Mustang in the SCCA Trans-Am Series 1966-1972
The Glory Days
Among the Mustang’s many motorsport accomplishments during its first 50 years, is its considerable success in the original SCCA Trans-Am series. Mention this to any Ford or Mustang enthusiast and they likely zero in on the seminal year of 1970, when Parnelli Jones and George Follmer dominated the season in those famous school bus yellow Grabber Orange Bud Moore Boss 302s, handily beating all comers and winning the Trans-Am title for Ford in 1970. And it only makes sense that this is the standout accomplishment that people remember: the cars were fabulous, the drivers a pair of hard-charging Americans who dominated the season, and Ford was very much behind the effort.
But there was more; several solid drives, by notable drivers and capable cars, and worthy wins that came on either side of that historic championship year. From the beginning, with that first race at Sebring on March 25, 1966, the Trans-Am series fields were a wonderfully diverse smorgasbord of American and import-branded “sedans,” implying a four-seater configuration, not a four-door body style. That meant Mustangs, Dodge Darts, Plymouth Barracudas, Austins, Renaults, Saabs, Volvos, BMWs, and fast, sharp handling Alfa Romeos, all running together in two main classes for those with engines under 2.0-liters (later revised to a 2.5-liter limit for the small-bore groups), and more for the big-bore motors, yet none allowed to run more than 5,000 cc or 5.0 liters.
That first race was won by future F1 champion Jochen Rindt in an Alfa Romeo GTA, with the top over 2.0L finishers being Bob Tullius and Tony Adamowicz in Bob’s Group 44 Dart. The best Mustang finisher was Dick Thompson’s notchback in 26th Place. But the biggest Mustang news at that first Trans-Am event was the guy ranked 35th, who did not finish. That being Mustang #4, driven by already two-time Indy 500 winner Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. The field was peppered with big-name drivers from all over the world, yet none had more impact at the time than Foyt. He led more than 30 laps early in the race, succumbing to a blown head gasket; no matter, the series proved that it had a future and could attract big-name talent to run.
It wasn’t long before the Mustang’s mettle as a race car began to surface. Keep in mind that all Mustang efforts in Trans-Am (prior to 1968) were essentially privateer teams; some with great talent, hardware, and solid budgets, others with less so. Tom Yeager and Bob Johnson proved a formidable privateer entry, by winning 1966’s 300-miler at Mid-America, backing it up with a strong win in the 400-mile T-A race at Virginia International Raceway. There were two more Mustang wins in Trans-Am’s rookie season, that being the McComb//Brooker combo taking the flag at Green Valley Raceway in Texas, and with Jerry Titus closing out the season with a win at Riverside, with only Tullius’ Dart ruining a Mustang 1-2-3 finish at that 1966 season-ending enduro. 1966 was over, the Mustangs were running hard and earning a share of victories, but the game board was going to change substantially for 1967.
Anticipated to be the most significant game changer was the arrival of the Chevrolet Camaro into the new car market and into the Trans-Am series, backed by Chevrolet, entered by Roger Penske, and driven by Mark Donohue. Yet Ford had its own arsenal of well-prepared cars and big-name drivers. Keep in mind that much of Ford’s racing emphasis and money went into the USAC Champ Car (Indy) series, NASCAR, and big game endurance racing, such as Le Mans, Sebring, and Daytona. But factory-backed Bud Moore Engineering came to play with a trio of beautifully turned out Mercury Cougars, driven by big gunners, including Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, veteran road racer Ed Leslie, and Indy/F1 star Peter Revson. Shelby American had dogs in the hunt as well, under its Terlingua Racing Team banner (so named after Shelby’s massive ranch estate in Terlingua, Texas), running ’67 Mustang hardtops for racing writer Jerry Titus (regular contributor to Petersen Publishing Company’s Sports Car Graphic magazine), Dick Thompson, and NASCAR and road racing standout Ronnie Bucknam.
Everyone figured that the season would come down to a two-horse show between the Camaro and Cougar teams, with the Shelby/Terlingua teams perhaps slightly below the radar. The Chevys and Mercs were formidable to be sure, but remember that Carroll Shelby’s team knew how to race and win with Mustangs, and its stable of drivers appeared every bit the match of the bigger names. It also didn’t hurt that Shelby had very direct connections to Ford; even though the Cougars were Ford’s officially supported Trans-Am effort for 1967, a little money was funneled to Shelby on the side to support the Terlingua effort.
Carroll Shelby told me that he felt nobody understood Trans-Am race car design, engineering, and set up principles any better than Titus did. “When I first met him, he was a mechanic, but a damn good one, and he became a fabulous driver,” said the late great Carroll. Early in the season, 1967 seemed to be the year nobody wanted to clearly dominate. Tullius started the season with a win for Dodge, followed up by a privateer win for Mustang by Walt Hane (in the previous year’s ’66 body style), with Titus winning the season’s third race at Sebring. Then the Cougars began to show their mettle, with Gurney and Jones finishing 1-2 at Green Valley (as Titus badly damaged the car in practice and had to start from the back of the pack in the hastily repaired machine), then Revson coming in for a big win at Lime Rock. Titus won race number five at Mid-Ohio, and Revson won his second race of the season at Bryar in Loudon, New Hampshire. The seventh event of the season was for 2.0-liter and under cars only, for which Titus switched to a Porsche 911 and won handily. He was back in the Terlingua Mustang for the Continental Divide race in Castle Rock, Colorado, which he also won.
1967’s Trans-Am championship was coming down to an inter-family faceoff between the Cougars and Shelby’s Mustangs. Keep in mind that in this series (from 1966-’71), neither individual drivers nor driver pairings were officially recognized as champions, as the official championship was bestowed upon the winning manufacturer, which obviously did a lot to engender OEM support, participation, and dollars, not to mention the advertising and marketing bragging rights that went along with winning the T-A title. Titus nipped Revson for another critical points-earning Mustang win in Modesto, California, with Donohue’s Camaro finally taking an overall win in the season’s 11th race in Las Vegas.
It was nip and tuck for the title going into the final race of the year in Kent, Washington. The Mustangs had the advantage with more wins than the Chevrolets and Mercurys, but it was close. Donohue won the race, but Chevy hadn’t earned enough points to be a factor in the championship. Ronnie Bucknam nursed an ailing Mustang to a hard-earned Second Place, with Gurney coming in Third in his also failing Cougar. But that placement gave the Terlingua/Shelby Mustangs a 2-point advantage, enough to claim the Trans-Am title for 1967. The capable and versatile Bucknam had closed out the season for Ford, but a huge pile of the title credit goes to Titus for his several wins and Top 5 finishes. “Jerry crashed in qualifying for the Kent race and destroyed his car [and thus was not in the race]. Jerry was always on the ragged edge and because of that, he crashed a lot. But he was fast, won races, and was amazingly easy on the car. Jerry did a hell of a job for us in those years,” Shelby American’s Lew Spencer said.
As an aside, the Shelby/Terlingua Mustangs were always hardtops because of course Shelby American’s own G.T. 350 SCCA racers were fastbacks; the team also switched up the color schemes to further differentiate the teams’ efforts. The Terlingua Trans-Am machines were painted a bright orange yellow with black hoods instead of Shelby American’s usual white with blue stripes. Artist, advertising exec, and longtime Shelby posse member Bill Neale told me, “Shelby hated that color. He called it ‘God awful yella’ but I’m sure that he never looked at that trophy for the Trans-Am championship thinking it was anything ‘God awful’ about it.”
By the end of the 1967 season, it was clear that Penske and Donohue had the measure of the new Camaro Z/28 and they were expected to be formidable the following season. Ford elected to head off the chances of another inter-squad squabble and dropped the Cougar effort, putting its official support behind the Mustang for 1968. Even though Titus and Bucknam teamed up for a season-opening Mustang win at Daytona in 1968, Donohue and the blue Chevy went on a romp that wasn’t to be stopped, winning race after race early in the year. Titus and the Mustang didn’t win again until the tenth race of the season at Watkins Glen, while Horst Kwech won the 12th race at Riverside in a Mustang, but that’s all Ford had for Chevy that year. The Penske Camaro and Donohue won nearly every other race to claim the title and close out a 1968 season Ford would just as soon forget.
1969 was a new year, and brought with it a new Mustang in the form of the Boss 302, a legit factory-brewed Trans-Am racer to compete with the Camaro Z/28. There were AMC Javelins and Pontiac Firebirds in the mix too, but the bottom line was Ford versus Chevy. Parnelli Jones and George Follmer were officially paired for the first time as full-fledged teammates in factory-backed Bud Moore Engineering Boss 302s, painted red, white, and black (in contrast to 1970’s school bus yellow that people are most familiar with). Not wanting to turn its back on Shelby, with whom Ford was still heavily allied and who delivered the 1967 championship, Ford also backed a return Shelby American effort with Peter Revson as its lead driver. Leslie and Bucknam departed to drive Camaros that year.
George Follmer notably said that “Parnelli and I became a great pair of teammates, and we also became lifelong friends. We were very aggressive but were paid to win and we knew that if we didn’t, changes would be made. I learned a hell of a lot from him.” I also asked Follmer about his “cousin teammate” from the other Ford team, the gifted and often underrated Revson: “Oh yeah, Revvy was very good, really fast, and a great teammate, easily capable of winning a Trans-Am title if the chips had fallen his way.”
1969 wasn’t as much of a Bow Tie romp as the previous season had been, with the Mustangs keeping Ford in the game until nearer the end of the championship. Sam Posey said in Dave Friedman’s seminal book about the Trans-Am series: “In 1969 I drove one Trans-Am race in a Mustang, and that was for Carroll Shelby at Lime Rock [natural enough for Posey as a Connecticut resident with Lime Rock being his home track]. My teammate, Horst Kwech, led the early part of the race until he went out with throttle linkage problems and I took over the lead. My seat had broken loose during the warm up, and it was replaced with one of the Holman Moody stock car seats that did not offer me good support. Those Trans-Am races were three hours long at the time, and Lime Rock was exceptionally bumpy that year. I took such a beating during that race that by the time the race neared its end I was practically incoherent. I was exhausted when I took the checkered flag because my legs were paralyzed with pain—those Trans-Am races were tough.” Fortunately, Sam kept it together for a big win, but it wasn’t enough to stem the Chevy juggernaut, with Chevrolet again taking home the title for 1969.
1970 was the banner year discussed above, and the new-for-1970 Camaro was no longer the dominator that the first-gen cars proved to be; Penske and Donohue switched to an AMC Javelin, and nearly everyone else were also-rans. Much the same fate befell the Mustang for 1971, as the new larger chassis architecture wasn’t as natural a race car as was the ’69/’70 Boss 302, so many of the now non-factory supported teams ran those proven winners again in 1971-’72. Jones departed the series to effectively retire from driving, Penske/Donohue continued to successfully develop the AMC Javelin program, but Follmer stuck with the Mustang for a few races and got in a win here and there. Gurney and Posey ran Mopar programs. Donohue dominated 1971 so the title went to AMC, winning 7 out of the 10 races that season, and the Mustang’s days in the heyday of Trans-Am were done.
Still, in spite of the Ford-dominated years of 1967, 1969, and 1970, with factory budgets and high talent, big-name teams, you can’t forget the little guy Mustang runners that added all important points here and there; some of their names have already been mentioned, but there were so many others, such as the late Warren Tope, Milt Minter, Tony deLorenzo, and Bob Grossman to name a few. Of course Ford mopped the Trans-Am floors with everyone again in the mid ’90s when Tommy Kendall teamed up with Jack Roush for four dominating titles.
But somehow, Trans-Am was never quite as special in its later days as it was during its legendary, muscle car–derived, fender-banging, formative years of the late ’60s and early ’70s.