Formula Ford at 50: Reflections on Real Life University

Thank you to Steve Nickless and Racer.com for this story.

One could easily fill a textbook endeavoring to explain the phenomenon of Formula Ford to the social media-centric generation that followed mine (and I did—the long-out-of-print “Anatomy and Development of the Formula Ford Race Car”). But no one book could ever accurately pull together all the many threads and different moving parts of the FF Story.

Photo: Bill Stoler

Paul Pfanner, Mike Vannatter and I have tried with our Facebook page launched last summer, to which more than 8,200 (so far) from 45 countries have signed on and contributed.

On the road today to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, ready to continue celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first official SCCA-sanctioned Formula Ford race in the U.S. on one of America’s most spectacular road racing courses—the scene of so many huge FF fields and memorable, terrifying, exciting FF races in the 1970s and ’80s!—I know that, for the next week, the stories will be re-lived, the tales made taller as FF’s glory days come to life again.

But how do you explain the whole story in a way today’s 20-30somethings so enjoying their Spec Racers and Spec Miatas, not to mention their iRacing, can understand? Formula Ford is back in a big way with big fields in vintage racing all across the country (Summit Point photo above), and the kids are asking.

I, like thousands of others, attended Real Life University thanks to Formula Ford. The tuition cost? A pittance relative to the schooling received via an admittedly selfish but otherwise passionate interest in an obscure people group — FF’s designers, car-builders, team owners, managers, mechanics, engine builders, parts suppliers, tire fitters and, most of all, drivers.

There’s so much about the FF mystique a Gen-Y’er (my 30-year-old son, for instance) could never fully comprehend. For one thing, back when, at age 15, I first laid eyes on a Formula Ford (a Caldwell D-9 at an SCCA auto show in Nashua, N.H.), a teenage Formula 1 fan had to wait for the Monday paper (newspapers, remember them?) to find out who won Sunday’s Grand Prix.

It was another 2-3-month wait for Road & Track to learn who finished second and third.

For video, U.S. fans had to endure until late May when ABC’s Wide World of Sports stuck 10 minutes of heavily edited Monaco GP footage into its Indianapolis 500 coverage. And, with only a B&W television, car colors were only a guess unless F1 made the cover of the much-relied-upon R&T.

Not ’til I got a driver’s license could I ever get complete F1 results in the same week as the race, courtesy the weekly Autosport stocked at The Coop in Harvard Square (Cambridge, Mass.) — a 20-mile drive.

Somewhere along in there, I learned about the Associated Press and local newspaper sports editors who could be bribed with cups of coffee to share the GP results off the wire. Would have saved a lot of tense city driving and a few parking tickets, but who knew?

Lime Rock in the middle-’70s, Z-10s and T-342s showing the way. Image by Leigh Fosberry

Formula 1 in the 1970s was almost unreal, untouchable, ultra-exotic. Enter Formula Ford:

… with cars that looked like F1 cars. Exotic!

… boasting Ford-badged engines just like most of the F1 cars back then. (It was years before I knew only the badge was “Ford” and all the rest was Cosworth.)

… driven by guys who were in or would soon be in F1 (including Tim Schenken, Emerson Fittipaldi, Dave Walker, Skip Barber, and soon, a steady parade.)

Fittipaldi made quick work of FF, moving through it to F3, then F1 inside of two years.

FF gathered steam quickly in North America because it seemed so directly linked to the pinnacle, F1, in the eyes of many a naive and not always misguided youth.

It’s where my real education, in lieu of actually going to college (in 1975, after an unhappy freshman year studying aeronautical engineering, I burned through all the rest of my college savings on a 50 percent share of an immaculate Crossle 16F), really began.

All I really needed to know about life (apologies to author Robert Fulgham), I learned in Formula Ford.

I learned about budgeting and employee motivation from Bob Fletcher, major domo of Fast Company, a Marblehead, Mass., Lola dealer plucked from the ashes of Autodynamics. He had been AD’s sales manager and was my first employer as an FF mechanic/intern. Still living on savings, I asked Mr. Fletcher for $50 a week — a token wage given the privilege of working there 24/7 and going with the team to FF races. Bob gave me $75, thus ensuring my loyalty forever (or at least the following 90 days, whereupon he split for the West Coast as the Fast Company dream died in bankruptcy.)

I learned about marketing from Tom Davey, ultra-creative former Super Vee driver who left the Dark Side (i.e. VW power) to race FFs, write brilliantly, argue any point with any one, and foist of “Shift-O-Matics” on an unsuspecting enthusiast populace. (“They’ll buy anything if it’s packaged right,” Tom told me. And then he proved it.)

I learned that greatness can include humility from a lot of FF guys, but first at Bridgehampton (remember that spectacular track?) in 1976 from Aussie F1 driver Tim Schenken at the first U.S. test of the then-new Tiga (coincidentally Davey was to be its driver); and, second, in the UK years later from ’68 FF champion Tim’s Tiga partner Howden Ganley. Two great, stand-up, ex-F1 stars, sans entourage, impressively humble.

Ex-F1 driver Tim Schenken prepping to test the new Tiga at Bridgehampton, with Fred Opert sales manager Bill Hooper and driver Tom Davey looking on. Image by Steve Nickless

Over 20 years, I met many Schenkens and Ganleys — unique, I think, to FF, perhaps because the fierce, wheel-to-wheel competition so quickly knocked all the prima donna out of the way.

This was another component of the FF phenomena — the linkage to F1 worked both ways, bottom up (enthusiast hero-worshipper) and top down (F1 guys returning to their FF roots in various ways), though this one has a modern parallel in the NASCAR Cup Series stars hanging out at various local and regional roundy-round races on their (rare) free weekends.

(Aside: Have you caught a NASCAR K&N Series East or West race yet? Great stuff!)

I learned about loss and the pain of its after-effects in the deaths of FF racers Scott Harvey (in a twin engine airplane crash months after I enjoyed a wild flight out of West Palm Beach with Scott and his friend/mentor Bruce MacInnes); Tom Stewart (in a Formula Atlantic accident at Lime Rock); Gordon Smiley (IndyCar, Indianapolis), Gilles Villeneuve (F1, Zolder), Jeff Krosnoff (IndyCar, Toronto); and in the terrible FF accidents which badly injured my close friends Gordon Medenica (also at Lime Rock) and Michael Jordan (at Laguna Seca).

Amazingly given the intensity and number of drivers, cars, and races, fatalities in Formula Ford have been rare. Praying that holds true as so many 40-50-year-old FFs return to the fray in vintage racing,

I learned about the rewards of genius and the perils of lust — both — from the Lola T-340/2. The “genius” was in the design and marketing of a very forgiving race car in which anyone except those who stiffened its chassis could get up to speed quickly, featuring a drop-dead gorgeous fiberglass (if the T-340 was stunning then I have no adjective for the subsequent 342) and fair price.

As for “lust” … well, Lolas always had “it”; late U.S. importer Carl Haas always understood how to market “it”; and as much as we loathed wrenching on them — all those miserable small tubes, tabs and ear attachments points — we loved looking at them, sitting in them and (sadly for me it was only twice) driving them.

Whenever I hear the words “Formula Ford,” I first picture a T-342. Red. Fresh out of the Carl Haas Automobiles crate. Parked in a puddle of drool.

Ahem.

As with humility, I learned much of what I now understand about generosity from Formula Ford and could bore you with an endless number off stories: Dave and Sherrie Weitzenhof in the motorhome they shared with Tim Evans offering food, parts, expertise … anything and everything (except race victories which Dave and Tim selfishly kept for themselves). Engine builder Joe Stimola helping out rival New York tuner Fran Larkin in a crunch — and vice versa. Rich guys buying meals, gas and tires for broke guys who beat them. Broke guys sharing their last sandwich or tube of Hylomar with other broke guys.

There was as much a generosity of “spirit” in FF as of “things” and my mentor, journalist Gordon Kirby, taught me as much about that as anyone, investing huge chunks of time showing me the ropes of the income-producing slices of the word biz, introducing me to so many of the Big Names he’d come to know as friends in his tenure as North America correspondent for Autosport — Doug Shierson, Mario Andretti, Alan Jones.

And Paul Pfanner, via his publications FORMULA, California Sports Car, SportsCar, and ultimately RACER, fanning the embers of FF enthusiasm to new peaks, boundlessly generous along the way, helping countless writers, photographers, drivers and mechanics scratch a living out of motor racing.

Nor will I ever forget the life lessons learned from Jeremy Shaw, the British import hired to take my job at On Track magazine and give it legitimacy (R.I.P. both that mag and that great job), a writer whose appreciation for FF surpassed even mine and Kirby’s (if not Pfanner’s), and still the only guy I’ve met so keen to race he would own a FF with its engine in the wrong place.

(Remember the Mallock?)

Jeremy has invested in the careers of, what, 50? young American drivers through the Team USA Scholarship which he created, found funding for, and has overseen since 1990, West Coast FF stars Jimmy Vasser and Bryan Herta his first two “finds”.

The second Team USA Scholarship winner, Bryan Herta, tries on a Lanan-prepped Reynard FF amidst a crowd of notable onlookers including Jeremy Shaw (standing, cap and blue jacket) and RACER’s Paul Pfanner (next to Shaw, brown shirt).

His chosen are awarded the prize of entry in the BRSCC Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy in top-flight modern FF1600s, the UK staying faithful to the Kent Ford engine which itself has been given new life–another story.

I learned about perseverance from a lot of guys in Formula Ford, beginning with John Herne (with whom I got to share a 16F) — attending college; selling blood for food money; and dreaming about racing FF in England. Eventually, Herne would do so, spending a season in UK FF2000, his dream becoming reality as it would for so many, courtesy FF’s accessibility, if not affordability.

Bruce MacInnes taught me much about perseverance as well: He was the NEDiv superstar when I first showed up at Lime Rock in my Toyota station wagon (I pretended “Corona” was Japanese for “Winnebago” and lived in the thing for nearly a year), shiny new FORMULA magazine press card in hand. One he’d coughed up the money for a Winkelmann, Bruce probably never again had more than about two nickels to spend on racing, but you never knew it as the entourage surrounding his Stimola Race Prep Zink grew to rockstar size, Ted Wenz stuck babysitting Seymour Chicken, and Bruce, many hard dream-busting years later, emerging the best of the best Skip Barber Racing School instructors.

Formula Ford, like real life, was all about winning, but along the way it taught me there is more to winning than just getting to the checkered flag first — no discounting the latter, of course.

So many FF races, so many winners, most in my mind now a blur (I can no longer remember all the CSPRRC FF winners in chronological order without Googling), but two wins and two races stand out, and I will bring a blessed halt to these ramblings with these.

Both race wins I remember so vividly today, decades after the fact, involve Brian Goodwin. That you’ve never heard of Maine’s best-ever road racer is a reminder of early FF’s harshest reality: Moving up and out required an all-consuming commitment; and Goodwin — businessman; family man; man of faith (now a Jesus follower, who has in the years since has guided me and my family on that very different road) — chose not to make it.

In the late ’70s, I worked in his restaurant and on his Lola and Crossles, furthering my reputation as the worst FF mechanic in U.S. history despite tutelage by one of the best, the late Chris Wallach (who had been David Loring’s wrench). Despite my lack of skill, Goodwin still won races and two remain active highlight reels in my over-burdened memory: One was at Summit Point in a monsoon, Brian and Chip Ganassi (yes, the Chip Ganassi, a terrific FF driver) lapping the rest of the 35-car field en route to a 1-2 finish.

The second was at Road America in a pro race (Was it an AFFA race? Can’t remember) by the thickness of paint, crossing the line four abreast after an epic, race-long battle featuring Goodwin’s Crossle, Citation-Zink’s Dave Weitzenhof and Tim Evans, William “Fox” Henderson’s Crossle, and several other FF luminaries in one of the hairiest races I’ve ever watched.

(Not the hairiest: That was the AFFA Pro FF race on the concrete-lined NASCAR oval at Dover.)

Most frightening FF race ever? MacInnes leads Evans and Weitzenhof to the checkered, a Zink Z-10 1-2-3 at Dover. Image by Leigh Fosberry

A lot of Wisconsin grass was torn up on that day at Road America. Any one of those four guys could have won. Goodwin did on that day.

Forty years later — 50 years since the first proper FF race in the U.S. — the memories of hundreds of individual races are long turned to dust. So hard tracking down results. But the lessons about life?

Well … all I ever really needed to know I learned in Formula Ford.

Happy 50th.

(Most of this story first appeared in the race program for the FF 40th anniversary event, held 10 years ago at, coincidentally, Road America. Not from FF but New Englander transplanted 40 years ago to California, I’ve been thoroughly schooled on recycling. – SN)