Winning the Targa Florio in 1970
I returned to Sicily and the Targa in 1970 as part of one of the most famous and successful sports car efforts in racing history, the Porsche factory team entered by JW Automotive and directed by John Wyer. Porsche built the powerful 12-cylinder 917s for high-speed circuits like Le Mans, Spa, Daytona and Monza and the nimble eight-cylinder 908/03s for the multi-cornered Nürburgring and the Targa Florio. Wyer’s cars were painted in Gulf’s iconic blue-and-orange livery and we drivers wore matching driving suits. Walking through the paddock, we looked and felt like gods.
At my request, I was paired that season with Jo ‘Seppi’ Siffert because I was sure that driving with him was the best way for me to win races. My 1968 drives in Wyer’s Ford GT40s and with the factory Porsche 908s in 1969 gave both Seppi and John confidence in my abilities. Jo and I were employed directly by Porsche while Pedro Rodriguez and Finnish rally driver Leo Kinnunen were Gulf drivers. None of us was paid that well. As factory Porsche drivers – the best job in endurance racing at that time – Seppi and I were remunerated at exactly my 1968 John Wyer rate of $750 per race plus expenses, except for Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans for which we received $1,000 each. My total 10-race income from Porsche that year was $8,250.
Before the Targa Florio, the JW Automotive team entered the fast-developing 917K in the first four races of the 1970 International Championship for Makes with generally excellent results for Porsche. For Seppi and me, they were somewhat less successful. At the Daytona opener, Pedro and Leo took the win with a single-stint assist from me, followed by Jo and me in second place. Sebring was next, a race of multiple mechanical problems for both Porsches; the sequence of failures that befell our cars put Seppi and me out of the race after three short hours while the less-compromised Rodriguez/Kinnunen duo soldiered on to fourth place. The BOAC 1,000Kms at Brands Hatch was run in typically wet British weather and Pedro – in a race widely recognised as one of his best drives – splashed to a win with Leo, while we ran a close second until I was punted off by the Ferrari 512 of an embarrassed Chris Amon; I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose as Chris never engaged in dirty racing. At Monza, the Rodriguez/Kinnunen team continued its blistering winning streak, leaving Seppi and me to struggle for 12th place, plagued by mechanical failures.
The Targa Florio was our fifth race of the championship season, and the first where Wyer ran Porsche’s new 908/03s. Rodriguez and Kinnunen were in one, Siffert and me in another, and Richard Attwood and Swedish rally driver Björn Waldegård in a third. To John’s surprise and dismay, another 908/03 appeared in the paddock entered by Ferdinand Piëch’s Porsche Salzburg team, to be driven by Vic Elford and Hans Herrmann.
The agile 908/03s were perfectly suited to the serpentine Targa Florio circuit. While Elford did try a 917 in practice and lapped just a few seconds slower than his time in the 908/03, the big car proved to be a handful and was quickly returned to the Porsche Salzburg transporter. Ferrari, our major competition, sent one of its mighty 512S prototypes for factory drivers Nino Vaccarella and Ignazio Giunti. Nino was a Sicilian from Palermo, where he was a part-time teacher and accounting school headmaster. As the local pro, he trained year round on his home circuit and was one of very few drivers who knew every one of the Targa’s 720 corners. If the Porsche 917 were ill-suited to the Targa, Nino’s beefy Ferrari couldn’t have been any better. Nonetheless, after Siffert put our car on pole with a lap of 34 minutes 10 seconds and Elford set a time of 34 minutes 37 seconds, Vaccarella – using his intimate course knowledge – qualified third just 36 seconds off Jo’s pace.
One of the Targa Florio’s few concessions to judiciousness was the staggered start in which competitors were released at roughly 30-second intervals. The race, therefore, was against the clock (as opposed to wheel-to-wheel) so only the team timekeepers could be sure who was in the lead. This start procedure may have prevented first-lap mayhem but it didn’t eliminate the hazards of overtaking on Sicily’s narrow roads, a necessity given the diversity of entries and their widely differing speeds. Despite the starting intervals, cars bunched up regularly and occasional chaos ensued as multiple drivers attempted to claim the same compact patch of Sicilian tarmac.
The 1970 race was scheduled for 11 laps (495 miles), one lap longer than the previous year. With fuel stops, it would take just over six hours, and fuel economy was Porsche’s secret weapon. The thirsty 12-cylinder Ferrari could go just two laps before stopping while the eight-cylinder Porsche could last three or even four if we took advantage of the satellite refuelling station our team had set up in the mountains.
The lead changed numerous times during the race, shifting among Wyer’s Porsche 908/03s, the Porsche Salzburg car and the Vaccarella/Giunti Ferrari 512S. Pedro was feeling ill that day, so Kinnunen started the race and jumped into the lead on the opening lap. When Leo handed over the car to Pedro, Vaccarella was able to overtake the ailing Mexican.
I relieved Seppi on lap four and, halfway around the track, I caught Vaccarella. The only logical place to pass the Ferrari was on the long straight beside the Mediterranean but there the 5-litre 512S could use its potent horsepower to establish a 20mph supremacy in top speed. I did try to pass elsewhere but the Ferrari had Nino aboard, blocking savagely and nearly pushing me off the road in each of my attempts. Prudence and the benefit of better fuel consumption made me patient, and I remained a safe distance behind, waiting for the Ferrari to pit. When I saw Nino getting ready, I closed up fast and we made our usual quick pit-stop for fuel, tyres and driver change. The mechanics’ coordinated manoeuvres allowed Siffert to exit the pits in the lead.
At the finish, Jo and I were two minutes ahead of Rodriguez and Kinnunen (Leo setting a new lap record of 33 minutes 36 seconds) and two more in front of the Vaccarella/Giunti Ferrari.
Most races ended with appreciative cheering no matter who won, but not in Sicily, and not for a German car driven by a Brit and a Swiss. As our Porsche triumphantly crossed the finish line for the win, thousands of Italian spectators remained eerily silent, communally crushed that the victor was neither a Ferrari nor an Alfa Romeo, nor any car driven by an Italian.
It mattered not to Seppi and me. After five races together in the JW Automotive team, we finally had our first major victory, and a most satisfying one it was. For nearly 500 miles and nearly 8,000 corners neither of us had put a wheel wrong. That night’s celebratory dinner tasted of victory, washed down by copious draughts of Sicily’s inky Mount Etna wines.
Winning the Spa 1,000Kms in 1970
John Wyer took over the testing of the Porsche 917 in 1969 and his organisation, JW Automotive Engineering, was named the official Porsche race team for 1970. By the time we returned to Spa in 1970, the 917K had already proven itself with wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona, the Brands Hatch 1,000Kms and the Monza 1,000Kms. For the Spa 1,000Kms we had new rear bodywork with a tunnel down the middle of a slightly modified tail section that swept up at its trailing edge. This aggressive configuration was designed to give us added speed on the long straights, not that any of the drivers had lobbied for this particular favour. It turned out that the car’s tyres shared our misgivings.
During the opening lap of practice, Seppi had a terrifying high-speed incident when a front tyre parted from its rim on the Masta straight at about 180mph. After all four wheels and tyres were replaced, it appeared that I was not to be left out of the fun. ‘Herr Redman, now iss your turn.’ When I offered my opinion that something might be seriously wrong, Herr Bott gave me the same counsel he had imparted the previous year – go slowly.
I followed this advice impeccably for three laps as I built my speed and confidence. On the fourth lap I felt obliged to take an aggressive run down the Masta straight at about 215mph, and then around Stavelot at 170mph. So far, so good. But as I approached the flat-out Les Carrières at 175mph, my left rear tyre detached itself from the rim, flinging the 917 sideways and causing the car to slew from one edge of the road to the other. In desperation I took both hands off the steering wheel, having once read that the caster (forward tilt) of the front wheels would automatically straighten the car. It worked and eventually the car stopped, undamaged. The same could not be said for my confidence. When I returned to the pits, Seppi fell on the ground laughing, pointing out that my face matched the colour of my white driver’s suit.
Incredibly, neither of the tyres that failed on our cars had actually blown. Rather, the centres of the tyres had expanded so much from spinning at such high speeds that their inside beads were pulled away from the rims. Safety pins and studs had yet to be devised but, clearly, a solution had to be found. The night before the race, all of the team’s magnesium-alloy wheels were taken to the nearby city of Liège and roughly sandblasted, the better to grip the tyres. No one knew if this would work, although we drivers would be the first to find out.
It rained heavily during the night and, as was normally the case, I slept in fits and starts, often waking in a cold sweat. My thoughts were of Spa’s dangers, of course, but I also found myself dwelling, as a child of the Second World War, on how local families suffered when the region was savaged during the Battle of the Bulge*. Somehow, the spectre of senseless losses during the war dovetailed with my fear of Spa’s random uncertainties. Even now, I don’t know if this grim combination made things worse or better.
The next day was race day. Pedro Rodriguez had put one of the JW Automotive Porsche 917Ks on pole with my teammate Jo Siffert alongside in ours. Two factory Ferrari 512s were our main competition, one driven by Jacky Ickx – on his favourite track – and John Surtees, the 1964 Formula 1 World Champion. We had our work cut out. The track was still wet when the race began, so Pedro and Seppi started on intermediate tyres. At the drop of the flag, the two of them contested the narrow road side by side, banging their 917s’ flanks through Eau Rouge, then up the hill and out of sight. I’m sure the hairs on the back of John Wyer’s neck stood on end; they did on mine. This spirited Rodriguez/Siffert rivalry turned out to have serious consequences for me at the Targa Florio a year later, to the detriment of my career and the devastation of my body.
The JW Automotive Porsche 917 duos of Rodriguez/Kinnunen and Siffert/Redman soon put distance on the field, leapfrogging each other back and forth as the race unfolded. Ultimately Seppi and I extended our lead, to take the win over the Ickx/Surtees Ferrari at an average speed of 149.42mph, including pitstops. It was the fastest road race ever run. I was able to match Siffert’s best time, but Pedro Rodriguez blitzed us all by setting a single lap record of 3 minutes 16.5 seconds at an astonishing average speed of 160.513mph.
At 10 o’clock in the evening, after the interminable prize-giving, Siffert said, ‘Come on, let’s have a drink with the mechanics.’ Marion, who was there with our young son James, asked when I expected to return. ‘About midnight’ seemed a reasonable enough estimate, although I was unaware that the mechanics were lodging 20 miles away. In sweet, celebratory relief, we partied and sang until four in the morning: ‘Prost, Prost Kamerad; Prost, Prost Kamerad.’ Back at the hotel, Seppi demonstrated 360-degree spins with his Porsche 911 in the car park, showering the windows with gravel. The management – both the hotel’s and mine – were not amused, but neither Seppi nor I much cared. We had won and remained whole – and the Spa 1,000Kms was behind us for another year.
North American Formula 5000 Champion in 1975
Mario Andretti and I pretty much had our way with the 1974 season but 1975 shaped up to be much more competitive. Lola had introduced a new model, the T400 with rising-rate suspension, and in practice for the first race at Pocono the car was bewilderingly slow. I qualified in 11th place and Jim Hall asked me what needed to be done with the car. I replied, ‘Nothing, it feels fine. It’s just slow.’ Fortunately, a torrent of unrelenting rain caused Pocono to become a pool of standing water and, therefore, unsafe. The race was postponed for a month.
Jim Hall, Carl Haas and I shared a hunch that Eric Broadley’s new T400 had taken a design step backwards. This led Carl to make an unusual decision that demonstrated why his discernment was so respected. He located a wrecked T332 – the model I had driven the previous season – and shipped it to Rattlesnake Raceway to benefit from Hall’s immaculate repair and chassis tuning. Since Carl was the Lola importer, this was dangerous business; he had already sold six of the new T400s to our competitors and wasn’t looking to take them back. When the weekend of the delayed Pocono final arrived, we rolled the T332 out of the Hall/Haas trailer to the perplexed looks of Haas’s T400 customers. Their shock was exceeded only by ours when the Vel’s Parnelli Jones crew unloaded an identical T332 for Mario. It seemed that they, too, had figured it out.
For Pocono’s Purolator 500, I was at the back half of the grid in my 11th place from the original qualifying session, but now I had a real racing car under me. I drove hard, leapfrogged everybody and pulled out a win, followed by Al Unser and Jackie Oliver. Bobby Unser complained that I passed him on the inside rather than the outside as was de rigueur in USAC racing. ‘Redman,’ he said confronting me after the race, ‘what the hell you doin’ passin’ me like that?’ When I replied that there was a gap, he said, ‘Is that the way you road racers do it? Right, now I know.’ Bobby finished a pissed-off sixth but a wiser racing driver. Mario limped home in 17th place.
Andretti came back strongly at Mosport, as expected, strategically flattening his rear wing for better straight-line speed. I considered following his example but decided that I’d prefer the better grip a tipped wing yields in the corners. It was a big mistake. Although I could close up within inches, Mario romped away from me on the straights and I never could gain the necessary momentum to set up a pass. So intense was our battle that we lapped every other car in the field, finishing 1–2 with Mario nosing over the line 0.62 seconds ahead. A hard-fought second place can be as satisfying as a win – well almost.
At Watkins Glen, both Mario and I lapped under the Formula 1 and Can-Am records, and we both won our respective heats. In the finale, Mario lost valuable time when his car refused to start but, by driving superbly, he managed to finish sixth. Jackie Oliver led for 15 laps in the Shadow before suffering a head-gasket failure, conceding me the win, 33 seconds ahead of Al Unser. At Road America I had a troubled weekend. First an unusual rear hub failure in the heat race and then a flat tyre in the finale dropped me to eighth overall. Andretti, Oliver and Wietzes claimed the first three places.
I went on to Mid-Ohio for what proved to be a heart-rending weekend. In 1975 the promising B.J. Swanson was on the threshold of his dream to be a professional racer. B.J. had been making such impressive progress in Formula 5000 that Dan Gurney had signed him for the following year’s Indy 500, but first invited him to Mid-Ohio as a private Gurney entry. Having qualified the Bay Racing Lola T332 a solid fourth in his heat, B.J. was in a good position to do well in the finale. As the flag dropped for the start, the throttle on his Lola jammed wide open and the car turned sharply left into the guardrail. The wooden support post broke and B.J. hit his head on the top of the barrier, damaging his spine. The car bounced off the railing and continued backwards up the track before stopping under the bridge, on fire and with the engine still screaming. B.J. never regained consciousness, and his life support was removed two days later. The rest of us continued. I won the race.
B.J. Swanson was 26 years old.
A rain-soaked race at Road Atlanta came next. I led until very near the end when my tyres gave up, allowing Al Unser to get around me. I finished runner-up, just 0.1 second behind.
The street race in Long Beach, California attracted a star-studded cast. Formula 1 contributed Jody Scheckter, David Hobbs, Tony Brise, Vern Schuppan, Chris Amon, George Follmer, Brett Lunger and Tom Pryce. Adding to the strength of the field were the Aussie sports-car driver Warwick Brown and Formula 5000 Champion Graham McRae – plus, of course, Mario.
The Long Beach street circuit had a challenging first corner where the road fell away so sharply it was almost a jump, taken with the front wheels in full droop while the car was still turning. There was just time for a brief shot of acceleration before braking for the next corner, a tight left-hander. Towards the end of qualifying, I approached Turn One at full throttle and threw the car into the corner. The combination of this rough transition and the twisted landing snapped the T332C sideways and broke the limited-slip differential. The drawback of limited-slip is that it takes a lot of mechanical complexity to make this trick happen, increasing the transmission’s vulnerability. Jim Hall and his crew fitted a new Weismann differential for the race but it was clear that either I’d have to accommodate Turn One or the same would happen again.
In the race I took pains to be gentle but obviously wasn’t gentle enough. Whilst I was in fourth place, my limited-slip became damaged again and, without its help, I rapidly lost ground to the trio ahead – Andretti, Brise and Al Unser. As I nursed my car along, trying to maintain fourth, the race unexpectedly came to me. First, Al stuck his car into the wall, then Mario’s transmission failed, and finally Tony broke a half shaft. It’s just possible that the troublesome Turn One suddenly became my friend. At driving school, every novice learns that, ‘To finish first, first you have to finish.’ This eternal principle also applies to professionals.
The penultimate Formula 5000 race at Laguna Seca yielded a third-place finish and I arrived at Riverside for the season’s finale leading the championship, but not by enough that Mario couldn’t snatch it away. That weekend I was scheduled to run in two races, the Formula 5000 headliner and the popular supporting event, a marketing spectacle known as the International Race of Champions (IROC) in which well-paid professionals from Formula 1, NASCAR, IndyCar and sports prototypes raced against each other in identical semi-race-prepared Chevy Camaros.
The IROC schedule featured four races over three weekends. In the Michigan opener Jody Scheckter spun on the first lap and divided the field, relegating me to seventh behind NASCAR legend Richard Petty and ahead of Al Unser. The second and third races were to be held at Riverside the same weekend as the Formula 5000 decider. By the time I arrived at the track, I was completely focused on Formula 5000, such that the two IROC races, one on Saturday and the second on Sunday, became unwelcome diversions. Little did I anticipate the trauma that lay ahead.
In Formula 5000 practice on Friday morning my Lola T332 blew a tyre in the fast Turn Nine bowl, throwing me across the track and into the concrete wall at over 100mph. This bounced my head from side to side with such violence that my helmet smashed the Plexiglas screens on both sides of the cockpit. With my neck quite sore, I wasn’t looking forward to two IROC races.
In Saturday’s IROC heat Richard Petty couldn’t quite pass me so, being from NASCAR, he nudged my rear bumper, edging me into a gentle spin and the roadside gravel. Later he told me he did it considerately, in a place he knew I couldn’t get hurt. On the next lap a stone jammed my throttle wide open at my nemesis, the banked Turn Nine, and I was thrown against its outside wall once again, but this time head-on at 150mph. I was fortunate that no bones were broken but, in my battered state, I didn’t feel very lucky. The second IROC race on Sunday was held immediately before the final Formula 5000 event. Somehow, I struggled around unable to hold up my head, finishing seventh again, this time behind Formula 1’s James Hunt and ahead of NASCAR’s David Pearson.
By the time I started the Formula 5000 main event, my blue race suit was dark with perspiration and matched the colour of the bruises on my neck and chest muscles. It took my full effort to get the spare T400 around the course, but racing produces adrenalin – and adrenalin blocks out pain. In spite of my never having raced the spare Lola, I managed to finish third. Mario won the race but, with points to spare, I secured my second Formula 5000 title, made all the sweeter by the duels with my brilliant rival. Later that day Mario told me he was going back to Formula 1 the following year, a decision that left me dumbfounded.
‘Mario,’ I said, ‘those young guys are going to eat you alive!’
History proved me a poor prophet. Two years later Andretti became Formula 1 World Champion in Colin Chapman’s glorious Lotus 79.