Crossing the Great Divide to get to Continental Divide

Harry Kennison Postcard

In the summer of 1965 I’d just graduated from high school and found myself working as a short-order cook at a desolate outpost called the Nugget Café in Taylor Park, Colorado for 30 cents an hour and free showers (living out of a tent that summer made showers far more important than my hourly wage). For those of you who may not have ever had the pleasure of visiting Taylor Park in the 60’s (or this year for that matter, it hasn’t changed much), picture a trading post, gas pump, a public phone and the aforementioned café that seated no more than a dozen trout fishermen, hunters or wayward tourists at any given time. The park was surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks and fed by four dirt roads which I always viewed as my ticket back to civilization. In my case “civilization” was back in Michigan hanging out with my high school buddies cruising Woodward Avenue on a Friday night.

Tom Payne’s 289 Factory Cobra turned out to be no match for the 
Porsche 904’s at Continental Divide

In order to keep my sanity, I would look forward to my weekly trip to Gunnison, the nearest town, to pick up supplies for the café and also my tattered subscription to Autoweek & Competition Press, which was delivered to the P.O. Box in Almont, Colorado-there was no mail delivery in Taylor Park. It was in those pages that I’d read about a whole new breed of sports racers with names like Lola, McLaren and Chaparral that were powered by small block Chevy and Ford V-8’s and were part of the United States Road Racing Championship. The series also featured a large helping of Corvettes, Cobras and Porsche’s latest creation, the 904 GTS running in the GT division. While scanning the schedule of coming events in my tent with the aid of a flashlight, I was amazed to discover that this racing series would be making a stop the following weekend at Continental Divide Raceway located outside of Castle Rock, Colorado between Denver and Colorado Springs. Now all I had to do was figure out how I was going to get from Taylor Park to Continental Divide Raceway.

Scooter Patrick in his 904 runs neck and neck with the Essex Wire 
Cobra 427 of Skip Scott into Continental Divide’s turn one in route to a
 first in class finish.

I ended up borrowing my folks’ Dodge station wagon for the trip, knowing that it was a lot faster than their CJ-5 Jeep. Despite my father’s standard warning to “have fun, but be careful,” what would follow would be one of the most hair raising driving experiences of my relatively short life. You see, before you could get to the highway to Denver, you had to go up and over Cottonwood Pass. It’s 12,000 feet above sea level and to get to the top you have to drive up 15 miles of rutted, washboard, dirt road with dozens of switch-backs with no guardrails. I’d watched Bobby Unser wheel a stock car up Pike’s Peak, so with that “Walter Mitty-like inspiration” I set out over Cottonwood Pass with my younger brother riding “shotgun.”

Tasked with stopping a weight roughly equivalent to that of a pocket battle ship, the Dodge’s drum brakes did little to inspire confidence. But I found that if I slammed the automatic transmission down to 2nd gear and got hard on the brakes, I could crank the power steering around about 3 times and get the Dodge to plow around the turn just in time to apply massive amounts of opposite lock to keep the rear end from sliding over the cliff. I knew Bobby would be proud!

I was beginning to get the hang of these controlled power-slides as I approached the last complex of turns above timberline near the top. That’s when things got dicey. I hit the brakes but the pedal went to the floor-nothing. My brother sensed my fear not to mention our eminent death. Somehow, I got it slowed down by dropping it into second gear and then low gear. With the transmission screaming in protest, and gravel spewing like a rooster-tail behind us, we just made the turn and then were able to creep up the rest of the way to the top of the Pass where we pulled into the parking area and let the brakes cool and reflect on the fact that we were still alive.

The rest of the drive to the race was relatively uneventful, having use 2nd gear all the way down the other side of Cottonwood Pass so as not to cook the brakes again. Dumb maybe. But not stupid. After spending the night with my grandparents in Denver, we arrived at Continental Divide Raceway bright and early on Sunday morning for the big race.

The Porsche 904 GTS’s of Scooter Patrick and Dave Jordan sit next 
to the California Porsche Dealers’ team trailer at Continental Divide 

Because of the disparity in speed between the all-out sports racers and the lesser-powered production sports cars, the USRRC decided to divide the series into four classes based on type of car and engine size. There would be an over 2-liter class for the Chaparrals, Lolas and other home-grown V-8 specials, and an under 2-liter class for the Elva’s, Lotus’s and alike. The same over and under 2-liter designation made up the Production classes. Drivers would be awarded points on how they finished in the nine-race series within their class, and the driver with the most points at the end of the season would be the champion.

For 1965, the team to beat in the USRRC was the refrigerator-white Chaparral 2A’s fielded by Texas engineer-oil man, Jim Hall, and his business partner, Hap Sharp. Although GM had pulled out of racing, it was well-known that Hall received an ample amount of “back-door” support from Chevrolet particularly when it came to their “secret” two-speed automatic transmissions.

Hap Sharp’s race-winning Chaparral 2A at Continental Divide 

As a warm-up to the USRRC, Hall and Sharp drove their Chaparral to a stunning outright win in the 12-hour endurance race in Sebring, Florida earlier in 1965 beating the factory Ferraris, Ford GT’s and Cobras. Then the team from Texas went on to dominate virtually every round of the USRRC series with Hall taking five wins and Sharp taking two wins, plus a combined win in the final 500-mile race of the year. A championship performance, right? Wrong.

An unidentified mechanic has just buttoned up the hood on Skip 
Scott’s ground-shaking 427 Essex Wire Cobra after squirting a shot of 
ether into the four-barrel carburetor causing a three-foot flame to 
erupt from the engine bay.

Out in California, George Follmer, a young, former insurance broker turned auto racer, had a better idea. George thought that he just might be able to win the USRRC title with the right car and the right engine. He knew he wouldn’t stand a chance in a straight shoot-out with the Chaparrals, so he bought a somewhat fragile Lotus 23 sports racer and replaced the four-banger Ford with a Porsche 904 engine (I know some of you were beginning to wonder how this tied in with our beloved Porsches!).

Jerry Grant in his new Lola T-70 surprised the Chaparrals of Jim 
Hall (#66) and Hap Sharp (#65) to take the pole for the Continental 
Divide round of the 1965 USRRC.

At Continental Divide, the Chaparral’s started strong until Jim Hall had a dead battery that forced him into the pits. His partner, Hap Sharp in the other Chaparral went on to win the race with Jerry Grant in the drop-dead-gorgeous Lola T-70 finishing second. George Follmer in the slick, little Lotus 23-Porsche drove an uneventful race to third and first in the under 2-liter division. In the GT class the Porsche 904 GTS’s finished first and second in class beating two of the three factory Cobras in the process.

George Follmer

So while the Chaparrals were continuing to garner the headlines, Follmer proceeded to take his little Porsche-powered Lotus to six wins, two second places and just one DNF (Did Not Finish) in the under 2-liter division, and beat Jim Hall in the mighty Chaparral for the championship by a scant two points!

The following year, the USRRC morphed into the fabled CanAm series, and George Follmer would later go on to drive a turbo-charged Porsche 917-10 to the 1972 Championship erasing any doubts that his USRRC championship was a fluke.

Nearly 45 years have passed since that trip to Continental Divide Raceway, but what I remember the most about the race was not the mighty Chaparrals or Follmer’s giant-killing Lotus-Porsche, but rather our near-death experience over Cottonwood Pass.