Stefan Johansson is half convinced the crazy adventures and obstacles he faced while trying to reach Sebring in 1984 inspired the popular 1987 movie ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ starring Steve Martin and John Candy.
Some 35 years ago, Johansson was doing his best to keep a shaky Formula 1 career from flaming out. Invited to race at the famed 12-hour endurance event in Florida in an aged Porsche 935 against cutting-edge IMSA GTP models from March, Lola, and Jaguar, a battle of eras was at play. Taking paying rides when offered, Johansson accepted the challenge in the Joest-built 935 arranged by Colombian gentleman racer Mauricio de Narváez. Along with German pro Hans Heyer, the trio weren’t expected to do more than pad an obscene entry list overflowing with sports cars.
Provided Heyer and Johansson made it to Sebring.
From the outset, everything that could go wrong for the spiky-haired Swede did, and often with comical results. What ensued was an endurance race to get to the endurance race that far surpassed the rigors of racing a Porsche 935 around the old school airport circuit.
“Oh, this [is] a really good one, actually,” Johansson says. “It was with Joest, Reinhold Joest, because I’d been driving for him the year before in ’83 with a [Porsche] 956 in Europe, and this deal came together very, very late, with Mauricio de Narváez who was the third driver in the car, [who] came up with the money, I guess. And they actually pulled out this old Moby Dick Porsche, the 935, out of the museum. Literally, the Porsche museum. It had been in there for years. I mean it still had duct tape numbers on the sides… Like, absolutely last minute. Just fill it up with fuel and send it, more or less.
“But the funny part of the story is that Hans and I, we were leaving Frankfurt [Germany] to fly out on…I’m guessing it would’ve been Monday probably, to arrive here Monday night in Sebring. Anyway, it was like that movie ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ on steroids ’cause we didn’t arrive [until] Saturday morning, before the race.”
De Narváez, left to practice and qualify the retro 935 without the support of his professional co-drivers, must have been wondering if he’d be driving solo for 12 hours after his teammates failed to materialize for five full days.
“It was like, unbelievable,” Johansson continues. “It was engines broken, snow delays, diversions, trains literally from somewhere up in upstate New York down to some other airport. I mean, it was crazy. To make a very long story short, this went on for like four days to try to get there. And we arrive on Saturday morning, by car. We flew in, so we had to drive like three hours. We arrive here at like at 8:00 in the morning.”
It’s worth mentioning at this point that, despite accepting the invitation, and going through travel hell from Monday through Saturday morning — race morning, to be more precise — Johansson had never seen the Sebring circuit. Never walked it. Never driven it. And if that wasn’t enough, he and Heyer were completely exhausted. Compounding the problem, Johansson had never driven a Porsche 935.