A Broken Seat, An Aching Back, and Seven Cylinders
My 1969 Lime Rock Trans-Am race
This is a story about racing luck and being in the right place at the right time. It begins in Gasoline Alley, at Indianapolis in 1969, with me congratulating my friend Peter Revson on his just-finished qualifying run. Suddenly Peter said, “Hey, I can’t do Lime Rock – why don’t we see if we can get you the ride?” He was talking about the Trans-Am, which was in its heyday then, and Peter’s team was Carroll Shelby’s iconic Shelby American, running Mustangs on a huge budget from Ford.
Peter dialed Lew Spencer, Shelby’s Trans-Am team manager, and I could hear Lew shouting to Carroll, “... Drove for Penske last year, with Donohue, yeah... and he won a F5000 race just last week. At Laguna.” It was obvious Shelby had never heard of me. There was a pause, then Lew said, “Carroll is asking, ‘How much?’” Peter gave Lew a number much bigger than I’d have dared ask for. Another pause, then Lew said, “Tell Sam I’ll see him at Lime Rock.”
A week later, I showed up at the track on a warm day in late spring. Shelby’s dark blue semi towered over the team’s two lean, fastback Mustangs, also dark blue, which were parked in front of it. My car had Peter’s name on the roof and no. 1 on the door; the no. 2 car was for team regular Horst Kwech, a friend and rival from our days racing Alfa GTAs. Morale was high. The crew knew Lime Rock was my home track, which inspired confidence that was contagious. In fact, my friends were acting as if I had the race already won.
Practice began. The car felt good – really good – and I immediately set a fast time. Horst was a few tenths off, but quicker than John Cannon and Swede Savage, who were driving for Bud Moore, Ford’s other team and a bitter rival of Shelby’s. Qualifying was nearly over when Horst beat my time. I had been lifting slightly at the downhill, and I thought if I could take it flat that would do the trick.
All pumped up, I charged under the bridge. You can never be sure your foot will stay down – the instinct for preservation can override your ambitions – but this time it did, and I shot out of the turn and roared toward the finish line going fully 100 RPM faster than before. I had the pole, and in the pits my crew crowded around the car giving me the thumbs up. But timing and scoring missed the lap!
Meanwhile, my mom was having a party for the drivers and crews, and I felt obliged to be there. Lew agreed to stay to argue my case with the timers, which was really nice because from Shelby’s point of view it hardly mattered – they had the front row locked up either way. The party was winding down when Lew arrived. He said the timers had the lap all along – they just didn’t believe it.
Race day. It was right at the end of warm-up when the seat broke – the fiberglass just split in two. Shelby didn’t have a spare, and there wasn’t time to repair it, so Lew and I went over to Bud Moore’s to ask if he had anything to lend us. Bud handed over a seat from one of his NASCAR cars. It was metal and slab-sided, like a section of a heating duct; when the Shelby guys installed it, I realized I would be sitting bolt upright and very close to the wheel – fine for banked ovals where the G forces are pushing you straight down, but less than ideal for road racing. We tried to tape on some padding, but ran out of time and the guys took the car out to the grid.
In those days, Trans-Am races lasted more than three hours – a grueling prospect even in ideal conditions. In the early laps I ran second, behind Horst. He was pulling away like a man with a longer stride. He was three or four seconds ahead when he suffered a broken throttle linkage and retired, handing me the lead.
This was many years before Skip repaved the track, and in those days there was a frost heave, a big dip, running right across Turn One. You pounded though it like a speedboat in rough waves, and you had to do some very rapid and precise steering or you’d get thrown right off the road. When Horst was ahead, I knew that every time across the dip the Bud Moore seat was transmitting the shock right up my back, but I was so distracted by the chase that I didn’t feel any pain. The moment Horst was out, however, I felt it – great, electric jolts down both legs. At that point, I still believed I was going to win – I was more than 25 seconds ahead of Cannon and Savage, and while I was no longer increasing my lead on the track, at the first round of pit stops Shelby’s fantastic crew – many of them veterans of Ford’s assault on Le Mans – increased it for me.
But soon after the pit stops I began to lose time. I was used to the everyday hazards of Trans-Am racing – fingers going numb, feet burning, arms aching – but this was something different. As the second round of stops approached, the crew signaled me that Cannon and Savage were just 20 seconds back. I was losing almost a second a lap – and the pain was getting worse at an alarming rate.
At the stop, the guys were fast again, and again they bought me a couple of seconds. Less than an hour to go, but that was too long... the math said I’d be caught just before the end. I was hanging on to the wheel, squirming around, trying to find any position that would get me some relief, even if it was just for a moment. I remember very little about this last stage of the race. I was aware that the car seemed to be steering itself – and that lapped cars pulled out of the way at the last moment. The pain was everything.
Five laps to go; Cannon out of the picture, Swede Savage in my mirror, right on schedule, his car big and menacing. Swede – Dan Gurney’s protégé, a huge talent and known to be lucky, too. Suddenly, with no warning, my motor was running on seven cylinders – broken valve spring, it felt like. In an instant, Swede was on me. But then... he didn’t pass – and... he was dropping back... Yes! He was disappearing into pit lane. Trying to catch me, riding the curbs, he’d cut a tire. Extraordinary – both lead cars crippled within seconds of each other. Would my motor last? I slowed way down, nursing it.
It was some time before I could get out of the car; it seemed as if my whole body was one big cramp. They must have delayed the trophy presentation because I have a picture of me with a giant laurel wreath around my neck. I saw Shelby; he had stayed in his motel and didn’t show up at the track until the race was over. It was just under two years since his historic win at Le Mans, and I guess Trans-Am was pretty small potatoes.
I’m sure to most fans the race must have seemed predictable: the best car won. Most wins are like that – they look easy. But when you think about it, you realize how many ways I could have lost. If the seat had broken during the race instead of the warm-up... if Horst hadn’t gone out... if the pit work had been any less brilliant... if Swede hadn’t cut that tire... Racing luck – I had far more than a fair share of it that day. And as for being in the right place at the right time, my casual hello to Peter in Gasoline Alley set the whole thing up – I had the ride before anyone else realized it was up for grabs.
My win turned out to be the only one for Shelby that year. For 1970, Ford decided to focus on a single team, and they chose Bud Moore's. As far as pro racing was concerned, that day at Lime Rock was Carroll Shelby's last hurrah.