The best solution when your car company is failing? That's right, go racing

Photography by Jack Webster

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Story by BS Levy

Everybody knows I’m a diehard Lotus nut, but I must admit to being among the doubters who thought Lotus had lost their way—if not their minds—when their sketchily built, but marvelous to drive, Elans and Europas gave way to the ungainly, front-engined Elite and Eclat during the mid-’70s. Here were two cars in desperate search of a good viewing angle.

But then came redemption with the handsome and promising new Esprit just a couple of months later. Oh, maybe it wasn’t much more than an updated Europa chassis with Lotus’s own 16-valve four-banger and a Citroën/Maserati five-speed in back, but it sure looked the part in stunning, razor-edge styling by Italian master Giorgetto Giugiaro.

There was more head-shaking when Lotus added their up-market Esprit Turbo to the lineup in 1980. Lotus seemed almost presumptuously serious about taking on Porsche and Ferrari in the “park mine near the front door, please” supercar sweepstakes. 

It just didn’t strike a lot of people as being Lotus’s end of the market, you know? “Posh” and “refined” were just not the sort of words that sprang to mind when discussing cars from Lotus. Neither were “solid,” “reliable” or “quality of manufacture,” come to that. And let’s not even mention “depreciation,” which became an increasingly ugly term to a large number of first-time Lotus buyers.

Still, Lotus was committed to their move into the megacar ranks, and I well recall one of my first experiences with their supercar. I must admit the car felt tight, right, reasonably light, wonderfully precise and well damped—and bullet-fast in a subtle, velvet-glove sort of way. 

Bad news was that the Lotus USA warehouse was chock-full of the damn things and the dealers were loathe to add any more to the ones already languishing on their showroom floors. This was an even uglier version of the same problem faced past Lotus CEO Jim Blackwell. He was saddled with selling “the world’s fastest four-cylinder car!” As if that was something to be proud of. 

When Life Gives You Lemonade…

As the ’80s came to a close, things were looking so bad that Lotus was considering a wholesale withdrawal from the U.S. market. Out of that desperate situation came the notion to try racing the Esprit Turbos. The venue would be the Bridgestone Potenza Supercar Championship, IMSA’s emerging cross-town rival to the SCCA World Challenge series.

The idea behind both racing programs was the same: real “pro” races for recognizable, ostensibly stock (HAH!) versions of all the major players’ heaviest hitters. The hoped-for prize would be race weekend glory and bragging rights—along with subsequent showroom traffic. Oh yeah, there would also be some actual prize money, of course, though it was not a huge amount of money considering the cost of competing.

Porsche, Chevrolet, Mazda, Nissan and micro-manufacturer Consulier committed to join Lotus in the new IMSA fray. Nearly half a million people were in the stands during that first 1991 season, and another 90-plus million saw the action thanks to TV access. 

Lotus even whipped up a couple of turnkey Esprit race cars for the series on a “we build ’em, you figure out how to fund and race ’em” basis. At the company’s race shop in Hethel, England, a pair of X180R models quickly began taking shape. These cars would carry the Type 105 Lotus designation. 

While many of us associate Lotus with motorsports, you have to remember that except for a struggling Formula 1 effort, Lotus hadn’t been building much in the way of race cars—and particularly winning race cars—since Colin Chapman’s untimely passing in 1982. 

But the fire still burned, and the factory workers left their stations and hung out the windows—stopwatches in hand—whenever the new Esprit Turbo race cars ventured out on the firm’s test track. Two of these Esprit-based racers were built and leased to the new PureSports team out of Texas, who signed my old pal Doc Bundy and SCCA champ Scott Lagasse as drivers. 

Right out of the box, they pretty much shocked everybody when they won their very first race at Sears Point—against cars with much bigger sales figures, engines and reputations—and followed up with two more wins and several more podiums that season. Maybe those Esprit Turbos were real supercars, after all?

Lotus campaigned the turbocharged Esprit X180R (white car at center) against the likes of the Chevy C4 Corvette and Mazda RX-7 in the IMSA Bridgestone Potenza Supercar Championship. Paul Newman, sitting at right (insert) was a team driver.

Three updated racers carrying the Type 106 designation were built for the following season and, along with the updated first cars, competed in both the SCCA World Challenge and IMSA Supercar series under the LotusSport banner. Drivers included Doc, David Murry, actor/racers Bobby Carradine and Paul Newman, Andy Pilgrim, Bo Lemler and Michael Brockman. More wins and podiums were added despite the efforts of the best Porsche, Chevrolet and the rest could muster. At one point, when the championship was up for grabs and coming down to the wire, Porsche even brought in World Rally Champ/Le Mans winner Walter Röhrl to bolster the ranks. 

Paul Newman, sitting at right was a team driver.

In the end, there was something for everybody. Porsche won the manufacturers’ championship by a scant three points over Lotus, but Doc copped the drivers’ championship in what I believe was the last professional championship any Lotus ever won.

Pretty historic stuff, when you think about it.

Along with the good news came some bad. Some of the other teams were grumbling loudly about the Esprit Turbos’ speed and handling. After Lotus ran 1-2-3 at the Miami street race that kicked off the 1993 season, the Powers That Be awarded Lotus more weight and restricted turbos.

And that was pretty much the end of their reign of terror. There wasn’t much point continuing after that.

Looking back, Doc Bundy nicely sums up the effort: “It was far and away the best handling and best balanced car in the series. And those spec tires weren’t all that good—you could burn them right off a Corvette or a Porsche—but we still had grip under us with the Lotus.” 

Not only did the Lotus have a great chassis, but its 2174cc “charge-cooled” four-banger proved every bit the equal of the big sixes, V8s and rotaries found in the other cars. “The lag wasn’t too bad,” Bundy allows with a sly grin, “and we had to be careful not to show all of our straight-line speed so they wouldn’t change the rules and restrict us.”

Keeping History Alive

The championship-winning cars might well have faded into history if it hadn’t been for hardcore Esprit Turbo nutcase Jamie Goffaux at Yesteryear Motorsports. Seems Jamie and his friend, partner, benefactor and fellow conspirator Kevin McGovern are properly nuts about the cars, and have set about procuring, preparing and racing the you-know-what out of them on the vintage and historic circuit. 

Finding the cars, while a difficult task, was almost easier than finding a place to race them. “They’re too new to be ‘old’ cars and too old to be ‘new’ cars,” Jamie says with an easy shrug. Worse yet, they often find themselves squared off against more radical cars from that era, meaning purpose-built, no-holds-barred “silhouette racers” from the likes of the IMSA GT and SCCA Trans-Am series. 

But that doesn’t daunt the Yesteryear Motorsports crew. “It’s a lot of fun to race against 911 RSRs and Trans-Am Corvettes,” Jamie grins. “We know we can’t run with the best of them, but it sure is fun to beat up on some of them.”

I’ve had the good fortune to do a few race weekends with the Yesteryear crew and their Turbo Esprits, and it’s been a fantastic experience. They’re great people and absolutely dedicated—despite some problems, setbacks and mechanical meltdowns that would have most race teams packing up and heading for home. They just don’t quit, and back-to-back (or even back-to-back-to-back) all-nighters are just part of the price they’re willing to pay to preserve, present and perpetuate the heritage of the Lotus Esprit Turbo. 

BS Levy reaches to retrieve the marshmallow he was roasting on the Lotus’s high-powered, mid-mounted inline-4 turbo. 

They do have fun, too. Each of the Yesteryear Motorsports Esprits has a name, history and personality of its own. So I duly met Eleanor (No. 14), Christine (No. 10) and Abby (No. 12) and came to know them as members of the family.

My first race with them was at Mid-Ohio last year, co-driving the Historic GT Enduro with regular team driver/hell-of-a-nice-guy Ken Fitzgerald in Abby. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Abby was a wonderfully well screwed together and competent race car. 

Sure, she was heavier than a purpose-built machine, and the A-pillar conspired to block my view of the apexes of left-hand turns. Not to mention that I really didn’t have a lot of previous turbo experience. But Abby still turned out to be easygoing, surefooted, communicative, beautifully balanced and surprisingly fast—but, again, in that understated, velvet-glove Lotus way. 

Unfortunately, things got a little ugly during the race, when Ken pulled in early with fading power and ominous fluctuations of the water temp gauge. The crew checked it over, added water and it seemed to run just fine there in the pits, so a round of shoulder-shrugging led to Yrs. Trly. heading back out to finish the race.

I kept one eye glued to the temp gauge and tried to figure out this faint, comes-and-goes tinkling noise that was behind me. After just one lap, I’d already made the decision to pull it back in when there was a muffled, tinny “clank” somewhere behind me. I instantly switched off the engine and coasted onto the grass. 

Damn. 

At that point, there was nothing to do but clamber out and walk forlornly over to the corner station, helmet dangling limp at my side, wondering what I was going to tell the team. I was hoping against hope that it was just a blown turbo or something.

We’re surprised Burt’s helmet still fit after the ego boost he got from top billing above Paul Newman. 

Well, it turned out to be a near-worst-case scenario, what with a pretzelized con rod and assorted engine giblets scattered about the oil pan. Boy, it sure didn’t sound or feel that cataclysmic from behind the wheel, but I guess that’s one of the little hidden joys of a mid-engined coupe: the motor doesn’t puke right in your lap like a normal front-engined racer. To be honest, I felt pretty terrible about it, but it was Jamie apologizing his face off on account that I didn’t get a decent run.

So, they invited me back.

The occasion was the SVRA October round at Road Atlanta, where none other than original team drivers Doc Bundy and David Murry joined us to commemorate the 1-2 finish they scored there at the beginning of the 1992 championship season. 

We had one hell of a good time. I’m happy to say that while the two “pro” drivers were indeed faster than Ken and me (but not by much), we were luckier and found ourselves well clear of those bozos (I mean, “those fine gentlemen”) by two-thirds distance. 

And that’s about when I noticed the distinct odor of high-test in Christine’s cockpit. 

“Hmm. Must be one of those damn Corvettes,” I told myself, as they have a habit of spewing out fluids in order to look more manly. 

Unfortunately, a quick look around indicated I was by myself on the track. And then I glanced in the rearview mirror and noted that the little plexiglass window looked like a damn shower curtain, what with fuel spewing and cascading every which way in highly flammable profusion.

This surely didn’t look good.

A quick Option Inventory indicated that pulling off immediately was probably a bad idea. If the fuel landed on anything hot, the whole blessed car would surely go up in flames before the safety crews got to it. So I slowed, popped the belts, undid the door latch and window net and more or less held my breath while I gingerly navigated back toward  the pits. 

I cut the master switch to kill the fuel pressure at the top of the hill and coasted down into pit lane, bellowing “GET A DAMN FIRE EXTINGUISHER!” at the top of my lungs as the Esprit rolled to a stop. At that moment, I performed the most uncoordinated and pathetic bailout move you have ever seen, landing on the pit lane concrete. 

Fortunately for all of us, Christine politely refused to catch fire, and Jamie had the offending fitting fixed in only a few moments. “Want to get back in?” he asked.

Sure. Why not?

So we finished the race and, despite all the drama, Eleanor and Christine finished third and fifth in class. Next day, Doc showed what could have been when he took little 2.2-liter-powered Christine from the very back of the grid all the way up to an astounding third overall in the sprint race—astounding to those 454-powered Corvettes and RSR-spec Porsches, anyway. 

A diff problem forced Doc to pit with the checker all but in sight. Still, he got down into the 1:37s along the way, which is a pretty respectable time at Road Atlanta.

On track, the 2.2-liter X180R has the grunt to surprise even the V8 racers.

It was a hell of an exciting weekend and an amazing effort by the entire Yesteryear crew, and I was more than happy to join them again this past spring at the Classic Motorsports Mitty Presented by Mazda for another crack at Road Atlanta.

Thanks to a little more time spent with the cars, Jamie had them really dialed in. We enjoyed consistent speed and reliability all weekend—along with as much fun as we could stand, both on and off the track. 

The X180R may not be from the golden age of motorsports, but the car is responsible for getting its famed manufacturer back on track. Thanks, guys, for keeping Chapman’s spirit alive.

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Comments
Don2001l
Don2001l New Reader
7/6/23 1:34 p.m.

Great write up !

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