One of the nicest things about the boys at the Sports Car Club of America is that whenever Detroit puts out a new class of automobiles, sooner or later they'll find a way to get it to a racetrack. That, in brief, is the history of the Trans-American sedan championship series, nonexistent two years ago except in the minds of a few quixotic souls, but already promising to become one of the most popular auto-racing circuits in the country. The reason is simple enough. Two and three years ago the other auto divisions recognized the success of the Ford Mustang and came out with their own cars in the Mustang class—Chevrolet Camaros, Plymouth Barracudas, Mercury Cougars and the like—and it was only natural that some sort of competition should develop among them.
Jim Patterson, deputy competition director for the SCCA, said, "We jumped into this thing faster than we've ever jumped into anything. But we had to. We were suddenly faced with a whole new class of cars."
The first year's results were hardly spectacular. The seven-event 1966 Trans Am series paid somewhat less than $50,000 in purses, and promoters took frequent baths. But they saw its potential and were eager to give it a try again this year—so eager that there are now 12 races in the series, and prize money, official, unofficial and from accessory companies, is well over $150,000. And that doesn't include $25,000 and $10,000 non-point races at St. Jovite, Canada and Daytona Beach.
Last Sunday the halfway mark in the current season was reached at the Bryar Motorsport Park in Loudon, N. H., a town 85 miles north of Boston with a population of 1,194, and in one weekend all the ingredients of the Trans-Am series were in evidence. The cars themselves were a cross between racing sports cars and Grand National stock cars (at least in the over-two-liter class; there is also an under-two-liter class). The atmosphere was likewise mixed, combining the moods of the high-pressure, dollar-rich events that mark the racing calendar with SCCA club meets where wives keep lap charts and friends of the family change the sparkplugs. And finally, the level of competition ran all the way from factory teams like Bud Moore's Cougar outfit and Carroll Shelby's Mustangs to local amateur (and occasionally amateurish) talent.
"Most of these drivers know they can't win," said Patterson, "but they still run. Their cars look good, and when they lose to a factory car they've got a readymade excuse."
The best-financed teams, of course, were the main attractions in Loudon. Mustang led with Jerry Titus, a part-time driver and full-time magazine editor (Sports Car Graphic) who had won two of the five previous races, and Dick Thompson, a Washington dentist. Its sibling rival, the Lincoln- Mercury Cougar, chose Peter Revson and Ed Leslie, who looks and acts like the stereotyped race driver, from the way he handles a car to the curl of his lip. Camaro had Mark Donohue in a car set up by Roger Penske, the former sports car ace.
Besides the drivers, the track itself was a major talk piece. Opened in 1965 by Keith Bryar, a steel-haired Laconia tire dealer known locally as the best competitive dog-sledder around, the course winds for 1.6 hairy miles in full view of the grandstand. There isn't much in the way of straights, and this sharply reduces the advantage the big cars usually have over the under-two-liter Alfas, Porsches and so forth. As Titus said with a slight frown, "We can't use fourth gear here. We've even got a problem getting maximum performance from third."
Leslie said, "This isn't a Mickey Mouse course. It's a good course that simply doesn't have straights. It's not much fun to be in a turn for four hours straight—especially when you're going sideways about half the time. I'm not even gonna race the small cars. You can't get much of an edge on the straights, and if you get caught in traffic or lose the car just a little bit you've lost your advantage. The only ones I'm after are the Mustangs and Camaros."
Donohue's Penske Camaro, with probably the most powerful engine of all, was nearly eliminated from the race a day early. During Saturday's qualifying, Donohue's rear axle broke in the middle of the final (Clubhouse) turn. Donohue spun twice and slammed nose-first into a wooden guardrail.
Donohue, unhurt, immediately came to the officials' stand and picked up a telephone.