PRUETT: The oral history of Fast Masters

Image courtesy Mike Follmer

PRUETT: The oral history of Fast Masters

North American Racing

PRUETT: The oral history of Fast Masters

Bring some of racing’s biggest names out of retirement from Indy car, sports cars, NASCAR, and even the NHRA, wedge them into 12 of Jaguar’s brand-new, ultra-rare $1.3 million road racing XJ220C supercars, then drop the aging heroes onto the claustrophobic 0.686-mile Indianapolis Raceway Park oval and eventually its ‘roval’ as part of the first made-for-TV racing series for 50-and-older icons.

What could go wrong?

Image courtesy Tony Dowe

Back in the summer of 1993, the gorgeous XJ220Cs, built in England by Tom Walkinshaw Racing, were bashed and battered for our amusement like demolition derby cars at the county fair. The six-week special airing on ESPN, modeled off the cable channel’s Thursday Night Thunder concept, delivered five weeks of heat races to whittle down the grid for Fast Masters’ grand finale. Quickly dubbed the ‘Crash Masters,’ it received the most accurate nickname in the sport.

The open-wheelers and a few of the sports car legends feasted on their fellow luminaries with the 550hp twin-turbo V6-powered beasts. Moments into the very first broadcast (and moments after the shot below), beloved Indy 500 driver Jim McElreath and stock car great Dick Trickle tangled coming off Turn 4, rocketing the two onto pit lane. Trickle then hit and obliterated victory lane, prompting Fast Masters’ first caution period. It would be the first of many.

Across the numerous practice sessions and knockout-style heat races, all of the Jags were introduced to IRP’s walls. If the drivers weren’t crashing on their own, multi-car pileups were almost guaranteed when the green flag waved. An adjustment was soon made for the practices; fearing a shortage of functional cars to put in front of the cameras, two spare cars were rolled out as sacrificial lambs for the masters to learn the circuit and, inevitably, return dangling various bits and pieces from the cars’ extremities.

TWR’s mechanics, based out of the same Valparaiso, Indiana shop where its fearsome IMSA GTP Jaguars were prepped, grew so tired of trailering the second-hand XJ220Cs to the crosstown auto body shop for repairs, they took to strapping in and driving the mangled race cars to and from the facility on public roads.

The same TWR crew, coming off a magic year of running the all-time great 1992 Jaguar XJR-14 GTP machine, attempted mutiny after the first Fast Masters event. Little did they know their pains were nearly avoided when the series’ creator came close to striking a deal with budget supercar manufacturer Consulier before it went sideways and Jaguar entered the frame.

Image courtesy Terry Lingner

And there was a mighty fine carrot being dangled in front of aging lions: $100,000 — almost $175 grand in today’s dollars — for the winner of the inaugural Fast Masters championship.

Paul Newman, Bobby Unser, David Pearson, George Follmer, Parnelli Jones, Bob Akin, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Allison, Ed McCulloch, Harry Gant, David Hobbs, Troy Ruttman, Eddie Hill, Derek Bell, Gary Bettenhausen, Fred Lorenzen, and dozens of revered stars signed on to pursue the six-figure prize.

Image courtesy Terry Lingner

And carnage ensued.

On its 25th anniversary, the Fast Masters series continues to stand as one of the most delightfully unhinged racing concepts to become a reality.

Told by Terry Lingner, the series’ creator and producer, Bobby Unser, its first and only champion, and TWR USA boss Tony Dowe, who supplied and maintained the cars on behalf of Jaguar, here are some of the story’s highlights taken from the full-length podcast captured earlier this year.

TERRY LINGNER: It really came as an offshoot of just being involved for such a long time, obviously, but at the time I was doing a lot more NASCAR and I was struck by the idea that the Bobby Allisons and the Pettys and the Pearsons of the world could still haul the mail and the idea that maybe a stock car, you could do like seniors’ golf. Why not have a Saturday race for guys over 45? Literally, at ESPN, I was just trying to think of a way to maybe create some more programming, but maybe a 100-mile race. Even on race day, which is sacrilegious in NASCAR, you know. Only one race.

David Pearson and Paul Newman (Image courtesy Terry Lingner)

But it just kind of came out of that, that the people that built the sport on their backs, and then you obviously throw Mario and Parnelli, all these guys, but it never did seem practical that you would ever want to do something like that in an open-wheel car, but I was really … honestly, my first thought was, how could I create a 10-race seniors package for NASCAR? And that got it percolating.

TONY DOWE: Jaguar were pulling out of racing in North America, and there was still one year of a contract to go, and Tom [Walkinshaw] had gone to New York to meet with [Jaguar executives] Mike Dale and Bob Burton and so on, and he came onto me. He said, “Well, they’ll go another year. However, what they want is they want to be in the series with more relevancy to the product, and they also, it needs to have international appeal with drivers, and it needs to be on TV. Live TV. What can you do?”

So I called Rod Campbell, and I said, “You got any ideas?” And he said, “The only thing I can think of is Terry Lingner’s been trying to put a deal together with the guy up in Charlotte that does the little midget races, but nobody wants to climb in them. And I said, “Well, what about a really expensive Jag?” And he said, “Well, give it a go.”

So I called Terry and I met him where Purdue University is. He drove north and I drove south and we met up somewhere there. And I basically put on my best English voice and said, “Look, you know, mate. If you’ve got XJ220s, a supercar with all these drivers in, and Jaguar is helping up and we put up a big prize fund, that’s got to be better than what you’re looking at with this midget car thing.”

More RACER
Home