The Trans Am Series turned 50 at Sebring this year. Billed as America’s Road Racing Series and revered for its golden era of American manufacturer sponsored pony cars, Corvettes have come to play a leading role in the modern era of this series.
At the end of 2005, the series was all but dead. A decade later, Trans Am is alive and thriving again, often with 70-car fields. It doesn’t hurt that TA, the top class in the series was won by Amy Ruman in 2015. She became the first female ever to win a road race series championship. And it can’t hurt Chevy sales that she did it in a Corvette. The TA class championship has been captured by Corvette for six consecutive years.
The TA series has a deep roster of competitive Corvette teams to draw from. Sebring’s 2016 TA race (March 3-6) saw RJ Lopez’s Corvette take the poll with the Vettes of Paul Fix and Amy Ruman qualifying 2nd and 3rd. RJ suffered a mechanical failure on lap 1. Then, after leading 13 laps, Amy spun and Paul Fix – running a close 2nd – made contact with the wall while trying to avoid her. In the end, Claudio Burtin’s No. 7 was the only Vette on the podium this year, taking 3rd place, but four Corvettes still made the top 10 even with the top three Corvettes taken out of the race early. The top spot on the podium was claimed by Kenny Bupp in the No. 80 Camaro. He won his first TA class victory and became the oldest TA race winner to date at 79 years of age.
For 2016 Trans Am has expanded to 5 classes with Corvettes competing in both TA and TA 3. Global manufacturers are included in TA 3 including BMWs and Aston Martins along with Vipers and Vettes. C5, C6 and C7 based models are all eligible to compete in this class.
Trans Am’s 50th Anniversary Celebration
The very first Trans American Sedan Championship race (later shortened to Trans-Am) was run at Sebring International Raceway on March 25, 1966. It was named Trans American because it was a series of races around the country. At the time, NASCAR and SCCA were successfully racing full size cars and sports cars respectively. Trans-Am was an attempt to introduce Europe’s popular category of small sedan racing into the states.
The Trans-Am Series started out small and might have stayed that way except for the sales success of the newly introduced Mustang. Fearing losing out on this huge new market, the American car manufacturers poured millions of dollars of support into racing their small “sedans” – pony cars. Soon Camaros, Mustangs, Barracudas, Challengers and Javelins were battling on the racetrack. Many consider 1968-1972 the Golden Age of Trans-Am, ending after the manufacturers pulled their factory support of race teams.
Over 30 historic Trans-Am cars were on display in the paddock. Attendees could examine many famous racecars, including Mark Donohue’s Penske Camaro, Parnelli Jones’ Boss 302 Mustang, and Sam Posey’s Dodge Challenger. These cars were never meant to be trailer queens and true to form they were once again fighting for first place on the track.
In addition to the legendary cars, for the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Trans-Am, the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) invited a roster of legendary drivers. Fans had an opportunity to see Bob Tullius, George Follmer, Lyn St. James, Willy T. Ribbs, Jack Baldwin, David Hobbs, Tom Yeager and Ron Fellows. Tullius won the first Trans-Am race in the over 2 liter class and led off the other drivers speaking at the SVRA dinner Saturday.
Vintage Corvette Racing
The historic and modern Trans Am cars are thrilling to watch, but my heart belongs to the vintage racecars. For three days C1, C2, C3 and C4 Corvettes roared, slid and pounded around Sebring's bumpy 3.74-mile airport racetrack. Vintage Corvettes classes included AP (A production), BP, GTR, GT1, and MP2.
AP’s Group 4 was led by Bill Treffert’s black 1960 Corvette, but vintage Porsches were always close on his heels. Lance Miller’s white/silver 1959 Corvette and Tony Parella’s 1958 black/silver Corvette also joined in the Group 4 fray. Lance, co-owner of Carlisle Events, was proud to drive his father’s favorite find, the class winning #3 Cunningham Corvette from the 1960 Le Mans race in France. Tony purchased a struggling SVRA a few wears ago and under his direction it has grown into the leading vintage racing series with over 2,000 members. New for 2016 is an SVRA event at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance (March 17-20).
In AP, Group 6, Clair Schwenderman’s white ‘68 roadster with red and blue strips was hard to miss by the noise alone. Your ears don’t want to be near the big-block’s side-pipes when it’s fired up. This car was also easy to spot on the racetrack because Clair managed to stay at the front of the pack. Off track, it rested with other C3’s under Duntov Motors Company’s tent. Duntov Motors founder Alan Sevadjian owned and drove Grand Sport #003 from 1965-1968, and now is licensed by GM to build authentic continuation Grand Sports. Soon wide-body Corvettes will join the other racecars they build.
Duntov Motors also prepares, stores, transports and maintains Corvette racecars for his customers. Using a company like Duntov Motors enables someone getting into vintage racing to show up at the racetrack, drive the car and then go home. The customer doesn’t need to own a car hauler or pay the full expenses of a race-experienced pit crew. Other companies, such as Cobra Automotive, provide similar services. Don’t let the name throw you off, Cobra Automotive transported two Corvettes.
A number of other C2 and C3 Corvettes also raced in AP and BP in Group 6, while Ken Mennella raced a blue Grand Sport replica in the GTR class against Can Am and Prototype cars in Group 5. Ray Zisa, co-owner of Corvette Center, CT, raced his yellow 1990 Corvette Challenge car to victory in the MP2 class. This car has history. Bakeracing (Kim Baker) raced it in the 1990 Escort Challenge Series. And in 1991, Shawn Hendricks won the World Challenge Championship equipped with the experimental Delco 3-piston brakes.
SVRA Spring Vintage Classic
This is one of my favorite motorsports events. For one thing, it’s friendly. Attendees can go into pits, examine cars up-close and talk to drivers, owners and mechanics. The people you meet are all true racing enthusiasts, not the party-all-night crowds that are common at the more famous NASCAR and Sebring races.
It’s also uncrowded. Spectators are never fighting for space at the rail at Sebring’s 3.74 miles of track, or in the spectator stands, or when walking around. Plus there’s Florida’s near perfect March weather, usually in the 70’s. Yes it can rain, but it’s called the sunshine state for a reason so you’d be wise to bring shorts and sunblock.
And the cost is so reasonable. $35 buys a three-day pass with camping. The motorsports entertainment is as varied as it can get. Vintage cars range from 4 cylinder mini racecars to mighty big-block Corvettes. Add to that the speed and sound of all-out racecars, from older IMSA to modern Trans Am muscle. For me, this event is as good as it gets.