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Flat Spot On: Felton A Founding Star for IMSA

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, January 20 2020
Gene Felton celebrates another slaying of Porsches and Corvettes by his Camaro at Daytona.

by Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

You have to hand it to Gene Felton. He rarely, if ever, lost his cool while winning more production-based races in IMSA than any of his peers, a considerable lot including Peter Gregg, Hurley Haywood and Al Holbert. 

Felton’s first victory, to take one example of his equilibrium, was a stunning tour-de-Daytona in the rain behind the wheel of a Camaro powered by a 427-cubic-inch Chevy V8. He won what could be regarded as one of the most significant races in IMSA history in 1972 by driving on street tires in the wet to beat a slew of Porsches and Corvettes. 

Yet, Felton found himself having to walk into Victory Lane to inform those anointing the wrong man that he had just won the 250-mile season finale. “I was polite and didn’t make a big deal about it,” recalled Felton. “I told them that I believed I had won the race.”  Felton was vindicated by IMSA’s official scorers, but word of his victory did not arrive from the scoring stand in Turn 1 soon enough to take his extraordinary No. 96 Camaro into Victory Lane.

That first win eventually led to a total of 45 production-based victories in a career that coincided with the “original era” of IMSA under John Bishop. Felton was one of the early and much needed heroes when Bishop created the GT category of IMSA in by a set of rules that allowed GTO (over 2.5-liter engines) and GTU (under 2.5-liters) to race each other competitively.

Having established his credentials, Felton came back in 1973 to the next big sprint at Daytona, the Paul Revere 250, the first IMSA race held on the night before NASCAR’s Firecracker 400. This time, he went straight from a record pole speed to Victory Lane in a ceremony featuring good old No. 96 and his three sons as well as a fashionably decked-out blonde who went by the name of Miss Camel GT. 

One of Felton’s rewards the next day was less celebratory. An Associate Press wire service story was headlined, “Greasy Cosmetic Salesman Wins Paul Revere.” But as usual, the man with so much balance behind the wheel took it in stride. “It took more than that to embarrass me at that time,” said Felton. “Just give me the $3,000 winner’s purse and I’ll be fine.

E.J. Trivette brought his NASCAR experience as Felton’s volunteer crew chief.

If not very gracious, the headline was accurate. Felton, who owned a cosmetics supply company, sold beauty products by day and worked on his race car by night and on weekends. Since he was the only employee on his team, his hands tended to be grease-stained, especially when he was setting up his car at the race track before driving it.

Felton’s story was as real as it gets, which captured the attention of more than just headline writers who may have thought motor racing belonged to the lower orders. Hall of fame Atlanta sportswriter Furman Bisher set the record straight on the difference between a driver who brought game by building his own cars and those who bought speed and then proceeded to go fast.

“The romanticist of racing literature did their best to make Peter Revson an heir of a cosmetics baron, much as he denied it,” wrote Bisher. “Closest he ever got to cosmetics was when he kissed. And of course, there’s a wide gap between being an heir and working at it. Gene Felton goes to the office regularly …”    

Road racing drivers, particularly in IMSA, are often connected to certain manufacturers or cars. For Felton, it was all about General Motors and usually a Camaro. There was a slew of versions that Felton drove and thereby brought to bad-ass status. But it was the good old No. 96 Camaro that put Felton into the limelight in a way that captured the attention of other racers, including the brass in charge at General Motors’ back door racing program, where performance parts were handed over to drivers and teams who knew what to do with them.

The current crop of production-based machinery that will show up at Daytona’s World Center of Speed for this year’s Rolex 24 are fine machines featuring spotless, computer-driven preparation made possible by a cast of thousands back at the shop/factory and a “back door” that hands out millions. In Felton’s earliest days, the only help he got was from an engine builder after scavenging all the parts. Then, to his good fortune, he met a country-bred, high priest of chassis dynamics and the rest became history.

While trying to locate a path to becoming a full-time professional, Felton raced in everything from SCCA events to short track ovals on dirt and asphalt, plus NASCAR road races in the Grand American Series. He owned and sometimes wrecked several Camaros along the way. When it came to good old No. 96, the story worked the other way. The car originated in the R&R Salvage yard and after five seasons was sold to another competitor. (The car’s resume also included several Permatex 200 races for NASCAR Modified cars at Daytona, where it was “modified” by removing the front fenders.)

This breakthrough Camaro was race-prepped in a space rented at Peachtree DeKalb Airport, a commuter airport on the northern edge of Atlanta. Several other racers were renting space there at the time, including the much-accomplished Pete Hamilton, a former Daytona 500 winner, and future V-6 Buick engine guru Jim Ruggles.

Another guy at Peachtree DeKalb was a veteran driver of 178 NASCAR Grand National races (now known as the Cup series). When Felton met him, E.J. Trivette was competing in NASCAR’s Grand American series that featured pony cars on road circuits. Trivette had seen first-hand how Felton could hang with the good ol’ drivers of the Grand American, finishing second to Tiny Lund at Road Atlanta on board one of his earlier Camaros. With an eye on starting a chassis business for circle track and road racers, Trivette began helping Felton put together what became his Camel GT race-winning Camaro. 

NASCAR allowed Felton’s Camaro to race in Modified events if front fenders were removed.

“I was learning how to do this from scratch,” said Felton, who used brochures on race set-ups that could be bought from Chevrolet along with performance parts. Trivette, due to his NASCAR experience, taught Felton how to install the high-performance parts produced by Ford’s “back door” operation at Holman-Moody, the quintessential and famed factory NASCAR team. “Technical things, like how to do the springs, a lot of information like that I learned when E.J. got involved. It was all from Holman-Moody and NASCAR.”

While the car itself could not be altered according to IMSA rules, substitution of performance racing parts was standard. So, on the opposite end of Felton’s 427 Chevy V8 was a nine-inch Ford rear end and solid axle, salvaged from a junkyard station wagon.  

Before moving along further into the legend of this Camaro, it’s important to note where this car shined was in the shorter events at Daytona in the earliest days of IMSA in 1972 and 1973. These were the fledging years when Bishop was trying to demonstrate there was a market for professional GT racing in the U.S. by attracting fields of cars that featured such entries as the Lotus Europa, Porsche’s 911 S and Carrera, big block Corvettes and Camaros. 

Under this format, there were regular sprints on the infield and oval circuit at Daytona, which was owned by Bishop’s partner Bill France, a firm believer in road racing. The Daytona sprints were arguably far more hair-raising than an event that lasted 24 hours. After all, when it came to endurance races at Daytona the IMSA GT cars initially played “field fillers” in the World Championship of Makes events, which were sanctioned by the FIA and featured prototypes.

The stand-alone IMSA sprint races of 1971 and 1972 became an integral part of the acid test for whether Bishop could attract enough GT cars and drivers to actually declare himself to be in charge of professional racing series. It was before Sebring found its way onto the IMSA schedule in 1973. That’s why the season finale in November of 1972 and a 61-car field made such a big impression. John Rodasta, who covered the race for The New York Times, declared IMSA had turned a corner. “For most people, there was little chance John Bishop would be able to put together a viable racing series,” he wrote in his story, noting that the 61-car turnout proved those naysayers wrong.  

After racing at Mid-Ohio and Talladega earlier in 1972, Felton showed up in north Florida for the November finale with what turned out to be a Porsche slayer as well as a Corvette killer. The driver had something to do with it, too. When he asked Trivette’s advice on how to get through Turn 3 at the end of Daytona’s long back straight, the veteran NASCAR wheelman replied, “Put your left foot over your right foot and keep the accelerator mashed to the floor.” Needless to say, this was long before the sports cars began using the bus-stop chicane originally installed at Daytona’s daunting Turn 3 for motorcycles.

Once the Presidential 250 was under way, Felton caught a break when rain began to fall on lap 34, midway in the 66-lap event. After bolting on recapped street tires on street rims, Felton proceeded to run down the leaders in the rain before catching another break. Leader Dave Heinz’s Corvette and the Porsche of another contender, Hurley Haywood (co-driving with Peter Gregg), came together with four laps to go, dropping those two cars one lap off the pace. IMSA officials at the flag stand thought Tony DeLorenzo’s Corvette took the lead, when in fact he was almost a half a lap behind the belatedly declared winner Felton. 

At the Paul Revere 250 the following summer, Felton didn’t need a break, although qualifying did not get off to a good start. With perfectionist Trivette running late on his qualifying set-up, Felton missed the beginning of time trials, then complained afterward to his de facto crew chief. “This car just ain’t right,” he said. “Well,” Trivette replied, “you’re on the pole.” Felton and No. 96 beat Bobby Allison’s Grand American record of 108.066 mph from the previous year with an average speed of 115.158 mph. He won the race, which included several entries of Porsche’s new 911 Carrera RS, going away. Compared to the GTU-class Porsches, the infield and road circuit admittedly best suited the V8-powered American muscle cars under IMSA’s rules. Riding on rear tires that looked like a couple of barrels turned sideways, Felton beat all of them, too.

But even with a winner’s purse of $3,000, Felton had to be selective about which races he entered due to the expense of travel, tires, fuel and entry fees. He competed on board the No. 96 Camaro in four more IMSA Camel GT races in 1973, then five events in 1974, when the budget shortfall could not be overcome by Felton and his teamwork with Trivette, who worked for a modest hourly wage. As a race winner, Felton could get deals on tires, race fuel and performance parts. He no longer had to buy his tires from Gene White’s Firestone store in Atlanta, then re-sell them to service stations after races. But the tires and fuel plus the cosmetics supply business and race purses could not underwrite the increasing cost of speed. 

 In 1974, the Porsche teams selected by Jo Hoppen, the factory’s American racing director, were able to purchase the factory-built Porsche Carrera RSR cars, which were no longer being used in the International Race of Champions. With rear wings, the RSRs moved up to the GTO class, winning eight of ten races. BMW soon jumped into the fray with its CSL. John Greenwood, with the help of GM, built his eponymous, Bob Riley-designed Corvettes. The Dekon Monza customer cars soon began arriving as well in the newly created All-American GT category driven by Holbert, among others, after he temporarily ditched Porsche. “They got faster and I got slower,” said Felton.

Determined to continue, Felton began racing in the RS series for compact cars on shaved street radial tires. He then came into his own in IMSA’s Kelly American Series, where he won four straight championships, including nine straight from the pole aboard a Chevy Nova in 1980. In all, he won 25 Kelly American races. Felton eventually completed his Daytona resume by winning the 24-hour in the GTO class with Billy Hagan and two-time NASCAR Cup champion Terry Labonte. After winning the class pole at Le Mans in 1982, Felton handed over the Camaro of Hagan to the car owner in first place after his last stint, only to watch from the pits as the victory slipped away. The following year, he scored his third overall Camel GT victory at Miami’s GTO race aboard a Hagan Camaro.  

Despite a neck broken in a brutal crash at California’s high-speed Riverside in 1984, Felton finished his career in the money after advancing to the vintage ranks. Working out of a garage behind his house in Marietta, he won regularly in cars that were then sold at a handsome price. He also received invitations to bring cars of NASCAR fame that he had acquired to Goodwood in England for the annual ceremonial hill climb, a sort of royal venue of speed.

Looking back at IMSA in the 1970s, guys like Gregg, Haywood and Holbert carried the show. But given the fact Felton surpassed them all in terms of victories in production cars that totaled 45, you’d have to give a nod to the man from Marietta as one of the original founding stars of IMSA.

(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram is entering his 44th year of covering motor racing. He is the author of six books and was a major contributor to “IMSA – Celebrating 50 Years.” His current book is “CRASH! How the HANS Device Helped Save Racing.” Visit www.jingrambooks.com for more information and book excerpts.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, January 20 2020
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