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The Way It Is/ The story of David Loring America's greatest Formula Ford racer

by Gordon Kirby
This year is the fortieth anniversary of Formula Ford, the mosty affordable and accessible formula in racing in the last half-century. From Emerson Fittipaldi back in 1969 through Ayrton Senna, many of the world's top race drivers came up through Formula Ford, or some variant, as a first step out of karts. Since FF1600's invention in the UK in 1967 through the nineties Formula Ford thrived around the world with various successful offshoots, most notably FF2000 powered by two-liter engines and with small wings. For many years, FF & FF2000 defined small formula car racing.

Inevitably, technology and aerodynamics overwhelmed Formula Ford just like all other forms of open-wheel or sports car racing. These days, the category is neither as low-cost, nor as healthy, as it once was. But in almost every corner of the globe it remains the key entry-level formula into car racing after karts.

I feel a great affinity for the category because I spent three or four of my formative years messing around with Formula Fords. I used to work my way to the races by go-fering for Gary Magwood, a Canadian FF champion who ran a race preparation business and sold Hawke cars. I spent quite a few hours bolting Formula Fords together, loading them on and off trailers, and driving vans trailering an FF or two through the night to races while writing columns and race reports for a weekly Toronto racing paper called Wheelspin News.

During this time, I met David Loring who became a friendly but fierce rival of Magwood, and in 1971 I went on the road with David as he competed in four different FF championships across the United States and Canada. At the time you had to be twenty-one to drive in SCCA races so the teen-aged Loring did most of his early racing in Canada where you could compete in CASC road races at eighteen. After a year racing an FVee, then another year in FF1600, David convinced his father and mother to bankroll a season of thirty races for 1971 with a pair of Caldwell D9Bs. The cars were bought at a discount from Autodynamics, a Marblehead, Mass-based operation owned by Ray Caldwell which built and raced CanAm and TransAm cars for Sam Posey.

© David Hutson
Caldwell could see David had some talent and the cars were turned-out in Autodynamics corporate green with a bright, unique fellow named Chris Wallach preparing the cars. Wallach would go on to become one of the pioneers of modern race car data systems, building a prototype system for Newman/Haas and Bosch in the mid-eighties. Back in the early seventies, Chris taught us discipline and precision. "Right on, on those tire pressures, Gordon! Right on, on those pressures," he would bark at me as I bled the tires after David had run a few warm-up laps then pitted in the opening stages of a qualifying session.

At the time, David's eyes were set on racing in Europe and making it to Formula One and in 1971 he made plenty of people believe it was possible, winning twenty-one races and sweeping all four championships he entered. In those days, IMSA was just getting started and the organization ran a Formula Ford championship (calling them International 100 cars), which was the only series young Loring could race in the United States. He took in the IMSA series as well as three championships in Canada and in IMSA beat Kiwi Formula B/F3 star Bert Hawthorne who dominated that year's FB series driving Alan McCall's Tui. Hawthorne's year in America was bankrolled by Fred Opert who asked Hawthorne and McCall to run the IMSA I-100 series in one of Opert's Titans to help sell the English marque in the flourishing American FF market.

"Racing with and beating Bert was great because here was a real race car driver I could run with," Loring remarks. "And he was a great guy, too. I really liked him a lot."

The following year Hawthorne and McCall tackled F2 in Europe with their faithful Tui, but tragically the talented Kiwi was killed early in the season at Hockenheim. We also met Gordon Smiley in IMSA's I-100 series. Smiley raced a red Merlyn and was as brave as Paul Tracy and even more aggressive. IMSA ran races on the road courses at both Daytona and Talladega and at each event David came in from practice runs a little shaken, reporting that Smiley had enthusiastically banged wheels with him on the banking!

In Canada, Loring beat Gary Magwood to the Mosport-based Shopper's World championship, and also took the Jim Russell series in Quebec which promised a season in England in a Lotus Formula 3 car as the prize for winning the championship. At the end of the year, David won the Canadian FF title in a run-off race run in pouring rain at British Columbia's old Westwood track. After qualifying on the pole he spun on the opening lap, but worked his way back through the field to win.

Formula Ford in its' heyday, Brands Hatch 1972. David Loring (#55) on
the inside, one wheel in the grass   Photo courtesy David Loring collection
"Winning Westwood was pretty big after spinning on the first lap," David recalls. "I said, well, I just spent the entire year winning every race I ran and now the only race that's important and I'm in eighteenth place! We're just going to have to deal with this."

And he did exactly that in steady, blinding cold rain--the worst possible conditions. It was a fitting climax to a year where anything seemed possible and at the end of the season we ventured excitedly to England to begin organizing David's next year in F3 with his Jim Russell Lotus. But it quickly transpired there was no such prize. In the end, we were paid a thousand pounds sterling by the Russell school. Instead of racing F3, David had to return to Formula Ford, buying a car--again at a discount--from Merlyn the top FF builder at the time.

For the first three or four races we could afford to pay Ralph Firman to prepare the car. This was before Firman started Van Diemen and in those days he was as strapped for cash as we were. Unfortunately, after a couple of crashes we had to bid Ralph farewell and David took over preparing his own car, working out of Merlyn's little factory in rural Essex. It was a tough year with a series of accidents early in the season putting a big dent in our meager budget.

Things went downhill after David crashed on the last lap at Brands Hatch in the year's third race. It happened within sight of the checkered flag while he was duelling for the lead with Ian Taylor. Run on the Brands GP circuit, it was a support race to a non-championship, pre-season Formula One race, and that morning CanAm and Formula 5000 driver John Cannon dropped by to tell us he'd been talking to Bruce McLaren's widow Pat about David. She was interested in meeting him after the race to talk about the possibility of David driving a Formula 2 car for McLaren the following year.

David and Taylor engaged in a ferocious battle in the day's FF race and on the last lap David tried to pass Taylor a couple times but was blocked persistently. Going into Clearways at the end of the final lap he decided to throw caution to the wind and tried to pass Taylor on the outside with disastrous consequences. Both of them ended up in the guardrail with comprehensively wrecked cars. David stomped back to the pits in a furious frame of mind, demanding that I protest Taylor's driving to race officials.

I followed his orders and the stewards told me they had received numerous reports from the flag marshals of Taylor blocking. They said if Taylor had won the race it was likely they would have disqualified or penalized him, but as he and David hadn't made the finish, the point was moot. So we loaded our wrecked car on the trailer and glumly headed home, realizing halfway that Pat McLaren hadn't stopped by as planned. "If I had only been patient enough, or mature enough, to let Taylor win," David remarks. "Who knows what would have happened?"

He went on to win five races that year, finished fifth in the primary British FF championship and set a track record at Mallory Park which stood for five years. The first Formula Ford Festival was run at the end of the year at Snetterton and Loring and Taylor again battled to win the race which was run in light rain. But when David pulled-off his rip-off shield midway through the race he also tore his visor off with it. He fell back, eventually finishing fifth and the race seemed to characterize David's season.

We tried to promote some sponsorship to run F3 the next year, but hit a wall. David's family money had run out so we returned home and he went to work for a Formula 5000 team run by a fine fellow named Charlie Williams from Kansas City. Williams fielded David in a few FF races in 1974 and also in some Formula Atlantic races in an outdated Merlyn. That helped him get a chance to fill-in for Gilles Villeneuve in a couple of Atlantic races after Villeneuve broke his leg in a crash at Mosport.

He ran well, if not brilliantly, turning the fastest lap in one of the two races but hitting mechanical trouble in both and after Villeneuve returned, David was left on the sidelines without a ride and unable to promote any sponsrship. And it was typical of his career that when he got a break he should find himself compared to a man who soon became one of the sport's greatest legends.

In 1977 Loring was hired by Dan Gurney to build and race a new Formula Ford Eagle for All American Racers. This was the first and only 'small bore' formula car built by AAR and David was responsible for bolting the car together, developing and racing it, and selling production cars. He won two of twelve races in 1977 and finished second in the SCCA's Road Atlanta Run-Offs, then won four of nine races in '78, including the Atlanta Run-Off where he broke away from the field and won by the biggest margin in the race's history. This happened after Gurney and AAR had decided that dealing with a raft of Formula Ford customers wasn't for them. AAR pulled the plug on the project to focus on reviving the team's flagging fortunes in Indy car racing.

"Winning the Run-Offs for Dan was pretty big because he had already told me we were done, that the program was over," Loring recalls. "We were able to scrape things together to go to Atlanta, but we didn't have any money. The Goodyear guys asked me on Sunday morning why we were starting on used tires and I told them we couldn't afford new tires. So we did a deal where they gave me a set of tires and if I won, I didn't have to pay for them."

He adds ruefully with a low chuckle: "I remember you saying to me, the worst thing you could have done was to win the Run-Offs because nobody's ever gone anywhere after winning the Formula Ford race at the Run-Offs."

Road Atlanta '78 turned out to be Loring's last Formula Ford race after nine years and more than fifty wins in the United States, Canada and the UK. He was hired in 1979 by John Paul Sr. to operate a two-car Formula Atlantic team for himself and young Paul Jr. David also drove in some IMSA races with Paul Jr. in one of the family's Porsche 935s. But it didn't last long before the volatile Paul Sr. closed the Atlantic team and fired David. Frustrated and disillusioned with the sport, Loring took a sabbatical for a couple of years, working as a mechanic and hand at a ranch on Kodiak Island.

In 1981, he returned to the lower forty-eight and went to work for New Jersey car dealer Pierre Honneger, running a car for Honneger and himself in IMSA's Camel Lights category and overseeing the preparation of Honneger's showroom stock and rally cars. Among other things, Loring did the China Rally with Honneger. He also built a Lights car called a Denali for Honneger and won Lights races at Lime Rock with the car in 1986 and '87. "Winning those Camel Light races at Lime Rock with the Denali, a car that I designed and built was very satisfying," David notes. "We should never have beat the factory cars but we beat Bob Earl in the factory Spice at Lime Rock."

In 1988, David scored the first of four class victories in the Sebring 12 hours, winning the Lights class and finishing eighth overall with Tom Hessert in a Tiga-Buick. He then joined Bob Leitzinger's Nissan GTU team and won the GTU class at Sebring three years in a row. In 1990 he won with Butch Leitzinger in a Nissan 240SX, finishing tenth overall; in '91 he won with Bob Leitzinger, coming home seventeenth overall; and in '92 he did it with old friend John Paul Jr. as Leitzinger's pair of cars finished one-two and a very respectable eighth and ninth overall. David also won the 1992 IMSA GTU championship. "Winning Sebring four times was big," he observes. "That meant a lot to me. And winning it the fourth time with John Paul Jr. was great because I had total confidence in the guy to run as quick as I could."

Today, he runs David Loring Racing, specializing in preparing and racing historic cars for his clients. Last year his main customer Richard Polidori won the GTP1 class championshp in the Historic Sports Car Racing series driving a Spice-Cosworth DFV.

Looking back, it's clear to me now that Loring easily was America's most accomplished Formula Ford driver with more than fifty wins and multiple championships. There were other American FF champions who went on beyond Formula Ford like Skip Barber, Eddie Miller, Bob Earl, Dennis Firestone, Bob Lobenberg and R.K. Smith, but the only SCCA FF champion who went on to become a big league champion was Jimmy Vasser, winner of the 1986 SCCA title and 1996 CART championship. The only other SCCA FF1600 champion who achieved greater success than David in big cars was '73 champ Bob Earl. Driving a factory Nissan GTP car, Earl won Sebring outright with Derek Daly in 1990 and finished second in '91.

"To me, Bob Earl was the best," Loring demurs. "He and myself raced for twenty or more years and won numerous championships over a long period of time. A guy like (four-time champion) David Weitzenhof was good, but he never did anything but SCCA club racing."

The only American FF drivers I can think of who became true racing superstars were Vasser, Danny Sullivan and Michael Andretti. Sullivan raced FF in England in 1972, the same year Loring raced in the UK, while Andretti ran a year of SCCA FF1600 in 1981 in four different cars. In fact, Loring was crew chief for young Andretti for a few races in 1981 when Andretti drove a Crossle Formula Ford for Skip Barber and I remember some years later Michael talking about how tough it is to make it in racing. "Look at a guy like David Loring," Michael remarked. "He's a classic example of a great racer who never made it."

Even though David achieved a lot in racing, he remains forever heartbroken that he never realized his great dream and ambition of racing successfully in F1. He's been married for more than twenty years to his attractive, fiesty and faithful wife Kathy and has two healthy, motivated football-playing sons, one at the college level, the other in high school. He also lives in his grandfather's house in New Hampshire's White Mountains, a house he has beautifully restored and refurbished.

Yet the dissatisfaction of never quite making it in automobile racing's big leagues continues to gnaw at him and I can only guess it will 'til the day he dies. That's because deep in his bones David has always been a pure racer of the finest kind which is why he was the most accomplished Formula Ford driver the USA has ever and will ever see.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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