Just six laps into the 79-lap 1970 Riverside Raceway SCCA Pro Racing Trans Am battle, Indianapolis 500 winner and many-time USAC champion Parnelli Jones’ bright orange Ford Mustang was caught up in someone else’s accident, off the track in Turn 9, suffering bodywork and spoiler damage, clawing for traction.
Jones skidded back on the racing surface and was quickly up to speed once more, by then well behind then-race-leading teammate George Follmer but beginning one of the most memorable come-back drives in the storied history of the SCCA Trans American Championship.
After the race, Jones would joke about the worsening vibration, about using the curbing to turn the car; but his rivals on the day – on the season – could only hang their heads. Jones’ Bud Moore-built No. 15 Mustang had caught and passed Follmer’s No. 16 with eight laps remaining in the Oct. 4, 1970, Riverside Trans Am, clattering on to claim its second consecutive victory, fifth on the season, further solidifying Ford’s lock on the manufacturer’s championship.
Nearly 50 years later, one established veteran and one young driver whose skill might someday carry him to Parnelli Jones heights – Ed Sevadjian and Tyler Kicera, respectively – split a pair of victories on the same Southern California circuit, triggering a flood of memories in those lucky enough to have witnessed both events.
Much beloved Riverside Raceway, of course, gave its concrete and asphalt life for a shopping center back in 1989. But, almost magically, the fast nine-turn circuit has been resurrected in virtual form to, on May 30, 2020, once again host a pair of Trans Am races – Esports style, that is.
While Riverside is long gone and Jones long-retired, the now-named Trans Am Presented by Pirelli series is very much alive. The much-anticipated 2020 season had to be significantly reconfigured due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but today’s drivers are back on track, having already picked up the in-person action at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on June 26-28 and Brainerd International Raceway on July 10-12. The next stop is Road America on Aug. 6-8, all of this picking up where Trans Am left off at Sebring back in February, in those heady pre-pandemic times.
For many of the current drivers – and certainly for the fans – there was a seven-round Esports Trans Am series to keep the fires of enthusiasm well stoked. Much like the pivotal 1970 season, the Esports version was intense from start to finish, featuring most of the modern-day series stars and headlined by a fierce championship duel between Kicera and Josh Hurley that carried right to the finale.
In the virtual Riverside race, Sevadjian’s Esports win from the pole (which he’d claimed by an astounding 0.001sec) was lights to flag. Kicera’s win in the 20-minute-long Race 2, though, brought with it memories of Jones in that infamous 1970 run: Starting fifth on the grid, Kicera picked off one driver after another in the short race, taking over the lead with just minutes remaining to close the points gap on season-long rival Josh Hurley.
The full replay can be found at Trans Am’s YouTube channel, and it’s genuinely worth your time.
Running to the history books
As important as the Esports series was, filling the three-month gap between real-world events, sim races at long-lost Riverside and Bridgehampton – two of the most challenging road courses in North America – sent many scrambling to YouTube and a variety of history books for fresh perspective on one of the most heralded racing seasons ever: 1970 Trans Am.
The 1970 season is a cornerstone of Trans Am lore as the only one in racing history to feature all four (then) major U.S. automakers: Ford, General Motors, American Motors, and Chrysler. Fronting for those automakers were a half-dozen powerhouse teams and many of America’s most skilled drivers, among them Jones, Follmer, Mark Donohue, Peter Revson, Jim Hall, Dan Gurney, Swede Savage, and Sam Posey, plus lesser well-known but supremely talented Tony Adamowicz, Ed Leslie, Milt Minter, and others.
Sadly, one great driver left off that list at season end was 1967 Trans Am champion, ex-Shelby pilot and Titus/Godsall Racing principal Jerry Titus, tragically killed in July at Road America.
This was only the fifth season of SCCA’s sedan series which had been launched in 1966, perfectly timed to catch the ascendancy of the “pony car” – Ford’s Mustang and the herd that followed: Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, AMC Javelin, Dodge Challenger, and Plymouth Barracuda.