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1968 SHELBY TRANS AM

< < 1967

 

By the end of the 1967 race season, there was no question that the Trans-Am series had hit the excitement button of motorsports fans across the United States. Several factors in the series contributed to its steady increase in popularity. One was the high degree of product recognition of the cars competing in it. Race fans had no trouble equating the cars they drove everyday with Jerry Titus' Mustang, Dan Gurney's Cougar or Mark Donohue's Camaro. The SCCA was wise enough to realize that if they allowed competitors to modify their cars to the point where they were no longer instantly recognizable, the average fan would lose interest in direct proportion. This was one reason why NASCAR stock cars remained so popular. A second factor was that the concept of "sports car" was changing - and the Trans­Am series hastened that change. Prior to 1965, sports cars were thought of as primarily two-seat, open-cockpit roadsters with wire wheels. Most came from Europe, the Corvette being the notable exception. Then Carroll Shelby introduced the GT350. The original Mustang was no sports car but when Shelby created the GT350 he extended the sports car envelope enough to allow more latitude. The Trans-Am stretched it even further.

Another strength of the Trans-Am series was its ability to attract manufacturer involvement - both through direct sponsorship of race teams and by the creation of special versions of their production cars. The Firebird Trans-Am, Z/28 Camaro, Boss 302 Mustang, and later Mark Donohue model -Javelin and Dan Gurney model Barracuda AAR were all a direct result of the Trans-Am race series. Having top name drivers increased the level of competition and, consequently, the excitement the series generated. It was no wonder that from 1968 to 1972, the Trans-Am is generally acknowledged as being the most exciting road racing series in the United States - before or since.

The 1968 Trans-Am season was one of evolution. As the series matured it came as no surprise that it suffered from a few growing pains. The rules began to evolve - not drastically, but enough to make a difference. Over-2 Liter cars had a new weight minimum of 2800 pounds and could run wider wheels carrying bigger tires. Engines could be bored out to 305 cubic-inches, no matter what their original displacement had been. As manufacturers began to realize how much was riding on each race, they competed for top drivers. Some seemed to move from one team to another between each race.

Once again, Ford retained the services of Carroll Shelby. Shelby's GT350 and GT500 Mustang production had moved to Michigan and the race shop, although still in southern California, was now much smaller. It was capable of campaigning a team of race cars but did not have the capacity to build batches of them for sale to private customers. That was, however, not really a concern because both Shelby and Ford determined that the market for Mustang sedan race cars had been saturated by the 1966 and 1967 models Shelby had already sold. As a result, no 1968 customer cars would be produced.

The main difference between 1967 and 1968 Mustang notchback racers appeared only to be minor sheetmetal changes, but in actual fact, the 1968 racers were mechanically much closer to the 1969 Boss cars than they were to the 1967 notchbacks. The 1968 Shelby team cars began life in Dearborn, Michigan. The first two cars were shipped to Shelby for race preparation in the winter of 1968, prior to the first race, which was at Daytona. All of the five cars Shelby would eventually receive were white.

The 1968 rules allowed more modifications, many of them already being surreptitiously made to the cars the previous year. Wheels up to 8-inches wide could be used, and fenders could be flared to accommodate them. Full interiors (including headliners, door panels and rear seats) were no longer required. The cars also sported full roll cages (as opposed to a single-hoop roll-over bar with a pair of rear braces). Teams quickly discovered that a properly attached roll cage could increase a car's torsional rigidity - which greatly improved its handling. As a result, other parts of the chassis and body structure were not needed to keep the car stiff. Pieces were removed, trimmed down or drilled-out to reduce weight. This search for weight reduction eventually led to acid-dipping entire unibodies as well as the parts which were attached to them. The SCCA-imposed a minimum weight of 2800 pounds as an attempt to keep things from getting out of hand, but it had just the opposite effect. When the race was over, fuel tanks of the top-placing cars were filled before they were brought to the impound area - the theory being that the cars were weighed at tech inspection with full tanks, so when they were weighed after the race the tanks should also be full. The quick visit to the pits for fuel allowed some of the more creative teams to add weight to light cars. Tires filled with water and spares filled with lead shot were switched and in one memorable case a driver's helmet filled with lead was tossed into the car before it went to the scales.

Four-wheel disc brakes were allowed in 1968, even though no such option was available from any manufacturer for a production car. In the case of the Mustangs, massive Lincoln calipers and rotors were used on the front while Kelsey-Hayes 4-piston calipers (identical to those used on the 1965-1966-1967 Shelbys) were used at the rear. Special hubs allowed the rear ends to be full-floated and suspensions employed Watts links, narrowed rear springs and double-adjustable Koni shock absorbers. Fuel cells were made mandatory in May of 1968 and special refueling rigs were employed. It was not uncommon for cars to take on a load of fuel and four new tires in under 30 seconds. The envelope was pushed even farther the following year when Penske's Sunoco Camaro could take on 30 gallons of fuel in only three seconds!

Two cars were entered for each event under the Shelby Racing Co. banner. A total of seven team cars were built during the year. Five were all new cars based on 1968 Mustangs and two were rebuilt 1967 team cars, used as back-ups. They were never actually raced during the season.

As Shelby American scaled back their operation, Ford scaled up. The large company became fully involved to the point where almost any decision required a conference or meeting before approval was granted. It was the exact opposite of the way Carroll Shelby was used to working. Jerry Titus won the first race of the year at Daytona. It was run in conjunction with the 24-hour FIA endurance event and he finished 4th Overall - behind three long-tailed Porsche 907s.

Following Daytona, Ford decided that all engines for the Shelby team would be supplied directly from Ford's engine foundry. They would be assembled at Ford and shipped in crates to Shelby for installation. After each race they were removed and shipped back to Ford for disassembly, inspection and evaluation. That single decision probably cost Ford the 1968 championship, and likely helped convince Titus to head off on his own. At the end of the season he announced the formation of a team which would race Pontiac Firebirds.

Ford's new 302 "Tunnel-Port" engine was originally envisioned as the secret weapon which would bring them a third Trans-Am Championship in as many years. This engine was a refinement of the 289 Hi-Performance V8; the primary change was in the area of head design. The 289 heads tended to be restrictive and only so much additional efficiency could be gained through porting and polishing. The new heads were based on the design of Ford's NASCAR 427 heads. The intake ports were straight , instead of snaking around the push rods. The push rods actually went through the center of the ports (thus the name "Tunnel-Port"). This configuration also enabled larger valves to be used. An extra eighth-inch of piston travel was included, bringing the total displacement to 302 cubic inches. The block was strengthened and used four-bolt main bearing caps. The 302 tunnel-port motor was topped off with an aluminum dual quad intake. Shelby dyno sheets showed this engine was capable of producing horsepower in the 440 to 450 range, and operated through a very high RPM band (8000+).

What started out as a blessing quickly turned into a curse. Oiling problems plagued the engines the entire season, and hardly a race weekend went by without one - or more - turning themselves into scrap. Some races were described as "six engine weekends" because two engines would blow in each car during practice and one engine in each car during the race. When asked if there were any eight-engine weekends, Team Manager Lew Spencer said no, because it was physically impossible for the crew to change more than six in one race weekend. Jerry Titus' level of frustration during the 1968 season can only be imagined. At one point Shelby asked Ford if the team could go back to building their own engines. Ford's answer was a succinct "No".

For 1968, the series was expanded to 13 races, running from February to October. The first two events, Daytona and Sebring, were held as part of the FIA endurance events (24-hours and 12-hours, respectively). The Shelby cars, sponsored by Ford, were entered under the "Shelby Racing Co." banner, the previous year's pretext of independent entries being dropped. The Titus/Bucknum car finished 4th Overall at Daytona, despite some teething problems in practice. Both Shelby team cars had been completed just prior to being packed up for Florida. Titus and Bucknum made a strong showing at Sebring where they finished 3rd in the Trans-Am, behind the two Penske Sunoco Camaros - and despite 13 pit stops. The cars used cast iron Ford top-loader four-speed transmissions with close-ratio gears for the first two races. After that, aluminum Borg Warner T-10s were used.

The third race was at War Bonnet Park in Oklahoma. Parnelli Jones joined the Shelby team and he qualified his Mustang on the pole, but by the seventh lap Mark Donohue's blue Camaro was firmly in command. Jones eventually finished third while Titus went out on the 46th lap with (what else?) a blown engine. At Lime Rock, on Memorial Day, Titus finished second. The second car was driven by NASCAR stockcar driver David Pearson and he retired on the 22nd lap after being black-flagged for leaking oil onto the track. His engine was losing it faster than the crew could pour it in during pit stops

Things went from bad to worse for the Shelby team after that. Roger Penske's Sunoco Camaro, driven by Mark Donohue, continued to run like a freight train while the Shelby cars faltered at every turn. Titus finished 2nd at Mid-Ohio but teammate Horst Kwech, in the #2 car, blew the engine on the first lap. At Bridgehampton, the team's semi-tractor trailer was involved in an accident on the way to the track and crushed the roofs of both cars. They were repaired as soon as they arrived but Kwech blew during the Sunday morning warm up before the race started and Titus went out with a broken suspension. At Meadowdale, in Illinois, Kwech finished 8th and Titus came in 11th. Titus finished 15th at St. Jovite in Canada; Kwech blew his engine. At Bryar, in New Hampshire, Titus finished 10th and Kwech again blew an engine. Donohue won that race, his eighth straight in the series, effectively clinching the championship right there.

Titus broke Donohue's winning streak at Watkins Glen in August when the Camaro lost its brakes three-quarters of the way through the race. Dan Gurney drove the second Shelby car but retired with a blown engine. Donohue came back at Continental Divide Raceway in Colorado, finishing first. Titus and Gurney both went out with blown engines. Titus subsequently announced that the next race - Riverside - would be his last one in a Mustang. He would put together his own team and campaign Pontiac Firebirds. While everyone on the Shelby team was sorry to see him leave, no one could blame him.

Both Donohue and Titus dropped out at Riverside and Horst Kwech went on to win, giving Mustang its third victory of the year. Titus' engine blew, as if to underscore his decision to leave the team. The last race of the season, at Kent, Washington saw Donohue win while Kwech and Peter Revson both failed to finish. Revson's engine blew and Kwech crashed on the 10th lap. Titus seemed to console himself by talking the pole in his new Firebird although he retired with engine problems on the 43rd lap.

After winning the World Manufacturers Championship in 1965, The 24 Hours of LeMans in 1966 and 1967 and two successive Trans-Am championships during those same two years, the 1968 Trans-Am season was a bitter pill for Shelby to swallow. But, as the optimists said, there was always next year.

< < 1967

 


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