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Trans Am - The Early Years of American Sedan Racing

Trans Am - A history of the first years in American Sedan Racing

Photography by The Primedia Archives

American racing has always been dominated by the drag and circle track varieties. After all, the U.S. is an enormous place where many (if not most) of the roads are arrow-straight and virtually every one of the country's 3,141 counties has a fairground with an oval horse track. So it was only natural for us to race ... well ... there. It's Europe that's filled with twisty roads up the sides of mountains and former goat paths through vineyards--they're the ones who came up with road racing.

Still if there's one road racing series that has found a place in American hearts, it's the SCCA's Trans Am. Not the current Trans Am, but the Trans Am between 1966 and 1971 when American ponycars with American V-8s thundered in brutal battle. It's the series which spawned such muscle-era legends as the Camaro Z/28, Mustang Boss 302, Challenger T/A, AAR 'Cuda and, of course, the Firebird Trans Am. It's the series that made Mark Donohue a legend, set Roger Penske up as the most successful racing team owner of all time, and solidified Parnelli Jones' reputation as the toughest driver. It was, in short, glorious.

1966: The Beginning

Trans Am was born alongside ponycars. The '65 Mustang hit racetracks moments after its introduction and (as the Shelby GT350) found instant success in SCCA's B-Production Sedan "amateur" division. But since there was a void where professional sedan racing should have been, SCCA Executive Director John Bishop established a "manufacturer's" title. He figured that if he attracted Ford, GM, and Chrysler to the series, the big-name drivers would follow.The hook for the carmakers was that these would be production-based machines. Sure, most of the stories about chemically lightened bodies, relocated suspension systems, engines repositioned for better weight distribution, and eccentric engine modifications are true. But fundamentally these were race cars built around stock unibody cars running production-based engines, transmissions, and suspensions. The SCCA's rules for the series were strict, and the competing teams were aggressive in twisting those rules for their advantage.

Initially, Trans Am was divided into divisions for under and over 2.0L engines, and at the first race on March 25, 1966, at Sebring, Florida, fully 35 of the 44 starters ran in the dinkier displacement division. But the great A.J. Foyt put a Mustang on the pole for the "Four-Hour Governor's Cup Race For Sedans," and the roar of the seven V-8-powered entries (three Mustangs, three Plymouth Barracudas, and one Dodge Dart--two flat-six powered Corvairs filled out the over-2.0L field), was intoxicating. The V-8s were fragile that first race, and most dropped out, but no one cared about the four-cylinder Alfas, Minis, and Cortinas. Bob Tullius took the first checkered flag for the over-2.0L division, driving that sole-surviving Dart.

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