The 1983 Sebring 12 Hour was an epic event. Back then the race was run on the ‘old circuit’ which was over 5.2 miles in length, bumpy, in disrepair, and it was a real battle to even finish a 12- hour event there, being very hard on both driver and equipment. Since about 1971, it had been the domain of Porsche as they had repeatedly won there with cars from the 917 to the Carrera RSR and the 935. However, 1983 would be no different, although this time the highly favoured 935 would not be the winner. But we are getting ahead of ourselves in the story.
The story actually begins at the end of the 1982 IMSA season. Wayne Baker had approached the Garretson Racing Team about running in the IMSA GTO class for the 1983 season. He was looking for the team to build and prepare a Porsche 934. The goal was to win the IMSA GTO championship. Wayne had run in IMSA from time to time in the GTU classification with his Porsche 914/4 with some success. The Porsche 934 was legal for the IMSA GTO class in 1983 as the rules were quite open for GTO in IMSA at this time. But these were not 1976 FIA Porsche 934 cars, because despite these cars in effect looking like a 934, that was where the similarity ended. Basically, the car had to run a single turbo engine, and have 934-type body work but with smaller wheels and tyres than the 935. Jerry Woods’ and Wayne Baker’s idea was to build an IMSA 934 out of Bob Garretson’s 1982 935 car which was the now famous chassis 009 0030. So, at the end of 1982 Bob sold the 935 to Wayne and the Garretson crew went to work on the conversion. Don Araki in San Diego did a lot of work to the chassis, basically cutting off the whole rear and making a ‘Moby Dick (factory 935-78) type’ tube structure behind the firewall, really adding to the stiffness of the car. Jerry Woods built a 3.2-liter engine, with the mandatory single turbo. He used a KKK K36 turbo, which was about as large as they came, because a bigger turbo meant more air, which in turn meant more power. Realising the turbo lag would be a huge issue for drivability, he devised a twin waste gate system for the single turbo, which really improved drivability quite a bit. The rest of the crew built up all new 935 suspension, drive shafts and systems, preparing the car for the upcoming 24 hours of Daytona. We did not use the standard Porsche wiring harnesses because the car was totally rewired with aircraft quality wiring and connectors. Since one of our crew members, Ron Trethan, worked at Raychem, we had access to all the latest high tech wire and connectors as used by the US Air Force, so the whole car was rewired with that.
With the car finished, we went to Daytona with high expectations. Wayne would drive with Jim Mullen for the year and Bob Garretson would be the third driver at Daytona. Kees Nierop, our Canadian friend was hired to be the third driver in the rest of the longer races. The race started badly for us when Diego Febles took our door off on the grid, crashing into our open door with his RSR. As the race started we sat in the pits trying to re-attach the passenger side door. Greg Elliff managed to drill into Jerry Woods’ hand in the process, so it was an inauspicious beginning. We finally got going dead last, already 1-2 laps down. We had high hopes however, as we thought we had built a very strong car, even so, we proceeded to have several minor issues. First the alternator belt came off, several times, then on Sunday morning the weather turned bad and we had heavy rain. One of the rear wheel bearings got full of water and seized up, so that had to be changed in the pouring rain. We ended up ninth overall and fifth in GTO class. Although this was not what we wanted, at least we had finished.
The second race at Miami was a short sprint race that was run in a torrential downpour. Conditions were treacherous, and Wayne crashed, aquaplaning off on rain tyres. So, as we went to Sebring for our third race, we had only a fifth place to show for our efforts so far, and understandably we were frustrated with the lack of results from the project so far.
The crew redoubled efforts to rebuild a strong, reliable car for the 1983 Sebring 12 Hour race. We hammered into the drivers, Wayne Baker, Jim Mullen and Kees Nierop, that finishing was key. Please, no crashes or damage we told them! Wayne had signed a new deal with Firestone for tyres, so we used most of practice to get the car sorted out on the new tyres. As this was our first race with Firestone, and their first foray into IMSA for some time, it turned out they did not have the proper size or compound for the rear tyre of our car. So, we started in practice with a tyre that was smaller than the corresponding Goodyear tyre. It was smaller than what was allowed for the class and since the 934 was already over-powered for the size of tyre we could run, we ended up having a lot of issues with the rear tyres such as flats, heavy wear, and this kind of thing. Firestone had also brought a larger Cantilever design of tyre that they had run on Trans-Am cars. As the race started we kept burning up the smaller rear tyres and getting flats. The drivers did a good job of bringing the car in without damage and we kept changing a lot of tyres. Finally, after a few hours of this, Al Speyer, the Firestone race manager, told us to stop using the smaller tyres and switch to the Cantilevers. They seemed to work better, as the contact patch on the rear was slightly wider. Firestone, went on to provide us with the proper size tyres for the next race and the rest of the season. They were a great group and we loved the attention and engineering support, as we were one of the only cars running Firestone, so we got their full attention.
We ran to our pre-determined pace, and since there was so much traffic and the circuit was so bumpy and torn up, we were easily able to run our pace with the two different brands of tyres. This was highly irregular for sure, and I’m not sure that it had ever been done before, or since. As the race went on, we continued to circulate at our pace, slowly rising in the overall standings. We had no other issues, simply changing drivers, adding fuel, cleaning the windscreen, and continuing. We were involved in a huge battle for GTO with the Racing Beat Mazda RX7, which was light, and very fast, running a four-rotor Rotary engine which was allowed in GTO [Ed – actually a reader has corrected us, and it wasn’t a four-rotor engine but a ‘special two-rotor engine’]. It was driven by Rick Knoop and Pete Halsmer. Many of the quicker 935s had dropped out with engine failure, or crashed, or other issues. Bob Akin’s car, driven by John O’Steen, Dale Whittington and Akin himself was leading at the 10- hour mark. At that point the car somehow would not restart after a pit stop due to water in their fuel, and so they lost many laps although it was still running. As night fell, we were up to fourth overall. The Mazda, amazingly was leading overall, followed by a GRID prototype car driven by Skeeter McKitterick (our old friend from the 935 days), and Milt Minter. The Grid was an early GTP/Group C car powered by a Cosworth F1 engine, being run by Ian Dawson (ID of GRID). Though leading, it was having handling difficulties due to some suspension problems. The Bayside 935 of Bruce Leven, Hurley Haywood and Al Holbert was third, but with about an hour to go, the Mazda pitted with the whole front end of the car torn off. A front brake disc had exploded and it was too damaged to continue. With about 45 minutes to go, the GRID prototype pitted with a collapsed front suspension. The Sebring circuit had taken its toll once again. We were now second behind the Bayside 935, and leading the GTO classification. With about 30 minutes to go, the leading Bayside 935 came into the pits with total electric failure, resulting in no headlights at all. In 1983 you just could not drive at Sebring at all with no lights as it was very dark out there. The Bayside car lost several laps repairing the lights, and so it fell from contention for the win.
Now, with less than 30 minutes to go, we were actually leading the race overall. The Akin team had sorted out their fuel situation, and Dale Whittington was driving and closing on us, as a 935 under normal circumstances was quicker than a 934. Things then got hectic at the old circuit. Wayne radioed in and said there was a dog running around out on the circuit, then the next lap he said there was a man standing on the side of the track, over the spectator fence cheering on the circuit between turns 1 and 2. We told him that he was no doubt looking for his dog and to just focus and keep going. We told IMSA of Wayne’s report and they sent the police out to see what was going on. In the process of catching the drunk fan one of the policemen fell in a gopher hole and broke his leg, right at the trackside. The remaining policeman had the handcuffed fan and his partner on the side of the road, waiting for some help. The race continued unabated. Wayne then asked, “Are we winning GTO?” “Yes, we said, we are winning GTO, just stay focused, 10 minutes to go.” We did not have the heart to tell him he was leading the race overall. With all the other things going on, we figured he might freak out, we just wanted him to focus on the job at hand, and to run off the remaining laps. On the cool-down lap, we told him he was the overall winner. We had beaten Whittington to the flag by some 94 seconds, less than a lap. A few more laps and they would have caught us. But as they say – that’s racing!
Needless to say, it was an epic win. Never before had a lower production based underclass car won overall in a major endurance race. Porsche was happy, they had won again, although there was some explaining to do at the factory as to how a 934 had beaten all the 935s. Firestone was happy, although, Al Speyer had to explain to the Firestone brass that a new rear tyre design was needed for the car. Goodyear was unhappy, as Bob Schaeffer (Goodyear IMSA series manager) had to explain to the Goodyear brass how Goodyear could be defeated by one Firestone sponsored car in a race of 84 starters, and in fact by a car that was not supposed to be competitive for the overall victory. Our team was happy, as we were now back in the thick of the fight for the GTO championship. With Porsche’s continued support thru Jo Hoppen, we would go on to win the 1983 IMSA GTO championship with our two drivers, Wayne Baker and Jim Mullen finishing 1-2.
David had slain Goliath, at least on this day in March 1983!