Everybody knows the beetle, the car that looks like a ladle on wheels and hasn't had a model change in over two decades. And everybody knows what it can do: on a good day the beetle dredges up 41.5 horsepower from its four tiny cylinders and goes so slow it would have trouble holding its own in a go-kart derby. So what's new about the sturdy little bug that some people even call a Volkswagen? It races. What is more, it races very fast and very well.
Last week in Nassau the VW—wearing several different skins but still the good old Volksy beneath them—asserted its claim to a place alongside the big cars during the 13th annual Bahamas International Speed Weeks in a race called, appropriately enough, the Grand Prix of Volkswagens. Captain Sherman F. (Red) Crise, a Nassau entrepreneur, scraped together a purse of over $4,000 for the Grand Prix, making it the richest race yet for Vormula Vee cars. The Vee, of course, stands for VW.
The Formula Vee class is now four years old and is rapidly becoming one of the most popular classifications among U.S. foreign sports-car enthusiasts. It was created by Hubert Brundage, a Floridian who wanted to develop something similar in scope to Star sailboat racing—as strictly defined as the Star class with cars well within the financial range of the amateur but still looking like the real thing, in this case Formula One racers.
In 1962 Brundage had an experimental car built by Nardi, an Italian manufacturer. Soon several others followed suit. They ran their cars in Formula Junior and Formula Libre events anywhere they could, until the Sports Car Club of America devised a class for them in 1964. By then Formula Vee had become so popular that manufacturers, most notably Gene Beach of Clearwater, Fla. and Autodynamics, a company in Marblehead, Mass., were turning out 40 to 50 of the kits each year. Don Chessman, the International Formula Vee director, estimates that now there are about 1,300 Vees in the U.S. alone, nearly all of them assembled from kits, and a Vee race is on nearly every SCCA weekend race calendar.
The rules are simple. First, plunk down $1,000 for a Formula Vee kit, which includes the body shell, rear suspension, frame, driver's seat, steering wheel and wiring. Then go to your friendly neighborhood used-car dealer and talk him into selling you a used VW with a 1,192 cc. engine and 50,000 miles on it. (They're about broken in for racing then, said the wife of one driver in Nassau.) Put the pieces together on your front porch, pile the family into the station wagon and go racing. You do not even have to modify the engine: tinkering to affect speed is not allowed.
Some owners claim a horsepower rating as high as 46, but don't believe it, though top speeds on a long straight do get above 100 mph. The beautiful part of all this is that the whole racer costs just about $2,500, or $500 less than it takes to prepare the least expensive sports car. Maintenance or major replacements are unheard of, presuming you don't hit anything too solid. Tires last for at least three race meetings, and gas mileage is right around 14 miles per gallon. The result is that doctors, lawyers, chemical engineers, airline pilots, car dealers and the like, who know people like Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and John Surtees by name only, now pop around circuits in reasonable duplicates of the cars those racing giants drive.
A more serious consequence of the new formula is that many established racers now feel that a driver should spend at least one year and preferably two in a Formula Vee before graduating to something bigger and quicker. In fact, the Formula Vee becomes most enjoyable when the professional and amateur drivers are together in the same race, as they were at Nassau. Some, like Sam Posey, 21, from Sharon, Conn., want eventually to drive Formula One cars. Others, like Chuck Parsons, the 1966 U.S. road-racing champion, Mario Andretti (who took a ride in a Vee, then decided his car wasn't competitive and stepped out) and Pedro Rodriguez are world-class drivers. But most were weekend warriors, anxious to see what they could do against some of the world's best.
They found out. Only four of the top-10 finishers were not professionals or aspirants. Jochen Rindt of Austria, who finished third in the world-championship point standings this year, won. Whit Tharin, a chemical engineer from Allendale, S.C. who finished sixth, sought out Rindt after the race and said, "I saw you go through the Royal Victoria curve [a big, sweeping right-hander] so nicely I said to myself, 'If you can do it, dammit, I can,' and tried to follow your line. You made it beautifully, but halfway through I was washing out. I'm just an amateur driver, but it was a pleasure driving in the same race with you."
Rindt nodded politely. His victory was a foregone conclusion shortly after he and fellow Austrians Michael Walleczek and Huber Gunther, all driving Austro Vaus (the body gives the car its name, not the engine), soon established themselves as the quickest on the 4.5-mile Oakes Field course at the Queen Elizabeth II Sports Centre. Rindt was turning laps nearly five seconds faster than the best American car. Slipstreaming with his teammates helped some, but the most important factor was that their cars were built by Porsche in Austria, which has the VW dealership. Porsche mechanics, the most meticulous and detail-minded in the business, swarmed all over the Austro Vaus in the days leading to the race. While their engines might have been the same as the rest, it was apparent the Austrians' cars overall were not. Their handling and suspension systems were far superior. Rindt toured the 23 laps (103.5 miles) at 82.397 miles per hour, a record, and finished 99 seconds ahead of Gunther.
It was strange that anybody wanted to go racing in Nassau at all. Speed Weeks is the last major racing date of the year, and the drivers and mechanics look upon it as a sort of paid vacation. After a week of Red Crise cocktail parties, goombay music, which can drive an outsider up the wall in a day, the sun and the sea, who needs engines? Indeed, there almost were no engines. A shipping foul-up caused a three-day delay in getting the 106 cars from Miami to Nassau and resulted in a five-day postponement of the Nassau Tourist Trophy Race for Grand Touring cars. Then the temperature plummeted into the high 50s, no cause for alarm in Kokomo or Waterloo, but in Nassau—where the December average temperature is a more livable 70—islanders huddled in little groups on Bay Street and awaited the millennium.