Sunday, November 27, 1966 – 3:07 pm
Walt Hane is acutely aware that he must beat Don Yenko to the first turn. Another spinout like the one at last year’s championship race in Daytona simply will not do. But for now, a few moments of relative calm and quiet envelop the grid before the impending cacophony. Walt’s white-and-red Shelby Mustang GT350 occupies the pole position but is silent for now, its powerful eight-cylinder engine asleep. Yet like a napping dragon, the power within is apparent even as it crouches motionless on the warm black Tarmac.
Securely strapped into the hard fiberglass bucket seat, Walt steals a quick glance at the Corvette roadster poised menacingly on the grid to his right: Don Yenko’s 327-powered Corvette. Painted prominently on each door of Don’s Corvette is the number 101, indicating that he is the SCCA’s Northeastern Region B/Production Champion. Walt has beaten Don to the pole by just one-tenth of a second.
Walt peers intently through the recently cleaned windshield and watches the race official who controls the start of the race. The official, nattily attired in white chino slacks, navy-blue sneakers, and a light blue cardigan, holds a furled bright green flag tightly in his left hand as he raises four fingers of his right hand high into the air: Four minutes to go until the start of the race. Walt takes a few final moments to contemplate his strategy. To win this race, Walt knows he must spur his Shelby Mustang into the first hairpin corner ahead of the Corvette, or else he risks being spun out by the aggressive Yenko.
The official raises three fingers into the air: three minutes to go! Walt reaches forward to the instrument panel and twists the ignition key one click to the right, sending current flowing into the car’s electrical system from the fully charged battery. A red oil-pressure light illuminates. With his right hand, Walt jiggles the shifter lever to ensure the transmission is in neutral. Finally, as his right foot pumps the accelerator pedal once, he twists the key to the start position, causing nearly 400 American V8 horsepower to roar to life. The dragon has awakened. A quick glance at the brace of Stewart-Warner instruments confirms rising oil and fuel pressure, and a functioning charging system. The entire car fills with sound and resonates like a drum, as the unmuffled, open exhaust pipes expel their hot combustion gases.
Two fingers in the air: two minutes to go! Walt wriggles himself a tiny bit deeper into the bucket seat and gives his safety-harness straps a final tug. Once again, he fusses his helmet and black horn-rimmed glasses into their most comfortable positions. Glancing up at the rearview mirror, Walt eyes the #702 black Sunbeam Tiger crouched directly behind his Shelby in the third starting position. The Tiger, driven by Ron Dykes, is powered by essentially the same engine as Walt’s Shelby, but is a much smaller and more nimble automobile.
One finger: one minute to go! Oil pressure good, oil temperature into the safe zone, water temperature on the rise. Walt blips the throttle a couple of times. This clears the spark plugs and also sends an unspoken message to the Corvette pilot alongside: “It’s on, buddy. I’m ready for it, are you?” His foot on the clutch, Walt slides the four-speed Hurst lever into first gear.
With a final look at his watch, the race official steps smartly off to the left edge of the track a little ways in front of Walt. Holding the flag stick in his right hand and the corner of the flag in his left, the official unfurls and displays the motionless green flag above his head. Suddenly, his left hand releases the tip of the flag while his right hand vigorously waves the flag stick back and forth, up and down. The flag is a blur of green, and a sound like thunder fills the air, as sixteen racing engines roar in unison, and their drivers’ feet release clutches and stomp accelerator pedals.
The race to be National Champion is on!
1965: Failure, Success, and Lessons Learned
Pace cars were not used in road racing to start the races in those days. Instead, the cars were gridded and parked in a double-file line according to their qualifying positions. To start the race, an official standing next to the line of parked cars waved a green flag, and the racers accelerated from their parked positions to begin to race directly in what is known as a “standing start.” This particular race was utilizing the larger, faster 3.81-mile road course. At the start of the first race from his “pole position” starting place on the front row, Walt accelerated his Shelby with maximum effort the instant he saw the starter wave the green flag. A few moments later, Walt looked in his rearview mirror—and already, in less than a lap, he had built up a sizeable lead over the rest of the field. At this point, he learned something very important about his new weapon: it had the power to accelerate like a pinched watermelon seed, but it was heavy and needed a little advance notice if you wanted to slow it down. Zipping through the slightly banked tri-oval at around 150 mph, Walt crossed the start/finish line and then tried to slow down for the sharp left turn that marked the beginning of the infield road-course section. Walt stepped on the brake pedal. His intentions were good, but the car had other ideas. It was too little, too late. One ton of steel, fiberglass, and rubber traveling at 150 mph required a bit more distance and effort to stop than did an MGA weighing half as much and traveling “only” 110 mph. The Titanic probably had a better chance of slowing down to avoid the iceberg than Walt’s Shelby had of making the turn off the banking.
All the other cars behind him angled left into the infield while Walt’s Shelby continued straight ahead, brakes and tires smoking in protest, as it mowed down the cones marking the left turn he was supposed to follow. Walt’s face must have been bright red with embarrassment as he finally got slowed down enough to sheepishly make a U-turn on the wide NASCAR banking and drive back towards the missed turn. By now he was dead last, or as his wife, Jean, later quipped, he was running in about sixteenth place out of fifteen cars.
There was nothing for Walt to do now but drive the race and salvage the best finish he could from the situation. He settled down after a few laps and began to work his way back toward the front again. Methodically, Walt guided his powerful Shelby Mustang through the field, picking off the slower cars in the race, most of which were in the lower-powered classes and could not hope to match the terminal velocity that Walt’s Shelby could attain on the big, long sections of the NASCAR track.
But it was a doomed effort. All of a sudden, shortly after entering the tight, twisty curves at the beginning of the infield section, and very near the spot where his MGA’s suspension had failed during another race, something on the car went terribly wrong. The car was still running, but it was making the most God-awful racket, forcing Walt to park the car out on the course. After the car was towed back into the pits where it could be jacked up in the air, the problem was immediately apparent: the factory-welded brackets holding the rear-axle housing and differential assembly in place had failed, allowing the entire axle housing to rotate upwards. This caused the rapidly spinning driveshaft and u-joint to slam against the underside of the car floor, making noise like a jackhammer gone berserk. Walt was done for the day, but not for the weekend. For perhaps the first, but certainly not the last, time, the situation was salvaged by “the Magician,” Webster Benner. The damage was extensive. When the rear-axle housing dislodged and rotated, it resulted in a ruined transmission and a bent driveshaft, in addition to the inherent rear-axle housing damage. Webster made a couple of phone calls to some of his drag-racing buddies in Lakeland and had a replacement transmission put on a Greyhound bus to Daytona, which arrived that evening. It was actually a Corvette transmission, but Webster knew he could adapt the internal gears and other parts to the Shelby’s transmission case without much trouble. That left the bent driveshaft as the remaining problem to be replaced or repaired. Hope lay in a stock street GT350 that the team spotted parked nearby. R-model and street GT350s used the same driveshaft. The owner, a female newspaper reporter, was soon located. Something along these lines transpired:
“EXCUSE ME, MA’AM, WE’VE RUN INTO A LITTLE PROBLEM WITH OUR RACE CAR, AND MAYBE YOU COULD HELP US OUT. WOULD IT BE OKAY WITH YOU IF WE TOOK THE DRIVESHAFT OUT OF YOUR SHELBY, INSTALLED IT IN OUR RACE CAR, ABUSED IT OUT ON THE TRACK TOMORROW, AND THEN RETURNED IT TO YOU AFTERWARDS?”
“GEE, SORRY, FELLAS, I’D LOVE TO HELP YOU OUT, BUT NOOOO, I DON’T THINK SO. SORRY.”
No amount of cajoling or begging could persuade the lady to allow her Shelby to be desecrated.
On to Plan B.