Tales from The Tower: The Car & Driver Showroom Stock Challenge: Small Cars, Epic Tales by Greg Rickes
Originally appeared in The Knock-Off, the official publication of the Mohawk-Hudson Region of the SCCA. Thank you to long-standing track announcer & motorsport expert Greg Rickes for sharing this piece with us.
How could it be that this is the Jubilee Year for the Car & Driver Showroom Stock Challenge? In some ways it seems like only yesterday, and in other ways it was a lifetime ago. In Lime Rock’s voluminous history this event seems to get little notice, but in its day (1972-76) it was one of the most anticipated dates on the racing calendar. By now it’s a time recalled by fewer and fewer of us, so for posterity I’ll try to re-capture the allure.
The Car & Driver Showroom Stock Challenge was motorsport with a bit of a still-fresh Woodstock vibe. In those days before the Internet car magazines (aka “buff books”) were a big deal, It was the primary way new cars got reviewed, race results promulgated, and enthusiasts across the spectrum linked.
The two top circulation publications were Road and Track (out of California, Bond Publishing) and Car & Driver, based in Manhattan and part of the influential Ziff/Davis publishing empire. In spite of its West Coast roots Road and Track was the conservative traditional sports car publication, dedicated to factual reporting, with nary a discouraging word. Car & Driver was more akin to the “gonzo journalism” first associated with Rolling Stone. C&D could be irreverent, controversial, even cynical. It did not always play well with its automotive advertising base, or even its considerable readership (whom it referred to on occasion as “rabble”, “balloon feet”, and “jock sniffers”). To gauge the significance of these magazines consider this: the monthly PAID circulation for C&D in 1972 was over 600,000! How’s that for being an “influencer”?
Against this backdrop the Sports Car Club of America was in one its periodic crises over the cost and complexity of its amateur racing program. What emerged as 1972 opened was a new concept that harkened back to the club’s roots. It was called Showroom Stock Sedan. Selected for their parity of performance were a half-dozen or so economy sedans, which were to be raced essentially as they came of the dealer’s floor. These were not high-performance cars, they were basic transportation, and were priced accordingly. The SCCA, often noted for lengthy and complex rules, went against character and squeezed every detail of SSS onto one page. No modifications, no performance parts. Full street equipment, lights, interior, exhaust system including mufflers. The only adaptations were (minimal) safety requirements: roll bar (hoop, not full cage), seat belt and shoulder harness, fire extinguisher (hand held, not piped-in system). Total cost to prepare a car, on top of its purchase price, was probably on the order of $250.
The concept started off slowly. Needless to say there were plenty of skeptics who predicted mayhem, and worse. The first few cars that came out were slow, and ungainly. They leaned way over on their pliant suspension; with mufflers in place the primary sound was the squealing protestation of tires designed for high street mileage, not the rigors of racing. They were skinny, and hard. No one had any relevant experience so as they groped in the unknown racers dealt with tires that chunked, delaminated, and such.
Along the way someone at C&D (the answer is lost in the sands of time. It could have been editor Bob Brown, the irascible Brock Yates, or maybe wunder-kinds Pat Bedard or Don Sherman) cast an eye at the concept, and went all in. First came a comparison test of all the eligible cars (Austin Marina, Dodge Colt, Datsun 510, Ford Pinto, Chevy Vega, FIAT 124 sedan, Opel Manta & Kadett, Toyota Corolla, even the VW Beetle), with reams of data as well as a few subjective judgements. Contenders were ranked from top to bottom.
But they didn’t stop there. Having proclaimed their own driving prowess in print, they challenged readers to an honest-to-god race. They did so in their own inimitable fashion, basically inviting their readership to come and get their a**es kicked by the acknowledged experts. And to back it up there was money to be won, a notable amount, and in direct contrast to the SCCA’s hallowed amateurism ethic.
With a bully pulpit every month the gauntlet was flung. Being just a short drive from Manhattan it was natural that Lime Rock Park should be the venue for this fateful Fall showdown. As an added incentive there was the promise of copious amounts of Schaefer beer, free with the price of admission!
On October 14 1972 a partisan crowd flowed through the gates and populated Lime Rock’s verdant hillsides. The racers showed up in force too, drawn by the promise of intense competition, an unheard-of entry fee of just $1, and the potential for fame and fortune.
There were more than enough cars to fill the field, and to keep things interesting the C&D format included short-track style heat races rather than road-racing’s traditional time trials.
The C&D crew was confident, if not quite outrightly dismissive, in the match-up with “weekend warriors”. One anomaly was that Brock Yates, the most experienced actual racer on the masthead (though Pat Bedard and Don Sherman had plenty of laps at both Lime Rock and Bridgehampton, they’d only earned their SCCA licenses earlier in the year) was not behind the wheel, even though he’d done a few races in an SSS car earlier on the year. His last-minute sub was Sport Editor Jim Williams. For the contest Sherman would have the “Project Reader Beater” Ford Pinto, Bedard was in a well-travelled Opel Kadett, and Williams took over the Yates Dodge (nee Mitsubishi) Colt.
One of the hot topics, in a sense literally, in the Showroom Stock ranks, was tires. They had to be DOT approved street tires, and their contact patch was minimal. Early races had been punctuated by the sound of exploding tire, and thrown treads. Being inventive the racers quickly learned that upping the tire pressure was a balm. The they made the discovery that as the tires wore, less tread meant less heat buildup. If a little wear was good, more had to be better. Pretty soon tires that still had that fresh smell were having their tread shaved down to the bare minimum before the cord showed through. There was no consensus on a single brand, and off-beat names like Semperit, Kleber, and Vreedenstein all had their advocates alongside Michelin, and Dunlop and Continental.
As the day’s events unfolded Bedard, Sherman, and Williams all made it through to the finale. There were more than a few partisans among the assembled masses who still held out hope that the uppity scribes would get their clocks cleaned.
It may be hard to fathom in this day and age, but even with lap times in the 1 minute 15 second range, the racing was intense as the econo-boxes lurched and swayed, the abuse being dished out to the tires easily heard since all the cars had full exhaust systems in place.
It wasn’t long before things went awry for the C&D crew. Bedard got sidelined with a flat tire, perhaps aided and abetted by some car-to-car contact. Sherman was in the thick of the battle for the lead when he too had some bumper-to-bumper contact, to the detriment of the Ford’s radiator. Only Williams survived to the finish, a humbling sixth.
At the end of the day the win went to a journeyman racer from Voorheesville NY by the name of Bruce Cargill. Cargill had started his career in a lumbering Jag XK120, then later was one of the pioneers in single-seat Formula Ford, in spite of bulky build that made him look like the car had been built around him. By 1972 his racing adventure would have been side-lined had it not been for a local Dodge dealer, Ken Goewey (of “What A Guy” fame) who got the racing urge and finagaled a Colt off the floorplan.
With lap money, prize money, and contingencies, the pay day was sufficient to a cover the cost of the car.
Mohawk-Hudson Region had its place in the spotlight on a national stage.
Chastened by the experience, but also impressed by the overall ambiance, publisher Marty Touhey proclaimed that in spite of getting their a**es kicked on the track, C&D had actually made money on the promotion. It was inevitable that there would be a re-match.
(1972 photos: Greg Rickes & Joe Corbett Archives)
For 1973 Car & Driver was deep in motorsport with a variety of project cars. While Showroom Stock was not front and center for them, the track time in a variety of venues made for a more seasoned squad. Bedard was back with the Opel, Sherman thought he had dark horse with a Toyota Corolla, and Williams switched to FIAT 124. The C&D squad was bolstered by ad men Don Cooke and Ken Heath, who’d put their salesmanship talents to personal use. Overall the entry was even larger than debut event.
While Sherman fell afoul of the officials, having been caught with oversize wheels just before the start of the feature race, Bedard was not to be
denied and this time took the Opel right to the Winner’s Circle, after having to battle back from an off-course excursion.
In a way Bedard owed the win to Norm Hill, who flipped his Datsun in the middle of the Esses, to the exclamation of the hillside spectators. The blocked track brought out the red flag, which narrowed the gap between Bedard and the front of the field.
Mo-Hud’s Paul Hacker made his Challenge debut with a fourth-place finish in his Dodge Colt.
Bruce McCall’s rendition of the day’s events would run under the title “Beer and Loathing At Lime Rock”, which tells you about all you need to know.
With the score now even, a tie-breaker was a must. For Challenge III Sherman would take over the winning #00 Opel, Williams would be back with the FIAT, and Bedard scoured the back lots for an unlikely dark horse, settling on a Chevy Vega GT.
Notable no-show was the tongue-in-cheek Pinto entered by photog Burge Hulett for Mark Donohue. As a testimonial for the reputation of the event as the “de facto” National Championship, the entry continued to grow. And the beer was still free.
In an unlikely scenario, Bedard overcame potential fuel starvation and a wheezing engine to deliver the Vega to Victory Lane. Post-race the aluminum block engine drooled fluids and emitted an endless chorus of creaks and groans.
A true “junkyard dog”, the Vega would never run another race.
1973 and 1974 photos: Clark Nicholls
Check back for part 2 of The Car & Driver Showroom Stock Challenge Small Cars, Epic Tales
By Greg Rickes