The first U.S. National FF champion: When it’s your day …

Image courtesy Daytona International Speedway

The first U.S. National FF champion: When it’s your day …

Vintage Motorsport / Historic

The first U.S. National FF champion: When it’s your day …


Rolling out of Lime Rock, heading via Watkins Glen, Sept. 7-8, onward to Road America for the Sept. 11-15 VSCDA Formula Ford 50th Anniversary celebration at Road America.

Celebrating FF’s 50th anniversary at Lime Rock, Barber’s ’69 Runoffs-winning Caldwell front and center in the event poster.

But, before leaving NW Connecticut, a pause to fill in more of the details in the story Skip Barber shared at Saturday night’s FF banquet – the harrowing back-story to his winning the first-ever Formula Ford U.S. National Championship over the Thanksgiving weekend in November, 1969.

Barber looks happy in all the post-race photos, as well he should; he was the champion and deserving of the honor as, from start of the week to finish, the experienced Massachusetts resident was the fastest man in the 21-car field.

But the smile belies a truly harrowing race weekend — one which makes most “garden-variety” racing all-nighters pale in the retelling.

Daytona International Speedway hosted the 1969 SCCA American Road Racing Championships (aka “The Runoffs”) over the Thanksgiving weekend in late November. Barber’s Caldwell D9 was on pole, with a time that was more than a second a lap faster than Eddie Miller’s Merlyn Mk11.

On Friday night, Barber’s long-time mechanic Terry Secker was giving the shiny new-for-the-Runoffs D9 a last-minute once-over, all set to enjoy a rare Saturday off before the Sunday race.

And then he found oil on the No. 3 spark plug. Pulling the cylinder head, the problem was quickly apparent: A circlip had broken, allowing the wrist pin to ease out and score the cylinder wall — 40psi compression loss worth of wall-scoring.

The Cortina needed a cylinder liner and a new .015″ piston, but as can be imagined, neither were to be found in north-coastal Florida on Friday night of a long holiday weekend.

While the factory Autodynamics team had a spare chassis, the engine in it was of questionable origin and, per AD boss Ray Caldwell, was not to be raced.

Likely very few of Skip’s competitors in this first full year of “official” Formula Ford racing even had a spare engine; but none were offered.

(Aside: Barber read between the lines and always assumed the spare engine Caldwell wouldn’t let him use was illegal. Years later, he asked and Ray told him he didn’t know whether it was legal or not, but it had come from England in the Merlyn that AD had purchased to use as a “rolling reference” for the D9, and had never been fired up…)

At a pay phone in the increasing darkness, Skip and Terry finally got hold of their engine builder, Doug Fraser, away from the shop, enjoying the holidays at relatives. Yes, he could sleeve the cylinder, but no, he did not not have the right piston.

Fortunately, fellow Caldwell driver Jim Clarke located two in the Ford warehouse near his own Bud Clark (no relation) VW race shop in Michigan, and arranged to get them to air freighted Friday night, shipping one to Massachusetts and one to Florida.

Very late Friday night, Secker’s wife Cindy hopped a red-eye flight to Boston — actually a series of four connector flights — carrying-on (!) the 90lb block (oh, those carefree pre-TSA days). By mid-afternoon Saturday, Fraser and Ted Wingate, a machine-shop owner in Boston-suburb Lexington, had rebored the block, inserted the liner, honed the cylinder and ferried both Cindy and the refettled block back to Boston’s Logan Airport for another string of connectors.

Landing in Daytona somewhere around 10pm Saturday evening, Secker and a handful of Autodynamics volunteers (there mostly in support of the company’s many Formula Vee runners), set about final assembly and installation.

At dawn Sunday — race day — morning, the car was on a trailer heading for the chassis dyno at a downtown service station. By 9:00 a.m., the white and red Caldwell was back at the track, warmed-up and ready for the 9:30 a.m. warm-up.

A feature story in the Dec. 1969 issue of Formula Ford Report noted: “A huge effort by nearly a dozen people in three states had paid off.”

Except … on the second lap of warm-up, a rod end on the right rear of Clarke’s Caldwell snapped on the banking, pitching his car hard right, squarely into the side of Barber’s D9 which slammed the wall backwards at 130mph, spun, then hit the wall again nose first.

FFR again: “Both drivers were shaken but unhurt other than a few bruised ribs for Skip.”

End of story? Incredibly, no: Barber’s shiny new D9 was trashed, but Autodynamics had a spare, remember — No. 6902001, the prototype with which Skip had won nearly a dozen races in 1969 — and by the time the wreck was returned to the paddock, an exhausted Secker and a handful of helpers (including Ray Caldwell himself) had the spare out of the trailer, up on jack stands, Brit engine nearly out, and ready for installation of the well-traveled Cortina — which, fortunately, was undamaged.

One more obstacle, though: Pit stewards informed Barber he would be starting from the back; Caldwell immediately appealed; but a hastily convened “Pit Lane Appeals Court” sided with the stewards. Qualifying engine but different chassis. Rules are rules.

Twenty-one FFs — the best drivers in the country — took the green flag for the early afternoon race, third-place qualifier Clarke jumping Miller and a fast-starting Bill Scott (Royale), and pulling out a car-length lead at the end of the first lap.

By then, Barber had rocketed from 21st to ninth, his well-thought-out strategy working to perfection: “It was a rolling start, with the green flag on the back straight,” Skip remembers. “I held back slightly approaching the flag, got a running start, then leapfrogged one car after another in the draft.

“On the front straight approaching Turn 1, I was pulling 1000 more revs than I’d ever seen before. And I spent the first few laps just waiting for the engine to blow up!”

By lap three, Barber was second, and on lap four, Caldwells were 1-2 as Barber caught Clarke, the supremely talented, one-eyed Michigan driver, and they battled wheel to wheel for three laps.

On lap seven, Barber shut the door on Clarke diving down into the infield, and that was it. Lap eight, half-distance, Barber had a clear lead, race essentially over … except, oh yeah, another challenge: gear changes were becoming a problem as (Barber would learn after the race) the Caldwell’s shift linkage was slowly coming apart.

But Clarke was unable to capitalize: A battery cable came adrift and, two laps from the end, his D9 coasted to a stop. Barber had a commanding lead but was still anxious, now with no third gear at all.

On lap 15, Dan Fowler (Beach) and Gary Johnson (Merlyn) in second and third were noticeably gaining, but Barber flashed across the line to take the checkered on lap 16 with a full 17 seconds in hand.

Postscript: No rest for the weary: Even as Barber was receiving his award at the banquet, his thoroughly exhausted crew was tearing down the engine for scrutineers. The happy ending was nothing amiss, engine legal, Barber’s national title — the first FF national championship — was his.