Payne: Neck-and-neck with a GT40 at . . . Indy?
What do ex-Indy car ace Max Papis, a 50-year-old Ford GT40, a 1966 Porsche 906, and your humble auto critic have in common? We were all on the grid in Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend.
Indy isn't just for 230-mph open-wheel racers anymore.
From June 11-14, the second annual Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational came to America's cathedral of motorsport, bringing with it a century of auto racing cars and stars. While Ford was announcing in Dearborn that it was returning to LeMans in 2016 with a new Ford GT — 50 years after it swept the podium there — I was racing neck-and-neck with the historic Ford GT40s that raced at LeMans a half-century ago.
Well, briefly neck-and-neck. The 7-liter, 1966 GT40 blew by my 2-liter 906 at 170 mph just like it did in '66 when the two cars dominated their respective classes. That is the intent of historic racing — to enable spectators to relive the past glories of motor racing.
Not just relive them, but reach out and touch them.
My 906 is virtually unchanged from 50 years ago when the marque won the under-2-liter class at LeMans and finished fourth overall — the first non-GT40 to cross the finish line. What changes have been made are for safety like 5-point harness seat belts, modern racing tires, and stiffer suspension settings. Such modifications are critical to my safety as I hurtled at 150 mph down Indy's main straightaway — and is even more crucial to the modern race cars that cross the same bricks at 230 mph every Memorial Day.
Fans can also reach out and shake hands with some of the greatest drivers who ever raced at the Brickyard: Al Unser, Lyn St. James, Eliseo Salazar, Willy T. Ribbs, and Papis. The gregarious, talented Italian Papis competed at Indy thrice in an illustrious career that included a fifth place at LeMans and a season in Formula One. He flashed his trademark smile at spectators then flashed me a thumbs up as he climbed aboard his 1970 Trans-Am Mustang Boss 302 for a Saturday practice session. Going by me on the main straight, "Mad Max" and that big V-8 shook my fillings.
On the same weekend that I was racing my 906 at Indy, a Porsche 919 won the 24 Hours of LeMans in France.
My Porsche shares little with the hybrid-powered, carbon fiber-chassis, 200 plus-mph 919 — except a nameplate defined by endurance racing excellence. Indeed, the Porsche endurance legend began with the 906 — their first fiberglass, tube-frame, purpose-built race car.
Under the direction of Ferry Porsche's then-29-year-old grandson Ferdinand Piech — just booted as the 78-year-old chairman of VW — the 906 set a standard for racing excellence that would be followed by Porsches from the 907 (first Porsche to win an overall endurance race in 1968) to the 962 (which dominated racing in the 1980s and '90s) to the 911 GT and 919 prototype racers of today.
My car (the last of 160 made by the factory) first competed at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1966 — finishing eighth — then the 12 Hours of Sebring where it hit a stray dog and retired. The car then knocked about in American SCCA racing before my father bought it 1975. A family hand-me-down of sorts. He raced it sparingly before his eager young son took over the wheel in the 1990s where we've been an inseparable team ever since. I've raced it everywhere from Sebring, Florida, to Watkins Glen, New York, before we finally found our way to Indy.
It's the ambiance of Indy that draws the entries, not the track. Like the short-lived Formula One races at Indy, we run Indy's "roval" — an uninspired combination of oval track and infield road course.
The light, sleek 906 is just 3-feet tall. At 6'5" I'm squeezed into its cockpit like stuffing in a Thanksgiving turkey. And it's hotter than an oven in there.
But once on track, the nimble prototype is more fun than a Christmas toy. Obsessed with lightweighting, Piech laid the car's plastic skin over a tubular space frame weighing a grand total of 1,410 pounds. With carbon fiber monocoque chassis, modern open-wheel cars are almost as light as my car but offer much better protection should they hit, say, a nearby wall.
Extremely reliable, the 906 is powered by an air-cooled, fuel-injected, flat-six engine — a close cousin to the water-cooled power plants in today's 911.
The hybrid 919, however, is a different animal altogether. It requires a fleet of engineers to run. Thanks to safety advances, race jockeys like Mad Max live longer than ever. But in another 50 years you'll be more likely to see my 906 or a GT40 at the Brickyard Invitational than a diabolically-complicated 919.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
1966 Porsche 906
Vehicle type: Rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive, race prototype
Power plant: 2.0-liter, air-cooled 6-cylinder
Power: 220 horsepower, 153 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Performance: Top speed: 170 mph
Weight: 1,410 pounds
Fuel economy: 8 mpg (at race speed)
Highs: Gorgeous, first car wind tunnel-tested by Porsche; Perfectly-weighted handling
Lows: Hot as Hades inside; I need a shoehorn to get in