Before F1 Raced in the States Lime Rock Hosted Formula Libre
Photos via Christopher Webb / barcboys.com
Lime Rock Park showcased international racing with an American twist in 1959.
Back before true Formula One competition came to the United States, a type of racing called Formula Libre paved the way for true Grand Prix competition in this country.
Several major Formula Libre races were held in the U.S. from 1958-61. One of the most memorable races of this type was staged at Lime Rock Park – which was, in the words of John Fitch, “The best race ever held by anybody, anywhere.”
American racing pioneer Cameron Argetsinger held the first Formula Libre race at Watkins Glen in 1958. Certified by the FIA – the international governing body of the sport – and sanctioned by the United States Auto Club, the “free formula” event was won by Jo Bonnier in a Formula One Maserati, coming in ahead of Dan Gurney in a Ferrari.
Up next was Lime Rock Park, in July 1959. Again, the race was open to Formula One cars and international sports cars – but it had a truly American twist.
Rodger Ward was coming off a victory in the Indianapolis 500, and was expected to drive a new Cooper Monaco at LRP. However, that ride went to Fitch. When racing writer/PA announcer Chris Economaki suggested that a midget race car would be quicker than the heavier cars at the tight Lime Rock layout, Ward contacted New Jersey car owner Ken Brenn. The two agreed to split the appearance money, and Ward landed the ride in Brenn’s 11-year-old Offy-powered Kurtis midget – a car that raced more than one thousand times.
The field included Juan Manuel Fangios’ 1958 Formula One car, driven by Chuck Daigh; Lance Reventlow in his Cooper Formula 2 car, Dentist Dr. Dick Thompson in Bill Mitchell’s Corvette Sting Ray; Denise McCluggage in Briggs Cunningham’s Porsche 550 RS; and Mexican teenager Pedro Rodriguez in a Maserati 300S. There were three other midget cars in the field, including one for reigning USAC champ Tony Bettenhausen.
In qualifying, Ward proved Economaki’s premise by eclipsing Fitch’s track record with a lap of 1:04.67-seconds. He started the first 20-lap heat on the pole, but was quickly out-accelerated by the Aston Martin of George Constantine – who went on to win.
Ward switched to larger 16-inch rear wheels for the second heat, which he won. He was worried about losing his brakes in the 60-lap feature (Brenn’s car used a one-speed gearbox and rear-wheel only brakes operated by an outside lever). Ward dropped back at the start of the feature to cool his brakes while his car was filled with fuel. After around 20 laps, he took and lead with an incredible pass to the outside of both Daigh and Constantine in the Hook, and quickly began pulling away. Ward had scare later in the race at the Hook, when went wide and off the track. Instead of spinning, he broadslided the midget in the dirt and went on to win.
Daigh finished second in the Formula One Maserati, followed by Rodriguez and Fitch. Dr. Thompson took ninth in the Corvette, two places ahead of Poughkeepsie’s Jocko Maggiacomo (Sr.) in a Corvette-powered Ferrari.
Formula One came to the U.S. at Sebring later in 1959. Ward attempted to revive his Lime Rock magic by entering his own midget, but he was blown away by the F1 competitors on the airport circuit’s long runways. Watkins Glen held a few more Formula Libre races, but switched to Formula One in 1961. For all intents and purposes, Formula Libre was finished in the U.S.
Lime Rock revived the Formula Libre concept in 1963 in an event dominated by a pair of future legends. Mario Andretti made a successful road racing debut by winning the opening ARDC midget feature over Mark Donohue – who was driving a midget owned by Ken Brenn. For the feature race, Donohue won easily in the midget.
“It was like the end of World War II to me – a history-making event,” Donohue said in Gordon Kirby’s Lime Rock Park: Six Decades of Speed, Beauty and Tradition. It wasn’t as big a deal as the previous race, because I wasn’t as big a name as Rodger Ward. But that was my first ‘professional’ race.”
Lime Rock will kick off its 66th season with the Trans Am Memorial Day Classic May 26-29. For tickets and more information visit: Tickets – Lime Rock Park