July 28, 2014
The Untold Story of Can Am’s Most Famous Car, Part V: The Turning Point
“Mark [Donohue] and the other people behind the Porsche are not lighthearted types. They take the whole thing very seriously.” – Pete Lyons, Road & Track
Thankfully, Penske Racing had only two weeks to stew in their misery.
The next event was scheduled at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The teams generally arrived in the middle of the week. If no track time was available on Thursday, the drivers and crew members would hang out, spend the evening at a local restaurant, or have a barbecue at the hotel.
The weather was perfect. Thursday, Friday and Saturday were blessed with bright sunshine and a breeze that made it feel cooler than August.
Although Mark Donohue was still unable to drive, he was able to make his first appearance at a race since his terrible crash at Road Atlanta. He showed up in Lexington, Ohio wearing bright red pants, a lightly striped white shirt and a monstrous cast on his left leg. He hobbled around on crutches all weekend but remained in good spirits, talking with competitors and looking up fellow Can Am driver Lothar Motschenbacher in his hotel room.
“I have a picture of him sitting in our motel room at Mid-Ohio,” Marilyn Motschenbacher Halder remembered. “He had a cast on his leg. He was sitting there with his leg up on the bed, Lothar and he were talking, cracking jokes, bench racing and having some fun. He would just hang out with us. He was a fun, pleasant kid. We saw the kid in him a lot.”
Donohue also spent a considerable amount of energy addressing Follmer’s complaints about the L&M Porsche’s poor handling at Watkins Glen. Follmer went into detail explaining the car’s difficulty in high speed corners, its tendency to understeer on corner entry and into the center of the turn, and the ugly snap into an oversteer condition on exit. Donohue agreed that something had to be done and took the problem to fellow engineer Helmut Flegl.
Together the three men came up with a plan. And they wanted it executed right away.
“Woody” Woodard didn’t like working outside the shop. He firmly believed that races were won in the garage and that’s where work was to be performed. But Donohue insisted on a major overhaul of the L&M Porsche before Mid-Ohio, which meant that Woodard, Hofer and Syfert would miss the evening’s social activities.
Instead they drove into Mansfield with the L&M Porsche loaded onto a trailer. They pulled to a stop in front of an old building that housed the famous Rupp mini-bike and snowmobile manufacturer. They chose to work out of that facility because the owner, Mickey Rupp, had a heliarc machine that Woodard needed to weld the rear suspension and front fire extinguisher mount on the Porsche.
Woodard described his night’s work:
[Rupp’s] shop was in an old carriage house downtown. It was small and we barely fit in there. But he had a heliarc machine so I just cut and welded away.
After Watkins Glen, George was still kind of unhappy with the feel of the car. Between what Follmer was telling him and Helmut Flegl, who also went to every race and was a fabulous engineer… they came up with some design changes that they wanted me to do in the field.
I don’t like to do that much, but we did them. We made some substantial changes.
We put on some bigger rear tires. We went from 15-inch to 17-inch rear wheels that Mark had Goodyear make. We changed the actual suspension geometry on the rear upper A-arms.
We were making heavy-duty changes to 003 based on the input from Follmer to Donohue and Flegl.
Woodard, Syfert and Hofer worked all night in the Rupp shop in downtown Mansfield without a wink of sleep. Still hustling as the sun came up the next morning, they loaded the car onto the trailer and returned to the racetrack.
Practice day was quiet, breezy and beautiful. A television crew cornered George Follmer to ask for an interview. They draped a 1950’s era microphone around his neck, strung from an awkward wire that no one bothered to tuck inside his fire suit. His L&M Porsche was parked adjacent to the team’s bright blue pit truck while George’s red, white and black helmet was carefully positioned on the front right fender. The visor was pushed down to reveal the L&M logo for the camera.
The pit truck’s tool compartment was left open, but it wasn’t for cosmetics. Woodard, exhausted from a sleepless night of work, continued to tinker on the car during the interview. George was told to stand near the front left side view mirror in order to keep Woodard, Hofer and Syfert out of the frame while they toiled near the engine bay.
Most pit activity was still pretty relaxed. While Follmer dodged questions about the team’s pitiful performance at the last race, David Hobbs yanked the cowling off of his Lola T310 and discussed the suspension with his crew. They were nearly three seconds off the pace in practice and Hobbs wanted to know why. His complaining done, Hobbs walked along pit road and sat down on the guardrail beside Jackie Oliver to chat.
No one failed to notice Marilyn Motschenbacher Halder as she walked toward her husband’s pit box. The Riverside beauty queen wore brown hot pants, knee-high white boots, a sleeveless white top, and had her hair tied into a ponytail with a white ribbon. She paused to talk with Francois Cevert before continuing to Lothar’s pit to deliver his helmet, turning heads along pit row as she went.
Practice showed that the L&M Porsche was now a better racecar. Taking some downforce out of the rear wing allowed the front end to gain more bite in the corners, which eliminated – or at least controlled – the understeer condition that plagued Follmer throughout Watkins Glen.
The wider tires and rear geometry adjustments compensated for the lack of rear downforce by increasing mechanical grip the old fashioned way… with more rubber. The car was less “pushy” on corner entry and had more throttle control on exit.
Follmer won the pole in qualifying. It was not as dominant a performance as he would have liked, but anything was an improvement over Watkins Glen. Denny Hulme qualified second, just one-tenth of a second off Follmer’s time. Pete Revson and Jackie Oliver made up Row 2.
Despite the beautiful weather throughout the week, a new Sunday forecast called for a chance of showers on race day. It was a bit cooler than usual. Roger Penske pulled a blue sweater over his collared, white dress shirt to fend off the light winds and threat of rain.
The green flag dropped and Follmer drove to an early lead. But in the opening laps of the race a light rain began to fall. It soon turned into a cloudburst that drenched the track and had racecars spinning in all directions.
Denny Hulme, already struggling to keep pace with the improved L&M Porsche, slid off the racetrack. McLaren quickly decided that it was time for rain tires. The incredible power of these cars combined with wide racing slicks was a dangerous combination in the wet. They would hydroplane without warning, and keeping the tail end behind you under acceleration was a near impossibility.
Follmer was in a mess and he knew it. “It was a disaster in the rain,” he said. “You go from six or seven hundred horsepower to nine hundred or a thousand almost instantaneously. It just goes ‘boom’ and it’s there. You’re at four thousand rpm’s and all the sudden it hits and you’ve got seven thousand rpm’s.”
The Porsche’s twin turbos exploded with power. It was like being shot out of a cannon when the boost kicked in. The un-lubricated dump valves worked perfectly and the turbos were as strong as they’d been all year.
But while Follmer fought desperately to control the racecar in the middle of a miniature monsoon, his team was utterly unruffled. Despite massive suspension changes to the car, the horrid result from Watkins Glen and the current downpour at Mid-Ohio, the team’s confidence was unshaken.
Woodard dismissed any thought of concern. “Follmer didn’t mind the rain. He’d raced in the rain before. He did fine. He just walked away from the field.”
Penske, who had by this time pulled the sleeves up on his sweater and tucked a spiral-bound notebook under his right arm, showed why he was The Captain. He calmly stood in the rain watching every move the L&M Porsche made. He glanced at the sky, at the racetrack, and then stared unemotionally at Follmer as he swept past the pit area.
The pits were alive with activity all around him. Denny Hulme stopped for rain tires. So did Pete Revson and most of the field. Finally Follmer sped past Penske once again, still struggling along on slicks. He looked toward the pit box. Penske stood there with arms crossed, staring back.
We had one of those Ohio thunderstorms that comes up in thirty seconds and leaves in sixty. I expected to be called in for a change to rain tires, as all my competition was.
Denny [Hulme] and Revvie [Pete Revson] all went in and got rain tires. I kept waiting on the signal from Roger, who was working the pits, to give me the signal to come in but all he did was take his little finger and keep pointing forward to keep going.
His perception and his vision is sometimes uncanny. And it’s usually right.
He’d been to Mid-Ohio many times like myself… but I wasn’t looking at the sky. It wasn’t quite ten minutes and it was gone.
I just sloshed around it for maybe ten laps. It was slick. I got off in the grass once and didn’t hurt anything. I just got it going again. It was an attention-getter.
Follmer’s off-track excursion came courtesy of the L&M Porsche’s twin turbos. Their amazing power had kicked in on the exit of a turn and spun the car into the grass. This was no longer about winning a race; now it was about surviving. The field was a mess by now, with the leaders going to the back of the pack and everyone reshuffling positions by taking unscheduled pit stops in the rain.
Desperate to keep the car on the track in what was quickly becoming a game of attrition, Follmer tried a new strategy.
I left the damn thing in fourth gear. I just didn’t want to get that sudden boost and light the tires up. I could control the throttle better with it in a taller gear, so that’s what I did.
I finally figured out that I just can’t get down in second or third gear with this thing cause when it lights up, you’ve got to be ready to move forward. So I put it in fourth so I could control the throttle and boost better.
The next lap, Penske leaned far over the guardrail and glared directly at Follmer, pointing his finger down the track to indicate that no pit stop was to be made. He had decided to roll the dice. Follmer would stay out on slicks in the hopes that the rain would end quickly.
As the track began to dry lap after lap, it became apparent that the gutsy call by Penske was paying off. Only two of the leading cars had stayed out on slicks – George Follmer’s L&M Porsche and Jackie Oliver’s Shadow Mk3 – and they were running first and second while the rest of the field shredded their now-useless rain tires on drying pavement.
The rout was on. The L&M Porsche was faster with its new rear suspension configuration. Everyone else had pitted twice while Follmer hadn’t pitted at all.
The L&M Porsche simply rolled over the competition, finishing nearly a lap ahead of second-place Jackie Oliver and more than three laps better than everyone else in the race, including both McLarens.
Just as Watkins Glen had been the perfect storm for a disaster, the turning point in the 1972 Can Am season was the perfect combination of decisions and actions at the right time. Everyone contributed what was needed most at the moment of truth.
Mark Donohue had returned, bringing his amazing engineering knowledge and passion for the 917/10 with him. Helmut Flegl brainstormed with Donohue to concoct a new plan for the suspension and handling. Woodard, Syfert and Hofer had stayed up all night thrashing on the car to have all the changes made in time for the race. Roger Penske resisted the monumental urge to come in for rain tires, choosing instead to trust his instinct and gamble. And George Follmer had driven brilliantly under the most dire circumstances.
It was still heavily overcast when Woodard and his crew pushed the L&M Porsche into victory lane at Mid-Ohio. Follmer was already out of the cockpit, talking with second-place Jackie Oliver, and Milt Minter who had driven to a surprising third place finish.
A huge crowd had gathered around victory lane, which was partitioned with a white plastic rail to hold back fans and photographers. Oliver poured his champagne into the huge silver cup awarded for second place and drank from it on the podium. Follmer wasted no time with formalities; he drank straight from the bottle. Miss Mid-Ohio stood beside him patiently in a blue and white mini-dress while Minter sprayed them both with champagne to celebrate the first of his two podium finishes in 1972.
Many more great moments awaited the L&M Porsche, as well as a few missteps. But Mid-Ohio was the day that changed everything. The rest of the season would be an exercise in futility for every other team in the series.
The L&M Porsche was clearly dominant. Its team was on a mission. They had hit their stride and were determined to bring home the championship.
Even Penske’s mechanics were as focused as a laser beam. Woodard said, “There was me and my two guys. We’re just the mechanics and the gophers and the truck drivers. But we built these cars and we wanted to win races.”
From this point, winning would become routine.