Peter Brock Reflects on the Early Years of Sports Car Racing

Photograph Courtesy Ford

The transitional developmental racing era between 1962 and 1966 probably had more to do with what eventually became the professional sport of road racing in America than any other significant period in automotive history. 

For almost 10 years prior to that point, the elitist, Connecticut-based Sports Car Club of America had endeavored to keep competition on a purely amateur “club racing” level. Interest in what were then generally called “sports cars” had grown exponentially since the early ’50s, and that enthusiasm—combined with the reality of ever-rising costs to compete, even on a purely amateur basis–forced the change. 

Carroll Shelby’s Cobras winning the SCCA’s first United States Road Racing Championship in 1963 broke the impasse. From that point forward, professional road racing attracted and nurtured some of the most creative minds and exceptional driving talent the world of motorsports had ever seen. Carroll Shelby was a unique combination of all those traits—a real star who changed whatever he touched. 

Fortunate timing may have been the Texan’s greatest asset. With it he used his natural driving talent and unique ability to seemingly conjure money from thin air to promote himself with ever-larger-than-life ideas that many had dreamed of, but few could crystallize into reality. 

Even though Shelby started with almost nothing, he used these twin assets and a friend’s borrowed MG to score in a few Texas club races and then, with minimal backing and an abundance of downhome Texas charm, was invited to drive ever-faster cars to international recognition. At a race in Argentina, he managed to convince British team manager John Weyer that the Shelby name might be helpful in promoting Aston Martin in America. 

By 1959, Shelby had parlayed his striped farmer’s overalls and folksy Southern drawl into even bigger and faster rides. He ended up co-driving the winning Aston Martin in the 24 Hours of Le Mans before most Americans had even heard of the race.

Upon returning home, forced into retirement because of an ailing heart, Shelby’s every move seemed well planned and sometimes even opportunistically ruthless, all with an ultimate goal of building and racing cars under his own name. The resulting national and international racing successes of his largely U.K.-built, but self-conceived and California-finished, Cobras eventually convinced Henry Ford II that his precious but stumbling U.K.-based GT40 project best belonged under Shelby’s control. 

But it hadn’t been easy. The Texan’s competitors for the lucrative contract were wealthier, far more experienced, and better connected within Ford, but the Shelby team’s on-track record was irrefutable. His carefully assembled crew, one of the finest racing teams in the business, made the difference.

When Shelby’s first Daytona Coupe won Sebring in ’64, he saw the possibilities and began harboring some wild contingency programs just in case his ultimate goal of scoring a lucrative contract with Ford didn’t pan out.

In addition to the two Daytonas that won the GT class at Le Mans in ’64, he planned to run a “stretched” Daytona with a “lightweight” 390-cubic-inch V8 set to power it to 200-plus mph in the Prototype class. His plan was to win overall against Ford’s GT40s and Ferrari’s P3s to embarrass Enzo as well as his political rivals at Holman-Moody, who’d outmaneuvered him to partially win the Ford GT40 contract for ’64 and ’65. 

Political resistance within Ford killed that dream, so for ’65 Shelby had me design the all-new Type 65 “Super Coupe,” an even faster version of the Daytona concept. Same frustrating result.                                

Another wild dream of Shelby’s was his enigmatic P70 Can-Am venture in Modena with mercurial Argentinian Alejandro de Tomaso. Before it was finished, the “Deuce” awarded the full GT40 project to Shelby–with the contractual stipulation that his GT40s would be Shelby’s only focus. The Texan’s efforts finally paid off with the overall win. 

Those years with Shelby turned out to be some of the most exciting and innovative in sports racing history. Long before the advent of electronic data collection and the quest to understand and harness airflow and ground effects, names like Hall, Chapman, Gurney, Brabham and McLaren helped rewrite the script almost every week. Shelby’s team, led by Ken Miles and Phil Remington, remained in the thick of it. They’re all gone now, and somehow racing just isn’t quite the same anymore.

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Da_Wolverine
Da_Wolverine New Reader
5/10/22 3:12 p.m.

Ya gotta love Brock, but what is more, ya gotta envy him.  He lived the early 1960s as a designer and major contributor to the sport.  His knowledge of history, especially of Shelby during those important days comes first hand.  He knew Ken Miles.  He knew ALL of the big names in early road racing history.  I really enjoy his columns becaue of his first-hand knowledge.

"Da_Wolverine" is in reference to my Alma, U of Michigan, and NOT in reference to X-Men.

Aside:  Janet Guthrie was a Wolverine, albeit a few years before my time.     

robovox71
robovox71
7/29/22 1:01 p.m.

Roger Penske also played a major role in professionalizing sports car racing.  In the early 1960s, USAC had a sports car racing divsion.  And, unlike the SCCA, allowed sponsorship decals on the cars.  Penske raced in both the SCCA and USAC, and got around the SCCA's prohibition by naming his car after his sponsor.  He'd made a deal with DuPont to name his Birdcage Maserati the "Telar Special," after DuPont's antifreeze of that name, and painted the car red to match the color of the antifreeze.  In 1963 he turned a wrecked Cooper F1 frame into the infamous "Zerex Special" sports car, again named after a DuPont antifreeze, and again painted red to reflect the color of the sponsor's product.

After Penske retired from racing as a driver and began his Penske Racing team, he began with a red Corvette at the 1966 Daytona 24-hour race.  By Sebring a month later, he'd secured sponsorship from Sunoco, and had the car painted "Sunoco blue."  He'd also acquired Corvette Grand Sport 001, cut down by Chevrolet into a roadster, and entered it at Sebring, as well, also painted "Sunoco blue," and sporting stickers for Sunoco, Firestone, Fram, and Champion spark plugs.  Interestingly, the car was allowed to race with those promotional items, but the prominent "Penske Chevrolet" markings on the front feenders had to be blacked out for the race.

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