"It was a long, long race, and I was getting a lot of heat in the cockpit. When I say hot, I mean so hot I felt like my face was on fire. I had a hose trying to blow some air in, but the vent window wouldn't open sufficiently to direct air inside because the roll cage was in the way. I had a gallon jug of water and was fine until I went through that - and for another hour after that. But for the last forty-five minutes, I had completely dehydrated to where I wasn't even perspiring any more. There wasn't anything left to perspire with. I would have stopped, except I was leading the damn thing. I finished that race and just about had to be lifted out of the car. I wasn't the same for three weeks afterward."
- Dan Gurney, recalling his win in a Mercury Cougar at the 1967 Trans-Am race at Green Valley Raceway in Texas.
Forty years ago, the Sports Car Club of America's Trans American Sedan Series - the Trans-Am - was in its second season, and already it had lured first-rank drivers such as Gurney, who later that year would go on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. How a second-tier series for race-prepped American pony cars could attract such driving talent, top teams, and major factory involvement is one of the great stories of postwar road racing in America.
"At first, you didn't think of the series as being that important," recalls Sam Posey, who drove a Penske Chevrolet Camaro in 1968, a Shelby Ford Mustang in 1969, and a Dodge Challenger in 1970. "We were all involved with Indy or Can-Am or Formula 5000, and the Europeans, like Vic Elford, were involved with long-distance racing. None of us at the time considered it our frontline thing. But we should have realized that it was important, because the factories were there and the pressure to win was different than in categories where you were driving for private teams."
With big-name pilots and intense factory competition, the Trans-Am series was great fun to watch. It was sideways-drifting, tire-smoking, fender-banging racing of the highest order with two classes: cars powered by engines of less than 2.0 liters and those powered by 2.0- to 5.0-liter engines. The series debuted on March 25, 1966, with a four-hour prequel to the legendary 12 Hours of Sebring grind. European ace Jochen Rindt won that first race in an Alfa Romeo GTA, but perhaps the most impressive drive came from Bob Tullius (of Group 44 racing fame), who set the fastest lap time and finished second overall in a 4.5-liter V-8-powered Dodge Dart. Ford won the big-bore title with four Mustang wins in the seven-race season, while Alfa took the under-two-liter crown. Among the drivers who turned up in Trans-Am cars were Formula 1 Ferrari pilot Jackie Ickx, Curtis Turner, Richard Petty, and A. J. Foyt.
In 1967, the pony-car wars exploded with the debuts of GM's Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, a new Plymouth Barracuda, and the Mustang-based Mercury Cougar. Sales were so hot that Chevy, Ford, and Mercury jumped in with factory support and famous drivers, and the Trans- Am series grew to a dozen hard-fought events.
"With factory involvement and a lot of talent in the cockpits, it was flat out all the way," remembers George Follmer, who drove for American Motors in '68 and '72 and for Ford from '69 through '71. "You could never let up. It was better than Can-Am, because we had deeper fields with more competitive cars, teams, and drivers. The other side, which a lot of people forget, was the tire war between Goodyear and Firestone."
Journalist and racer Jerry Titus won four races in his Mustang that year, bringing Ford its second title-by two points over corporate cousin Mercury. In the under-two-liter class, Porsche took advantage of the SCCA's loose definition of "sedan" and topped the competition with a phalanx of 911s.
The annual 24 Hours of Daytona doubled as the season-opening Trans- Am event for 1968, and Titus and Ronnie Bucknum co-drove a Mustang to the win. Then the Penske machine, with Mark Donohue sitting behind the wheel of the Sunoco Camaro, kicked into gear and spun off eight straight victories to clinch the championship for Chevrolet. Porsche again dominated the small-displacement class.
American Motors joined the fight that year with a pair of new Javelins, and more strong competition came from Posey in a second Penske Camaro and Craig Fisher in a Firebird.
Embarrassed by archrival Chevy's dominance in 1968, Ford fielded two factory teams for 1969: a pair of Bud Moore cars for Parnelli Jones and Follmer and a Shelby Mustang for Peter Revson. Jones took the opener at Michigan International Speedway, and Posey won the second race, subbing for Revson in Shelby's Mustang at Lime Rock.