February 11, 2013
(Hover mouse over photos for captions)
On a cloudy Saturday morning in the late summer of 1966, Charlie Wright and five of his friends left Wichita with a new Shelby Mustang SCCA Group 2 racer loaded onto the back of their open trailer. They had no gas cans, no plan, no experience and little idea what they were doing.
Their destination was a makeshift track north of Dallas known as “Green Valley Raceway.” Green Valley was barely a racetrack at all, consisting primarily of a drag strip, the drag strip's return lane, and a nearby parking lot. But it was sufficient to host the Six-Hour Pan-American Endurance Race that comprised the next-to-last stop on the 1966 Trans Am road racing tour.
The happy group made several detours in Oklahoma on their way to the track. The first stop was at a tinsmith's shop to have a funnel made. With no experience in endurance racing, the crew didn't even have a funnel to refill their own fuel tank.
They stopped again at a nearby dairy supply store and picked up a pair of 10-gallon milk jugs. The team had no gas cans. Milk jugs would have to do. Their third stop was at a Western Auto store to buy a little red wagon. The milk jugs fit neatly in the wagon and the arrangement would make hauling gas much easier.
Their only remaining problem was changing brake pads. The mid-race heat build-up was sure to overcome their flimsy gloves, so they stopped at a welder's supply store for a pair of asbestos gauntlets.
That accomplished, six kids from Wichita hopped back in their truck and drove south to do battle with the titans of the sport. Like Ford Motor Company, winners of the last two Indy 500's. And Shelby American, the 1965 World Sportscar title holders. And defending 24 Hours of LeMans champions. And Plymouth's Trans-Am leading, factory-backed Barracuda team.
Piece of cake… right?
Charlie Wright lived in Indianapolis but was originally from Wichita. That's how he knew John McComb, a banker from Hutchinson, Kansas who had purchased the Group 2 Mustang just three weeks prior and would serve as its lead driver. His co-driver, Brad Brooker, was a sales executive from Wichita with seat time in a Mustang GT350R, a close mechanical cousin to McComb's Group 2 Mustang.
It was Brooker who brought in the rest of the crew. His younger brother, Bruce, was an aircraft mechanic who could help turn a wrench. Cliff Gottlob worked on Brad's previous race cars and brought a buddy named Mike Crandall to the race as well.
Five hours later, they pulled into the pits at Green Valley Raceway where it dawned on them that they might have bitten off more than they could chew. “We knew that Shelby was loaded for bear,” Wright understated. “But it was still quite a shock when we saw team after team arrive in semis and start unloading pressurized fueling rigs, air powered tire wrenches, special boards loaded with spare parts and tools, and uniformed team members.”
Charlie Wright and his pals watched in awe. Not one of them had any experience in races longer than 45 minutes. None of them had ever performed a pit stop or refueled during a race. They had never changed tires or brake pads during an event and had never raced at night. Still, they believed they had a chance.
What they lacked in experience, they made up for with preparation. “When most cars were sitting prepared for the race, during the last hour or so we bled the brakes completely, only using brand new sealed fluid,” Wright recalled. “We set the valves hot while the engine was running – only Cliff did this – using running water to keep the engine cool. Did you ever try to find running water at a race track?”
“We removed the distributor and replaced it with a race distributor Cliff had spent hours setting it up. Put in race plugs that Cliff had pre-tested and then pushed the car to the start grid. The car was never started until the green flag flew. As part of our normal routine we checked every bolt, screw, nut and fitting (using only the correct wrench) we could reach, inside, outside and under the car before every race.”
The team got a wonderful start off the line when the race began at 4 pm in a steady rain. McComb settled into third place, allowing him to stay out of several crashes that thinned the field. The team's only strategy was to shift at 6500 rpm's for the first five hours so as not to overtax the 289-cubic-inch Ford V8 under the hood. When the sixth and final hour came, they would raise the rev limit to 7000 rpm's if they were in a position to win.
Ford's heavyweight team led the race as expected, but was eventually black-flagged when their brake lights stopped working. The second-place entry backed by Plymouth retired with throttle linkage problems, defaulting the lead to John McComb and his Wichita crew.
McComb came in for a pit stop and handed the car off to co-driver Brad Brooker. Working outdoors in a steady rain, Charlie Wright and his pals flew into action. Wright grabbed the little red wagon and charged toward the car, milk jugs in tow. They opened the rear deck lid, stuffed their newly-made tin funnel into the filler nozzle, and Wright dumped both milk jugs of gasoline into the tank. Two more crewmen groped in complete darkness, wrestling the brake pads by hand using asbestos welder's gauntlets. The rest of the gang sloshed around in standing water, changing tires one at a time in the rain using only a manual breaker bar to loosen the lug nuts.
This time it was Ford Motor Company and Shelby American who watched in awe. The world champions could only stand by and wonder how they were getting whipped by six kids from Wichita.
And it was, in fact, a thorough whipping. Five hours into the race, the team reconsidered their strategy and chose to stick with their 6500-rpm shift limit. They were comfortably out front and no one in the entire field could muster a challenge. When the checkered flag fell at 10 o'clock that night, McComb's Mustang was six laps ahead of second place. The closest Ford-backed Shelby Mustang staggered home 19th.
Ford Motor Company was not amused, although the stunning upset would put Ford in a position to win the manufacturer's title at the season's final event.
And the epilogue is nearly as interesting as the story itself. The team took home a $2,000 paycheck and thought they were rich. Goodyear noticed and began supplying them with tires and official support. Brad Brooker was recruited by Shelby American. Sports Car Graphic magazine put McComb and his Mustang Group 2 racecar on the cover of their next issue.
McComb eventually sold his Mustang the following year. It was raced by various drivers until the early 70's, when it was retired and forgotten. Twenty years after its shocking victory at Green Valley, it was rediscovered in a Texas garage wearing school-bus yellow paint and an inch of dust.
The car was restored to race condition and put up for sale at Mecum Auctions. I was fortunate to be chosen as the author of a new book detailing the history of the car itself. The entire volume can be read online here.
Charlie Wright, now retired and living in Florida, saw my book in early January 2013 and sent me an email telling the incredible untold story of their Green Valley win. “It gave me tons of pleasure telling this story hundreds of times,” he said.
Charlie showed up at the Mecum Auction in Kissimmee a few weeks later to revisit the car he hadn't seen in more than 40 years. It was among the most prized vehicles at the Mecum auction and sold for a cool $400,000.
I've been thinking. One day I will retire from driving race cars. When I do, I hope I have just one racing story that is half as good as Charlie's.
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