Thursday, September 22, 2016

George Follmer at the Indy 500
 1968 portrait of George Follmer in his Bell helmet  
from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

This is an edited version of the presentation given September 17 2016 at Bart Stevens’ Racers Reunion banquet which was followed by a lively audience question-and-answer session with George Follmer.
The author expresses his sincere appreciation to Bart Stevens for inviting the author to make the presentation and to Mr. Follmer for his unflagging patience in answering the author’s many inquires while he prepared for the appearance.

The author on the right with George Follmer at the 2016 Racers Reunion
Boyd Adams photo

During his fabulous career, George Follmer raced in the crown jewels of automobile racing -  Sebring, LeMans, the Daytona 500, and the Indianapolis 500. Although George did not experience the same success at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as he did elsewhere for reasons that will become evident, it is interesting from a historian’s perspective to review Follmer’s experiences as road racer in one of the most exciting eras at the world’s most famous oval-shaped race track.  

With a goal of racing at Indianapolis for one of the automobile racing world’s largest purse, during the 1967 season George satisfied the United States Auto Club’s (USAC) requirement for “experience” by driving in three USAC events for car owner Rolla Vollstedt. Two races were on road courses and another on the tricky one-mile Trenton New Jersey oval track, where Follmer crashed in turn two and suffered what he now terms “the loss of my eyebrows and a good instant suntan.”

Follmer he started the 1968 USAC season on two short ovals at Hanford California and Phoenix, and the Las Vegas “Stardust” road course, before he headed to Indianapolis where was the teammate to Masten Gregory.

The two road racers were assigned to the new Cheetah chassis built by Howard Gilbert which were improved copies of the Brabham BT11 space frame chassis. The Cheetahs powered by four-cam 255 cubic inch Ford engines were owned by George R Bryant president of his own mailing list brokerage firm was Masten Gregory’s stepfather.

Although an accomplished road racer with seven years of experience and the 1965 United States Road Racing Champion, Follmer was considered a “rookie” at Indianapolis in 1968. After he passed the required “rookie test” and drove in practice with the first closed face Bell helmet at the Speedway. After the last scheduled day of time trials was rained out, George qualified on Monday May 27 with a four-lap average of 158.877 MPH but was later bumped out of the starting field by Bruce Walkup.  

Masten Gregory whom George Follmer described as apparently not particularly focused during the month of May also failed to make the 33-car starting field. On June 13 1968, car owner Bryant passed away at Community Hospital. Two days later, Follmer made his final race appearance in the George R Bryant Cheetah at Mosport road course in Canada.

Follmer stayed busy racing through the summer of 1968, in an American Motors Javelin for Ronnie Kaplan in the SCCA Trans-Am series and a big block Ford powered Lola T70 in the SCCA Can-Am series, as behind the scenes he negotiated to buy all the Bryant racing team assets from Bryant’s widow.  

With the purchase completed, George sold one of the Cheetahs to safety equipment manufacturer Bill Simpson who raced his Cheetah with middling success over the next few seasons.  George’s first USAC appearance as both the car owner and driver came in the 1968 USAC season finale, the Rex Mays 300 held on Follmer’s favorite track, the Riverside International Raceway, and he finished in the eighth position. 

Over the winter the team’s three four-cam Ford engines were sold off.  For the 1969 season, USAC had increased the allowable displacement for stock block pushrod engines while at the same time reduced the displacement of turbocharged or supercharged engines.

Follmer’s Cheetah traveled to Phoenix International Raceway for the Jimmy Bryan 150 the 1969 USAC season-opening race powered by a cast-iron 320-cubic Chevrolet stock-block engine fed methanol through a Lucas fuel-injection system. The engine was built by Follmer’s long-time engine builder, fellow Southern Californian Al Bartz and adapted to the Cheetah Follmer and his friend and USRRC crew chief Bruce Burness.

George spent time over the winter testing at Phoenix, perfecting the Cheetah’s set-up and it paid off, as he qualified second to Al Unser. On a brutally hot day George consistently used a high outside line to pass cars and he bided his time as he watched the turbocharged cars of leaders Al and Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti drop by the wayside with mechanical problems.

George led the final 29 laps and won the race by a margin of three laps over second place Wally Dallenbach to place his name in the record books as both the owner and driver of the first Chevrolet stock-block engine to win in USAC racing.

As successful as he had been at Phoenix George knew he needed more horsepower to be competitive the following month at Indianapolis.  George was a teammate with Parnelli Jones on the Ford factory supporter Mustang Trans-Am team and he used his connections to extract a promise of one of 159 cubic inch turbocharged Ford engines. After the Cheetah arrived in Gasoline Alley with sponsorship from the Houston based Reztloff Chemical Company, days and days passed as Follmer awaited his engine.

The promised engine, albeit not new, finally arrived after many of the front-line Ford factory teams had qualified, and the crew led by Howard Gilbert, installed the power plant and the complex maze of plumbing, radiators and oil coolers required by the turbocharged Ford engine.
This photo from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies
shows the crew working on the turbocharged Ford engine

While he had waited for delivery of his engine, after he read the USAC rulebook Follmer built an unpainted aluminum engine cover with an integral wing which USAC approved that provided much needed need downforce to help plant the Ford’s estimated 875 horsepower to the track surface. 
George Follmer in 1969 courtesy of INDYCAR
Note the engine cover/wing

With minimal practice time, George qualified 27th to start his first Indianapolis 500 from the outside of the ninth row with a four-lap qualifying average of 164 MPH. Unfortunately, on Memorial Day, Follmer only got to run 27 laps in his bright yellow #63 Cheetah before the wastegate on the Ford engine’s turbocharging system failed and the system lost all boost.   

After he drove the final two races of the 1969 USAC season for STP Racing team owner Andy Granatelli, at Indianapolis in 1970 George was a teammate to defending race winner Mario Andretti.

Mario drove the team’s disappointing new McNamara chassis while George was assigned the STP team’s third generation Brawner Hawk powered by a turbocharged Ford engine. Although he went to the Speedway knowing his role as a back-up with a very good car, Follmer describes 1970 as one of his most frustrating experiences in racing.

For the second year in the row, Mario heavily damaged his primary car in a crash prior to the first weekend of qualifying. It was only once Mario’s repaired car was safely qualified into the starting field that George was allowed to practice.  The day after Andretti qualified, George made his first practice laps of the month before Granatelli called Follmer into the pit area after just twelve laps. The crew mounted new tires, fueled the day-glo red #20 machine and pushed it into the qualifying line.
George Follmer in 1970 courtesy of INDYCAR

Without knowing his practice times, George made his 10-mile timed run and qualified at 166 MPH. George started 21st on race day but he was out after just 18 laps.  The Granatelli crew failed to properly secure one of the water hoses, it rubbed against a suspension arm and the resulting hole allowed all the water to run out of the cooling system.  

George returned to Indianapolis in 1971 with car builder Grant King’s “Spirit of Indianapolis” team, and the team ran many practice laps and they struggled to find the proper handling setup. Finally, at the end of the second week of practice, King loaded up the car in Gasoline Alley and took the chassis back to his nearby shop and worked all night to add stiffness to the chassis.   
George Follmer in 1971 courtesy of INDYCAR

George practiced on Saturday morning and found the car’s handling much improved. Follmer qualified on the third day of time trials at 169 MPH, a 4-lap speed average which left him close to being bumped, but his speed held up and he started from 29th position on Memorial Day. Unfortunately, all the practice laps had put many unexpected miles on the Offenhauser engine, and the unfunded team had no money to pay for a pre-race rebuild. George started the ‘500’ with little prospect of going the full distance, and as he ran in fourth place with 147 completed, a piston failed in the turbocharged Offenhauser engine and Follmer placed fifteenth.

George was pretty busy racing elsewhere over the next few years and did not appear at Indianapolis. 1972, he became the only man to win both Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) professional championships in the same year, as he won the SCCA Trans-Am series championship with Roy Woods’ Javelin and the Can-Am series crown behind the wheel of the mighty Penske Porsche 917-10.

The following year, 1973, Follmer made his Formula One debut as a 39-year old rookie with the Shadow team. As if that was not enough, at the same time he defended his Can-Am title in the Porsche 917-10 then owned by Atlanta businessman Bobby Rinzler. With his busy schedule during 1973, Follmer recalls that he flew either cross-country or across the ocean nearly every week during the racing season.

Later in 1973, Follmer raced in the inaugural International Race of Champions (IROC) series and he won one of the all-star races.  In 1974 George competed in thirteen National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) Winston Cup stock car races behind the wheel of Bud Moore’s Ford as well as making appearances in the Can-Am and Trans-Am series. Follmer also helped to develop the IROC Chevrolet Camaros and raced in the series’ second season.  

George returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1975 in the seat of the turbocharged Offenhauser powered 1972 Eagle chassis number19 with the small American Kids Racing team owned by California millionaire Richard Beith of ET Wheels fame. The Offenhauser engine blew up in practice and the #28 car was unable to make a qualifying run. With his original ride sidelined, George tried the much-traveled MVS/ Adams/Hawthorne 1972 Eagle chassis number one but didn’t make a qualifying attempt in his final Indianapolis appearance.

It is a great disservice to George Follmer to judge his racing career by his accomplishments at Indianapolis – as mentioned above, he won the 1965 United Road Racing Championship in a car he owned, he won both SCCA professional series in the same year in 1972, and repeated as the SCCA Trans-Am champion in 1976 at age 42.

In his very first Formula One race in 1973, at 39 years old Follmer scored a championship point in his first race, and stood on the podium in his second race, and he closed out his active career at age 52 in 1986 as he and teammate John Morton drove the ‘Spirit of America” Porsche 962 to a third-place finish in the grueling 24 hours of LeMans.



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