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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 fine antidote to spec car racing

by Gordon Kirby
Over the past ten or more years historic racing has boomed around the world. In the UK, Goodwood has set a new standard for historic and vintage events, and in the United States a trio of historic weekends have emerged among many as the major events--Amelia Island in Florida in the winter, next month's Monterey Historics in California, and last weekend's Road America Kohler International Challenge with Brian Redman.

At Elkhart last weekend there were celebrations of Lola's fiftieth anniversary, Formula 5000's founding forty years ago, and the Scarab marque. A tremendous turn-out of competitors helped attract a healthy crowd and the now-traditional Friday evening drive from the track by some of the competitors into Elkhart Lake village for the Road & Track concours d'elegance drew the biggest crush of people the little Wisconsin vacation town sees all summer.

"I don't think there's anything like it the country," said Road America's president George Bruggenthies. "There's a tremendous esprit de corps around this event. I think it's the best in the country. It's unique because we bring the racing cars back to the circuit where all this started back in 1950, '51 and '52. In those days the races drew 100,000 people and I still can't fathom that because there were no grandstands or anything like that.

"I think we get about 30,000-35,000 people for the Friday evening concours event," Bruggenthies added. "It's a little nervous for us because they are race cars and things can happen so we pay special attention to keep it safe and have it continue. There were no problems at all this year. Everyone understands how important it is. This year it went off perfectly."

One of historic racing's great stalwarts, not only in the United States but around the world, is James King. James is one of the primary moving forces behind the Historic Grand Prix organization which fields a fine selection of Formula 1 cars from the late sixties through the early eighties. King drives his ex-Vittorio Brambilla Beta March 761 in the Historic Grand Prix races but he also races a variety of other single-seaters including a Formula B Brabham BT29 which he raced at Elkhart last weekend and an ex-Dan Gurney Brabham BT7 which he races in Europe. King bought the Cosworth DFV-powered Beta March 761 in 1993 in partnership with the late Doug Shierson.

"It's somewhat agricultural compared to the Williams and Tyrrells," James observed about the 761. "I describe it as a Formula Atlantic car on steroids. It goes down the straight like a rocketship but it's not as quick in the corners as the newer ground-effect cars. It's fun with the wide variety of cars because you really have performance differences and it's kind of fun to see where it makes a difference.

© David Hutson
"These are the fastest, least-safe cars and we need to give them a lot of respect," King added. "The performance difference between a late sixties car and a car from the early eighties is huge, and the driving talent is everything from Duncan Dayton, Jim Busby and Rick Knoop, who've won major professional events, and sometimes Bobby Rahal and Arie Luyendyk run with us. So it takes a certain amount of care and feeding to pull it off."

At Elkhart last weekend, because they are down in numbers this summer, the F1 cars ran with the Formula 5000 cars rather than on their own.

"We've got a small field here this weekend because sixteen of our cars went to Monaco and some guys left them in Europe for the summer," King commented. "We had twenty-seven cars a year ago at the Champ Car race at Las Vegas and we'll bounce back to that as the cars come back from Europe. We'll also add a couple of new venues next year."

King arranged to drive the ex-Emerson Fittipaldi world championship-winning JPS Lotus 72 from 1972 at a handful of this year's European historic events. He ran the Lotus at Donington and Hockenheim and wanted to race it in the Monaco historic Grand Prix but encountered a series of mechanical problems and crashed the car at Hockenheim as a result of one of these failures. The Hockenheim accident was fairly big and meant the car couldn't be repaired in time for Monaco.

"Say what you like about Max's personal proclivities, but I sure like his run-off areas!" James remarked. "I got out of the car and the Austrian Lotus fan club had their bus parked there, and one of them came and asked if I wanted a beer. I said, 'Sure,' and asked if they had any Jaegermeister. And they said, sure. So I had one. That made me feel much better."

King and his good friend Duncan Dayton also competed in this year's Easter Monday Thruxton Formula 2 revival race, Dayton driving a Brabham BT35 and King a March 712. Dayton won two of the historic races at the Monaco GP, one in an an ex-Jack Brabham Brabham BT33 and one in an ex-Graham Hill Lotus 16.

Dayton and King also own a pair of ex-Dan Gurney Brabham-Climax F1 cars. Dayton's car is a BT11 from 1965. King's is a BT7 from 1964. It's the car in which Gurney scored the Brabham marque's first Grand Prix victory in the French GP at Rouen in '64. He also won that year's season-closing Mexican GP in the BT7.

King was nineteen years old in 1964 and spent the summer in Europe. He was at Spa that year were Dan led and famously ran out of fuel on the last lap. James's summer sojourn took him to Le Mans the next weekend where Gurney won the GT class in a Cobra Daytona coupe with Bob Bondurant, then to Rouen the following week where he watched Dan win in the BT7. King also travelled to the Nurburgring where he saw John Surtees drive away from Jim Clark and Graham Hill while Gurney had to pit with trash in the radiator inlet. At Monza a few weeks later Gurney and Surtees dueled seriously for the lead but with seven laps to go Dan hit fuel pump trouble.

"That year Dan was either on the front row, or led, or won, all but one of the Grands Prix," King commented. "Just a little less mechanical failure and he would have been World Champion."

© David Hutson
King found his BT7 while racing his Beta March in Italy a few years ago. He bought the Brabham from Giorgio Valentini and raced it for the first time at Monaco in 2000, finishing third. He regularly races the BT7 at Monaco but has yet to win.

"We've come third there four times," James relates. "I actually led in '06, then missed a shift going up the hill after Ste Devote and spun. I got passed by a well-driven, 2.7 liter Tasman car who used his driving skill and torque to stay ahead of me."

King loves to drive the BT7 at Goodwood a track which remains unchanged from those great days four decades ago.

"We run it at Goodwood every year and it's just marvellous to drive at Goodwood. You have great respect for those guys from the sixties because you've got to slide the car a fair bit. The car needs to be up on its tippy-toes, but as hard we drive around Goodwood we're still three or four seconds slower than Dan and Jimmy and Graham Hill were. Goodwood is about as good a measure as you're going to get because that circuit hasn't changed.

"Granted, we don't have the same tires they had. Our tires are built for endurance. But remember that in the summer of '64, Jim Clark ran four races on the same set of tires and the wear pattern on all four tires was dead equal. He was the only driver to accomplish that. But the lap times they achieved speak volumes for how fast those guys were. They had those cars up on tippy-toes the whole time!"

King started racing in Formula Ford in 1969, then raced Formula B and Atlantic from 1973-'76, an era many people believe was the historic height of the category.

"It was great group of characters," King recalls. "There were ten or twelve guys who were potential race winners from Gilles, Keke and Bobby Rahal to Tom Klausler, Bill Brack and Elliott Forbes-Robinson. I think that was the best racing I've ever done."

James raced Formula 3 in the UK in 1977, driving a March. He won one race and finished third in the championship. "Derek Daly and I managed to crash into each other a lot that season," he says. "I had a chance to win the championship and was on pole for the last race at Thruxton, but I blew the start and finished third. Derrick Warwick won the championship."

King tried to do Formula 2 in '78 but couldn't find the sponsorship. He did one F2 race at the Nurburgring, then returned to the USA and continued to race Atlantic cars again through 1987. He finished third behind Calvin Fish and Johnny O'Connell at St Petersburg in his last Atlantic race back in '87.

After that, King took a year off to pay attention to the family business and then started vintage racing. One of the cars he races today is a Brabham BT29 he bought for $3,000 in 1984 when he was still racing Atlantic. Tim Schenken drove the BT29 for Fred Opert at the end of '69 in a professional Formula B race at Sebring and Harry Reynolds won a couple of SCCA championships with the car in Formula C trim.

King had the BT29 restored with a fuel-injected 1730 cc BDA engine and made it an F2 car with a wing. He raced the car in this guise from 1994-2000 and his son Alex started racing in the BT29 before moving into a March 732 which he now races regularly.

Over the last year John Rogers turned the BT29 into an FB car. Rogers refurbished the car last winter and put a Ted Wentz twin-cam engine in it. King raced the car for the first time in its current trim at Elkhart in May and ran it for a second time last weekend.

"I love it," King grins. "It's a very predictable car, pretty forgiving, and you can have a lot of fun with it. It's just a joy to drive."

Among King's competitors in the late 'sixties/early 'seventies Formula B category are former Can-Am, Formula 5000 and FB/Atlantic racer Bobby Brown, top historic racer Dave Handy, photographer Mark Harmer, and former race mechanic Phil Harris. Brown and Handy race BT35s, similar to King's BT29, Harmer drives a BT21 (and a Surtees TS5A F5000 car), while Harris races a 1968 Formula 2 Brabham BT23C powered by a raucous-sounding Cosworth FVA engine.

Usually, Harris is the man to beat. For the last twenty years Harris has run TrueChoice which today focuses on building and servicing Koni shock absorbers.

"We do IndyCar and many other categories across the whole spectrum of the sport," Harris said. "We also do a lot of high performance street car stuff and restorations."

Harris was born and raised in New Zealand and apprenticed as a motor mechanic. In 1968 and '69, he raced in the New Zealand Formula Ford championship, contending for the title.

"I crashed with two races to go in the championship and had run out of money," he recalls. "So I had to go back to work full-time as a race mechanic to earn a living."

Harris first came to the United States in 1974 as a mechanic on Warwick Brown's F5000 car. Brown won the Tasman championship the following winter with Harris turning the wrenches and they then returned to the USA for two more years in F5000. Brown joined Team VDS and Harris went with him. Harris worked at VDS for five years in F5000 and Can-Am with team boss Steve Horne. Together, they built the VDS Can-Am car, which was designed by Tony Cicale, and Geoff Brabham won the 1981 Can-Am title in the car. Harris went back to Australia for a few years before returning to the USA in 1987 to start TrueChoice.

Harris has been racing his F2 Brabham BT23C for the past seventeen years and is the man to beat in the late sixties/early seventies monoposto class. His BT23C is chassis #15, and is the car Carlos Reutemann raced in the 1968 Temporada series in Argentina.

"We fished it out of a wharehouse in Buenos Aires and brought it back to the States and spent a couple of years over 1989 and '91 piecing it together," Harris said. "I've run about four or five events a year since '91 with the car and I want to keep driving it for as long as I can drive. I took it to Australia last year for the Tasman Revival meeting which was a great bunch of fun. We came back from that and gave it a bit of a 40th birthday party with a new cylinder head. So hopefully, she can outlive me now."

Harris also races a March Atlantic car and Chevron B16 and Lotus 23 sports cars.

"I look after them myself in a shop at my house. I'm also restoring Jacques Villeneuve's 1980 March Atlantic car. We'll paint it exactly like a Shierson car from that year."

Guys like Harris and King are the heart and soul of historic racing. They're passionate racers who've spent their lives in the sport and in their middle years they can drive almost as quickly as they did in their youth a third of a century ago.

Meanwhile, great road circuits like Road America depend more and more on historic racing. There are three different vintage/historic weekends at Elkhart, one-third of the track's schedule of ticket-selling events.

"We have a very stable schedule of nine public events," commented Road America boss Bruggenthies. "When I came here ten years ago the Indy car weekend was THE event. Our whole business plan revolved around that event and we were at high risk because he had an upside-down contract where we paid a lot of money up front and we hoped that it didn't rain.

"Right from the start, I said we needed to have a strong schedule of good events and not rely so much on one event. Today, our 'bike races are very good and this Kohler/Brian Redman weekend is a very strong event for us. Even the June Sprints are coming back."

Bruggenthies hopes next month's ALMS race will prove to be equally strong, running on its own without Champ Car.

"We have nine races on the ALMS weekend so we're going to find out if it sells tickets," Bruggenthies observed. "I think it's a good product and the ALMS organization promotes their product. It's got some brand awareness among the general public as much as they can with the limited number of races they have. I think they do a good job."

And longterm, Bruggenthies hopes to be able to bring IndyCar racing back to Road America.

"We went down to Indianapolis and had several meetings with Terry Angstad who puts together their schedule," Bruggenthies commented. "They're trying to expand it a little bit, but they've got existing agreements that prevent some things happening. And the other thing is they're already in this market. They're in Iowa, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit. So they're kind of covered here and they're not in a hurry, even 'though a lot of their drivers and teams say Road America is a place they should be.

"I think it definitely won't happen for next year unless there's some emergency schedule change. We're not on the cards for next year. But I think maybe when they get a new chassis in 2010 or 2011 and things change a little that some other things might happen that will allow us to get on the schedule.

"I'm not going to get into an agreement that's going to put us severely at risk," Bruggenthies added. "There may be promoters out there who are prepared to lose money but we're a small company and we can't do that. But I think there's hope because America's premier open-wheel series should be racing here. I recognize that and I think in the future you'll see them here."

Let's hope Bruggenthies is right. Meantime, if you want to see big, powerful open-wheel cars charging 'round Road America, you'll have to go to next year's Kohler International Challenge/Brian Redman weekend and enjoy the eclectic delights of historic and vintage racing cars and drivers of every type and kind.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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