The drivers racing in close quarters in the photograph at right personify a problem that increasingly plagues the growing sport of American road racing. Their names are Roger Penske and Peter Barry Ryan, and as they streak through a tight S-turn in a national Sports Car Club of America race at Lime Rock Park, Conn., they are demonstrating amateur SCCA racing at its best. Their Maserati and Lotus cars are glamorous, the contest is in doubt and the setting, with wooded hills all about, is one of great beauty for the spectators clustered on the hillside.
But Penske and Ryan have distanced the field-eventually they will lap even the third-place car-for their skills place them considerably above the average amateur SCCA driver and their cars are vastly superior to all others in the race. Penske and Ryan are among the handful of SCCA men so skilled and so equipped. The great majority are content to be purely weekend drivers, racing happily in less sophisticated, less expensive MGs and Alfa Romeos and Sunbeams. The problem, here so dramatically illustrated at Lime Rock, is where are the Penskes and Ryans to go to find real competition on their own level—the seasoning that might one day elevate them to world Grand Prix racing stature?
Earlier last week, before the Lime Rock meeting, the problem was brought to a head with the harsh, startling abruptness of a connecting rod splitting the block of an overrevved engine. The nine-man Automobile Competition Committee that is charged with overseeing American racing for the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, world governing body of auto racing, said, in effect, "Gentlemen, stop your engines." It suspended all the SCCA's 2,600 competition drivers for an indefinite time from all the large racing events accredited by the FIA. On the prohibited list are the 12-hour world championship race at Sebring, Fla., the race week at Nassau, in the Bahamas, which the SCCA helped launch and has always strongly supported, and the famous 24-hour race at Le Mans, France, in which SCCA drivers have been increasingly successful.
The drastic move climaxed an implausible sequence of events involving the SCCA, the ACC and the United States Auto Club, which is the chief sanctioning group for professional track racing in the U.S. and for the last three years sponsor of a professional sports car series.
July 9, 1961
The Automobile Competition Committee charged the SCCA with welshing on a promise to let its amateur drivers race as unpaid contestants in FIA-approved races last month at Indianapolis Raceway Park (not the Speedway) and at Mosport near Toronto. The USAC, which sponsored the Indianapolis races, echoed the accusation. Not so, retorted the SCCA: the Indianapolis and Mosport meetings had not been approved for its amateurs and were thus automatically vetoed.
But charge and countercharge did not cover the real facts of the situation: the SCCA itself was divided. It had split on the issue of Indianapolis and Mosport, just as it has been divided for years on the question of amateurism. Its own competition events committee had approved both races, and then sent the matter on to the executive committee for consideration. The executive committee reversed the decision, and passed the matter up to the board of governors for a final verdict. The board of governors sustained the executive committee: Mosport and Indianapolis were out. Postcards were sent out to the SCCA's licensed racing drivers forbidding them to compete in the two USAC-staged races.
But by then only three weeks remained before those races, and a few drivers who had assumed that the competition events committee's word was decisive had already filed entries. The Automobile Competition Committee then slapped its suspension on SCCA drivers. The USAC and the promoters at Mosport were enraged.
Out into the open
All parties to the controversy were on shaky ground—the SCCA for failing to make its stand clear to its own drivers and to the other groups, the USAC and the ACC for failing to trace the responsibility for the SCCA stand to the highest authority, and the SCCA drivers for jumping to conclusions in the first place. But at least the problem was brought out into the open for public-inspection. The question remained whether the affected groups would sit down and work out a sensible solution.
At the heart of the problem is the SCCA's staunch insistence on amateurism. The club was formed after the war by a group of dedicated men, some well off and some of modest means, who shared a passion for road racing in the European manner, bought European sports cars and raced them where they could—on private estates and on rural roads closed for the purpose. But as the sport caught on there developed an ever-widening gulf between the majority who sought only weekend pleasure without ambitions to be first-rate drivers and the tiny minority who could excel but were denied pay for their proficiency. The sport moved to abandoned airfields and then to the dozen or so specially created closed-road circuits like the one at Lime Rock. The Penskes and Ryans of the 1950s—Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Masten Gregory—reached the limit of what the SCCA could offer and departed to make their way in the European big time and the occasional American professional race. Others of similarcaliber—most notably Walt Hansgen, who is a familiar member of Sportsman Briggs Cunningham's large, well-equipped SCCA team—elected to string along with the native game.
Then, in 1958, the USAC, which had previously confined itself to. big car, sprint, midget and stock car events, moved to embrace professional road racing. From the first it worked aggressively to attract name drivers, but even so, by last year its championship series had only five events. The SCCA, despite its rigid amateurism, still had many more large-scale events and, on balance, the better drivers. The USAC could not, and the SCCA would not, close the gap between them.
SCCA Chairman Jack Hinkle, a tanned, hawk-faced oilman who races a bird-cage Maserati purely for pleasure, last week bluntly enunciated the club's amateur position. "The SCCA," he said, "is, simply, a gentlemen's racing club. We don't belong in the general run of pro races. We simply are not going to share our drivers with the pros and the professional promoters. What we do is give specific approval to a few of the top glamour races to please a small number of our drivers."
This year, apart from the traditional Sebring and Nassau races, the SCCA has approved just two USAC events, both in California (at Riverside and Laguna Seca) and neither due until autumn. Considering Hinkle's determination not to cater to the gifted minority—which would like very much to compete in an ambitious USAC series as well as the SCCA nationals, regardless of any prize money to be earned—and the equally hard line of USAC and the ACC, the future of the Penskes and Ryans obviously is in doubt.
And yet in all the muddied FIA-ACC-USAC-SCCA alphabet soup, the simple love of competitive machinery, sporting aspiration and good fellowship which started sports car racing in the first place are very much alive in such as Peter Barry Ryan. After losing by a split second to Penske at Lime Rock, Ryan explained his defeat in a single sentence. "Roger just had too many cubes," he said, meaning cubic inches of engine. If the alphabet boys could see their way to being that clear and direct, American road racing would be a long step nearer the immensely popular future it deserves.