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.
Bud Moore was the driving force behind the Cougars constructed for Mercury and the Boss 30
Bob Tullius won the first Trans Am race at Daytona in this Dart but Dodge would never find
The early days of Trans Am included cars not often associated with ponycar racing like a p
The AMC Javelins were bedeviled by engine problems throughout 1969 with their 304ci V-8s (
Ronnie Bucknum in the #9 Penske Camaro (on his way to finishing Second) chases George Foll
Factory teams didn't enter Trans Am until September of that first season when Carroll Shelby put Lew Spencer in charge of a three-car Ford Mustang effort. With Jerry Titus (then editor of Sports Car Graphic magazine) as the lead driver, the Ford team had little trouble securing the first over-2.0L Trans Am title, winning four of the seven races.
The factories were a major presence through all 12 races of the Trans Am's second season. Shelby returned with his Mustangs, Mercury recruited NASCAR legend Bud Moore to build Mercury Cougars for Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, and Ed Leslie, and Chevrolet had Roger Penske and Mark Donohue armed with the all-new Camaro Z/28.When the 12-race '67 Trans Am season opened at Daytona on February 3, a full 34 cars made up the field. Bob Tullius put his well-sorted Dart a full lap ahead of the rest of the field in the first race and then immediately faded for the rest of the year. A startling 61 cars made it to the next race, Sebring, with 26 of them big-motor monsters and 13 of those Camaros. Jerry Titus in a Shelby-built Mustang took that race.
It was ironic that Pontiac's Trans Am was never a serious contender in the series from whi
Titus's four wins secured another manufacturer's title over the Cougars (who also won four times), but it was Mark Donohue's three wins in the Z/28 that should have had his competitors concerned. But not even Donohue could have imagined what was in store for him during 1968.
A full 36 years later, the Penske team's '68 Trans Am season is still one of the greatest feats in motorsports history. Donohue's brilliant driving and the near-perfect Penske Camaros won 10 of the 13 races--including eight in a row. Neither Bud Moore's nor Shelby's Mustangs (Mercury had dropped out) stood a chance against the Penske onslaught. In fact, the racing wasn't all that fascinating to watch, as Donohue would rip to the front and remain unchallenged.
But this sort of overwhelming performance led to other manufacturers' determination that Chevrolet should not be allowed to dominate the series.
Here Jerry Titus' #8 Firebird (the production Trans Am's hood scoop was declared illegal)
Going into 1969 there was little reason to think that Mark Donohue's #6 Sunoco Blue Camaro would be anything but dominant. Ford's answer to the Z/28 was the new '69 Boss 302, and Ford financed two teams for 1969--Carroll Shelby's with drivers Peter Revson and Horst Kwech, and the other Bud Moore's with pilots Parnelli Jones and George Follmer. AMC campaigned the Javelin for a second year with team owner Ronnie Kaplan and had virtually no success. Jerry Titus was tapped by Pontiac to campaign the new Firebird Trans Am in the series, but that effort would produce little beyond frustration.
It was the war between Ford and Chevy that made the '69 Trans Am year legendary. Parnelli Jones' Bud Moore-prepared Mustang was fast and stout--the Boss 302 engine thrived at high speeds. Jones won the rounds at Michigan and Donnybrooke, and took three Seconds while teammate #16 George Follmer won at Bridgehampton. Add in consistent finishes by the Shelby team and the Mustangs stayed close to the Camaros in the manufacturers' championship, even though they only won half as many races.
The '69 Trans Am season was hard-fought, as evidenced by the right front damage on Donohue
Mark Donohue "only" won six times in 1969--a disappointment only in comparison to his 1968 season. Penske however wasn't a "factory" team, despite its professionalism. For instance Donohue's engines suffered repeated rod breakage early in the season after Chevy had recommended omitting shot-peening them. Only when engine-builder Traco began to ignore the factory's advice did the reliability return. Beyond Donohue's six wins, Penske driver Ronnie Bucknum would win two more.
Roger Penske played some aggressive mind games with the competition. His Camaros wore vinyl roofs at some events to, supposedly, hide the acid-dipped waviness of their roof sheetmetal, and used a fuel tank that soared above the pit to put gravity to work fueling the Sunoco cars.
Rule changes allowed de-stroked engines down to the 5.0 liters for 1970-made cars like Sam
With limited support from Chevrolet, Roger Penske and Mark Donohue dominated Trans Am for two years. Imagine how well they'd do with the full support of American Motors and $2 million of AMC money. While the Penske/Donohue move was big news for 1970, it was hardly the only news.
Just about everyone went Trans Am racing in 1970. Though Ford slashed its racing budget by 75 percent, there was still enough for Bud Moore to build new Boss 302s for Parnelli Jones and George Follmer (Carroll Shelby stayed home). Jerry Titus was back with all-new Firebirds, and the all-new Camaro would now be campaigned by Chaparral's legendary Jim Hall. Chrysler Corporation also dove into the fray with a Dodge Challenger T/A for driver/owner Sam Posey and Plymouth AAR 'Cudas for Dan Gurney and Swede Savage.
The Chaparral Chevy and both Mopar efforts were fruitless and the Firebirds still couldn't compete. Pontiac's competitive disappointment was tragically compounded when Jerry Titus died in a wreck at Road Atlanta.
Roger Penske and Bud Moore still dominated Trans Am during 1970 with all but two races going to one or the other.
Destroking AMC's 360 V-8 proved vastly more successful for Roger Penske than the over-bored and over-stressed 290s had been for previous Javelin efforts. Penske/Donohue started strong with a Second at Laguna Seca, and then won mid-season races at Bridgehampton, Road America, and Mt. Trembiant. Penske teammate Peter Revson's best finish was a Second at Bryar.
Mark Donohue had no problem overwhelming the '71 Trans Am season in his factory-backed AMC
Sam Posey's #77 Challenger finished Third three times during 1970, but never could do better. But the most shocking lack of success was that of Jim Hall in the Camaro. Hall himself drove the #1 Camaro with Ed Leslie and Vic Elford in #2. Elford drove the #2 car to a win at Watkins Glen, but that was the new Camaro's only win.
The Bud Moore duo of Parnelli Jones (five wins) and George Follmer (one win) combined to earn Ford the 1970 Trans Am championship. Jones' legend was greatly enhanced by his run during the season-ending race at Riverside. A back marker bumped Jones' #15 into the desert while he was leading, and then, despite extensive damage, he worked his way back from Ninth to win. The car was difficult to turn, so Jones would bounce off the track's curbing to get the car up on two wheels through Turn Two. The man was (and still is) one tough hombre.
Ford, Dodge, Plymouth, Chevrolet, and Pontiac all pulled the plug on their Trans Am support before the start of the 1971 season. That left Roger Penske's AMC Javelin team with nothing but older cars and privateers for competition during the year. In fact the only significant rule change for 1971 was legalizing dry-sump lubrication. Donohue won seven of the ten Trans Am races run during 1971 and finished Second once. The three races Donohue didn't win, George Follmer did. Follmer used Bud Moore's '70 Mustangs to win twice and an ex-Penske Javelin run by Roy Woods managed to win the season finale at Riverside.
The legendary Parnelli Jones won five times in 1970 wheeling the Bud Moore-prepped Boss 30
Donohue dominated so convincingly in the Javelin that at Lime Rock his car was a full five laps ahead of the Second place Mustang driven by Tony DeLorenzo. That sort of dominance wasn't just amazing, it was boring, and interest in the Trans Am was dropping not just among the fans but the racers themselves.
Penske left Trans Am after 1971 selling his equipment to Roy Woods and going off to concentrate on Can Am and Indianapolis. In fact Donohue would win the '72 Indianapolis 500 with Penske.
The Trans Am soldiers on to this day but without the stock suspensions and production-based engines. In its day, Trans Am not only produced some great racing, but spawned exceptional cars like the Z/28, Boss 302, AAR 'Cuda, T/A Challenger, and the Pontiac Trans Am. That alone is enough to guarantee its place in history.