A Little History:
The World Sportscar Championship began at Sebring in March, 1953, and grew to international stature with both the World Championship and National Championships in Asia, and the IMSA series in the USA.
Over the years the Championship for “Prototype” road going sportscars has been hard fought by every major factory team, including Alfa Romeo; Aston Martin; Ferrari; Jaguar; Maserati; Mazda; Mercedes; Nissan; Porsche; Peugeot; Toyota; and others; all fighting fiercely for the ultimate road racing title.
The International Championship came to an end at Magny–Cours in France, October, 1992. Forty years of world championship-level sports car racing died with just eight cars on the grid, three of them Peugeot 905’s dominating the lackluster 500–kilometer race.
A year later, on the evening of October 2, 1993, The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) staged its last race for Grand Touring Prototypes. Prototype racing in America's IMSA series, the last bastion of unlimited sportscar racing, died that evening.
Their dazzling performance and handling—they were faster than Indy–cars at many tracks—and super technology—second only to Formula–1—made the Camel GT the most exciting series in road racing. Let's have a moment of silence for the GTP cars, all those wonderfully exciting cars, the Porsche 962; Toyota MkIII; Nissan’s NPT90; Jaguar’s XJR-14 and XJR-15s; Mazda’s four rotors; and Chevrolet’s Corvette GTP. They were the most expensive, which is why, when the going got tough—a world wide recession—the tough—Chevrolet, Jaguar, Mazda, and Nissan—got out. In fact, only Toyota stayed to the bitter end, enjoying the rather hollow honor of a second consecutive GTP title.
There's no question that Dan Gurney’s Eagle–Toyota MKIIIs were the fastest, sexiest, most highly–developed sports cars ever to take to a race track. The realization that Toyota Racing Development created all that raw power out of a four–cylinder package, with only slightly more capacity than a two–liter Pepsi bottle, is beyond all reasonable imagination.
The last prototype race was held at Phoenix International Raceway, long known for its Indy–car and NASCAR races, but for the first and last time, at night, and under the lights to avoid the tremendous mid–day heat.
The Phoenix track is short and fast. On a “flying lap” in the author’s Mazda Kudzu Camel Lights car, it’s down the front straight past the pits at 145 mph. When there is no traffic, and the last turn has been taken perfectly, the car just hits the “rev limiter” at 8800 rpm, then one gets lightly on the brakes to stabilize the car and a quick turn into the downhill turn one.
As soon as the car is turned in and aimed into turn one, it is back on the gas for a quick run downhill to the left turn into the infield, then hard on the brakes and down from fifth gear to second.
The first turn into the infield is very sharp left–right combination, almost a chicane. It is necessary to take a very late apex, and give the gas a quick squirt up through second gear and then lift off the gas for a quick shift to third gear. Lifting off the gas shifts weight to the front of the car, reduces the load on the rear tires and causing the rear tires to loose traction and begin to slide. A quick flick of the steering catches the sliding tail of the car while aiming the car for turn three. Then its flat on the gas through third gear into the turn three complex.
Out of turn three one takes a quick upshift to fourth, before entering turn four, still with foot to the floor. Turn five requires a light tap on the brakes to settle the car and get a good turn in, then back on the gas in fourth gear for the quick run up to the breaking point for turn six.
Turn six: down to second gear for a double right-handed apex with a quick squirt in second gear to accelerate the car, and a lift while shifting to third to aim into the turn in point. When one lifts off the gas for the shift from second to third gear, it is easy to rotate the car, sliding the back end around slightly and turning the nose into the corner, setting up correctly for turn seven, which is taken flat in third gear. Then it's a quick shift up to fourth just at the exit and up through turn eight.
Once through turn eight it is a quick shift up to fifth gear, hard on the gas for only two or three seconds, and then back down through the gears from fifth to second and another very late apex for turn nine.
The track banks very steeply coming from turn nine onto the banked oval. As in turn three, lifting off the gas causes the rear wheels to slide out. Once the car is aimed correctly one stands on the gas and accelerates flat out from the turn in point all the way up onto the banking with a quick shift up to third gear as soon as the car is stable.
A quick check in the mirrors while running through third gear and one can then position the car high or low on the banking as required to either pass slower traffic or be passed by the faster GTP cars.
Then up to fourth gear and into turn ten with another quick check in the mirrors to make sure that one is not about to cut off a faster GTP car going for the inside. Once the car is “turned in” and starts “down” the banking toward the apex, it is a shift up into fifth gear. On a good run, the car is absolutely flat through turn ten and turn eleven sweeper, “scrubbing off” a little speed as one turns into the apex but gaining it back again being “flat out” on the second apex and up through turn eleven back onto the front straight.
On a good run the car slides almost all the way out to the wall and one simply tries to control the slide, making sure that one leaves three feet from the wall, and takes care to stay off the “marbles”, which start about two feet from the wall.
It is another quick check in the mirrors, hold the line if there is a faster GTP car coming up on the left, and prepare for the braking point, back down into turn one to repeat the process all over again.
The author was able to qualify the European Auto Sales 330 horsepower two–rotor Mazda Kudzu DG–1 at one–minute one–second, good enough for a fifth place on the grid in Camel Lights behind the 525–horsepower Acura Spices or the new 500–horsepower Mazda Kudzu 3–rotors.
And Then There Was The Last Race:
It's been a while since an IMSA Camel GT race drew thousands of fans, but they streamed into Phoenix International Raceway in force for “the Checker”, which was simultaneously the final battle between Dan Gurney’s elegant Eagle–Toyota MKIIIs, the last race for Camel GTP prototypes, the last Camel Light race, and IMSA’s 1993 season finale. Several of the new World Sports Cars, the flat bottomed replacements for the faster GTP, and almost as fast Camel Light cars were entered in preparation for the 1994 season.
With mid–day temperatures in Phoenix over 110 F., and temperatures on the giant asphalt track approaching 120 F., all the Camel GT drivers were very glad that our race would be held at night, under the lights.
Perhaps the unbeatable Toyotas would finally fail?? Would the Nissan beat the Joest 962 Porsches?? Drivers Gianpiero Moretti, Derek Bell and Momo Nissan Team Manager Kevin Doran had been spoiling for an upset all year. And where better than in Moretti’s 150th IMSA Camel GT start and Bell’s 100th.
With the temperature down by over 30 F., the race began at 7:22 p.m. with 19 cars taking the start after two pace laps to warm up the tires. The green flag was dropped at 7:26 p.m. with P.J. Jones taking the immediate lead in the Toyota number 98. The fans stood and they cheered as Toyota teammates P.J. Jones and Juan Manuel Fangio II put on a spectacular fender–rubbing, sparks–flying, side–by–side, dive–into–the–corners, dual–lightning bolt fireworks display to determine who would win the final GTP drivers championship and who would win the final GTP race.
The crowd and the competitors loved it! Jones and Fangio banged in turn nine. In turn six, Fangio and Wollek made contact. Fangio banged Jones back in turn nine and took the lead, but Jones took it right back. With Fangio breathing down his turbocharger, Jones banged Wollek, harder. The last Prototype race was a fender–banging sprint!
Only eleven minutes into the race, Melgrati’s Acura Camel Light car pulled into the pits and was pushed behind the wall, moving the author up to fourth place in the Camel Light class!
Melgrati's “blow up”, and a fire in the Gunnar Porsche 966 brought out a full course caution, bunching the cars behind the pace car for twelve minutes of pace laps, waiting for the green flag to signal the re–start.
At the re–start, the author had a wonderful duel with the Camel Lights fifth place car driven by Neil Jamieson of Toronto, Canada. The cars were very evenly matched on this course with the lighter weight European Auto Sales Mazda Kudzu having better brakes and better handling on the infield, but with Jamieson’s Ford Spice having more power on the straights and banked oval for easier passing. Twice the Kudzu and the Spice came together in turn one under braking, trading paint and banging fenders.
Neil Jamieson and the author swapped positions at least ten times during the one–hour stint with the author taking the Ford Spice under braking going into turn nine or by getting better exit speeds out of turn nine and passing on the inside of the oval.
While the Ford was faster down the back straights going into the big sweeper on the oval, the author was be able to make several passes by taking the inside line into the oval, effectively shutting down the Ford Spice.
Fifty–four minutes into the race, the second place Acura Spice of Parker Johnstone was out with damage to its right rear upright and the author moved into third place in the European Auto Sales Mazda Kudzu.
At 8:23 p.m. it was into the pits for fuel and a driver change with Mike Dow, the co–driver, in the car and on the track.
While the author had been faster in practice and qualifying then his co–driver, Mike Dow did a great job of keeping the European Auto Sales Mazda Kudzu in third place. Clicking off consistent race laps in the 1:02, 1:03, 1:04 range, and holding third place to the checkered flag for another podium finish, the author’s fifth of the year and his co–driver’s first.
Thus, Gurney’s race–winning All American Racers Toyotas, the Joest Racing Porsches, the Momo Nissan, the Chevrolet GTP and the Porsche Gunnar 966 took the super–powerful GTP cars out with a flourish. The smaller non–turbocharged Camel Lights cars filled the field, providing their own race within a race, as fast as the GTP cars in the corners, but slower on the straights, all combining to send these exquisite prototypes off to the history books and into our collective memories with a combination of the grace, style and down–and–dirty racing that kept the team, the drivers and the fans coming back.