SPECIAL: How professional racing changed the SCCA – and the world

SPECIAL: How professional racing changed the SCCA – and the world

Pro Racing

SPECIAL: How professional racing changed the SCCA – and the world


In February 2014, the Sports Car Club of America celebrates 70 years of automotive admiration. The club, known not only for its amateur motorsports programs but also setting the tone of professional racing in America, has a history that rivals any organization. As a benefit, SCCA members receive SportsCar magazine, the official magazine of the club, and in the February issue the magazine celebrated the rich history of the SCCA. What follows is one of the features from that issue telling the tale of the SCCA.

In conjunction with the February issue, SCCA members were also treated to a 13-month wall calendar celebrating the heroes of the SCCA. The calendar, brought to the SCCA membership courtesy of Brembo, Honda Performance Development, Motovicity, Tire Rack, and SCCA, as well as RACER magazine and Racer Media & Marketing Inc., features some of America’s greatest racing talent, including Skip Barber, Jim Downing, Paul Newman, Bob Tullius, Peter Cunningham, and more.

For membership information, go to SCCA’s website at www.scca.com

One thing most racers take for granted is that the SCCA is permanent, and pretty much the same as it’s always been. Club members may lobby the various committees and boards for rule changes, we might question the Board of Directors, and we might notice that popular classes and cars come and go over the years. But when you get right down to it, it sometimes appears that SCCA doesn’t change very much. It’s only when you step back and take a deeper look at SCCA’s history that you see the profound changes that have happened inside the Club, and the effect that those changes have had on the state of sports car racing in North America and around the world.

In the modern era, SCCA Pro Racing is another entity that seems to have been around for forever. Some longtime members will recall when SCCA Pro was spun off into its own corporate entity back in 1993, but even before that, SCCA Pro was working, sanctioning some of the great series of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. To really get a sense of the impact of SCCA Pro Racing, you have to go back to the 1950s and understand the Club as it was in that era.

Purity of Essence and the Fight for the Soul of SCCA

From the time it was founded in 1944 through the late 1950s, the SCCA stood for excellence in amateur racing. Sports car racing was very much a rich man’s game in those days, and the attitude of the Club leaders was the same as you’d find at any country club golf championship or sailing regatta – that the essential nature of the Club would be spoiled if a cash prize was part of any event.

Jack Hinkle, a member of SCCA’s Board of Governors in 1958, stated the position eloquently: “I feel this organization should be a pure amateur organization. Let us be the best racing outfit in the country. Our personnel, our flags, our ambulance, our everything, puts on the race…. This is an amateur Club, and for my vote it should stay an amateur Club.”

The pure amateur spirit of SCCA was admirable, but the rest of the racing world was moving into a new era. Since the dawn of auto racing, the American Automobile Association had sanctioned professional competition in America – the same AAA that makes maps and sells insurance today. But Pierre Levegh’s crash in the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans killed 84 people (including Levegh) and injured 120 more. That put an end to AAA involvement in racing, leaving NASCAR and SCCA as the primary sanctioning bodies in operation. Both the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States (ACCUS) and the United States Auto Club (USAC) were formed in 1956. ACCUS was founded to govern auto racing in America on behalf of the FIA. USAC was specifically formed by Tony Hulman of Indianapolis Motor Speedway to sanction Championship, Sprint, and Midget open-wheel racing on oval tracks.

When USAC announced that they would expand into the sports car road racing scene in 1958, it spawned a battle for the soul of SCCA and control of the development of road racing in America. The struggle that followed was unlike anything seen since that era, and could easily have destroyed the Club.

To combat the possibility of drivers supporting the USAC series, the SCCA Board of Governors announced in 1960 that, “Members who participate in events, unless specifically exempted by the Board of Governors, at which prize money, travel expense, appearance money, etc., or any other valuable remuneration is offered or given to participants shall immediately forfeit their membership privilege.”

The response to this was just what anyone would have expected from a bunch of headstrong racers. Some drivers competed under different names in the two organizations, some simply said goodbye to SCCA, and some supported the Board.

Before it was all over, FIA and ACCUS revoked the licenses of all drivers who held SCCA memberships, the SCCA Board of Governors and some of the Regions engaged in an internal and external battle of press releases and legal actions, and the whole structure of SCCA was thrown into turmoil. The result of all that was a turning point for the Club and American motorsports: SCCA took the plunge into professional racing.

Glory days of the U.S. Road Racing Championship

At the beginning of the 1962 season, SCCA and USAC were in hot competition for the loyalty of drivers and event sanctions, but SCCA still had no organized series for competition – just a bunch of varying events with international status.

That situation changed for 1963 with the introduction of the U.S. Road Racing Championship – a national professional series for sports racers (then known as Modified category cars) in divisions of over and under 2-liter engines, and grand touring cars. The new series was instantly popular and, by the end of the 1963 season, USAC threw in the towel and returned its focus to oval track open-wheel racing.

With the success of the USRRC, SCCA bought some time and breathing room to imagine and create what would become a legendary sports car racing program. The USRRC brought in drivers and builders who would build their careers in SCCA Pro Racing. Bob Holbert drove a Porsche to the Drivers’ Championship in Modifieds, while the new Shelby American Cobra entries won the GT Manufacturers’ Title in 1963 and 1964. The GT classes awarded no Drivers’ Championship, but drew notable winners including Steve McQueen, Bob Bondurant, and Roger Penske.

Formula 1 driver Jim Hall brought his Chaparral team to the USRRC Modified class and won the 1964 Drivers’ Championship. George Follmer drove a Lotus-Porsche to the Drivers’ Championship in 1965. Mark Donohue (himself a 1961 SCCA National Champion) won the USRRC Drivers’ Championship for Roger Penske Racing in 1967 driving a Lola T70 and again in 1968 at the wheel of a McLaren M6A. Three-time SCCA National Champion Skip Barber was also in the hunt in the 1967 USRRC.

SCCA discontinued the USRRC at the end of the 1968 season, but not because it was failing. The concepts proven in the USRRC had been expanded and the result of that expansion would bring SCCA Pro Racing its greatest years yet.

The Canadian-American Challenge Cup

In the fall of 1966, the Canadian Automobile Sport Clubs and SCCA combined forces to host a series of six races for FIA Group 7 cars – these were similar to the modified sports racing cars running in the USRRC, but without restrictions on engine size – or much of anything else.

The winners of the 1966 series show the potential – John Surtees won half the races. In the remaining contests, Mark Donohue driving for Roger Penske, Dan Gurney in partnership with Carroll Shelby, and Phil Hill driving for Chaparral, each claimed a single victory.

The following year, 1967, was even stronger for Can-Am, with 18 drivers participating in another fall series. McLaren dominated; with Denny Hulme winning five of the six races, while 1966 champ Surtees won the last race of the season. It was at the 1967 Can-Am race at Watkins Glen that Bob Bondurant suffered the devastating accident that nearly claimed his life. The 1968 Can-Am series continued McLaren’s dominance, with Hulme taking three races while Bruce McLaren, Donohue, and John Cannon each claimed a single victory – though all were driving McLaren cars.

With the USRRC now in the history books, the 1969 Can-Am series dominated the world of sports racing in America, and McLaren dominated the Can-Am series. Every race was won by a McLaren car, with Bruce McLaren claiming six victories to Denny Hulme’s five. That streak continued into 1970, with McLaren’s team winning nine out of 10 races. Tony Dean claimed that 10th race in a Porsche 908 at Road Atlanta.

Peter Revson, George Follmer, Mark Donohue, and Jackie Oliver claimed the 1971-’74 championships before the Can-Am series took a two-year hiatus to come to grips with the changing scene in the mid-’70s. But the impact on SCCA had been made – building success on success; SCCA had been vaulted into the major leagues of professional racing.

The Trans American Sedan Championship

At the same time that the Can-Am series was being established, SCCA Executive Director (what we would now call President) John Bishop established the Trans American Sedan Championship as a two-class series for Grand Touring cars in Club Racing’s A and B Sedan groups. The USRRC had abandoned its production car classes at the end of the 1965 season, and Trans Am was the replacement series for those drivers.

Originally envisioned as a manufacturer’s series, Trans Am did not award a Drivers’ Championship until 1972, but the series was always hard fought between the pony cars of Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, AMC, and the Pontiac Trans Am that took its name from the series (paying SCCA handsomely for the privilege). There was also a class for small-displacement cars, and this saw some epic battles between Alfa Romeo, BMW, Porsche, Lotus, and Datsun.

Trans Am, in its various forms, became the longest-running professional road racing series in American history – competing every year until 2005 and holding an abbreviated series in 2006. The series returned in 2009 under new management, but with SCCA Pro Racing remaining as the sanctioning body.

Like Can-Am, the list of Trans Am champions and team owners is a who’s who of great racing drivers – from Paul Newman to Mark Donohue, John Morton, Bob Tullius, Parnelli Jones, Greg Pickett, and Tommy Kendall, to name a few.

The Tail That Wags the Dog

Beyond an impressive list of drivers, both Trans Am and Can-Am effected huge changes throughout SCCA, from the opportunity for SCCA Club drivers and officials to make the jump to professional racing, to the way that SCCA Regions and the National program ran racing events, and in the relative focus of Club management. It was impossible to ignore the amount of money that Pro Racing brought to the Club – including royalty payments from Pontiac for the use of the Trans Am name. Yet as so often happens, success brought a whole new basket of problems to the SCCA table.

In 1969, matters came to a head when a plan to merge SCCA with USAC was revealed. Larry Dent, the Regional Executive of Fort Wayne Region, stated that the “professional tail is now wagging the Club dog.” Member outcry was vast and the results were almost as tumultuous as the previous fight over professional versus amateur status. The proposed merger was scuttled, but before this round was over, Dent had his membership temporarily suspended and several national employees departed, including Executive Director John Bishop.

Bishop’s departure was perhaps the most profound event in the history of professional sports car racing in America, because Bishop had previously become friends with NASCAR’s owner, Bill France Sr., and with his departure from SCCA he partnered with France to form the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA).
While Bishop always insisted that IMSA was not designed to compete with SCCA, the two entities maintained a strong rivalry with a host of similar series over the years as IMSA grew into an internationally significant sanctioning body.

To read the rest of the story, head to http://www.scca.com and join the SCCA. Once a member, login at https://ams.scca.com to view a digital version of the February issue of SportsCar magazine.


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