MMR Blog

Sandy on Assignment:
Conversations with Vic Elford

Posted on September 22, 2012 Comments (1)

Last April, clutching my Amelia Island program with the dreamy race car driver on the cover, I hung onto every word at the Great Endurance Drivers seminar. In August, at the RM auction in Monterey, I was blown away at the $10M hammer price for the Le Mans’ camera car, the Ford GT40 Gulf racing car, used for the high-speed close-up action driving in Steve McQueen’s epic racing film. The other day, I came across the Porsche High Performance Driving School brochure and added it to my bucket list.

Vic Elford

When the call came from Miss Amy inviting me to the Porsche Club’s Concours at Larz Anderson and dinner with the guest speaker, I was honored. When she said it was Vic Elford, I was ecstatic. It was a young Vic Elford on the program cover being honored at Amelia this year. It was Vic driving the camera car and it was Vic who started the Porsche High Performance Driving School. I was about to be treated to an experience of a lifetime…conversations with Vic Elford.

It’s easy to Google someone famous like Vic Elford and get his race stats. I was curious to learn what was between the lines. What inspired him to race? Why did he start so late in life? Was his goal to race Porsches? Was racing stressful? What was the secret to his rally success? What makes a great driver? Vic was most gracious, sharing his racing career and personal life stories over his two-day visit to Boston.

“Kids today are in go-carts at six. People forget there was a war going on when I was growing up in Britain. My father was away much of the time”, related Vic, when comparing his exposure to racing and today’s generation of racecar drivers. Then his face lit up, as he shared the single event that shaped his life. In 1949, already 14, his father took him to the races at Silverstone. “I was passionate from the moment I saw the drivers racing on the track and knew that’s what I wanted to do”, recounts Vic.

Vic Elford joins Sandy Cotterman for kickoff dinner to Northeast Porsche Club weekend Boston

Despite his strong passion, Vic said he knew he needed to make a living, so he took his keen interest in math and pursued a degree in civil engineering. How he applied that analytical side shines through in all you read about his accomplished rally and race career. With a “trust me” attitude, he pushed through design changes on the cars he raced.  He capitalized on his photographic memory, giving himself an edge in strategizing both rally and track courses. During his early rally driving, he mastered dictating pace notes, rally shorthand used to document everything and anything, yard by yard, during a practice rally run…shadows, fallen limbs, curves...anything. Sounding like a Jay Leno monologue, he recounted the scene with his team navigator shouting back the notes during the rally, to the point where he could almost anticipate the course with his eyes closed!

Vic’s stories on and off the track held me spellbound. I couldn’t help but think: How stressful. When I finally asked if it was, both Vic and Amy exclaimed, in unison, “No, not at all!”  Like anything, when you know what you’re doing, you’re in control. Vic went on to share what the moments were like before a race, waiting for his turn to drive. “Some drivers liked to talk to reporters and fans, but I would go off to a corner, not even noticing a person walking by, and relax and have a smoke.”  

Vic Elford's Top Favorite 1965 Porsche 911

So why Porsches? Vic said he actually asked Porsche if he could rally with the 911 in the Tour de Corse at the very beginning of his rally career. Vic was confident in what he could do with the car. Rallying was a new experience for the 911, and driving the narrow streets in the 911 was a challenge for Vic. As for the other Porsches in his life, as the opportunities to race came, he just accepted them. I guess it’s no surprise that Vic was asked to develop the High Performance Driving School after he retired from racing and moved to the States. Quick to tell me, Vic said I would learn everything I needed to know from his Handbook, now in its second edition, when I take the course!

On the grounds of Larz Anderson that sunny afternoon, Vic Elford was walking among the Porsche Concours cars, looking for his “favorite”. Starting to dabble a little in judging myself, I was curious what criteria Vic was using. “I’ll know it when I see it. I’ll just like it”, commented Vic. When he announced his favorite over the loudspeaker, I was thrilled.  It was mine too! The shiny red 1965 911 in the back row had caught my eye. Milling around the car at the time I walked by was the owner’s daughter. I asked her to tell me about the car. She said her Dad bought it before she was born, 32 years ago, when they lived in Colorado. Originally an “awful green color”, her Dad had it painted red. The black and white plaid seats are the original design. So how many miles on the car?”, I asked.  She laughed and said, “A gazillion”. Up at the winners stand, Vic was presenting Rob Nadleman, the owner of the 911, with the poster he had commissioned by Nicholas Watts of his 1970 Le Mans victory in the 917. Before Rob could slip away, I asked him how many miles on the car. “Somewhere over 400”.  “400,000?” I asked. He nodded.

Vic presents the Nicholas Watts print of his 1970 LeMans victory

So what does it take to be a great racecar driver? Balance in the control of the car and excellent eyesight, per Vic. I knew it, at least on the eyesight. There’s hope for me yet!  Vic headed back home to Florida the day after the Concours. I hope I can tell him I checked another item off my “bucket list” and have read his Handbook, cover to cover, the next time we meet. 

Sandy Cotterman
Motorsports Enthusiast


Day Dreaming

Posted on June 15, 2012 Comments (3)

We received another interesting e-mail the other day from Michael Keyser of Autosport Marketing Associates, Ltd. He wrote us saying:

Le Mans 1974

Here's a shot of me and Milt Minter with the car at Le Mans in 1974… and after I smacked a guardrail in the Porsche Curves on Sunday morning… day dreaming again.

The car in the picture is a 1974 Porsche 911 RSR 3.0 running in the “Toad Hall” livery.

VIN: 911 460 9049
Production No. 104 0078
Engine No. 684 3215
Gearbox No. 0534

It was first delivered to Michael Keyser at Toad Hall Racing but it has lived an interesting life with extensive IMSA and European racing history. As seen in the picture, it competed at Le Mans but it also ran at Daytona and Sebring.

Le Mans 1974

It was the third '74 RSR 3.0 built and it would become one of the most successful and visible '74 RSRs to be raced in the US. With it's bright yellow paint with distinctive black trim, Keyser and Milt Minter raced it throughout the 1974 IMSA series, achieving several top three finishes (including 2nd at Road Atlanta, 3rd at Ontario, 3rd at Mid-Ohio, 2nd at Talladega, and a heat win at Lime Rock). It also ran at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1974, where it finished 20th overall.

In 1975, co-driving with Billy Sprowls, 9040 was 2nd overall at the Daytona 24 Hours and 13th overall at the Sebring 12 Hours. It would also continue to be very successful in the IMSA series, with high finishes at Road Atlanta, Laguna Seca, and Riverside.

Subsequent owners continued to race the car successfully from 1977 to 1979 in Trans Am and IMSA races, along with additional entries at the Daytona 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours.

More recently, Canepa Design comprehensively restored 9049 and it is ready to race or show. It is certainly one of the RSRs with the best US racing history, with several entries at Daytona and Sebring. It is also among only a handful of RSRs to have completed the Le Mans 24 Hours.

1974 Porsche 911

It remains as one of the best-restored 1974 3.0 RSRs and has its correct, highly recognizable, and distinctive Toad Hall livery.

I suppose, every June, it's only natural to day dream about your LeMans exploits. I know I would.

Michael did add one more comment: Not much to say. It was a wonderful car. Handled great. Reliable. I wish I still owned it.


Bill Jenkins

Posted on March 31, 2012 Comments (0)

Beating Dodge and Plymouth big block hemi factory teams with his lone small block Chevys made him a “giant killer” and a drag racing legend to Chevy owners.

In the sixties I was covering all kinds of races as part of my job for the Champion Spark Plug Co. My job was to help amateur racers determine the best spark plug for their engine set up. Most pros, like Grumpy Jenkins, knew what they needed and got it directly from the factory. My sole function relating to them was to be certain our decal was on the car, and if they won contingency money, I was to ascertain that they were using our product and ask them to sign a release allowing us to advertise their achievement.

At some point during one weekend I saw Grumpy in the pits working on Chevy II and I stopped by just to introduce myself and offer my services. He had a Champion decal on the car, and while he was using some Champion plugs, he was also running Bosch and Autolite plugs in several spark plug holes.

I asked him what that was about and he took the time to tell me. In the next 15 minutes I learned more about a performance engine than I had learned from our race engineers in three years.

Essentially, he said, he realized that since each cylinder, due to its location in an engine, different intake and exhaust characteristics operated at a different temperature. He also figured out how the different cylinder temperatures affected the “burn” of the intake fuel charge. The more complete the burn, the more the power. Every spark plug is designed to operate in a predetermined temperature range and at the margins of those ranges, it does not performing optimally. While Champion offered many different types and heat ranges of plugs, Grumpy’s experience had taught him that no one company made a single plug that was perfect for every cylinders of a racing engine. He also knew that different plug configurations (retracted gap vs, projected tip) placed the spark at different physical locations in each combustion chamber. That physically affected the timing of the spark which also affected the burn. Through trial and error and intuition, he discovered exactly the right plug configuration and heat range for each hole in that engine and used it, regardless of who made it.

Today’s racers all benefit from innovations which Grumpy Jenkins pioneered.

He was brilliant and I am thrilled that I our paths crossed ever so briefly. RIP Mr. Jenkins.


Time Flies

Posted on August 23, 2011 Comments (0)

I was checking out the cars for the feature F1 race with another guy in his early twenties who wrote for the Canadian motorsports magazine, Track & Traffic. His name was Lance Hill. There were no drivers in the pits and we got reasonably close to the cars. We were just two young guys talking about yesterday's practice times and somewhat mystified by what we were looking at. These cars were only familiar to us from magazine pages. I remember him now as a very nice guy, very approachable, and with a good sense of humor.

Time moved on. At some point I was in an airport and picked up a soft cover edition of "King of White Lady" by Lance Hill. The author's description left no doubt that this was the same person I once met. It was a good read and I had it around for years before it somehow disappeared.

Several decades went by and my wife and I drove our newly acquired Ferrari 308 to Florida in winter to attend the Cavallino Classic at the Breakers in W. Palm Beach. Crews were unloading Ferraris on the closely cut lawn. Here and there a V-12 engine was being blipped. I looked up and into the Passport van and watched it disgorge a stunning red 250LM with California plates. To my mind, this is the most beautiful road car Ferrari ever made. Two men were gently handling it. The owner was close by and was an attentive observer. At some point, as the car was being moved away, I approached him. I told him that he seemed familiar to me and I told him my name. It didn't mean anything to him and he said he was Lance Hill. It clicked for me and I asked him about Track & Traffic and whether he was still writing about cars. He said he was, but that his professional name was now R. Lance Hill. I pointed to the car and he said that, yes, it was his. He told me that after his stint at T & T, he moved to California and wrote the book I once had. It was optioned several times for a movie, but the topic fell out of fashion, and the movie was never made. He subsequently wrote another book that was made into a movie with Charles Bronson. He now made a living as a "script doctor" for movies that were stopped in production because their scripts needed help. He said the pressure was hell but the money was steady and he had done very well.

Tony Singer's image of Ralph Lauren's Ferrari 250LM in our gallery and Chris Szwedo's story and sound track reminded me of those encounters.


The Senna Film

Posted on June 28, 2011 Comments (0)

There is an aspect of human nature that tends to forgive shortcomings if they walk arm in arm with redeeming charm. People so fortunately possessed are called ‘rascals’ or ‘clever devils’. It can be the most hopeful aspect of our beings that we forgive transgressions committed with humor or style.

Ayrton Senna 1989

Ayrton Senna 1989

Film works best when celebrating that conflict. Famous movies such as To Catch a Thief, Dirty Harry, The Magnificent Seven, all pit unorthodox, even disreputable characters against the bad guys and the establishment, and we love it. A very successful feature film about two loveable train robbers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was based on real-life characters. The originals robbed and killed innocent people and were not quite as lovable, handsome or funny. When news of their violent death in South America reached the good folks back home, most breathed a sigh of relief.

Seventeen years after his death, a compelling new feature film celebrating the life of Aryton Senna, is about to reach the theatres. It has been released in Brazil and Europe and exceptionally well received. Based on rare archival film and interviews with those close to him in the sport, the filmmakers bring us their portrait of a brilliant racer who loved God, his family, his country and winning motor races.

To say that Ayrton Senna was a complex person would be an understatement. His ruthless intensity behind the wheel, his overt love of God and family, his generosity to those less fortunate, his combative relationships all made him the stuff of legend.

Formula 1 is a car vs. car, team vs. team, and at times in its history has been a country vs. country competition. Set in glamorous locations around the world, during the season these intense rivalries are renewed every two weeks. For a brief period, at its center was where Ayrton Senna needed to be. In a world where time is measured in 1000ths of a second, winners are those most often on the edge of perfection and disaster.

Not all teams or cars are equal, so winning in Formula 1 racing means having the best equipment matched to the best drivers. Each team has two cars. Theoretically the difference between them is the drivers. For a driver to lose to a competitor in a better car is no shame. However to lose to a teammate in an identical car requires explanation. Drivers generally begin their careers in lesser cars, prove their worth against other proven drivers, and if they are judged qualified they move up the ladder of better cars. Senna was exceptional and was soon paired with the then World Champion, the Frenchman Alain Prost, at McLaren Cars.

The elements of a classic tragedy were thus set. The passionate Senna’s belief in self was total. He had dominated previous teammates and intended to dominate Prost. The cerebral Prost’s proven worth and ego could not allow anyone else to win. Racing for the same team in the equal cars meant that between these two men, someone had to lose. The argument would be settled at speed.

Every sport has what participants consider sporting rules. Motorsports first competitors were generally men of means: sportsmen. Winning honorably was as important as winning. Senna and Prost did not so much race as war. In doing so, they obliged the rules keepers to either ban them or rewrite the rules. So compelling was their battle that the governing body of the sport, the FIA, changed the rules and thereby changed F1 racing forever.

Many could argue that it was not for the better.

Just as Senna’s death was mourned by his many fans, it could be argued that many fans of Formula 1 breathed a sigh of relief.

pb