Sam Posey, former race car driver and current Formula 1 commentator for NBC, joined a program on Formula 5000 cars at the International Motor Racing Research Center (IMRRC) in Watkins Glen on Saturday, May 10. In a question and answer session moderated by former racer Judy Stropus, Posey shared stories peppered throughout with barbs and jabs aimed at his friend and former racing rival, David Hobbs. Hobbs is also a Formula 1 commentator on NBC who was on assignment for the Spanish Grand Prix on Saturday.
Posey's appearance made up the second half of a full afternoon devoted to the topic of Formula 5000 race cars, primarily as they ran in the United States back in period and now in historic racing events.
An audience of about 200 listened with interest to several speakers in the afternoon's program.
Jacques Dresang, co-owner with Bob Mayer of the 1968 Le Grand Mk7 that had been on display at the IMRRC, led off the afternoon program with a history of the 1968 Formula A season and the Le Grand's part in it. Originally designed by Aldin "Red" Le Grand (1924-1988), highlights of the car's history included the fact that it had been driven by Posey, at the request of a friend, at the Mosport Continental at Mosport Park on August 25, 1968. The car was also driven by Peter Revson at the Lime Rock Grand Prix that September.
In both instances, the Le Grand was plagued by problems. Posey got pole in qualifying for Mosport despite gearing problems that required him to hold the gear lever in position while driving the car. The car, Posey said later, "felt terrible," primarily due to its flexible chassis.
Peter Revson drove two laps at Lime Rock Park in the same car when a bolt fell out of it, creating a problem with the suspension. Revson reportedly brought it back to the pits, got out and asked where do all the girls hang out at Lime Rock and was not seen again all weekend. It was not clear from the memories of others on the program whether Revson's comment meant he was looking for the whereabouts of his girlfriend in particular, or a group of random females in general, at the Connecticut circuit.
Bob Mayer, the Le Grand's co-owner, talked about finding what was left of the car and restoring it to its current condition with which it is campaigned in historic racing events today. At the beginning there "was not enough left to see what it was," he said. Eventually, through research and the lucky contribution of the original drawings by a friend of Red Le Grand's, he was able to piece the car back together.
Mike Knittel, the owner/racer of a c. 1970 Chinook Formula 5000 car that went on display at the IMRRC on Saturday, spoke about his experience as a Corvette mechanic for SCCA who had dreamed of racing an "exciting and terrifying" Formula 5000 car back in the day. Years later, he had the opportunity to purchase, restore, and race his present car on the historic circuit which he continues to drive today. He described the experience of driving a F5000 car as "hot, cramped, and busy." It is "very physical," he said, and drivers "have to be very talented" to do it well.
Jim Stengel also spoke to the audience. He presented a contextual history of Formula 5000s in the U.S. and also spoke of their popularity in historic racing today. Famed drivers in other series such as Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Brian Redman, Jody Scheckter, and others, he said, also drove F5000 cars. Redman dominated the F5000 championship in the 1970s.
Stengel pointed out that F5000 mechanically in the day were not that far apart from the Formula 1 cars and even qualified at faster speeds in some cases than F1 or Can-Am cars of the day.
There is still debate about "what killed the series" of Formula 5000s, he said. Via email sent before the program, former F5000 driver David Hobbs commented, "It was a bad decision by SCCA to let it go." Sam Posey commented that the series suffered from a "revolving door" of drivers. They "couldn't keep top guys in it long enough" to keep the series funded and going properly. Brian Redman, while clearly a superior driver, did not have the reputation enjoyed by other top drivers of the time.
Rather than drive them "in anger," like the pros did, Stengel said, he and his fellow F5000 amateur enthusiasts now drive them "in mild irritation and have a good time doing it." Stengel is involved in developing a F5000 series for historic racers. This year in the U.S., he said, historic F5000 cars will race with SVRA at Indianapolis in June, at Redman's Hawk event at Road America in July, and at Sonoma in October.
The car has a very popular following in Australia and New Zealand, Stengel said. So much so, in fact, that the U.S. loses F5000 cars to buyers and enthusiasts there at a fairly rapid rate. The cars are also popular in historic racing in the U.K.
After a brief intermission, Judy Stropus led off the conversation with honored guest, Sam Posey, by reading comments sent by his friend, fellow NBC commentator, and former F5000 rival, David Hobbs. Posey returned the jabs lobbed by Hobbs, and the sparring continued throughout the early portion of Posey's responses to questions.
Posey, for example, said that the F5000 series really ended because Hobbs had won the championship in 1971. He also said "David Hobbs has never won a long-distance race," while Posey had won at Sebring. Posey used to wonder why Hobbs had this deficit in his career until he finally concluded that Hobbs "was just plain slow."
Both drivers left Formula 5000 and went to TV, Posey said, so without the series they would not have had the lengthy television careers they ended up having -- Hobbs is in his 39th year and Posey his 40th in television.
"It all started with our mock arguments," Posey said, from their continued jovial sparring that started way back in the day.
When questioned about his role on NBC previewing the Formula 1 Grands Prix races, he said that he is less connected with NBC now than he was with the SPEED TV network; however, he said, "I do enjoy writing these pieces." His next recorded preview will air before the Monaco Grand Prix. Will Buxton had a feature about Williams, he said, that will air before the 2014 Spanish Grand Prix taking place the day after Saturday's talk.
Asked about his book, "Playing With Trains," Posey said that his friend Paul Newman's comment on the back of the book was still apt, that the book was a "love affair between a man and his son." Posey also said that the train layout he built for his son showed that "Dad follows through." The layout is 50 feet by 25 feet, and took 16 years to complete. His book about model trains is now in its third or fourth printing.
"The Mudge Pond Express" is Posey's autobiography, but it was written and published, he said, seven years before his career in racing ended. He said he gave up racing open-wheel cars after the death of Mark Donohue in Europe. Even while the book covers about half of his racing career, he said, it addresses about 90 percent of his feelings and thoughts about the sport when he was in it.
Peter Revson once told him "Sam, you think too much." He was asked if this may have cost him more success as a driver. He said that he was "easily distracted by things at the track," but that racing was "part of my life, not my whole life."
During the years when he was racing, he said, "one-third of all my opponents were killed," and he endured two crashes himself. He remains puzzled that no more injuries happened to him or to Hobbs than did happen.
Why didn't drivers get out of the sport back then? He looks back and wonders about that now, but in the day, he said, there was a "commitment, a love of the sport." He added, "The glory was so great." After a win, the crew would surround the car, and the adulation was intense. "It was very hard to give up," he said. Eventually, when he did retire, he said he had done everything he wanted to do in professional racing. He joked that he also watched Brian Redman do his now-famous spoon trick (holding a spoon in mid-air flat against his nose) and thought that his life looked pretty good to him.
Asked if he still races for fun, Posey said he races a Formula Ford at Lime Rock now. He likes to be "still in touch with instincts from younger" years. He has pondered what age changes in the body to make a driver slow down and thinks it may have something to do with one's eyes. The brain needs to process what the eyes see, he said, and he wonders if that process may not operate quite as quickly or efficiently as one gets older. He quipped that Dan Gurney once told him that surely a driver's abilities when he is 50 are "going to slow up" by the time he is 90.
Recently, he suffered an injury while driving at Lime Rock -- he hit a guard rail but ended up mostly just hurting his thumb. All he thinks about the incident now is about the "thumb therapy" sessions he had to endure afterwards. He said of driving that he feels "very lucky to be still able to do it."
The only car from his past that he still owns is a Gullwing Mercedes that he bought for $2,500 when he was a teenager. It's worth more than that now, he said, to chuckles from the audience. The car is on display at a museum in Tennessee and gets exercised there twice a year where other teens can now hear it and watch it in action.
Asked what he misses about being a professional racing driver, he said that there is "no excitement to the travel" and recounted a tale of making a fast, tricky, and suspenseful trip via plane, Concorde jet, and helicopter from Monaco to a race in the United States within hours of one event ending and the next one starting.
"I never stayed with one series long enough to become an expert at one series," he said in referring to why he never won a championship. "That's an excuse," he added. He said he "always moved to a more challenging or exciting series."
In concluding the program for the afternoon, Posey said, "Only one guy can win a race. You are lucky if you win some." He said it is gratifying to have people, like those in the audience, remember what he did 40 or more years ago.
Stropus said it may have been she who first called Sam Posey a "renaissance man," one who not only races but also paints, writes, and more. Those in attendance to learn more about F5000 race cars at the International Motor Racing Research Center on Saturday, however, could perhaps see that is a truism about Sam Posey for themselves.
The next IMRRC "Conversations" program will be June 21 when Murray Smith will talk about historic motor racing and the Lime Rock Historic Festival.
For more information about the IMRRC, its mission or its programs, see the Center's website.