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Friday
Jun232017

America’s Unrequited Lust for Grand Prix Dominance

By William G. Sawyer, Editor at Large

All photos © Duncan Hamilton & Co. Ltd.

The starting grid for our virtual American F1 team.To paraphrase Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront, it shoulda been a contender, it shoulda been a star. Yet the Beatrice Haas Formula One Team failed despite a technical team consisting of Ross Brawn and Neil Oatley (and later Adrian Newey), exclusive use of a new-generation turbocharged engine from Ford, a World Champion driver, sponsorship from an international conglomerate, and team management by a pair of former McLaren head honchos, Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander.

Long before Gene Haas decided to build international awareness of his CNC machine tools, an unrelated racing impresario with the same surname cooked up a recipe for Grand Prix success that looked foolproof on paper, yet failed to deliver.

Americans dabbled in what is now called Formula One ever since Jimmy Murphy won the 1921 French Grand Prix in a Duesenberg. Three-plus-decades later other North American drivers joined the fight, largely thanks to the efforts of Luigi Chinetti, the Italian-born Ferrari importer. Chinetti redefined endurance by almost single–handedly winning his third Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1949 by driving all but 20 minutes of the event. His friend Enzo Ferrari’s fledgling company may never have succeeded if Chinetti had not won Ferrari’s first Le Mans in such spectacular fashion, and built on that feat by convincing moneyed American sportsmen to race the company’s products. The marques’ competition success on these shores built a reputation among prosperous Americans that spurred road car sales, providing the funding necessary to support Ferrari’s factory racing efforts. Chinetti rewarded American drivers whose victories helped build his empire by promoting their talent overseas. Soon Phil Hill — America’s first World Driving Champ — Dan Gurney, Carroll Shelby, Richie Ginther, and other American’s were mainstays in international single-seater and sports car competition.

Lance Reventlow, heir to the Woolworth fortune, wanted more. It wasn’t enough for American drivers to succeed, he wanted to design and build an American racer that could dominate the Formula One World Championship just as his Scarab sports cars succeeded on this side of the pond. Unfortunately, his team pursued technical dead ends that swallowed time and money in huge gulps, leading the twenty-something trust fund baby down a road paved with disappointment.

Former F1 World Champion Alan Jones was lead driver for what promised to be America's super team.All was not lost. Shelby scooped up many of the Californian hot rodders Reventlow assembled and put them to work stuffing a Ford V8 into a British AC chassis to create the Shelby Cobra, a car that eventually won the world sports car manufacturer championship. It didn’t take long for Shelby and Dan Gurney to seek Indy and Formula One success with backing from Goodyear. However, Shelby soon departed All American Racers, leaving Gurney solely in charge. It can be argued that the team’s decision to run similar AAR Eagle chassis in both Indy and Formula One may have resulted in excess weight that handicapped the F-1 effort. What can’t be argued is that the AAR Team’s enthusiasm and Gurney’s legendary driving talent produced victory for an American car and driver for the first time since Murphy’s 1921 triumph; this coming one week after taking the top spot at Le Mans with co-driver A.J. Foyt in a Ford GT Mk. IV. A few weeks after Gurney’s impressive Belgian victory a dominant performance in the German Grand Prix failed to deliver a win after the punishing Nurburgring circuit left Gurney sitting by the side of the road alongside his wounded Eagle watching Denny Hulme claim the checkered flag.  Fifty years on, Gurney’s Belgian Grand Prix victory Is still spoken of in reverential tones.

Next into the fray was Don Nichols, an enigmatic and reclusive millionaire with suspected CIA ties, a rumor bolstered by his decision to name his car after The Shadow, a pop culture vigilante who captured the imagination of radio listeners in the 1930s. The team debuted in 1973 with Brit Jackie Oliver and American George Follmer in the driver’s seats.

Hope soared in 1974 when handsome and talented Revlon heir Peter Revson joined the team, only to die when a titanium front suspension arm failed during practice for the South African Grand Prix. Up-and-coming British charger Tom Pryce replaced Revson, scoring a third place in Austria in 1975 as well as a first the following year in the non-championship Race of Champions. Teammate Jean Pierre “Jumper” Jarier excited American fans by scoring two pole positions in 1975, but these did not translate into victories. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in the 1977 South African Grand Prix when a freak accident claimed Pryce’s life.

The Shadow Formula One saga carried on for eight roller coaster seasons. Despite great promise, results were sparse, although Aussie Alan Jones managed a surprise victory in the 1977 Austrian Grand Prix.

Brian Hart's turbocharged inline four was a placeholder until the promised Cosworth-designed, Ford-badged turbo V6 was ready.Shadow wasn’t the lone American team competing in F-1 in the Seventies. Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing debuted their striking Parnelli VPJ4 Ford in the 1974 Canadian Grand Prix with a seventh place finish for driver Mario Andretti, and left the series following Andretti’s retirement at the 1976 U.S Grand Prix West in Long Beach California. Along the way they scored a 4th in Sweden and a 5th in France during the ’76 season, and a 6th in South Africa in the team’s penultimate race.

Penske Racing put a toe in the water in 1971, campaigning a privately entered McLaren in the Canadian and U.S. races. Mark Donohue spiked American enthusiasm by placing third in Canada in his and the team’s first Grand Prix, and David Hobbs followed up with a tenth at Watkins Glen. Penske established a European base, appointed Heinz Hofer — head of Penske’s dominant Porsche Can-Am team — to lead his F-1 effort, and set about building his own cars. By this time Donohue had retired from driving, but the lure of Grand Prix success was too powerful to resist. He scored two 5th place finishes in 1975, one in the Penske PC-1 and the other in a March chassis. American race fans inspired by Donohue’s dominant performances in domestic Indy, Can-Am, Trans-Am and sports car races, were shocked when the recently unretired driver succumbed to injuries from a crash during qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix. Fittingly, replacement driver John Watson and the Penske team honored Donohue’s memory by claiming victory the next year at the same circuit that cost Donohue his life.

Penske’s three seasons in Formula One are a mere footnote in Grand Prix history, although the team’s accomplishments gain credibility when one recognizes that the entire at-track team had fewer staffers than go over the wall during a contemporary pit stop. As Karl Kainhoffer explained in Motorsport Magazine, "There was Mark, Heinz, and three of us working on the car. That was it. The whole F1 team was five guys. Geoff Ferris came to some races, but he worked mostly at the shop."

When it arrived, the Cosworth-Ford engine proved troublesome, and was not a winner out of the box like the DFV.It was another eight seasons before Chicagoan Carl Haas launched America’s next Formula One foray. This Haas was a fixture on the American racing scene who loved the sport to such a degree that lack of recognition for his driving failed to dampen his enthusiasm. Instead, he removed his helmet and set up shop in his parent’s basement selling parts to other racers. He went on to become the U.S. distributor of Lola race cars and Hewland transmissions, two companies that spent decades at the pinnacle of the sport in large part due to their cigar-chomping U.S. sales agent.

Haas was a wheeler-dealer who recognized opportunity when he saw it. Chicago-based Beatrice Foods sponsored Carl’s Indy Car team, but Beatrice’s Chairman, James Dutt, had larger aspirations. Consumed by the greed-is-good mantra of the Eighties, he led a company that began as a creamery in 1894 in Beatrice, Nebraska before moving to Chicago in 1913. By the 1930s, Beatrice produced 10 million gallons of milk and 30 million gallons of ice cream annually. Beginning in the 1950s, Beatrice went on an acquisition spree, accumulating a diverse portfolio of food and consumer brands including Avis, Playtex, Shedds, Tropicana and Good & Plenty. It was enough that, by 1984, Beatrice Foods revenue stood at an impressive $12 billion per year. Nevertheless, few knew Beatrice Foods was the power behind the brands, something that rankled Dutt. He decided to yank Beatrice out of the shadows and create awareness of its success by going on a massive advertising spree during the 1984 Winter and Summer Olympics, highlighting their brands and ending with the tagline, “We’re Beatrice. You’ve known us all along.”

When Haas approached Dutt to suggest partnering in Formula One he did so from a position of strength. His teams won races and championships in Can-Am, Formula 5000, and CART, and many of the world’s top drivers drove for him on their way up the racing ladder. He knew his way around the sport, was acquainted with all the right people, and had the talent, experience, and drive necessary to create a winning team.

So what went wrong? Just about everything. The cars weren’t ready until the Italian Grand Prix, the twelfth of sixteen races in the 1985 season. The much ballyhooed Ford engines came even later, forcing the cars to run with massaged Formula 2 engines from Brian Hart. To make matters worse, Dutt’s dismissal from Beatrice Foods put funding in jeopardy before the car — now called a Haas-Lola in deference to Carl’s association with the British chassis builder, despite it having had no involvement in the program — turned a wheel in competition. Dutt sealed his fate in June 1984 when he spearheaded a takeover of Esmark, Inc., reasoning that Esmark’s national brands and distribution network would help Beatrice achieve their marketing goals. However, rather than inflate Beatrice’s stock valuation, the increased debt adversely affected the company’s credit rating, pulling the stock price down with it. Eventually Dutt was out, replaced by his second in command, who vowed to avoid the mistakes that caused his predecessor’s downfall.

Simpler times, and a simpler cockpit. Nowadays, an F1 steering wheel could finance half the cost of this collection.Things weren’t much better on the track. In the Beatrice Haas-Lola’s first race in Italy, Alan Jones qualified 25th out of 27 cars, lasting six laps before the overstressed Hart engine failed. At the next round in Belgium, a paperwork snafu kept the team out of the race, adding further insult to injury. In fact, the team failed to finish a race that year, although the feisty Jones demonstrated the chassis’ potential in the season-ending race at Adelaide. After qualifying 19th and stalling on the grid, Jones thrilled his countrymen by wrestling the Haas-Lola from dead last to 6th (the last points paying position at the time) before electrical gremlins cut his charge short on lap 20.

The 1986 season dawned under threat that Beatrice Foods was about to pull its sponsorship. Doubt was counterbalanced by confidence in the Oatley-designed chassis and the impending debut of the Ford turbo engine. Maurice Hamilton was not alone when he stated in Autocourse that, “With such a wealth of experience spreading from the management team to an accomplished band of mechanics, the thought of Alan Jones getting his hands on a Ford-Cosworth turbo must worry other teams.” Unfortunately, rumor soon became fact when Beatrice Foods cut its ties with the team as leveraged buyout sharks Kohlberg Kravis Roberts set their sights on Beatrice and the money that could be made from splitting up the conglomerate. They acquired Beatrice in the largest leveraged buyout to date for $8.7 billion, and proceeded to sell off its divisions over the next four years.

Undaunted, Carl Haas busily looked for new funding, while the team started the ’86 season with Hart engines. The much anticipated turbocharged Ford V6 appeared at the third round in San Marino in Alan Jones’ hands, while new recruit Patrick Tambay soldiered on with the Hart. Jones complained that the engine was down on power, but the magnitude of the power deficit was hard to determine as Ford refused to follow BMW, Honda, and Renault in creating qualifying engines that produced massive power for a few laps in order to gain favorable grid positions.

Patrick Tambay dodged a huge bullet at Monaco when he touched wheels with Martin Brundle’s Tyrell, launching him in the air. He was less lucky when he was injured during the warm-up for the Canadian race. Haas asked Mario Andretti, his driver in American open wheel racing, to sub for Tambay in the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, but Mario declined, suggesting his son Michael in his stead. However, difficulty in obtaining a super license for Michael Andretti resulted in the more experienced American driver, Eddie Cheever, getting the ride. Cheever qualified ahead of Jones in tenth and was in position to score points when a broken wheel stud put him out.  (One can only imagine what might have happened if funding was stable and young Michael Andretti had been able to begin his Formula One quest in a more hospitable environment than Ron Dennis’ McLaren team later turned out to be.)

The team finally broke into the points the following season in Austria where Jones finished fourth, one place ahead of teammate Tambay, although both were two laps behind. Jones’ final point came on the team’s first anniversary with a sixth place finish at Monza.

The crushing weight of financial difficulties, underpowered engines, and unrealized potential caused morale within the Haas-Lola team to plummet. The irrepressible Carl Haas made a valiant effort to find a replacement sponsor and revive the team. When no relief appeared, he sold out to Bernie Ecclestone, who hoped he could leverage the purchase into a deal to obtain Ford engines for his BMW-powered Brabham team. Ford chose Benneton instead, where they remained until the 1993 season.

In this, the final Virtual Collection installment of our own first season we honor the recently deceased Carl Haas and his valiant, but star-crossed effort to create a bona fide American Formula One contender by selecting the entire Beatrice Haas F1 Team for our virtual museum. Duncan Hamilton & Co. Ltd. (www.duncanhamilton.com) is offering three chassis, plus a spares package that includes enough spare parts to build up several Hart and Ford Turbo engines. Imagine, for an asking price of £500,000 (approximately $633,000 as this is written), one can purchase virtually an entire team and enter it in the FIA Masters Historic Formula One Championship. That’s not only less than four times the cost of buying a single mid-field Cosworth DFV-era F1 car today, but an opportunity to fulfill an unrequited promise that once shone so bright. And that’s why it’s the latest addition to our Virtual Collection.

The Virtual Collection Year End Review

Now that our first year of virtual car collecting is under our belt we pause for a moment to review the vehicles we spent The Virtual Driver’s considerable stash of imaginary dollars to accumulate. Of 31 cars there are 15 racers, 3 antique road cars from the Twenties and Thirties, 8 sports and GT cars, 2 Personal Luxury cars from the Sixties, 2 Hot Rods, and 1 replica.

We estimate it would take approximately $21 million actual dollars to purchase this eclectic group of vehicles, proving a virtual collection is less costly than the real thing, and far cheaper to maintain. The most expensive car is the 1928 Bentley 4-1/2 Litre Le Mans Sport that sold for $6.5 million. The least expensive is the 1971 Lotus 61 — the last Lotus customer race car sold — that is available now at www.wirewheel.com with a $22,900 asking price.

Not include in that total is Lockwood Lake Ranch, purchased in 1945 by Henry B. Joy, the son of the man who bought Packard and moved it to Detroit. The  2000+ acre hunting lodge was selected to house our collection. It’s still for sale at an asking price of $11.9 million.

Race Cars

1963 Lotus 23-B #23-S-42

Cologne Capri RS3100

Miller-Ford

1983 Eagle Indy Car Chassis #8114

1967 Trans Am Mercury Cougar

1956 Arnolt Bristol Roadster #AR BR 5865-C

1903 Packard Grey Wolf

1970 Ford Torino King Cobra

1956 Lotus Eleven #150

1971 Lotus 61 #61-FF-222

1968 McLaren M6B #50-17

1928 Bentley 41/2 Litre Le Mans Sport

1985/86 Beatrice Haas Lola F-1 chassis THL1 #002, THL2 #001, and THL2 #002

Antique Road Cars from the Twenties and Thirties

1929 Stutz Blackhawk

1933 Chrysler CL Imperial Dual-Windshield Phaeton

1933 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A Dual Cowl Sports Tourer

Sports and GT Cars

Ford GT40 #1028 street version

1953 Cunningham C-3 #5223

1973 BMW 3.0 CSL

2006 Aston Martin V12 Vanquish S

1972 Dino 246 GTS #03916

1974 De Tomaso Pantera #7380

1992 Acura NSX # 1187

1964 Shelby 289 Cobra

Hot Rods

1934 Ford Coupe

1984 Porsche 911 RSR “Hot Rod”

Personal Luxury Cars

1962 Ford Thunderbird Sports Roadster

1963 Buick Riviera

Replicas

1966 Jaguar XJ13 Recreation by Neville Swales

 

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