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Thus frustrated, Little John hired Roger Penske to drive for him, and in its first race, in 1962, the Mecom-Penske combination ran into some rare racing luck. As Little John explains it: "I bought this Ferrari Grand Touring car for Roger to drive at Nassau in the Bahama Tourist Trophy Race, and the Ferrari factory gave us the wrong car. They gave us a factory car, and it had been prepared for racing at the factory in Italy. Now, it's usually impossible to get hold of a good racing car from Ferrari if they know the car is gonna be used to race against them. Their factory cars are always tuned a little better than their customers' cars.
"But we were lucky and got one. The night before the race they realized what had happened and they tried to get the car back. We stayed up till 2 o'clock in the morning arguing with them, and finally they said that my check hadn't cleared the bank yet, so the car wasn't mine. But I knew the check had cleared; so we kept the car. Roger did three warmup laps in it and won the race and set a record."
After that success, Little John bought Lance Reventlow's Scarab, installed A. J. Foyt behind the wheel and entered a sports car race at Riverside, Calif. Fuel problems forced the Scarab out, but in its next race at Laguna Seca it took a second, followed by firsts at Nassau and Daytona Beach. The Mecom racing team was off and cornering.
John Jr.'s attitude toward racing was expressed early and often to his crews and his drivers. As he restated it recently: "There used to be a romantic thing about sports car racing, back in the old days. They used to say, 'Maybe we'll win and maybe we'll lose, but nevertheless we'll have our champagne afterward.' There was romance and glory and things like that. We don't see it quite thataway. We say don't go into it unless you can stay in it and put on a good effort to win. We feel pretty damned sure that by the time our cars leave our shop, we will win the race, barring the human element. We'd never go to a race otherwise. I don't think there's been a race yet where our cars haven't at least led. And when one of our cars drops back to second or third, either because some other car is faster or because of mechanical problems, I sometimes just pull the car out. Second or third is not what we came after. We're not in it for the romance and we're not in it for the money. We're in it to win."
At the same time, Little John keeps a balance sheet and has no intention of dumping any important increment of the family money into racing. "I learned by the example of Briggs Cunningham and Lance Reventlow," he explains. "They spent a lot of time and money and effort in racing, but the goals they were after they sure went about in a strange way: by not keeping touch with what was being spent and what was being taken in. We run on a budget, and if we never make a nickel, at least we make every effort to cut costs. We get prize money and accessory money. Right now I'm trying to negotiate a deal with Chrysler, and if that goes through we'll be cutting costs way down."
The Mecom racing team currently runs on a budget of about a quarter of a million dollars a year, and takes in about a third of that. Still, Little John figures he is ahead of the Reventlow and Cunningham balance sheets. "In three years of operation," Mecom says, "Lance spent $5 million. Whatever any promoter suggested to him, Lance'd say, 'Go ahead, do this job, do that job.' I like Lance an awful lot, but I guess he was trying to impress Hollywood and he just wound up spending an awful lot of money. Briggs Cunningham at least tried to make a business out of it. But he spent a hell of a lot of money too, and he's such a nice guy that he didn't realize that a lot of people working for him were working against him. I could name you two big car factories that had men on Briggs's payroll. This mechanic wouldn't put a wheel on tight enough and that mechanic would do something else wrong."
Not that Mecom doesn't encounter the same problem. "John Kalb [his racing team manager] and I have had to fight hard to keep our personnel straight. We've had the hangers-on that were really working for others. We've even had a driver who was on somebody else's payroll. In one race, one of my drivers made a deal with another guy to hold back my best driver and keep him from winning. People think that sports car racing is so sporting; they just don't realize what's going on. We've even had people come out to the shop at 11 o'clock at night and jump the fence to snoop around and see what we were up to. And we've had 'em come around in the daytime with Polaroid cameras to sneak pictures."
Much of Little John's fierce drive to win is aimed nowadays at Chevrolet and Ford, especially Ford, and for reasons that are not entirely clear. For a time, the Mecom cars raced almost exclusively with Chevrolet engines (a few still do). "I stuck with them for a while," Little John says bitterly, "but it became a political thing, a question of whose foot are you gonna kiss. And I don't like things like that. Now General Motors is saying that it's not involved in sports car racing, but I know that Chevrolet is helping Jim Hall and his Chaparrals [big winner at Nassau this year], and he's doing a damned good job for them. We tried to do a good job for them, too, and we spent our own damned money and we never asked them for one bit of financial help. Last year at Nassau it cost us $38,000 to race Corvettes that we'd never seen till we bought 'em from Chevrolet. They got all the publicity and they had a big increase in Corvette sales as a result. But do you think they'd say thank you for this? Do you think they'd say thanks to us for proving out the Lola Grand Touring car that beat the Ford Grand Touring car?
"We put a Chevrolet engine in one of our new cars, and then I began to realize that the help we were supposed to be getting from General Motors was going somewhere else. A lot of people thought General Motors was sponsoring us, and they have yet to pay us one nickel. We did our own research and they got the benefit of it. They gave us one engine that I could have gone down to the corner store and bought for $500, and that's all."
Little John flatly refused to talk about his imbroglio with Ford, but his intimates give one version of how the affair ended. "We'd won a few races with Chevy engines," a close friend explains, "and Ford put out feelers. They said how would you like to use Ford engines instead of Chevy engines? So we went up to Milwaukee the night before a race, and there was some brass from Ford standing around. One of their guys had had a few drinks and he didn't catch Little John's name and he made a few disparaging remarks about that rich blanking Texan and a few other remarks, and Little John was standing right next to him!