Small-Bore Sedan Racing: Big Back in the Day, Just as Big Today


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Story by James Heine • Photography as Credited

Fifty years ago, small-bore sedan racing exploded upon the professional and amateur scenes. The competition was close, brash and full of brands loved by enthusiasts.

Guess what? All of those attractions still hold their appeal, and today multiple groups keep small-bore racing’s flame alive from coast to coast. They’re also having a lot of fun in the process.

A New Idea

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For the 1966 racing season, the SCCA introduced a new brand of road racing in a big way: Under the guidance of John Bishop, the sanctioning body created four new racing classes, A Sedan through D Sedan. As their names hint, these classes welcomed closed cars sporting a back seat; at the time, SCCA classes for production-based cars catered to open-top sports cars.

A Sedan attracted grids of V8-powered cars that defined the then-new pony car wars. The other classes welcomed small sedans.

Also that same year, the SCCA launched Trans-Am, a parallel professional series for cars eligible for the A and B Sedan classes. Thanks to the right mix of cars, drivers and venues, it quickly became red-hot. It’s now an icon of mid-century motorsports, and today its A Sedan cars remain the stars of many vintage events.

To a slightly lesser degree, the same may be said for B Sedan and its professional sibling, the small-bore Trans-Am class. While initially home to sub-2.0-liter sedans, it received a 500cc bump in displacement as well as a new name for 1971: the Two-Five Challenge. Even though this professional series enjoyed a somewhat short life–the SCCA pulled the plug after 1972–B Sedan flourished until 1979.

Today many of those eligible cars remain mainstays of small-bore vintage racing. They continue to provide close racing on a relatively fair budget–as fair as anything gets in racing, of course.

Kickstarting the Past

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For VSCDA racer Steve Bonk, creating a dedicated series for these small-bore sedans was a natural outgrowth of his interest in vintage motorsports and the appeal of B Sedan racers, especially the Datsun 510.

He acquired his own 510 some 20 years ago after realizing that track days in his Lotus Esprit turbo could become, well, expensive if something untoward occurred. Around that same time he had an epiphany, he says, while noticing a Datsun 510 tearing around the track. “I thought to myself, ‘Holy cow, that car’s really fast,’” he recalls. “Well, I found I could pick up an ex-SCCA car reasonably, and that’s what I did.”

He found a Datsun 510 that had been prepared for SCCA’s GT4 ranks–that’s the class that replaced B Sedan in 1980. It’s now one of a pair of 510s that Bonk and his brothers, Chris and Phil, own.

Bonk conceived the Trans-Am–B Sedan 2.5 Challenge as a way to give his B Sedan friends a race of their own at vintage events, organizing his first event in the fall of 2009. Today his TABS series, short for Trans-Am–B Sedan, runs in conjunction with Midwest VSCDA weekends. Similar West Coast events are planned independently and coordinated by TABS West in conjunction with SVRA and VARA weekends.

The response to his series has been excellent, Bonk says. Not only has the series given owners a place to race their cars, but it has also raised the visibility of the old 2.5 Challenge and B Sedan categories. “Someone pointed out to me that people have started purchasing these cars,” he says. “I know a couple of guys that have at least two 510s. They have one for the West Coast and one for the Midwest.”

It’s not an expensive series to run, either. “We’ve got Volvos involved, Mazdas–we try to get whatever we can,” Bonk adds. “There’s usually good racing on the grid from front to back.”

VSCDA president and Alfa GTV racer Barb Nevoral agrees. She has participated in many TABS races and says she enjoys the events as well as the opportunity to race exclusively with similar cars. Also, Nevoral says, the series complements VSCDA’s philosophy of giving drivers a big helping of track time and good value for their entry fees.

Her 1967 Alfa Romeo GTV is now built to GTA specs. “It’s a joy to drive,” she says. “When you go into a corner, if it’s set up right, it just hunkers down. You can feel the car–the rear end–settle into the pavement. It’s the most wonderful feeling, to know that you’ve hit the corner and it’s snugged into it the way it should. And as you go through the corner, you put the gas on and it’s on to the next one.”

Easy on the Budget

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This kind of racing does not have to be an expensive proposition. Steve Bonk says a car appropriate for the series can start at around $3500. That’s going to buy a well-travelled car prepared for SCCAs Improved Touring ranks, he explains. (The SCCAs Improved Touring classes also welcome small-bore sedans from the ’60s and ’70s; they’re just a little milder than a true B Sedan or small-bore Trans-Am build.)

For a fully prepped turnkey B Sedan or 2.5 Challenge tribute car, just add a zero to that price tag–and then maybe double it just to make sure. As with all things in life, a bargain-basement buy will likely mean that the car needs work to make it race-ready, Bonk adds.

Because his TABS series is open to cars through 1979, the end of road for the B Sedan category, Bonk suggests that a VW Rabbit or even a Ford Fiesta might be a good starting point for a beginning racer with a modest budget. Such cars might not have the allure of a 510, a 2002 or an Alfa Romeo, but they are available, he says, and they can make good race cars.

The West Coast Option

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Out by the Pacific the story is similar, says Steve Link, who-along with BMW racer Matt Rose and Datsun 510 racer Tom Neely–shepherds the California-based series. It’s known as the Holley/MSD TABS West Series.

Link and Rose created the series several years ago as a way to not only pay homage to the original small-bore Trans-Am series and its B Sedan counterpart, but also help VARA, which at the time was facing a tough road because of the recession. About three-quarters of the way through the first TABS West season, they were joined by Neely, Link explains.

“We were looking for a way to encourage people to get out and a way to recreate the excitement of B Sedan from the 1970s and the Trans-Am from 1971 and 1972,” Link says, adding that with help from Neely they have made a connection with Holley, now MSD’s parent company. The popular aftermarket supplier helps with expenses for trophies, banners and the occasional barbecue.

The response to the series has been gratifying, Link reports. So far this year, more than 20 drivers have recorded series points. “It’s a ton of fun and good competition,” he adds.

For the most part, Link says, TABS West has adopted the same rules as Bonk’s organization–which are based on the 1972 SCCA General Competition Rules with some adjustments here and there, such as an occasional 50-pound rewards weight if a car proves too successful. Also, Link notes, TABS West follows VARAs spec tire rule requiring the Toyo Proxes R888.

“Getting in a race car at a track is always a good day and a good thing,” says Link, whose father, Floyd, was part of BRE during the Trans-Am years, “but it is extra-special when you know the fella across from you and the fella behind you–and maybe the fella in front of you. It’s a good, good group.”

As it was before, that’s what today’s small-bore sedan racing is all about: fun times both on and off the track.

“We’ve got Volvos involved, Mazdas–we try to get whatever we can. There’s usually good racing on the grid from front to back.”

“It’s the most wonderful feeling, to know that you’ve hit the corner and it’s snugged into it the way it should.”

The East Coast Alternative

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The SCCA wasn’t the only game in town when it came to small-bore sedan racing. IMSA launched their successful and popular IMSA Radial Sedan for the 1971 season.

It’s a series that Brian Walsh remembers fondly: His dad, Jerry Walsh, campaigned a Ford Pinto. Today, Brian runs the family businesses–Ford motorsports supply house Racer Walsh as well as the Decal Shop–and also organizes his IMSA RS/SCCA 2.5 Challenge Reunion Races. He’s been holding those races for more than a decade and tends to concentrate on the East Coast.

“Eligibility for my events is pretty loose,’ Walsh says, “so long as it’s a small sedan and it was eligible to race in any of the three series or groups–IMSA RS from ’71 to ’83, 2.5 Challenge from ’71 and ’72, and B Sedan. If your car fits in one of these categories, you can come and play with us.” Typically, Walsh says, his events draw a field of about 25 cars, although total entries have reached as high as 40.

Walsh says those old race cars are out there, with many legit IMSA machines simply parked in garages. He believes that a lot of them just needed a new fuel cell or other upgrade, but life simply got in the way.

Continuing the family tradition, Brian runs his dad’s popular purple Pinto. It’s comparable to other cars of the era, he explains. It’s also user-friendly in terms of maintenance, parts availability and preparation. “You have to hustle it around the race track,” Brian notes. “You have to drive it like you stole it.”

Horst Kwech: Alfa Romeo's Go-To Guy in the States

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For many fans of B Sedan racing and the SCCA’s 2.5 Trans-Am Challenge series, Horst Kwech is best remembered for the furious battles he waged against John Morton during the 1971 and 1972 season. Others, especially IMSA fans, may recall that Kwech and Lee Dykstra created the awe-inspiring DeKon Monza with which Al Holbert dominated the IMSA Camel GT in 1976 and 1977.

Yet long before those days, the young Chicago racer from Down Under had distinguished himself as a wrench, tuner, engineer, team manager/owner and race car driver, collecting four back-to-back Central Division titles for Alfa Romeo. Kwech also won both the first B Sedan national title as well as the SCCA’s President’s Cup in 1966–as well as that year’s inaugural small-bore Trans-Am title for Alfa Romeo.

“It was an amazing year,” Kwech says about that 1966 season. “We won everything there was to win. And it was a very, very small team. There was my wife and I, two of our friends, and when we long-distance raced, Oscar Feldman and Gaston Andre, but the rest was pretty much me–I was the oil changer, the engine tuner, the fixer-repairer, etc., etc.”

Alfa Romeo upped the ante for 1967 and asked him to run two cars, one for himself and another for Monte Winkler, Kwech notes. He noticed that the Alfa factory teams had parts not available to privateers. “We got a little smarter,” he says. “We started building our own cars.”

In building their own cars, the only real problem Kwech says he encountered with the Alfa Romeo GTAs related to the oil sump. “On long-distance races, we weren’t smart enough to have extra oil reservoirs,” he says. “In order to get the performance out of the engines, we ran them pretty loose. So they started puffing oil, and usually, quite close to the end, when one went poof, the other one wasn’t far behind.” Still, Kwech says, “The GTA was a beautiful car to drive, because it was light and very responsive.”

The same couldn’t always be said of the Shelbys he also drove during the same time period. “Between Jerry Titus and myself, I think we blew 45 engines,” he recalls. “When you blow an engine on the pace lap at Mid-Ohio, you’re not having a good time.”

The Shelby team switched to Ford’s Cleveland engine for 1968, but Kwech recalls that the cars were then also plagued by carburetor problems, including issues with sticking linkages. “The Mustang had more power, but the Alfa was much more fun to drive,” Kwech says. “Many a time when we were testing, and I had more fuel spray on the windshield than I had in the carburetor, I thought, ‘How nice it would be to drive a GTA.’” Shelby exited Trans-Am following the 1 968 season, and Kwech returned to the under-two-liter series with an 1 800cc Alfa Romeo GTV. Fie won yet another two-liter Trans-Am title for himself and Alfa Romeo in 1970, and was a fixture in the series through 1972.

“It was a great car,” he says, “but the SCCA heaped so much weight on the car, you really had to work your bottom off to stay ahead of the Datsuns. But even then, we were super competitive.”

And what does Kwech, the Alfa master and the co-creator of the IMSA DeKon Monza, drive today, you ask? Well, how about a 201 6 Mazda MX-5 Miata.

“It’s a wonderful car,” he says. “Some people say it’s not practical, but it’s a great car to drive. It doesn’t have 200 or 300 horsepower, but it’s a lot of fun, even for an old guy.”

Does he still talk to Morton? While the two battled fiercely during those 1971 and 1972 seasons, they’re still close.

“And we are good friends to this very day,” he says.

First-Hand Report from Peter Brock: Transforming the Datsun 510 from an Econobox into a Track Star

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The SCCA’s Trans-Am series of the late ’60s and early ’70s is probably best remembered for the fierce factory competition between Ford, Chevrolet, Chrysler and American Motors. However, those fans who were first lured to America’s fastest circuits by the intense competition between the big factory-backed V8s soon learned that the series’ curtain-raiser, the small sedans participating in the under-2.5-liter Trans-Am series, was equally as exciting. These small, mostly foreign cars brought in a whole new demographic and expanded the appeal of the entire Trans-Am series.

What few remember now is that the visionaries who first dreamed up Trans-Am, the SCCA’s Jim Kaser and John Bishop, both believed that each of the already involved American manufacturers would be just as enthusiastic about promoting their new economy cars-vehicles like Ford’s Falcon, Chevrolet’s Corvair and Chrysler’s Valiant. These three wildly different designs all hit the market in a similar timeframe, having been designed expressly to thwart the growing incursion of foreign makes from Europe and the U.K. that were already proving their appeal to a younger generation of enthusiasts.

As successful as the big cars were, Kaser and Bishop completely missed their small-car target for several reasons. Prior to 1962, the SCCA had focused entirely on two-seat sports cars, never making provisions for small sedans, so there was no waiting phalanx of shoebox racers to fill their grids. The younger set had already seen the future and moved past and into intriguing foreign designs that were trendier, more fun to drive, and far less expensive to own and operate.

Even more incredible to the SCCA’s planners was Detroit’s complete lack of interest in small cars. With their hefty competition budgets already assigned to their big V8s, there was simply no extra funding to develop an all-new type of car for an economy-targeted market–a segment for which most of the players in Detroit’s performance game had little enthusiasm.

In Southern California, however, the outlaw California Sports Car Club (which had steadfastly opposed the dominant SCCA’s amateur-only philosophy for road racing) had wisely seen the potential for sedan racing and opened their popular regional grids to a small, but enthusiastic, band of tin-top racers who brought in a wildly diverse selection of marques to liven their unique class. The appeal was instant. Most of the cars were small-bore foreign sedans, which could be purchased secondhand and easily prepped for a few hundred dollars.

That decision, almost unnoticed when first announced, would change all road racing in America. The Cal Club would eventually merge with the SCCA, but only after the SCCA’s ultra-conservative board of governors accepted the obvious and recognized the value of pro racing with the announcement of their new Trans-Am series.

Porsche’s 911 was allowed to run in the early under-2-liter Trans-Am series because the SCCA needed the entries. Even with its tiny rear “seats,” however, the 911 was obviously not a sedan and the Panzers easily outpaced the competition.

They were soon banned, leaving the new series wide open for dozens of small privateer teams with no factory backing.

Surprisingly, there was little support from foreign manufacturers, since all competition in Europe was based on FIA regulations that allowed serious modifications and options that weren’t available on the showroom floor. The SCCA’s Trans-Am rules, in complete contrast, were practical and cost-saving. They disallowed any major chassis, body or engine modifications, so no tube frames, no lightweight bodies, and no twin-plug racing engines. The goal was to appeal to the SCCA’s traditionally amateur racers who wanted to run their production-based sedans in hopes that maybe some of the tantalizing prize money from the new series would help offset their meager budgets.

The Trans-Am thus became very appealing for home tuners in both the over- and under-2.5 classes who had neither the advanced engineering skills nor the budgets for complete changes in suspension design or radical full-blown, factory-optioned power. For example, almost everything listed as “options” in the FIA’s homologation papers for the Alfa Romeos, BMWs and Ford Cortinas was illegal under American rules, so the lack of interest in the SCCA’s 2.5 series from those automobile manufacturers across the Atlantic was understandable. They had neither parts nor experience to offer any advantage.

The attraction of the SCCA’s practical, build-it-from-stock rules was great news to the average underfunded SCCA entrant. Racers jumped in with every possible minimal-cost vehicle that could be raced;

Saabs, Hinos, VWs, NSUs, Mini Coopers, Renaults, British Fords, Triumphs and a half-dozen other “unknowns” soon made up the 2.5 grids. As always, though, it was the cream-in this case the Alfas and BMWs–that soon rose to the top and began dominating the series.

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Few expected Datsun to enter the series with its inexpensive 510 econo-box sedan. Most Japanese cars of that era were considered less appealing, and offered far less performance potential than their European counterparts. But some serious change was in the air because of one man, Yutaka Katayama, president of Nissan’s U.S. presence.

The previous two years success of his self-mandated Datsun 240Zs in amateur SCCA competition had made a significant impression on the American market. In fact, there was already a three-month waiting list for delivery of one of Mr. K’s appealing Z-cars when Brock Racing Enterprises, Datsun’s West Coast Z-car team, submitted a proposal to race the 510 in the SCCA’s 2.5 series.

Even though the little 510, also a product of Katayama’s marketing genius, was never even remotely intended for competition, the potential was obvious. The 510’s engine, a 1600cc four-cylinder variant of the Z-car’s 2.4-liter six, was an ideal contender for the new series. All the performance development for the engine’s basic design had been completed by BRE in the two previous seasons, so a four-cylinder version was soon on the dyno making good power.

The 510 had never been designed with competition in mind, so few in Nissan’s highly consensus-driven, ultra-conservative management in Tokyo understood how the car could be successfully raced in America. Katayama didn’t wait for corporate sanction; he stepped in and approved BRE’s proposal, and the series was changed overnight.

Ultimately, what made sense was the SCCA’s simple rules. With only a few specially engineered components being allowed for all cars in the class, a season’s developmental costs would be minimal and no factory involvement was required. What was permitted was complete modification of the existing stock parts, as long as no material was added to reconfigure those components; and everything necessary for Datsun’s entry would be developed in California.

BRE was given the contract to develop two 510s for the 1971 season, and we hit the track running with ace helmsman John Morton at the wheel. We scored lap records and victories almost from the start of the season, running against the equally fast and consistent teams from previously dominant Alfa Romeo and BMW privateers.

Since the European cars had technically superior twin-cam, cross-flow heads, the SCCA officials initially assigned a slight weight penalty to compensate. But by the second season, when the Datsuns were delivered with 1800cc engines, the weight penalties were reversed and the Datsuns were forced to carry extra ballast. California hotrodding had matched sophisticated European engineering so well that ultimately power-to-weight ratios were almost identical.

In the end, what made the 2.5 series so equal in terms of performance was frontal area. With minimal allowances to body modifications, every car running in the series essentially had no aero advantage in performance, so the competition basically boiled down to driver skill and team performance in the pits.

With race lengths purposely designed to exceed fuel tank capacities, race strategy became paramount: Start light, take the lead, and fuel early. Or you could take the green with a full tank and bet on yellows to conserve fuel mid-race and possibly go the distance without stopping. Multi-car teams like those from BRE or Herb Wetson’s three-car Alfa Romeo squad had a distinct advantage because they could use different tactics to take advantage of whatever played out on the track.

Today the appeal of under-2.5-liter racing is still as strong as it was then. Good, fast, safe racing in comparatively equal cars with minimal rules intrusion makes small sedan racing about as inexpensive as it comes, considering the quality of fine equipment competing. Even though some regulations have been eased to permit a more practical enforcement of the rules, the competition is still just as tough and fun as it ever was.


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Comments
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oldeskewltoy
oldeskewltoy UltraDork
9/12/18 11:30 a.m.

have you seen this years Goodwood???   The small bore stuff(as well as big bore sedans) were going at it... GREAT RACING!!!

 

https://youtu.be/wru5CPm4H1A

Gary
Gary SuperDork
9/12/18 8:03 p.m.

I came of age in the sixties (road racing that is). I liked the underdogs of the U2L Trans-Am class. That's why I liked the picture of the Racer Walsh Pinto. That was a classic low bucks under-funded Ford Pinto adversary to the big-bucks factory Datsun and Alfa teams of the era. I always cheered for Racer Walsh. That car is still racing in Northeast vintage racing, still looks fantastic, and I still want it to succeed.

stu67tiger
stu67tiger Reader
9/12/18 9:54 p.m.

The first race I went to was the '72 Trans Am at Lime Rock.  My buddies and I were all into the small imported sedans that were gaining in popularity at that time  We were there to see the BRE Datsuns vs the Alfa and everybody else.  When the  big bore race started, we watched a bit then hit the food stand and mens room.  A couple of the pictures I took that day were used in the republication of the Stainless Steel Carrot a few years back.  

And speaking of Pintos... Later that year we hung around with Carson Baird at the Bryar night race for IMSA small bore cars.  Was that the BFG race back then?  He was in the process of winning the championship that year, in a Pinto, beating up on the BMW's, etc.  Great fun.  I wonder what happened to that Pinto?

And, Damn!  I've got to get off my ass and edit my pictures from the Lime Rock Vintage weekend.

Stu

alfadriver
alfadriver MegaDork
9/13/18 6:54 a.m.

Back in 2005, I got an ITB GTV just to go racing in this group.  But just got it out to one event.

Thankfully- I sold it this year, and it will soon be racing with other small sedans.  Great car.  But it's another IT car that turned into a vintage race car- it's an amazingly easy thing to do.  The chassis is almost exactly the same- weight is different, and it's the engine and trans that are open to most modifications.

This was the racing I was most interested in doing.

Tom1200
Tom1200 HalfDork
9/13/18 9:19 p.m.

Due to the Keihin flat slide carbs on my Datsun I run in a catch all class but the my class is in with the B-sedan cars. 

The group is really great to run with. I found Matt Rose and Steve Link to be very good guys. Part of that is Steve was hugely complimentary of my driving; how can you not like someone who tells you your driving the wheels of your car when your driving the wheels off your car. These guys all paddock together and have a lot of fun.

While obviously it cost money to run up front it doesn't take a lot of bucks to be fairly competitive. My motor is very moldy tuned and I manage slightly better than mid-pack, I'm spending around $2,000 building my own motors (they go 5 seasons or more) if I'd spend another $1000 on the cylinder head I could probably manage 5-7th over all rather than my 9-10th.

Using an old SCCA IT car is absolutely the way to go if your doing you own work. Install an upgraded camshaft, clean up the ports, install a set of sided raft carbs and call it a day. If you run Toyo tires like many of the competitors do, your tire bill won't be so bad. Keeping the compression in the 10.5-1 range will also cut the fuel bill. 

Again for anyone wanting to go vintage racing this is a really good group. I've had some titanic battles for mid-pack glory. While my ego would love to leave the field behind its a lot more fun scrapping it out. Previously I ran in with the small bore sports car run group, while that was fun and I ran up front, I'd have a good dice on the opening lap or two and then I'd settle in between the top 3 or 4 (perennially 5th overall) and the 6th - 10th placed cars. The driver depth seems to be a little deeper in B-sedan.

 

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