The concept is as old as motor racing itself: build a car with such extravagant power and acceleration that brakes and handling hardly matter. Walter Christie had it in mind nearly a century ago with his 19-liter Vanderbilt Cup racer, and Sydney Allard tried it in the '50s. Here in the land of the Corvette and Cobra, where gigantic-cubic-inch engines lay in every junkyard, many had the same thought: For a few bucks, put some wheels under that thang, and WHOOOEEE! Worry about stopping and turning some other time.
In late 1957, three friends in Hibbing, Minnesota, yielded to the perennial lure of this notion, and began construction of three road-racing specials, one for each of them. Ed Grierson, John Staver, and Bill Larson put Corvette engines, drivetrains, and brakes in shortened and narrowed '56 Chevy frames. They clothed them with Devin bodies, did a little fine-tuning (like using radius rods to prevent axle windup), and went off to the track, where they had immediate success. In their first two years they had 8 overall Firsts and 17 class wins in 35 starts; and one car, with a larger 5,560cc, 425hp engine and John Staver at the wheel, won the '59 SCCA B Modified Championship. All three cars survive today. The third car, No. 66, was magnificently and correctly restored from derelict remains by Steve Steers, who entered it in the Gold Cup Historic Races at Virginia International Raceway (VIR). I met Steve there, and also Jim Bartlett, who had brought No. 64.
Even Steve's car, with its voluptuous shape and immaculate detailing, can't disguise the basic fact: This is the Big Hammer approach to racing, in its purest form. "It's the hot-rodding mentality, the way I see it," says Steers. "I love all that about the specials-their noisy motors, light flywheels, instant throttle response, and the ability to light up the rears on demand. I love to drive with my right foot. A little fishtail is good for one's soul."
I wonder a bit, hearing this from Steve. He doesn't look like what you'd expect-no tattoos or earrings, no chain-motif jewelry. He's a handsome, friendly guy with gracious manners. What's he doing with this unrefined, kickass kind of automotive War Club?
It's in his genes, he explained: "I grew up that way. At 13 (A.D. 1956) growing up in California, I knew exactly what kind of car I wanted come [age] 16-a Ford roadster; big, hot flathead motor all dropped down with big rear tires ... you know the rest. Dad, in the meantime, was building race cars in our garage, hormone-fed Chevys, the usual. He took Second in B Modified at Laguna Seca in 1958 behind the Knoop-Huffaker Special. So, with that background, fast-forward 45 years and what kind of car do I want to race? Only one kind: a special, just like I grew up with."
It was a crisp, clear day at VIR, the world's most beautiful racetrack, and Steve had promised me a practice session in the Echidna. What could be more ideal? The Echidna's strong points seemed perfectly suited for vintage racing. No pushing and shoving needed: One could politely follow the others through the corners, then hammer past on the straights. How rude, how primitive, and how delightful! I couldn't wait to get behind the wheel.
Then I began to absorb some hints from Steve that things might not be just as I imagined. He'd found, for example, some old photos of Jerry Hansen driving his car in ice races on the lakes, in its early days. "The funny thing is," he remarked, "it still feels as if it's on ice, no matter what the surface is. Especially at very high speeds, it feels like it wants to swap ends."
"Is it really that bad?" I asked Jim Bartlett. "Oh, yes," he said. "You can't steer them when they're going fast. There's an old picture of one of them, coming up the front straight at Road America, and you can see daylight under the front wheels." The Echidna's builders had a theory-experimentally unproven, and surely wrong-that high-ground clearance actually helped the handling. But, the Echidna's proportions and shape (and resulting aerodynamics) aren't significantly different from other cars of the period. As I listened to Jim, a memory from long ago flashed on me, and made sense for the first time. It was the sight of the Reventlow Scarabs on Thompson's front straight in 1958, their annus mirabilis when they trounced the foreign iron. At 150 mph, they were reared back like a Funny Car leaving the line. But it wasn't weight shift from acceleration, as I thought. It was such severe aerodynamic lift that the front wheels dangled from their wells, groping for a road surface they barely touched. And the Echidna, a similar shape from the same era, would be in the same posture.
Did I really want to go out in this thing?
I was slightly reassured when I checked the driving position, and unlike so many older race cars, found it comfortable. After stalling it several times, I made it out to the false grid. But then, as I sat there nervously, I glanced at the mirror and saw a driver's helmeted head-no car-and I realized the cars behind me would be too low to see, a big problem because I intended to go slowly and the race group included a Cosworth-powered Formula One car and a Can-Am McLaren. Then Steve and his crew began pointing at something near the back of the car, and I got a signal to cut the engine. The previous year, Steve had lost a wheel at the end of the back straight; was that about to happen again? They ran back and forth, and I felt someone working a wrench under the car somewhere. Then it was OK, they said. (I found out later it was just a loose side pipe.) Another push on the starter button and a gigantic bellow from the big Chevy, and I was off.
There I was, with over 400 lb-ft of torque under my right foot, and as I accelerated down to Turn 1, I discovered a new problem: I couldn't see anything. The top edge of the windshield was in my line of sight, and the view above it was repeated in distorted form below, giving me the giddy double image I would have had after downing a bottle of vodka. I couldn't stretch higher because of the belts. If I scrunched down lower I might have had a steady view of what was ahead, except that in VIR's swoops and dips the driver is always looking up or down. I counted on my familiarity with the track to find my way, and hoped I'd see some flash of color in my mirrors when a car approached from the rear.
The car's '56 Chevy underpinnings had brought back teenage memories of trying to drive such a car fast-the body leaning, squashy bias-plies howling, rubber-connected steering and suspension flopping every which way, the whole mess helplessly understeering into a ditch at 25 mph. Would the Echidna be like this, except with more power on tap than the Hoover Dam? Thankfully, it wasn't. The car felt entirely different-firm, precise, predictable-and only the low grip reminded me of the old days. Wheelspin and power slides were easily initiated and controlled, as if I were driving on snow, and the cornering stance could be anything I chose.
The straights, though, are what the Echidna was made for, and there I understood the magic of the Big Hammer approach to race-car design. "It's a very athletic car, powerful and quick," says Steve. "With instant throttle response and that gigantic sound blasting from the side pipes, it pulls hard, just leaps ahead, tearing away at the track in front, throwing track behind it. The higher it winds, the harder it pulls." It's addictive, no question. All but the longest straights are summarily dealt with. One quick BWAH! and you jump to the next corner. It doesn't matter what gear you're in; the engine gives all the power you can use, anywhere, anytime.
The limitation is you can't use it all, because the Echidna can get wheelspin at almost any speed in any gear. Driving most cars down the straight is simply a matter of holding the accelerator to the floor, shifting up when the tach says so, checking the gauges, and catching your breath. Not so in the Echidna. It's as if the engine speed is tied directly to the accelerator position; you want 5,000 rpm? Here's 5,000 rpm. If that's more than the tires can put on the road, you get a sudden big twitch that tells you those smoking rear tires aren't doing any more to hold the car straight than a pair of shopping-cart casters. Running up to redline is therefore counterproductive, because short-shifting at least gives you a better feel. And the engine is wonderfully flexible, pulling smoothly even at low revs.
It's not as if the wheelspin problem goes away at high speeds. I got one of those scary twitches in Fourth in the middle of VIR's back straight, when I pushed a little harder than I should have with my right foot. With this problem and the aerodynamic lift, I wondered, Could there exist a car that, when going perfectly straight at high speed, would simply lose touch with the road and spin before reaching its theoretical top speed? Could the Echidna, perhaps, be that car?
Luckily, the VIR back straight is truly straight, and has an uphill slope at the end to help the Echidna's weak drum brakes. There's no such comfort on the front straight. A kink at the start-finish line, which I'd never noticed before in other cars, became a heart-stopping bend that caused me to use all of the road. So much for my notion that the Echidna could humble the opposition without causing the driver stress or effort. I could feel my remaining hair turning white.
After a few laps, the Echidna didn't seem quite as dangerous as it had at first, though I'm sure it was. I gave up trying to place the car precisely at high speed, merely suggesting a general direction it might follow, which worked fine when the track ahead was empty. In traffic, I found myself hunching my shoulders, trying to become narrower. The F1 car passed me and braked at the No. 2 marker. Did I dare go deeper, from the 6 to the 5? A strong smell came from the overworked drums; they still slowed me in time, but only barely. At least I got better with my heel-and-toe downshifts, a big challenge because the brake pedal goes down an inch or more per session due to lining wear, so every lap the footwork had to be different. Eventually, my exhilaration overcame more sensible emotions, and I began burying that right pedal, exulting in that giant sound and huge thrust. On the cool-down lap I did burnouts, which got me laughing. I didn't want it to end.
All that high drama produced absurdly slow lap times, of course. But when I talked with Steve, I learned he'd already assessed the situation, both technically and philosophically. "To do better lap times," he explained, "the cars need to sit lower, with fairings and spoilers front and rear, vented engine compartments, wider wheels, fatter tires, and disc brakes. But then they wouldn't be Echidnas."
Brute horsepower, the gigantic blast from those huge side pipes, the sense of exuberant excess-these are some of the ingredients of the Echidna's appeal. "What else?" I asked Steve. "What do you love most about this car?"
"I'll attempt a response," he said, "but it may lack coherence as I feel a lot, all at once. Kinda like how the car handles.
"One hears in Europe generalizations that Americans are brash, rude, pushy, lacking in manners and grace. Well, for me, specials like the Echidna are a very American notion. Always the same theme: 'Let's find a monster motor, put a light body on it, and haul ass.' Mickey Thompson, Art Arfons, Ak Miller, Jim Hall, the Bocar, Scarab and Echidna, not to mention all the Old Yellers. Aren't they all distinctly American, all different, yet all the same? It's such an American notion that the little guy with no money has the same right to excel and win as the big guy. The specials are such equalizers. Old Yeller's whitewalls are so outrageous, so cheap, so American, so in your face ... you have to love them."