Over the years I have been asked what my greatest accomplishment was in the race biz. To bring you up to speed on who I am and why I had any accomplishes at all I suggest that you get a copy of my memoir ‘The Lives I’ve Lived’, available from this website. Just a quick run through. It all started with a Hot Rod Magazine article long long ago, let's say 1952. I was reading an engine article and they were talking about camshafts and crankshafts. They both went around and seem to do the same thing. That seemingly confusing bit, and my early onset of anal retentiveness, lead me to where I am today. First as an avocation and then a shift to the big time. Chrysler, AMC, Hurst, Keith Black, Brad Anderson, Harley D, and a few save the world projects. NHRA, NASCAR, SCCA, Off Road, & Motorcycles. Designer, developer, driver & race engineer - and More. All in one lifetime! Now, on to the question at hand.
Bridgehampton, New York–1970
I always felt that the Chrysler Trans Am program, circa 1970, was at the top of the list. Anyone that knows, or has read about the series, will be truly puzzled. 1970 Trans Am? You got to be kidding. Didn’t win the series, didn’t even win a race. After all it’s all about winning. To save a little face I’ll mention that Swede and the Plymouth Barracuda sat on the pole in three out of the first six races. Extremely credible considering that our budget, which was microscopic from the get-go, became nonexistent just before the sixth race.
Speaking of which, enter stage left – Bridgehampton, New York, the sixth race of the 1970 season––“Our Finest Hour”
Why so you ask? Sit tight and read on and you too can relive that moment in time.
Call it luck or call it destiny, whatever the rational we had arranged to conduct a test with Koni Shocks prior to the Bridgehampton race. This was quite unusual for us, due to our extremely shallow pockets. A little aside here. One of the essential elements of a successful race effort is testing, testing, and then more testing. Did I mention testing? Mark Donohue and Penske, Parnelli Jones and FoMoCo probably wore out more engines and cars in testing then we did all season racing. They were relentless. Now we had a chance to join the ranks, for a few days anyway.
We arrive on the island early on Tuesdays morning. We elected to use the #48 car because at this moment in time we were intending to run two cars and Dan’s car got the nod, although all the test driving was done with Swede. The Koni shocks were the prime objective, but there were numerous suspension adjustments and tire settings that were required to optimize the shock packages. I won’t get into the details, they are not important for the development of this narrative, besides I couldn’t remember them now if my life depended on it. The car was happy and Swede was happy. That made us all happy, at least for now.
Friday night back at the hotel there were gale winds ablowing and potential debris on the horizon. The following is an excerpt from my memoir that will enlighten those of you who have not read this epic piece and refresh the memories of those who have.
I’m In, I’m Out Again! The Layoff
(excerpt from ‘The Lives I’ve Lived’ pg73)
I think in the first four or five races we qualified on the pole like three times. For most people involved the Trans Am program was a failure because we never won a race, but to me it was one of the most successful projects I did because of the handicaps that we had. After about the 3rd or 4th race, Chrysler decided to pull out. They said, "We're cutting the budget in half and there will only be one car.”
So Dan gave that car to Swede and we continued the year with Swede until the last two races, and then Dan decided he wanted to drive the last two races out of his own pocket. As we now know, apparently he had planned to retire after the last Riverside race.
The budget cut almost put me, personally, in the grease. It was a Friday night before the race (probably dark and stormy) … this is one time my memory has let me down. I can't remember which race it was. Sorry bout that, but the facts of the event are all crystal clear.
After practice, a few of us had adjourned to the hotel lounge. Phil Remington (Rem) had flown in with a few other AAR guys, which in itself was unusual. The crew, myself and Swede have been in town since Thursday. I didn’t have a clue.
One of the oddballs in attendance was a guy named Gary Wheeler, not my favorite person, we’ll just leave it at that. He was pontificating to a couple of young gals at the bar about why he and Rem were in town. It seemed that there was a changing of the guard planned. To the point—I was getting the boot.
Rationale was complicated. Chrysler in all its wisdom and glory chopped the budget. Dan was forced to cut back to one car and was cutting me loose and popping Rem in my spot as team manager and race engineer; he was on their other payroll. Rem and I were discussing this in hushed tones at our table in the lounge. Dan wanted me home immediately, but I thought it wiser to wait until after the race on Sunday before making the announcement along with my exit. Less disturbance to the troops.
However, this clever, smooth transition was disrupted by the braggadocio at the bar. My two crew chefs, Bobby Box and Bert Brown overheard the nefarious plans and apparently decided on an alternate plan of their very own. (Rumor has it that Mr. Swede was also an actor in this drama)
A short time after the ‘leak’ they came and sat down with Rem and me and flat out stated, "We understand you're leaving”.
"Well yeah" I said, "but how the hell did you guys find out?”
They explained. Rem and I listened. Finally, Bobby and Bert said, "If they ask you to stay would you stay?”
I indicated that more than likely I would, but the exit plans were already in motion.
With huge smiles on their faces they told us that they had just called Max Muhleman and Dan Gurney and told them straight out. “If Tarozzi goes we all go,” and so the tide was turned. AAR had little choice but to reinstate the lonely Turk warrior from Detroit. Sometimes bad things can end well.
Meanwhile Rem let out a sigh of relief. He was elated at not having to be on the road. At that time I hadn’t realized all the travel time he had put in over the years, all the Shelby LeMans efforts, AAR IndyCar and Can-AM programs, as well as other shunts here and there. He mentioned a few of these but was reluctant to elaborate, so I never completely understood his hesitancy until many, many years later.
Saturday – Qualifying
After digesting the passage above describing the atmosphere you will understand why we had been trimmed back to one car. In a word budget cut!
Back to the track. We elected to run the #48 car because of all the testing we had done on that vehicle. Due to the timing of the budget slash Dan elected to stay home in sunny Santa Ana. I know, I know this is contrary to a number of photos and other assorted rumors. Swede was indeed the driver of the #48 car on this eventful weekend in the ‘Hamptons’. And driver he was. He put the car on the pole with breathing space to spare. Bridgehampton was a fairly fast track; I believe lap speeds were about 100 mph. [Hey this was 1970.] Swede qualified at 1:43 and later set the fastest race lap at 1:42.4. The rest of the field were scratching their noggins. I don’t recall the actual time gaps, but they were serious.
Sunday – Race Day
Being on the pole is always euphoric, but today it seemed very special. The weather was cool, but unfortunately there was the smell of rain in the air, nonetheless we were ready. Drys and rains on hand. The start went to perfection. Swede surged ahead with Parnelli and Donohue sniffing fumes. After the second or third lap Swede was so far ahead I thought there might have been a shunt out in the back of the circuit. But nah, Swede was leading by, as they say, a country mile. He was collecting the turns, one after the other and from the lap time tally, didn’t miss a mark. The track had a very long straight-away, the center of which incorporates the pit area. To the best of my recollection it was about the length of a drag strip. Off to our left was the last turn, a right hander. Way off to our right was the first turn, another right hander. Swede was about to enter the first turn when the rest of the troops were just emerging from the last right hander. I kid you not. It was a sight to behold. Nothing could stop us now. BUT, I’ve said it before and I will reiterate: ‘Man Plans, God Laughs’. Actually I’ve say it, but it is really a biblical post.
Goin Too Fast
The race was going well and I was focusing on each and every lap. After about six or seven laps John Timanus, SCCA’s expert on all things technical, approached me in the middle of an especially good lap and requested we conference. Being the gentleman that I am I joined him at the back of the pit box, such as it was.
“I’m going to have to ask you to tear your engine down after the race.”
“To what? We are only minutes into a race that will ultimately last about two hours. You got to be joking, right.”
“I’m afraid not. You guys are just going too fast. I have received requests from several competitors.”
“Too fast, that’s the name of this game John. Besides, you have to understand that for the first time we have been able to test at the track prior to the race. Koni was conducting a series of test with our car. We were able to optimize the car setup for the track before qualifying and the race. In addition, Swede was able to put in two days’ worth of laps and has learned this track like the back of his hand, or perhaps his glove. After-all this isn’t the first time we sat on the pole and led the race.”
“All true.” John responded. “But never like this. You’re in a different league today my friend and I need to see that engine. I’m not going to pull you in, but you’re going to have to tear down the engine when it’s over.”
Meanwhile a few laps had gone by, Swede still dishing it out. I had to get ready for our first pit stop and it was starting to drizzle. “Ok John, I hear you. Don’t agree, but I hear you. I have to get back to the race. We have a pit stop coming up. We’ll talk again later.”
It was now 11 or 12 laps into the race and the ground was getting wet from the drizzle, which was about to turn to rain. Swede came in right on target. Fuel only. As I waved him off the car shot passed me, rear wheel spinning madly and the sickening sound of wheel axle hop pounded at my ear drums. Swede was pumped so full of adrenalin that he got a little carried away with the release of the clutch. Also the ground was wet, which didn’t help matters in the least. But I thought, hey it’s ok, we’ve had that happen before and survived with no noticeable damage. Ah, but that was before. Stay tuned.
Let’s Roll The Clock Back A Little
In the early part of the year the Chrysler folks had supplied us with special transmission prepped for racing. Their pedigree was NASCAR. Absolutely bullet proof, so they said. This quickly proved to be an erroneous call. The synchro rings were not up to the job. Fortunately, there was an easy fix supplied to us by my old friend and wizard of many faces, George Wallace, Michigan not Alabama. Shortly before we saddled up for our present race we were again supplied with a magic module—a nice shiny aluminum center section, affectionately known as a pig. Again a product of the Chrysler NASCAR program. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Did I listen to this sage advice from the ages—no way. Into the fire I leapt. Tell a racer type he can save a few pounds and he won’t think twice, or in this case perhaps not at all. Now don’t read me wrong. I had a great deal of respect for the lads back at the works. They were clever guys if you pointed them in the right direction. However, they crunched numbers and drew lines, but I was in the trenches. I was supposed to be their guide through the muck and mire of reality. I do believe I let then down and we ended up where we ended up. [Turks Take: Was it aluminum or magnesium? As I reviewed the color versions of the trashed center section it looked more like magnesium than aluminum. No real science, just an intuitive reaction to the goldish coloration of the casting. We’ll never know. If indeed the casting was mag then it was a really dumb decision to use said pig in a poke. And in the final analysis it falls to me. I was the one who gave the thumbs up.]
Back To Bridgehampton
Pit stop completed, Swede and the #48 Barracuda disappeared into the fray—never to be seen again? We waited and waited, but they never showed. I hustled over to track communications to find out what had happened. All they could tell me was that the #48 was parked on the backstretch, off to the side and out of the way. Track access being what it was, it would have to stay there until the end of the race. Double whammy. It wasn’t too long before Swede showed up on somebody’s scooter or some other demeaning mode of transportation.
Swede was the first to speak, “Something in the rear. Lots of noise and the smell was clearly axle fluid. It was definitely over.”
Another DNF. And after such a magnanimous effort. I congratulated Swede on his outstanding performance. “They’ll be others.” These were the words from my mouth, but my mind was starting to have doubts, budget chop and all. But the downs were not over.
“Mr. Tarozzi, may I have a word with you?” John Timanus his self. “We need to have a look at your engine after the race is over and they get your car back here.”
“You got to kidding.” Stronger words flowed forth, I can assure you. “John, we didn’t even finish the race. The car is parked out there in the boonies like a beached whale. You can’t be serious about a tear down. And on top of all that it’s raining and the crew is dejected enough without having to face a frivolous attempt at pacifying a few jealous racers.”
“I’m afraid I’m the one you have to satisfy.”
We argued, debated, whatever, for a while. Finally, we agreed on a compromise. Neither one of us was too enthused about standing around in the rain while we ‘slowly” disassembled the engine. We settled on using a P&G displacement gauge. This was a volumetric displacement measuring device that was accepted by a number of sanctioning bodies. It was a pneumatic device that would measure the displacement of a cylinder while cranking the engine over a number of times, ignition off of course. All you had to do was remove a spark plug and the pushrod from one cylinder. Screw a hose attachment from the gauge into the selected cylinder, crank the engine and voila the cylinder displacement is revealed. A quick calculation and the engine displacement is established.
All was well. Apologies accepted and we were on our way to race another day. I’m sure there were some long face in the paddock area. I never did find out who grumpy and dopey were.
It Wasn’t To Be
We didn’t win a race, only finished a handful, but there were moments that set us apart, and above the crowd. Three poles and a smattering of decent finishes. But the Bridgehampton experience was a time like no other, at least for the crew and myself. During qualifying and in the first 11 or 12 laps we thought we had achieved the impossible. A first year accomplishment that few had ever known. Our Finest Hour.
But hey, it wasn’t to be. We regrouped and continued at our chosen trades, designing, building and racing every day, every hour, 24/7 as the saying goes. It’s what we chose to do and damn it we did it to the max. No regrets on how or what we did, BUT it just would have been nice to reach that top step on the podium.
From the pen, nay word processor, of Bob Turk Tarozzi