Formula Ford at 50: Reflections on Real Life University

Image by Bill Stoler

Formula Ford at 50: Reflections on Real Life University

Vintage Motorsport / Historic

Formula Ford at 50: Reflections on Real Life University


One could easily fill a textbook endeavoring to explain the phenomenon of Formula Ford to the social media-centric generation that followed mine (and I did — the long-out-of-print “Anatomy and Development of the Formula Ford Race Car”). But no one book could ever accurately pull together all the many threads and different moving parts of the FF Story.

Paul Pfanner, Mike Vannatter and I have tried with our Facebook page launched last summer, to which more than 8,200 (so far) from 45 countries have signed on and contributed.

On the road today to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, ready to continue celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first official SCCA-sanctioned Formula Ford race in the U.S. on one of America’s most spectacular road racing courses — the scene of so many huge FF fields and memorable, terrifying, exciting FF races in the 1970s and ’80s!—I know that, for the next week, the stories will be re-lived, the tales made taller as FF’s glory days come to life again.

But how do you explain the whole story in a way today’s 20-30somethings so enjoying their Spec Racers and Spec Miatas, not to mention their iRacing, can understand? Formula Ford is back in a big way with big fields in vintage racing all across the country (Summit Point photo above), and the kids are asking.

I, like thousands of others, attended Real Life University thanks to Formula Ford. The tuition cost? A pittance relative to the schooling received via an admittedly selfish but otherwise passionate interest in an obscure people group — FF’s designers, car-builders, team owners, managers, mechanics, engine builders, parts suppliers, tire fitters and, most of all, drivers.

There’s so much about the FF mystique a Gen-Y’er (my 30-year-old son, for instance) could never fully comprehend. For one thing, back when, at age 15, I first laid eyes on a Formula Ford (a Caldwell D-9 at an SCCA auto show in Nashua, N.H.), a teenage Formula 1 fan had to wait for the Monday paper (newspapers, remember them?) to find out who won Sunday’s Grand Prix.

It was another 2-3-month wait for Road & Track to learn who finished second and third.

For video, U.S. fans had to endure until late May when ABC’s Wide World of Sports stuck 10 minutes of heavily edited Monaco GP footage into its Indianapolis 500 coverage. And, with only a B&W television, car colors were only a guess unless F1 made the cover of the much-relied-upon R&T.

Not ’til I got a driver’s license could I ever get complete F1 results in the same week as the race, courtesy the weekly Autosport stocked at The Coop in Harvard Square (Cambridge, Mass.) — a 20-mile drive.

Somewhere along in there, I learned about the Associated Press and local newspaper sports editors who could be bribed with cups of coffee to share the GP results off the wire. Would have saved a lot of tense city driving and a few parking tickets, but who knew?

Lime Rock in the middle-’70s, Z-10s and T-342s showing the way. Image by Leigh Fosberry

Formula 1 in the 1970s was almost unreal, untouchable, ultra-exotic. Enter Formula Ford:

… with cars that looked like F1 cars. Exotic!

… boasting Ford-badged engines just like most of the F1 cars back then. (It was years before I knew only the badge was “Ford” and all the rest was Cosworth.)

… driven by guys who were in or would soon be in F1 (including Tim Schenken, Emerson Fittipaldi, Dave Walker, Skip Barber, and soon, a steady parade.)

Fittipaldi made quick work of FF, moving through it to F3, then F1 inside of two years.

FF gathered steam quickly in North America because it seemed so directly linked to the pinnacle, F1, in the eyes of many a naive and not always misguided youth.

It’s where my real education, in lieu of actually going to college (in 1975, after an unhappy freshman year studying aeronautical engineering, I burned through all the rest of my college savings on a 50 percent share of an immaculate Crossle 16F), really began.

All I really needed to know about life (apologies to author Robert Fulgham), I learned in Formula Ford.

I learned about budgeting and employee motivation from Bob Fletcher, major domo of Fast Company, a Marblehead, Mass., Lola dealer plucked from the ashes of Autodynamics. He had been AD’s sales manager and was my first employer as an FF mechanic/intern. Still living on savings, I asked Mr. Fletcher for $50 a week — a token wage given the privilege of working there 24/7 and going with the team to FF races. Bob gave me $75, thus ensuring my loyalty forever (or at least the following 90 days, whereupon he split for the West Coast as the Fast Company dream died in bankruptcy.)

I learned about marketing from Tom Davey, ultra-creative former Super Vee driver who left the Dark Side (i.e. VW power) to race FFs, write brilliantly, argue any point with any one, and foist off “Shift-O-Matics” on an unsuspecting enthusiast populace. (“They’ll buy anything if it’s packaged right,” Tom told me. And then he proved it.)

I learned that greatness can include humility from a lot of FF guys, but first at Bridgehampton (remember that spectacular track?) in 1976 from Aussie F1 driver Tim Schenken at the first U.S. test of the then-new Tiga (coincidentally Davey was to be its driver); and, second, in the UK years later from ’68 FF champion Tim’s Tiga partner Howden Ganley. Two great, stand-up, ex-F1 stars, sans entourage, impressively humble.

Ex-F1 driver Tim Schenken prepping to test the new Tiga at Bridgehampton, with Fred Opert sales manager Bill Hooper and driver Tom Davey looking on. Image by Steve Nickless

Over 20 years, I met many Schenkens and Ganleys — unique, I think, to FF, perhaps because the fierce, wheel-to-wheel competition so quickly knocked all the prima donna out of the way.

This was another component of the FF phenomena — the linkage to F1 worked both ways, bottom up (enthusiast hero-worshipper) and top down (F1 guys returning to their FF roots in various ways), though this one has a modern parallel in the NASCAR Cup Series stars hanging out at various local and regional roundy-round races on their (rare) free weekends.

(Aside: Have you caught a NASCAR K&N Series East or West race yet? Great stuff!)