The return of Trans Am racing to the Monterey Peninsula May 3-5 for the Trans Am SpeedFest sparks flashbacks to the late 1960s and early ’70s. Aces like George Follmer and Dan Gurney (pictured above during the 1970 race), Sam Posey and Parnelli Jones, and Mark Donohue and Roger Penske raced unfiltered Camaros, Mustang Boss 302s, Javelins, Challengers, Firebirds, and Barracudas around the original 1.9-mile Laguna Seca road course configuration.
The inaugural Trans Am race at Laguna Seca that counted toward the series championship was held August 24, 1969, although the Trans-American Sedan Championship — as it was originally known — had competed at the circuit as far back as 1966 during events such as the U.S. Road Racing Championships.
“When Trans Am was in its heyday, we had the factories involved and good people working on them, building them, and driving them,” said Follmer, two-time Trans Am champion (1972 and ’76). “It was very, very competitive. You never knew who would win, because everyone was pretty even. It was hard. All these teams wanted to win, so they found good people to drive them. It was pretty good in ’69, ’70. It was a dogfight.”
The 1969 field was stacked with talent in both the over- and under 2-liter groups. Jones in the Bud Moore Ford Mustang Boss 302 ran strongly until a differential failure put him out on Lap 44. Follmer, in the second Bud Moore entry, experienced a wheel failure that forced retirement late in the race on Lap 92.
Still going strong at the checkered were Donohue, winning in the Penske-Hilton Camaro, followed by Ed Leslie in another Penske-Hilton Camaro, while Gurney took the final podium place in the Shelby Ford Mustang Boss 302.
The Monterey event proved so popular that the 1970 Trans Am season kicked off at Laguna Seca in April. That day, Parnelli sprinted ahead in Bud Moore’s Ford Mustang Boss 302 to take the victory over Donohue and Follmer.
In 1971, Trans Am returned to Monterey, but not with the big-bore V8s. That year only the highly competitive under 2-liter division came for what proved to be a championship-deciding race that was hotly contested by Horst Kwech in his Alfa Romeo GTV and John Morton in his BRE Datsun 510. When the checkered waved, it was the Alfa that crossed the line first and seemingly took the win and championship. However, suspicions immediately were raised as to how the orange and blue Alfa could complete the 54-lap race without a single fuel stop. Hours later, scrutineers discovered the little Alfa had a larger — and illegal — fuel tank, thereby awarding the red, white and blue BRE Datsun with the win and 1971 National championship title.
Following Morton’s successful event title defense in 1972, Trans Am was hosted sporadically at Laguna. Winners in later years includes Greg Pickett (1978 in TA2; 1980), Bob Tullius (1978 and 1979 in TA1), Peter Gregg (1979 in TA2), Follmer (1981), Elliot Forbes-Robinson (1982), Kenny Wilden (2000), Justin Bell (2001) and Tommy Kendall (2004). Notably, Follmer’s 1981 victory at age 47 was the great driver’s final Trans Am win that provided a bit of redemption two years after a Can-Am crash on the same track nearly ended his career.
“I wasn’t going to run there,” recalled Follmer. “Those were old IROC cars. I talked Roy [Woods] into buying a couple of them in the anticipation of running Trans Am. His racing partner [Ralph Kent-Cooke] didn’t want to do it, so I ran a couple races. I was good friends with Roy — we did a lot of stuff together. I was standing around, and he asked, ‘Do you want to want to drive it?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”
The return of the Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli returns to to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca next month will end a 15-year absence for the series that features race-prepped Camaros, Mustangs, Challengers, Corvettes and Vipers in the TA1 and TA2 categories as well as other domestic and foreign makes in GT and SuperGT. The Historic Trans Am series will also be on hand for the May 3-5 weekend, featuring 12 historic race groups from the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association.