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Flat Spot On: Formula Ford Rides High Again

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 5 2019
The Van Diemen of Steve Brooks leads David Harrison’s Royale, followed by Donald Baggett in a Crossle at the ARRC. (Photo by Clark McInnis Photography)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

BRASELTON, Ga. – Here’s an SCCA racing quiz for you. When did Formula Ford, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, reach its peak in America?

One could argue that 2019 has been the best year ever for the category that launched a thousand professional careers for drivers, car designers/constructors and engine builders. There’s been celebrations around the country, notably at Road America and Lime Rock Park, plus the Formula Ford Festival in England. This past weekend, I went to one such celebration, which was part of the American Road Race of Champions (ARRC) at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

The ARRC is a regional runoff that’s been attracting solid fields of club racers for 26 years. This year’s running drew over 220 entries from 20 states. Hosted by the SCCA Atlanta Region, the event has maintained the top drawer, multi-class racing atmosphere and spirit of the SCCA Runoffs, the national championship event which ran at Road Atlanta from 1970-1993 before it was moved to other circuits. The spirit was evident in an entry of 39 Formula Fords at a track that helped make the class iconic.

From the time Formula Ford made its debut in England as an affordable class within a few rungs of Formula 1, the spindly, low-powered single seaters have been about the passion to race. Speeds were relatively low, but aspirations very high. Competitors looked over the steering wheel and saw a bright future for themselves in the top ranks of professional road racing. Everyone could afford a Formula Ford and, it seemed, was willing pay the price of crashing one on the way to the front. If you couldn’t dominate and win in Formula Ford, you might as well pack up those Formula 1 ambitions.

Dave Weitzenhof on the grid for a morning Club Ford session in a Zink 10C owned by Phil Kingham. (Photo by Sherrie Weitzenhof)

The stories of this class at the Runoffs are legendary and a brief visit with some veteran hands in the paddock on Saturday at the ARRC revealed several. My own experience of publishing the SCCA Runoffs programs at Road Atlanta for a decade also turned up a few memories as well.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Formula Ford race at the Runoffs was a de facto American version of the all-important Formula Ford Festival, which began in England in 1972. Drivers and their fathers (yes, even then) did what it took in terms of guts and aggressiveness to make sure to win the Runoffs at Road Atlanta in hopes of getting an invitation to the Festival at Brands Hatch. 

David Murry, born in Cartersville, Ga., and one of the Atlanta Region’s local heroes, saw this future for himself in 1983. But he got brake-checked at the Turn 11 bridge in his Van Diemen, on loan from the factory. It flipped twice and then half again, and he ended up on his lid. Few, if any, are ever comfortable in a race car upside down. “The corner worker asked if I was OK,” recalled Murry. “I said if he would just tip the car up I could get out.” 

Murry’s incident, which occurred early in what became a highly successful professional career, was one of many in the annual cut-and-thrust. There were fists thrown after Formula Ford events, notably by Mario Andretti at Michael Roe on the podium when Michael Andretti finished behind Roe in third following some on-track disagreements over real estate. There was at least one threat to a team owner involving a handgun and an invitation to England. In 1978, an Eagle chassis was surreptitiously borrowed, if not purloined, from the shops of Dan Gurney (because the team owner was no longer keen on building cars for an entry level class). The Eagle was then trucked from California to Georgia so David Loring, who helped build the machine, would have a chance to prove his greatness in the Runoffs, which he did. He was leading by 18 seconds when the Eagle ran out of gas and he coasted to victory. 

Then there’s the story of Atlanta Region hero Anthony Lazzaro of Acworth, Ga. When his factory team owner sold Lazzaro’s Van Diemen to a paying driver on the eve of the 1993 Runoffs, the Georgia driver built up his own new steed out of a box. He won going away and was soon in the ranks of professionals … 

Bill Manofsky takes a break from mounting a new set of tires on his Lola T540E. (Photo by Jonathan Ingram)

The winningest Formula Ford driver at the Runoffs is Dave Weitzenhof of Bath, Ohio, who was back at Road Atlanta to compete in the ARRC this year. With his cap perennially pulled low, Weitzenhof is always one of the guys to beat. I was introduced to him in 1981, indirectly, from the grandstand at the Turn 11 bridge, during the peak of the Formula Ford era.

That day, Weitzenhof was behind the wheel of an unmistakable Citation painted day-glow green and orange in a half-and-half, longitudinal scheme. He diced with Arnie Loyning and Dennis Firestone for lap after lap in front of a swarm of drafting cars and their jousting contenders, fully visible in their cockpits. With their extended, double-A arm suspensions and narrow fuselages, these Fords, still similar to the original cigar-shaped Lotus 51, were not much cover for a driver in what were mechanized knife fights.

This race actually occasioned a strange metaphor of the drive to get to the top. About halfway, a cluster of Fords hit the apex at Turn 11 at the same time. One driver’s car shot straight up out of the pack like it was on top of a geyser. Just briefly, I feared the driver’s helmeted head would make contact with the bridge some 20 feet above the track. At the flag stand down the hill, such was the carnage sliding down toward Turn 12 that a rare red flag was suddenly dropped a few seconds later, which again threw drivers into chaos at the start/finish line.

Dave Weitzenhof and crew sorted gearbox and balance issues on Saturday. (Photo by Jonathan Ingram)

Weitzenhof, who won the 1981 race in his Citation, returned this year to Road Atlanta with a Zink Z10 similar to the one he drove to his first two Formula Ford National Championships in 1977 and 1979. Prior to those two titles, Weitzenhof won a Formula Vee championship in 1972. He received some interesting phone calls from team owners and manufacturers in the 1970s. A full-blown pro career never materialized  and he continued as a Formula Ford competitor with his own team. The driver himself shrugs it off, saying it probably wouldn’t have worked out. “It always takes me a long time to learn a track,” he said.

In truth, the idea of advancing by winning a big race or National Championship – the Runoffs races were both—was always a myth and never enough. Emerson Fittipaldi, the two-time F1 champion, advised that after winning a Formula Ford title in your home country, go immediately to Europe—and bring a lot of money. As it was, by the 1980s most Americans were staying in the U.S. to pursue rapidly expanding racing prospects at home. American drivers who did compete in the Formula Ford Festival or in Europe usually found themselves up against a deck stacked by those using tactics similar to Fittipaldi.

Greenville, S.C. engine builder and longtime competitor Rollin Butler, also at the ARRC, observed that the aggressiveness in Fords never faltered. “You always had to worry,” he said, “about somebody else’s car coming over your head.” Or just flat running you over. Weitzenhof, trying to win a fourth Runoffs title in the span of six years in 1982, was run off the road in Turn 1 at the start by a nut case, one of those drivers who didn’t have the talent. But this guy knew his “career” would be stillborn without a win at Road Atlanta. Once the dust cleared, Weitzenhof unceremoniously hauled the offending driver out of his Ford prior to letting him know his thoughts on the incident.

American Loring, who died in 2012, was so depressed by the lack of interest in his considerable talent after more than 50 Formula Ford victories in the U.S., Canada and Europe that he took a job as a ranch hand on Alaska’s Kodiak Island and tried to give up racing. The winter temperatures never got above freezing. The snow was heavy and frequent, helping to blight his disappointment before Loring later returned to competition in IMSA’s Camel Light and GTU categories as a paid co-driver who helped car owners win championships.

Starting in Canada, where he could race as a teenager, Loring’s willingness to undertake an international career was the exception. In general, the lack of enthusiasm for racing in Europe, the increasing number of entry level classes that began competing with Formula Ford in the U.S., and the increase of professional road racing avenues in both the SCCA and IMSA all contributed to the denouement of Formula Ford’s significance. Formula 1 became a distant shore.

Many competitors cite just one factor for the changes in Formula Ford: the Swift DB1, designed and wind tunnel-tested by David Bruns at the company that became Swift Engineering. With its sleek aerodynamics and inboard suspension, the DB1 turned Formula Ford on its head overnight. The cost of the cars went up and the drafting packs that also contributed to equality disappeared due to the changing aerodynamics of the cars. Weitzenhof won in a Citation in 1987, proving experience and treachery could still win the day. But that victory plus Lazzaro’s victory in a Van Diemen, were the last hurrahs. The Swift chassis won ten of 13 races starting in 1985, the beginning of an expensive race to cheat the wind.

Eventually the Club Ford class was born, where the older chassis and their exposed suspensions could continue to race. Raced in vintage events as well as in SCCA competition, the elegant beauty of the cars themselves and the relative ease of working on them is not the only appeal. There’s value behind the wheel. “No street car I’ve ever driven, no matter how expensive or exotic, slithers through a corner with the same sense of control and speed as an ordinary, sub-$25,000 used Formula Ford.” That’s how Peter Egan, the longtime Road & Track writer, summed up the Club Ford category.  

Many an example was on hand at the ARRC. My favorite, in addition to the Zink of Weitzenhof, was the 1980 Lola T540E raced by Bill Manofsky of Flat Rock, N.C. In all, there were a host of Crossles, Van Diemens, Zinks and Mygales on an entry list of 19 Club Fords from 14 states.

The Group 4 entry also included DB1 chassis that continue to run in the standard “modern” class now known as Formula F after the arrival of Honda’s Fit engine. (Ford was not interested in casting new blocks of the four-cylinder Kent engines that succeeded the Cortina in the back of the Fords, so Honda became an additional player.)

As a longtime racing writer, I would be remiss without a report on the winners. In the 50th Anniversary Race on Sunday, Simon Sikes of Martinez, Ga., scored the victory among 20 Formula F entries onboard a 2013 Mygale chassis. In Club Ford, Phil Kingham of Dexter, Mich., took top honors from 19 entries driving a Zink 10c. In the grand finale, a combined race of the two classes with a split start, the same two drivers won again.

Weitzenhof, one of the favorites in Club Ford, started the weekend with a recalcitrant gearbox, then moved to working on some balance issues. In Sunday’s races, happy handling was undercut by a horsepower deficit. But judging by events in 2019, there will be more opportunities for everybody to chase victory in Club Ford, where just owning, maintaining, or driving one of these chassis has its appeal.     

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is a 43-year veteran of reporting on racing and the author of six books. CRASH! How the HANS Helped Save Racing, has just been released. For more information, see www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 5 2019
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