IMSA 1969-1989: The first race at Pocono

Bill France Sr. and John Bishop enjoy a laugh before the race at Pocono. Image by IMSA Collection/IMRRC

IMSA 1969-1989: The first race at Pocono


IMSA 1969-1989: The first race at Pocono


As we build up to this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, is pleased to bring you a series of excerpts from IMSA 1969-1989 by Mitch Bishop and Mark Raffauf. The soon-to-be-released inside history of IMSA’s first two decades is currently available for pre-order from Octane Press, and as a reader, you can get $10 off by applying the discount code RACER19 at checkout. Click here for ordering information,  and look for the next excerpt on Thursday.

Just two weeks before the inaugural IMSA event at Pocono, John Bishop received an urgent call from Dave Montgomery, the track president, who told him that he was going to have to cancel the race due to pressure from the SCCA. The club was threatening tracks and workers with excommunication if they participated in any IMSA events, a tactic borrowed from the early days of the road racing wars in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Although it was barely off the ground, the club viewed IMSA as a potential rival. Ultimately, this approach didn’t work and was abandoned, but the short-term threat to IMSA was quite real. Track owner Joe Mattioli did agree to lease the track directly to IMSA but could not agree to more for fear of losing SCCA dates the following year.

Deciding that IMSA’s credibility was on the line, Bishop swallowed hard, then borrowed $10,000 to lease the track and solidify the prize money. He scrambled and called on friends to help with timing, scoring, pit marshal duties, technical inspection, and safety roles. The race was back on. Inver House Scotch came on board at the last minute to help with prize money and promotion.

The program cover for the first IMSA race ever held. The Formula Ford event, which took place on October 19, 1969, was run on Pocono’s short 5/8-mile oval. Image by Paul Pfanner

On October 19, 1969, the twenty-four teams that showed up were immediately treated to some refreshing changes from the way things were done at the SCCA. There were apples and friendly faces at registration, and prize money was awarded to everyone that started. Ray Heppenstall helped Charlie Rainville with technical inspection as they introduced another innovation; teams didn’t have to line up. Instead, Ray and Charlie went around to where the competitors were parked in the infield and did their work on the spot. It was a revelation to competitors.

“Charlie Rainville came over to us at our first race and did his tech inspection right there on the spot, we didn’t move the car an inch,” recalled Sam Posey about his first IMSA race. “As silly as it sounds, it was a really big deal.”

Promotion for the event had appeared in Competition Press & Autoweek, but very little marketing had been done locally. Still, 350 curious spectators showed up. Everyone in the Bishop family pitched in. Peg ran registration and worked scoring. Marc, on leave from the navy, along with John’s brother, Peter, sold tickets. Marshal directed traffic in the parking lot and Mitch worked timing and scoring. Drivers’ wives were also pressed into service to score the race. It was an “all-hands-on- deck” exercise. Bill France Sr. made sure to lend his support by flying in, giving the event instant legitimacy.

Some of the best Formula Ford drivers of the day showed up: Skip Barber, Bill Scott, Jim Jenkins, and Fred Opert, among others. Almost all of them had no experience on ovals and many guessed at the proper setup. One of the guys who guessed wrong was George Alderman, an experienced SCCA racer who backed his car hard into the outside retaining wall during qualifying, ending up in the hospital overnight with a concussion. The car was not so lucky, it took months to rebuild. Alderman came back to become an IMSA regular and won the 1971 and 1974 IMSA RS series titles.

A rare shot of the driver’s meeting for the inaugural IMSA race at Pocono. Bill France Sr. is on the far left, wearing the hat and long coat. Bill Scott talks with Carson Baird in the foreground. John Bishop is by the tow truck in the back. Image by IMSA Collection/IMRRC

The race itself was a 200-lap affair. The pace was frantic on the flat, 5/8-mile oval. Timing and scoring was being done from the grandstands; there was no covered area to work. The scorers, accustomed to longer road courses, were overwhelmed by cars completing laps in just twenty-six seconds. It was all done the old-fashioned way—by hand.

At the end of the race, Jim Clarke was declared the winner and a modest Victory Lane ceremony was held. Post-race analysis, however, revealed that an error had been made and the second-place driver, Jim Jenkins, had actually won. But the ceremonies were over, the spectators were long gone, and teams were packing up to go home. Bishop decided to let the results stand. They were never corrected.

“Don and Ruth Nixon were running timing and scoring for us that race,” Bishop recalled. “The rest of the scoring team was largely made up of drivers’ wives. When Carson Baird crashed on lap thirty-one, his wife Betsy stood up and screamed. Peg told her to sit down and keep scoring. Somehow, we missed the real winner. Jim Jenkins should have won the race but instead the win was given to Jim Clarke. I remember Don Nixon running down the grandstand shouting, ‘Don’t give out the checks!’ but by then it was too late.”

After all the drama and hard work, IMSA had pulled off its first race. Yes, the crowd was small and there were issues, but the sanctioning body was off and running.