Trans Am: The more things change

Images Dave Friedman Collection / Benson Ford Research

Trans Am: The more things change

SCCA / SportsCar Magazine

Trans Am: The more things change

By

For the 1970 season, the factory efforts had all been parceled out to powerhouse teams, Ford continuing with South Carolina-based NASCAR team owner Walter “Bud” Moore; Chevrolet’s back-door factory effort with Texan Jim Hall; Pontiac through the Canadian-funded Titus/Godsall Racing; Plymouth jumping in with the great SoCal All American Racers; and Dodge via the Marblehead, Mass.-based constructor Autodynamics (with chassis’ built by AAR).

The shocker over the winter was Team Penske parking its all-conquering ’69 Camaros in favor of a lucrative deal to run American Motors’ Javelin, introduced to the series the year before by Ron Kaplan.

Team Penske scored the lucrative American Motors deal for 1970, but it was several races into the season before the Javelins could truly compete with the fleet Bud Moore Mustangs.

Not unexpectedly, Penske struggled at the start of the season with its new cars, the well-dialed-in Bud Moore Mustangs dominating the first four events at Laguna Seca, Lime Rock, Bryar, and Mid-Ohio.

At Bridgehampton in June, though, it all came right for Penske’s brilliant Mark Donohue who gave the Javelin its first win. The quiet New Jersey-born driver then won again at Road America and Mt. Tremblant, a three-win streak interrupted by Milt Minter’s surprise victory (in an ex-Penske Roy Woods Racing Camaro) in an incident-plagued, appropriately named, Donnybrooke (aka Brainerd).

Englishman Vic Elford notched a win at Watkins Glen, the Jim Hall Camaros well suited to the upstate New York GP circuit’s long straights. But the tide swung back to the Mustangs as the 11-race season wound down, Jones winning handily in Kent, Wash., and charging spectacularly back to front in the October Riverside finale.

Donohue’s red, white and blue Penske Javelin finished third at Riverside. It was both appropriate and touching that Mark’s son David was invited to participate in the 2020 Esports race. An accomplished GT racer himself, David Donohue never got to lap the real Riverside, and while the 3.3-mile virtual version was different from the 2.54-mile layout used in the 1960s and ’70s, his appearance was heartwarming – and somewhat successful. Handicapped by a cast on one wrist and despite no previous experience at the track or in the series, he finished just outside the top 10 in the Trans Am Esports Race 1 at the circuit.

Back to 1970, though, faced with a down economy and a looming energy crisis, the factories, one by one, withdrew from the Trans Am. In response, SCCA rules makers changed the look of the series through the decade with Porsche 934 turbos battling for top honors in the premier class and Group 44 Jaguars and Triumphs plus several independent Porsches and Corvettes starring in the supporting Category I.

On into the 1980s and ’90s as tubeframe racecars overtook the production-based machinery, the “pony cars” (Camaros and Mustangs) returned. Intensity remained, a hallmark as a host of new names emerged, young drivers with bright futures seizing the Trans Am limelight: Wally Dallenbach Jr., Scott Pruett, Tommy Kendall, Willy T. Ribbs, Scott Sharp, Paul Gentilozzi, Boris Said, and many others.

21st Century Renaissance

The early years of the 21st century were rebuilding years, as the Trans Am faced formidable GT-racing competition from all sides. Fresh enthusiasm from new owners The Trans Am Race Company (assuming management of the series from SCCA) and its principals Tony Parella and series veteran John Clagett turned the tide. With support plus sponsorship from tire maker Pirelli, which debuted in 2017, and several seasons of steady growth behind it, the Trans Am renaissance – along with the exciting and affordable muscle car laden TA2 class – was in full swing rolling into 2020. Another spectacular 12-race schedule on most of North America’s premier circuits had been announced, the combination of rules stability and newly added XGT class backstopping a record number of entries at the start of a new decade – and then COVID-19.

The first few weeks of March were fraught, indeed, with all the major sanctioning bodies forced to cancel spring races and Trans Am was no exception.

To the rescue? A virtual Trans Am series. After a preliminary event at Lime Rock set up in record time (read more about that in the June issue of SportsCar), a larger platform was found which had digital machinery most closely approaching Trans Am spec cars. A seven-weekend, 14-race April to June Esports series on the Assetto Corsa Ultimate Edition gaming platform was the result, launched to much acclaim at a virtual Laguna Seca on April 18.

Class of the field in the opening rounds were the two drivers who would take the points battle to the finale: Josh Hurley, who’s had an enduring career in a wide variety of machinery, from karts to Formula Atlantic as well as sports and GT cars; and Tyler Kicera, who rose up through the Spec Miata ranks. In the virtual series, Hurley ultimately got the better of Kicera to take the Trans Am Eports title by the narrowest of margins – and cling to the hope the real world would notice and put him into a real-world TA machine.

Through the spring, though, others impressed, including race winners Dylan Archer, Ed Sevadjian, and former “real world” Trans Am champions Cameron Lawrence and Ernie Francis Jr., while Thomas Merrill, J.P. Southern, Hunter Pickett (grandson of series great Greg) also earned podium spots. And the West Coast Trans Am series was well represented in the points courtesy Nick Rosseno, Cameron Parsons, and Carl Rydquist.

Sim racing filled the spring gap, but there was no hiding the fact the Trans Am world was anxious to get back on track. In late May, Trans Am released its extensively revised 10-race schedule, the action resuming during the June 26-28 weekend at Mid-Ohio, which it shared with the SCCA Pro Racing F4 U.S. Championship and FR Americas series.

More SCCA / SportsCar Magazine