks of their youths to the big speedways and road courses of the world while legendary car builders like Frank Kurtis and A.J. Watson were turning out beautiful state-of-the-art Indy cars and most everyone was doing their own thing building and tuning the venerable Offy engine.

Through the fifties and sixties we also enjoyed a tremendous generation of great American road racers led by Phil Hill and including Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther, Roger Penske, Mark Donohue, Jim Hall and his partner Hap Sharp, Bob Bondurant and Carroll Shelby. A rare bird also emerged from Chicago in the shape of Carl Haas an amateur road racer, car dealer, team owner and ultimately SCCA boss. Many of these guys played major roles over the years in the development of American and international racing and left lasting impressions on the sport.

Road racing emerged in America after WWII following the founding of the SCCA in 1944. Sports car racing in America started with open road races at Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake, among others, and progressed through a tremendous if fleeting boom in airport racing, assisted by US Air Force general Curtis LeMay. Through the fifties and into the sixties temporary road courses were laid out on scores of airports across the country.

By the mid-fifties a new and almost equally fleeting age began to emerge as America's great road racing circuits came into being. Watkins Glen, Elkhart Lake, Bridgehampton, Riverside, Laguna Seca, Lime Rock, Road Atlanta, plus Mosport and St Jovite in Canada echoed through the sixties and seventies to the sounds of Can-Am, Trans-Am, Formula 5000, Formula One, USAC or CART Indy cars, and IMSA's GTP era. Looking back, those clearly were the great days of American road racing.

As the sixties arrived with full force both Indy car racing and sports car racing, led by the Can-Am, hit the height of racing's historic development curve going through giant technological revolutions affecting every facet of the sport. What emerged in the seventies was utterly and completely different than what Indy car and unlimited sports car racing had been a decade before as everyone struggled to control and direct the sport on and off the track.

Thus did the historical rumblings of racing's battle to deal with the onrush of new technology continue through the death of the original Can-Am; the rise and fall of John Bishop's IMSA; the birth, success and failure of CART; and the arrival of today's world with IRL/IndyCar running a dumbed-down form of Indy car racing and the ALMS and Grand-Am fighting a lacklustre squabble over the philosophy of sports car racing.

© Dan Mahony
As I said at the beginning, back in the sixties we had a plethora of homegrown racing talent as well as rapidly evolving cars. In American open-wheel racing the Foyts and Andrettis came up through the ranks of midgets and sprint cars. Midget and sprint car racing took shape in the thirties and roared through the post-WWII period era serving as the ladder system to Indy car racing and putting on countless number of Friday and Saturday night shows at grassroots dirt ovals across the United States with many different sanctioning bodies.

Through four or five decades midgets, sprint cars and the dirt tracks of America provided a training ground as well as fan and local media followings for the Indy car stars of tomorrow. But that link began to weaken and then die as the technological revolution of the sixties and seventies surged through the sport. Roll cages, wide tires and wings arrived in midget and sprint cars, dramatically changing an age-old package. Also, for better or worse, rear-engine sprint cars were banned.

In the end sprint and midget racing lost the connection to Indy cars. Lost too was the great art of dirt racing with skinny tires, big horsepower and well-groomed tracks. Today, the likes of Foyt, Mario, Parnelli, Bobby and Al Unser, Rutherford and Gary Bettenhausen will rave on about the pleasures of driving on the dirt while Jeff Gordon says a wingless sprint car on dirt is the most difficult car he's driven ahead of a NASCAR Cup car or a Formula One car.

Of course, the downside to midget, sprint and Indy car racing in the fifties and sixties was that it was incredibly dangerous. Between 1956-'64, no fewer then 28 top USAC drivers were killed in Indy, sprint cars or midgets and many more died or were seriously injured in local races organized by other sanctioning bodies.

Neither roll bars nor firesuits were mandated at Indianapolis until 1959. The big fire that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald on the second lap of the '64 500 resulted in a ban on gasoline in favor of methanol and the beginning of bag tanks through today's long-established miltary-style fuel cells. And Dan Gurney wore first full face helmet in 1966.

The move in the early sixties from tube frame to monocoque chassis led to safety improvements and ultimately to today's carbon composite chassis and much more crushable cars as well as much improved seats and safety harnesses and the Hans device now universally accepted in racing. The tracks too are much safer these days with the arrival of SAFER barriers and plenty of ongoing work taking place on all types of barrier systems for permanent and temporary circuits.

Some people say racing today is too safe but as Mario Andretti says: "It couldn't continue the way it was. If we had the rate of serious injuries and fatalities there used to be in the fifties and sixties there would be tremendous opposition to racing from so many quarters and the insurance companies couldn't and wouldn't cover it. The sport had to become much safer, both morally and just in terms of staying in business. And it's done that. It's never perfectly safe, as we all know. But it's much safer today and work continues and will continue to make it better."

The deaths last year of Dan Wheldon and motorcycle racer Marco Simonicelli reminded everyone of the inherent dangers of racing. But lessons are always there to be learned. As Andretti says the work continues.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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