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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 major missed opportunity

by Gordon Kirby
American motor racing history is littered with the wreckage of great series that failed. The Can-Am is probably the finest example, booming for a few years before fizzling out after only nine seasons. The Trans-Am was another SCCA series that enjoyed a handful of spectacular years, lasting much longer than the Can-Am but failing to fulfill the promise of its early years. In the mid-seventies IMSA's Camel GT series took off for a few years and spawned the GTP era but it all came to an abrupt end in the early nineties after only twenty years.

But American racing's greatest missed opportunity may well have been Formula 5000 which flourished in the United States for nine, fleeting years from 1968-'76. In the mid-seventies at Formula 5000's American apotheosis, Mario Andretti and Brian Redman were able to hustle their Lola T332-Chevies around serious road courses like Watkins Glen and Mosport as fast, or even a shade faster, than the Formula 1 cars of those times.

A handful of F1 vs F5000 races were run in America and the UK in those days, and at its height in motor racing's pre-ground-effect/aerodynamic era America's Formula 5000 series offered powerful, spectacular cars, full fields and plenty of name drivers.

© Dennis Torres/Racemaker
The peak of the mountain for Formula 5000 was Chris Pook's inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix in September of 1975 which attracted more than forty cars built by seven different constructors. The series was on a roll at the time with similarly large fields and big crowds at Laguna Seca and Riverside two and three weeks later. Brian Redman was the man to beat, winning three F5000 championships in a row in 1974, '75 and '76 with Haas/Hall Racing's Lola T332Cs, defeating among others the Vel's Parnelli Jones Lolas driven by Indy stars Mario Andretti and Al Unser.

At Long Beach in '75, Redman scored a famous victory by successfully nursing his car's failing differential to the finish while Andretti's transmission gave out, Unser uncharacteristically hit the guardrail, and a surprising young pacesetter named Tony Brise led but dropped out because of a broken driveshaft.

For a few years surrounding the first race in Long Beach there was talk about USAC adopting F5000 as its Indy car formula. In 1974, '75 and '76 USAC co-sanctioned the American F5000 championship with the SCCA, but the two sanctioning bodies never saw anything like eye-to-eye. Eventually, at the end of '76, they went their separate ways resulting in the sudden death of F5000.

Today, more than forty years after its heyday, Formula 5000 is a curiosity to many, but from 1968-'76 it played an increasingly important, if mercurial role in American racing. So what was Formula 5000 and why did it die so precipitously and vanish with barely a trace?

"Everybody talks so much about the great days of the Can-Am and they never talk about Formula 5000," remarks Brian Redman."Very often, people talk about the Can-Am and they often talk to me about my sports car career. But I always say, 'Actually, I'm rather more proud of my Formula 5000 career.' Often, a curious look comes on their faces and they ask, 'What's that?'."

© Marc Sproule/Racemaker
F5000 in America began in 1967 as Formula A. The original Formula A was for unrestricted 3.0 liter engines and the SCCA's inaugural series included sub-categories for Formula B (1.6 liter engines) and FC (1.1 liters). Only five races were run in '67 and most of the field comprised FB or FC cars with Texan Gus Hutchison winning four races and the championship aboard a Formula B Lotus 41C.

For 1968 the SCCA added a new subdivision to Formula A for 5.0 liter stock-block, pushrod V-8s. Weight minimum for the 5.0 liter engines was 1,250 pounds versus 1,105 pounds for the F1-like 3.0 liter cars, and the SCCA guaranteed a purse of $10,000 per race. Thus began the formal history of F5000 in America.

The first Formula A champion in 1968 was Lou Sell who won five of eight races in an Eagle-Chevy. Sell and George Wintersteen raced their own FA Eagles based on the successful, second-generation 1968 Eagle USAC Indy car. Wintersteen won two races and finished second to Sell in the championship while Jerry Hansen was the only other race-winner.

Hansen ran only selected races and was the dominant winner at his local track, Elkhart Lake, driving a Lola T140. The T140 was a rather rude, single-seat version of the T70 Can-Am car and was the most popular FA car that year in a motley field of FA and FB cars with even the odd, little FC car thrown in.

Things began to get more serious in 1969 as the SCCA decided to run separate FA and FB races at each venue and renamed the series the Continental Championship. Purses were increased to $15,000 per race and the schedule was expanded to included thirteen races with full fields usually showing up for both FA and FB races.

The improving series attracted some Can-Am drivers and teams, and there was also a two-car team of factory Surtees TS5-Chevies driven by David Hobbs and Andrea de Adamich. But the Surtees team was busy racing in England for the first part of the year and didn't appear in the United States until mid-season so that despite winning four of the last six races, including the final three, Hobbs missed winning the championship by just one point. For the past thirty years Hobbs has been a color commentator for Formula 1's American telecasts, currently on NBCSports.

"I really did enjoy Formula 5000," Hobbs remarks."The cars were great fun to drive. They had huge power, didn't weigh much and, like any single-seater, you feel much more at one with the car than with any prototype or GT car."

The next year, 1970, Hobbs and Surtees again missed the first half of the American season while racing in England. Hobbs won two of the year's last seven SCCA races and finished second in two more but was soundly beaten to the championship by John Cannon aboard Carl Hogan's McLaren M10B and Gus Hutchison's F1 Brabham BT26. Others to win races that year were Ron Grable aboard a Lola T190, George Follmer aboard a Lotus 70 and Mark Donohue driving a Penske Lola T192.

In 1971 Hobbs switched to Carl Hogan's team. Driving a McLaren M10B for Hogan, Hobbs was dominant, winning five of eight races and handily beating Sam Posey's Surtees to the championship. Hogan decided to race the new Lola T330 in 1972 but Hobbs and Hogan's team were soundly beaten to the championship by New Zealander Graham McRae who raced his own eponymous cars. McRae won three races and beat Sam Posey and Hobbs to the title.

The SCCA was able to attract L&M cigarettes to sponsor the F5000 series in 1972 and '73, substantially increasing the prize money. By this time, the series was on the rise and the original, unlimited Can-Am was in decline.

© Marc Sproule/Racemaker
As a result, longtime Can-Am team owners Jim Hall and Carl Haas decided to combine their efforts for 1973 in a new F5000 team, called Haas/Hall Racing, and they hired Brit Brian Redman to drive their car. The combination proved irresistible as Redman finished second to a young Jody Scheckter in the 1973 championship before winning three straight F5000 titles in 1974, '75 and '76.

Meanwhile, series sponsors L&M was unhappy with the SCCA's less than professional methods and the cigarette company pulled out at the end of '73. But there was a shot in the arm for F5000 from USAC who decided to co-sanction the F5000 series with the SCCA.

USAC's unlimited turbo Indy formula was proving unreliable and expensive and USAC determined to get involved in F5000 with a view to adopting the stock-block formula for the USAC Championship. The result was that a handful of top USAC drivers and teams joined the F5000 series in 1974 and '75. Among these were Vel's Parnelli Jones with Mario Andretti in '74 and Al Unser joining Andretti in a two-car team in '75.

The VPJ team bought a fleet of Lolas for Andretti and hired chief mechanic Jim Chapman from Haas/Hall. While the rest of the F5000 field was on Goodyears the VPJ team ran on Firestone tires and Firestone provided a good deal of the team's funding. The 5000 team was set-up partly to get Andretti and the team ready for an F1 assault with its own car, planned to begin at the end of 1974.

Andretti proved to be very quick in F5000, but he couldn't match Redman and the Haas/Hall team on reliability and consistency. Redman and Andretti each won three races in '74, but Brian edged Mario for the title. In '75, they won four races apiece and Redman again beat Andretti to the championship.

"I thoroughly enjoyed Formula 5000," Andretti comments."They were great cars to drive. At some places I was quicker than a Formula 1 car. At Riverside where I had a lot of time and testing in the 5000 car, I never could match the Formula 5000 time with our F1 car. Those F5000 cars were good-looking cars and there were a lot of different car builders. There was the Shadow and All American Racers built a number of different Eagles, and there was the Talon and some others too, which made it pretty interesting.

"I should have won that championship going away but we had too many DNFs. Brian cashed in every time and I wound up second. But whenever I finished, most of the time I won. I loved that car. I think we really had it nailed.

"Let's face it," Mario adds."Anytime you're in a series where you can win almost any race you enter, you always remember that fondly. And that's the way I feel about Formula 5000."

Al Unser joined Andretti in 1975 in a second VPJ Lola and immediately proved himself to be a very good road racer. Unser wound up finishing third in the '75 championship only a few points shy of Andretti. He finished second in five races and scored an excellent win in the rain at Road Atlanta where he led most of the race, managed his tires better than anyone else, and beat Redman and Andretti fairly and squarely.

But early in the winter of 1976-'77 the SCCA decided to toss F5000 onto the trash heap of history and replace it with the 'new era' Can-Am--F5000 with closed-wheel bodywork. The SCCA and most promoters believed the American public wasn't interested in open-wheel cars and that Can-Am-type cars were the only way to go.

© Jim Shane/Racemaker
"It was marketing," Redman shrugs disgustedly. "The track owners wanted the marketing power of the Can-Am name. That's all it was."

To this day, the decision raises Hobbs's hackles.

"The powers-that-be at the SCCA could not get the Can-Am out of their brain," Hobbs remarks."They couldn't figure out that the Can-Am was a one-off and that to have a completely open formula meant it couldn't last, and also that you couldn't bring it back. Just putting bodywork on a F5000 car wasn't going to bring the Can-Am back.

"But the promoters agreed with the SCCA guys," Hobbs adds."People like Les Griebling at Mid-Ohio said people won't pay to watch open-wheel racing in America. Then of course, just three years later CART started going and soon they had the biggest crowds they'd ever had at places like Mid-Ohio, Elkhart Lake and Laguna Seca."

Comments Andretti:"It was almost the series that should have been. You had a small fuel tank and there was no refueling. You had two heats and a final and for some reason it was not really considered the top level and the events were not taken that seriously. That's the way I saw it. They wanted to try to make it as popular as the Can-Am had been, but something didn't catch on.

"I loved the cars and the idea of Formula 5000. The cars were fast, they were neat to drive, they were good road racing cars. But unfortunately, there was something lacking in that formula to make it an absolute main event. It was not totally appreciated for what it was. Some of the stigma of Formula A remained, like it was SCCA racing. They really didn't help it grow or become properly professional."

Hobbs reflected on F5000's lost potential.

© Marc Sproule/Racemaker
"In those last few years we had every top American driving in Formula 5000, except Foyt," Hobbs says."We had Mario, the Unsers, Mike Mosley, Johncock and Rutherford. All American Racers were there too with Bobby Unser. But they blew the whole thing. You also had all those Aussie drivers like Kevin Bartlett, Warwick Brown, Max Stewart and Frank Matich, who gave Jack Brabham and Jimmy Clark a run in their day. At one time that series was a real who's who of Formula 5000 racing around the world.

"Twenty years later," Hobbs adds,"they tried to turn the clock back when Tony George started the IRL and went to production-based engines. Well, they had it once. CART, of course, should have been the Formula 5000 car. They had it right there and with development they would have developed like every other car and they would have been quick as hell today."

I had the good fortune and great pleasure to cover the American F5000 championship over its final four years and the bad luck to witness its demise. I also covered the original, unlimited Can-Am for its last two years, so F5000 was the second failure of a major racing category that I witnessed.

Later, I would watch and cover the creation, boom and demise of CART while watching from a distance the failure of the 'new era' Can-Am and IMSA's GTP series. Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from the shooting star that was Formula 5000, not to mention the likes of the Can-Am, the 'new era' Can-Am, Formula Atlantic and Super Vee, CART's Indy Car World Series and IMSA's GTP category.

Without doubt, the mismanagement and serial failure of Formula 5000 and many other categories were key elements in laying the groundwork for the longterm decline of big-time motor racing in America.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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