When the 2019 Trans-Am season kicks off at Sebring this weekend, it will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most epic seasons the series – or any race series – has seen. 1969 was full of intrigue, with teams seeking fueling advantages to shorten pit stops, acid-dipped cars with vinyl roofs to hide the thin sheet metal, and a tire war between Firestone and Goodyear that damaged relationships to the point racers were trying to purposely take out others on track.
In its fourth year, Trans-Am had hit its stride enough that manufacturers were using their substantial resources to win, and Pontiac was willing to pay $5 per car to use the name of the series on a special model of its Firebird (ironically, that model’s engine was too big to be used in the series).
Big names in the racing world, and some that would soon be, were involved, and the manufacturers were keen to claim the title. It was primarily a Ford vs. Chevrolet battle, with Pontiac and AMC being bit players. Bud Moore led the charge for Ford with Parnelli Jones and George Follmer driving, while Chevrolet had tasked Roger Penske to win the championship with Mark Donohue leading and Ronnie Bucknum and Ed Leslie playing supporting roles.
The series then was still all about production-based Pony cars, but teams were beginning to get creative. Dipping the bodies in acid to make them lighter was becoming commonplace – there was a minimum weight, but by getting the car as far under that weight as possible, the teams were able to add ballast where they wanted it, low in the car. Penske even went too far with one of its cars, causing the team to apply vinyl roofs both to save money on painting and to hide the wavy sheet metal of the too-thin roof.
The vinyl tops, while not specifically prohibited in the rulebook, were disallowed mid-season. So was Penske’s 20-foot-tall fuel rig, designed to get fuel into the car as fast as possible during pit stops. But that rig never quite fulfilled its promise, and by mid-season the teams had figured out more efficient refueling methods anyway.
Moore’s Mustangs had chopped radiator supports to get the nose as small and low as possible. Penske followed suit with its Camaros. Penske and Donohue had dominated in 1968 and worked to improve the car for the following season, trying a lot of relatively radical stuff, but ended up with a car that, as Donohue wrote in The Unfair Advantage, started out awful and ended up only just as good as the 1968 car.
Meanwhile, Bud Moore Engineering came in after Ford pulled the plug on his Mercury racing efforts to try to win the championship. Ford wanted redemption after Penske had beaten Carroll Shelby’s Mustangs in ’68. In the early part of the season, it looked like they might get it. The Firestones the Moore team was running were better than the Goodyears Penske had on its cars, especially in the wet, and the first race at Michigan International Speedway was in the rain. That rain also kept Penske from proving the worth of its extra-tall fuel rig, as the team was changing from wet to dry tires and back nearly every pit stop.
That race was marred by a scoring error that at first left Donohue the winner, but Moore and Jones protested and Jones was declared the winner. Legend has it that there were some insults hurled at Penske in the process, strengthening his resolve to win the championship again
The next race, at Lime Rock on Memorial Day weekend, was missing Donohue, who was off racing at Indianapolis; Bob Johnson drove the Camaro. Sam Posey won that race, the lone bright spot for Shelby during the season. Bucknum won for Penske at Mid-Ohio, and Follmer for Moore at Bridgehampton. Jones was the first driver to win more than one race with a victory at Donnybrooke in Brainerd, Minn after a furious battle with Donohue, whose Camaro broke late in the race.
Through five rounds, the defending champion who so dominated the previous season with 10 wins had yet to find victory. But that changed at Bryar Motorsports Park. By then, SCCA had decided that several things about the Camaros weren’t right, including some holes in the doors to duct air to the rear brakes and the vinyl top, not to mention the 20-foot fuel rig (Penske would come up with a new fast fueling rig by the next race). Donohue led Leslie, who had taken over the other Camaro due to Bucknum breaking his wrist in a highway accident, to a one-two finish.
From that point forward, a Penske Camaro won every single race. Donohue took victories at Circuit Mont-Tremblant, Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca, Sears Point, and Riverside; Bucknum won at Sears Point. But the late season had other drama. Donohue managed to get a hold of the new Firestone tire for a test at Sears Point, discovering that they were indeed faster. And when those tires landed in the hands of Goodyear, there was much discord in the paddock. In the final race at Riverside, Jones and Donohue came together twice, but Donohue survived to win the race and secure another championship for Chevrolet. Chevrolet had eight wins to Ford’s four, with Pontiac and AMC shut out.
That 1969 season is considered by many to be the high point of Trans-Am’s early years. 1970 saw Penske switch to the AMC Javelin and Ford take the manufacturers championship. The gas crisis a few years later made muscle cars passé, the series switched to FIA Group 4 cars, and many thought the glory years were over. But the series continued, changing form and introducing more modified and then finally tube-frame silhouette cars.
Today the Chevrolet vs. Ford vs. Dodge battle continues, but it’s more about the drivers such as Ernie Francis Jr., Lawrence Loshak, Chris Dyson and Amy Ruman. There are no more tire wars thanks to partnership with Pirelli. But the battles on track remain fierce. They resume on March 1-3 at Sebring International Raceway.