Where Were You in ’66? – From the Jan/Feb 2016 Issue of Vintage Motorsport
Reading the feature stories in this issue about the 1966 12 Hours of Sebring and the birth of Funny Cars got me on a rambling rumble in my brain about the racing and automotive scene in that timeframe, hard to wrap my arms around the fact that it was 50 long years ago.
DJs were spinning tunes like “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” Winchester Cathedral,” “96 Tears,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” “Good Vibrations,” and “California Dreamin’,” which many young people were actually doing—Haight- Ashbury and all that—especially the ones living in more frigid climates and who longed for palm trees and orange groves and year-round cruising.
Up and down the boulevard, it was truly a time of change. Over on Woodward Avenue in Detroit up by Southfield and Royal Oak the muscle car scene had revved up big time, and in SoCal in Van Nuys the Bob’s Big Boy with its roller skating car hops and drive-in service was so popular on Wednesday evenings that cars filled with the young crowd would be lined up for blocks waiting for a turn to order a Big Boy and a vanilla Coke and to check out the gals or guys in the cars around them. There was also the Bob’s on Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena, Calif. that catered to the cruising crowd, which other than an occasional blast away from a stoplight, remained orderly and respectful most of the time, unlike the hooligans who came in later years and managed to get the cruising shut down by the police.
Kids weren’t into drugs as a daily ritual, and the young American’s rite of passage was geared toward the automobile. The muscle car era was at the redline, and with baby boomers entering the job market in droves (unemployment figures were the lowest in 13 years), the ones who had dreamed about cars they might own in the future finally could go down to their dealer and place an order for that GTO or SS 396, an L-79 Chevy II or a Ford Fairlane with a 390 or a Street Hemi in a Dodge or Plymouth. Prices ranged from $2,400 to about $2,800 for models such as these and a new Corvette Coupe was base priced at $4,295.
While the U.S. was making news on its race to the moon, other races were more local. Drag strips were popular because unlike road racing, one could take their daily driver to the strip and let it rip, perhaps coming home with a class trophy for the display case.
1966 was also the first year in which protestors in large numbers were speaking out against the war in Vietnam. Nightly reports on the news (no 24-hour news cycle then) only added octane to the fire. As support for the war waned, so did support for President Johnson. It would eventually prove to be his undoing.
The government was turning its attention toward the automobile in the interest of safety and the environment. Lap belts were now standard equipment in front seats but actual usage was about 3% and weak drunk driving laws added to the highway carnage of 48,500 highway deaths annually. Technology in terms of smog reduction was in its earliest beginnings, so air quality in certain regions of the country—particularly the Los Angeles basin—was terrible on warm summer days.
Ford’s “Total Performance” campaign was in full swing (this was the “swinging ’60s,” after all) and the GT40 had certainly worked out its bugs and walked away with the Daytona 24 and the Le Mans 24 Hour races, with a Ford X-1 Roadster taking the 12 Hours of Sebring. Mission accomplished!
The Indianapolis 500 had an unfortunate multi-car wreck on the first lap, and 11 cars were eliminated right there and then, including the Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt entries. Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 for the second time and Jack Brabham won the Formula 1 World Driving Championship in a Brabham BT19 Repco V8, the first man to achieve the feat in a car bearing his own name.
Did I mention that hi-test was 32 cents a gallon and a week’s worth of groceries for two cost about $18? Just happy I was part of it. Were you?