Although his old buddy Paul Page will be the keynote speaker, RACER Magazine’s Robin Miller won’t be at Road America for the Formula Ford 50th Anniversary event Sept. 11-15, perhaps because the prospect of 240 FFs tearing up one of his favorite road courses would put too much stress on his heart. And he’s saving that muscle for the IndyCar finale at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca the following weekend.
However, Formula Ford played a part in the much-loved broadcaster and sportswriter’s midwest upbringing, as Robin remembers …
In June 1972, I announced to my pal Art Pollard that, after all the years of watching races, I had decided I wanted to be a driver. He laughed and said: “OK, kid. Sell your sports car (a Lotus Europa), buy a van, and I’ll help you get a car.”
Pollard, still on crutches after breaking his leg at Indy during practice when a hub snapped going into Turn 3 in Andy Granatelli’s Lola, knew there were a couple of little “mini Indy” cars up in Andy’s shop in Chicago.
They were Formula Fords given to Granatelli by Francis McNamara, who’d designed the turd Mario Andretti had driven for Mr. STP in the 1970 Indianapolis 500.
Pollard told me to come up with $5,000 (not an easy task since I was making $158 a week as a sportswriter at The Indianapolis Star) and we’d meet at Granatelli’s shop. So I borrowed money from a banker buddy, telling him it was for a new Ford (kinda was) and we headed for Illinois.
Upon entering the massive garage, it was love at first sight. There were a couple of Novis under plastic tarps and right next to them was a DayGlo orange Formula Ford, painted just like my hero Jim Hurtubise’s Novi in 1963.
Pollard gave Vince Granatelli $3,000 (stuffing two grand back in my pocket), and that little beauty was all mine. I’d rented a U-Haul trailer to take my car home, but, unfortunately, it was three feet wide and nine feet long so we had to take the wheels off my FF and load it with a fork lift. (An early indication, perhaps, that I had no business owning a race car?)
For the McNamara’s maiden voyage, I borrowed a trailer from Paul Page (kneeling at left in photo above), a FF racer before he was the voice of the Indy 500, and headed out to Indianapolis Raceway Park with Pollard in tow. Just before we fired the engine, he leaned in and asked if I’d remembered to check the oil and water? Naturally I replied no, assuming that my brand new race cars came with those amenities.
Art had to drive over Gasoline Alley and get some Valvoline.
My first drivers school was at Nelson Ledges, Ohio, and it was fairly uneventful; but my second stop was Watkins Glen. I’d watched the movie Grand Prix four nights in a row when it came out, and I know exactly what to do when I rolled into upstate New York just as the sun came up: I had to walk the track.
Not sure what everybody else’s SCCA drivers school was like, but our instructor showed us the line and we ran behind him on Saturday. Then we had some kind of all-skate qualifying session — except nobody knew their times.
As my lone mechanic, Mad Dog Mike Roth, and I pushed our car toward the grid on Sunday morning, we asked, “Where do we line up?”
My car was No. 40 CD (for CenDiv), and the SCCA worker replied, “You’re on the pole.”
“Of the race?” (I tried to act like that’s what I expected, but it was a surprise to say the least.)
Then again, maybe it shouldn’t have been: They’d put all the Formula Fords in with the Formula A-B-C cars, and they were all behind me! Let’s just say that even though everybody was new, the talent level left something to be desired.
As per protocol, we were told there would be a practice start in which we would take the green and race up the esses until we saw a yellow flag; then we’d slow, pack up, and come around to do the real race.
On our practice start, I got it right and, by the time we got to that flagman, I was a couple hundred yards ahead of second place. My first thought was that I had to be a natural and I’d likely be in Formula 1 within two years.
Then came reality. I had been in second gear for my first flying start, but, for some unknown reason, I slipped it into third for the real thing. Obviously, my 1600cc Cortina engine bogged badly and I was fourth or fifth by the time I got to Turn 1 whereupon a Formula A car drilled me, spun me into the Armco, and tore my car in half.
As the fluids ran down the track, I clambered out and sat down next to the remains of my car in shock. I’d gone from F1 to out of business in less than two minutes.
Later, the chief steward called me up to the tower and said the accident wasn’t my fault and I’d still be granted my regional license. As we talked, I looked down and saw a bunch of people running toward the vicinity of my wrecked car. Mad Dog Roth had taken a wheel hammer and was beating a hole in the nose of the Formula A car that had speared me.
Bless his heart.
In 1973, my car rebuilt by Jack Brandt, I started out in regionals and ran decently, but it was my first National at Mid-Ohio that opened my eyes. Gordon Smiley pulled in with a double-deck trailer and a spare car, and, in qualifying and the race, he, B.J. Swanson and former Formula Vee National Champion Dave Weitzenhof were in a class by themselves.
Formula Ford was just starting to hit its stride in 1974, but I sold my McNamara and bought a midget from Gary Bettenhausen. Eating lunch every day with Johnny Parsons, Bill Vukovich, Jimmy Caruthers and Bettenhausen, I was lectured constantly that if I really wanted to learn how to race, I’d go run USAC in a midget or a sprinter.
They were right, and I’d never trade my eight years experience in USAC.
But to this day I can still remember the night I brought that bitchin’-bright-orange FF home and unloaded in my parents’ garage at midnight.
And I’ll never forget my mom saying to my dad: “Oh my god, Bob. He’s bought an Indy car! He’ll kill himself.”
(This feature first appeared in the 40th Anniversary of Formula Ford event program.)