Don't call it a comeback: Formula Ford at 50 is showing fresh legs

1969 saw the first Formula Ford SCCA Runoffs race. Skip Barber started the race in 20th, but by lap 13 was in a position to win. Which he did. Image by Daytona Speedway

Don't call it a comeback: Formula Ford at 50 is showing fresh legs

SCCA / SportsCar Magazine

Don't call it a comeback: Formula Ford at 50 is showing fresh legs

For more than half of Formula Ford’s 50-year history, it was the SCCA’s most popular and populous racing class. But with costs escalating, supplies of its Ford 1,599cc engine drying up, and entries dwindling in the 1990s, Formula Ford was essentially being put out to pasture. Then in 2009, after much deliberation within the class, Formula Ford was renamed “Formula F,” and a more modern and affordable Honda engine of similar displacement was introduced into the fray.

So, is that the FF story? Nope – not by a long shot.

Rushing headlong into the SCCA’s 75th anniversary year in 2019, there will be celebrations at several of America’s premier racetracks of Formula Ford’s 50th as the venerable, once-global-giant, single-seater class is enjoying a most unlikely renaissance.

A decades-old mantra of “Want to go racing? Go Formula Ford!” is being heard again as drivers young and old are rediscovering the bang-for-the-racing-buck that FF of almost any vintage represents.

With a reliable Ford four-cylinder engine and sturdy gearbox, readily obtainable tires, and a wide variety of chassis choices, FFs were proper racing cars – more potent than their nearest-by-the-numbers rival, Formula Vee, when they first showed their space-frame front-radiator faces at SCCA races in 1968.

“The basic ‘sense’ of Formula Ford appealed to a large number of people here in the U.S. all at the same time,” the late Jules Williams explained to SportsCar magazine, SCCA’s official publication, on the occasion of FF’s 20th anniversary in 1989. “Here was a nice racecar – a genuine race chassis – with a reliable motor in it. And an impressive number of cars came in, all at one time.”

Williams would win the very first official SCCA “National” Formula Ford race, the Southern Pacific Division season-opener at Willow Springs Raceway on March 23, 1969. By then he had been racing the Lotus 51B bought new from a Texas-based importer for almost a year in the SCCA’s Formula B class.

“The FB guys had mixed feelings about the FFs,” Jules recalled. “We were ‘low technology interlopers’ – looked down upon. But, gradually, the attitude of most of the FB drivers changed, becoming more a matter of ‘benign indifference.'”

In 1968, the quality of the Formula B fields at many events was spotty. By the end of the summer, FFs made up more than half the FB fields in many areas, and what Jules termed a “quiet clamor” began within the ranks for a separate class.

The SCCA, with an abundance of single-seater classes in its club racing repertoire including FA, FB, FC, a healthy and popular Formula Vee, and plans for Super Vee on the drawing board, moved cautiously.

Formula Ford racing in the 1970s was big. This photo is from a Cal Club regional race at Riverside Raceway in 1973. Image by SportsCar Archive

Over the winter of 1968-’69, however, with more 100 made-in-England FF chassis already in the country, and three of the four top American Vee constructors – Gene Beach, Jerry Mong (Bobsy), and Ray Caldwell – building FFs, the SCCA Board took action. In winter 1968-’69, Formula Ford – a standalone class featuring 1,599cc Ford crossflow engines with very limited modifications – was added to the approved classes list.

And the fun began!

Formula Ford was an English invention, unveiled in June 1967, created to meet a critical need on the part of one of the biggest race-driving schools – Motor Racing Stables – for reliable engines.

History points to a massive sea-change in the racing culture through the late 1960s, as a sport once reserved for only the wealthiest few became increasingly accessible to every man, and every man, who had seen the 1966 movie hit Grand Prix, wanted to race a single-seater.

The SCCA with its expansive class structure was at the forefront of this trend in the U.S., providing an opportunity to race, and do so affordably. Almost overnight, Formula Ford shoved Vee aside at the leading edge of the sport-for-all-with-dreams. The FF ranks swelled quickly, all seven SCCA divisions sending drivers to the 1969 American Road Racing Championships (what is now called the National Championship Runoffs) held that year on the Daytona high banks where experienced, 33-year-old Harvard University graduate John “Skip” Barber, racing a factory-supported Caldwell D-9, was crowned the first SCCA FF National Champion.

Barber was also the second FF National Champion, following up in 1970 with a dramatic win at Road Atlanta, then driving a quite unique Italian-made Tecno.

Interestingly, while Britain dominated the U.S. FF market in sales straight through to the middle 1980s, homegrown chassis from Caldwell, ADF, Zink, Eagle, Citation, and Viking took 17 of the 24 National Championship wins at Road Atlanta.

Through its first 20 years, Formula Ford was the spawning ground for virtually all the drivers graduating to Formula 1, including many who would claim world championships: Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Jody Scheckter, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill, and Jacques Villeneuve all had FF racing on their resumes.

In the U.S., there were several pro racing pinnacles – IndyCar, SCCA Can-Am and Trans Am, Prototypes – but as in Europe, for nearly two decades, the drivers reaching the top could look back on SCCA Formula Ford beginnings: David Loring, Gordon Smiley, Bob Earl, Danny Sullivan, Willy T. Ribbs, Phil Krueger, Bob Lobenberg, Chip Ganassi, Dennis Firestone, Ed Pimm, Kevin Cogan, Scott Brayton, Davy Jones, Jon Beekhuis, Dominic Dobson, Jimmy Vasser, Bryan Herta, Scott Atchison, Dean Hall, Michael, John and Jeff Andretti. The list goes on and on – an endless parade of talent through SCCA Driver’s Schools, Regionals, and Nationals.

In 1993, just ahead of Formula Ford’s U.S. 25th anniversary, I wrote: “Ayrton Senna and Chip Ganassi were terrific Formula Ford drivers who passed right through [this class], Ayrton en route to the F1 world championship, Chip on his way to becoming an IndyCar [driver and] team owner. Today they have little in common but, as fiercely determined, winning FF drivers, they are bound together in the motorsports fabric.

The Formula Ford chassis narrowed in the 1980s compared to the original wide design of the 1960s. Image by Ford

“As a winnowing-out battleground from which only a few dreams ever survived, FF racing [in the 1970s and ’80s] was harshly demanding of individuals. There was always a lot of pushing and leaning and blocking, much of it with serious consequences. Which makes the number of enduring friendships that began here quite astounding.”

Indeed, the intensity of the racing in those decades where FF peaked in a frenzy is very difficult to capture in words as are the “friendships which began here.” Seventy car FF fields at the June Sprints and Riverside Nationals were not unusual, and FF grids were packed at Regionals and Nationals elsewhere, even though stalwarts like four-time SCCA National Champ Dave Weitzenhof, East Coast star Bruce MacInnes, double-champ Eddie Miller, Jackson Yonge, and many other “area specialists” were incredibly tough to beat.

At stake in the 1970s and ’80s, though, were not only a driver’s future but also the survival of a burgeoning number of chassis manufacturers able to build semi-stable businesses around the FF class. It’s fair to say that the whole idea of a “production race car” emerged from the FF concept, Motor Racing Stable’s original order for 50 Lotus 51 Formula Fords in 1967 for its school and race series was one of Lotus Components’ largest single orders ever.

Then, in 1983, the Swift DB-1 happened: The third Formula Ford chassis design by ex-McDonnell Douglas aerospace engineer David Bruns was a huge leap forward. A National Championship winner first time out in 1983, it soon laid waste to the FF market, proving virtually unbeatable on many tracks for the next decade.

At almost the same time, the SCCA – determined to keep a handle on costs at the entry level – unveiled the Sports Renault: Spec chassis, spec engine, spec tires, ruthless control of the parts inventory, and incredibly attractive pricing. Oh, and a pro series to go along with it.

In intensity and numbers, Formula Ford never truly recovered. Then in the 2000s with declining entry counts and Ford engine sourcing issues, the SCCA in conjunction with Honda introduced a second powerplant, renaming the class to Formula F – the “F” now noting the Ford-powered cars and cars with the 1,496cc Honda motor sourced from the Fit. With the neat Honda engine package slipping surprisingly easily into several existing FF chassis, Formula F was soon established in SCCA and as an entry level pro series in both the U.S. and Canada.

Formula Ford racing from the 1960s and ’70s may have been different from today, but the drive to win is every bit as strong. Image by SportsCar Archive

Happily, for its fans of old, FF refused to die. Almost simultaneously with the announcement of the new Formula F came word that production of the Kent Ford engine block had been resumed, potentially spurred by Honda’s announcement of entering the class. In a way, Honda’s entry, although changing the direction of the class, also saved it in the U.S.

With engines and other critical components newly available, and an abundance of chassis parked in the back corners of garages all over the U.S. (some put estimates of surviving FF chassis near the 1,000 mark), most of the major vintage racing groups took a fresh look at Formula Ford, warmly inviting them, and splitting them up into three sensible sub-classes (loosely Pre-1973; 1973-’81; and 1982-’08).

Last year saw FF fields of more than 40 cars at vintage events in several areas of the country, an entry boon for SCCA Regionals in those same locations as older FFs showed up to “re-stock” the Club Ford class.

There are also new “all-comer” series like the prototypical six-event Right Coast FF Series hosted by two long-time SCCA movers and shakers Mike Rand and Joe Marcinski, where Kent Fords (Historic, Club, and Modern) line up alongside Hondas in a three-races-per-weekend format.

Only a few of the more than 200 FF manufacturers remain, as sales volume of new cars is nothing like it was in the 1970s and ’80s. Still, the market for new Kent FFs for the UK as well as Honda-powered FFs for North America and Duratec Fords for Australia have kept nearly a dozen manufacturers afloat, and the wide-track, dart-shaped 21st century FFs are so spectacular.

It’s the older cars, the pre-2009 chassis, though, that have our attention heading into this anniversary year. For a reasonable price, there’s a fantastic amount of track time on offer for SCCA Regional regulars; for teenagers looking for an affordable first step in a real racing car; and for oldsters like Yours Truly, who hear the echoes of Formula Ford’s rich past and can’t wait to get back out there.

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