Le Mans 1979 was a race for the ages. The Dick Barbour team had prepared and brought four 935 Porsches to qualify and race. They were as follows:
Chassis 009 00030 was a brand new car (#70). This car had been built up from a bare chassis in the team’s shop in Northern California in early 1979, and this was its first race. It was a 935-79 twin-turbo and would be driven by Dick Barbour, the team owner, Rolf Stommelen, and Paul Newman, the actor. Paul had driven at Daytona with us, and was also to do the Watkins Glen race. That was all his schedule allowed for, as the film studios would not let him drive while he was shooting any movies.
Chassis 930 890 0024 was the IMSA class winning car from the 1978 race (#71), a single turbo, and would be driven by Bob Akin, Roy Woods, and Rob McFarlin. It was a 935-78. These three were driving with the team all season in the IMSA series.
The third car was 930 770 910 (#72). This car had earlier won the Sebring 12-hour race in 1979. It was a 935-77, that Dick had purchased in 1978 from Jim Busby/Otis Chandler. This car was to be driven by Bob Garretson, Skeeter McKitterick and Ed Abate.
The fourth car was 930 770 0959 (#73). This car was actually an original 934 ½ that had been upgraded somewhat to the latest 935 single turbo specification. The 934 ½ was a car Porsche built specifically for the 1977 IMSA season, as IMSA would not allow the 935 to run at that time. It was sort of a 934 on steroids. A 934 with some 935 parts allowed on it. Only about 10 of these were actually built. The teams ran them in 1977, and then for 1978 IMSA relented and allowed the 935 to run, so all these original 934 ½ cars got updated to 935 specifications to varying levels so that they would be somewhat competitive with the newer 935 models. This car was driven by John Hotchkiss, Bob Kirby and Bob Harmon.
Running a 24-hour race is a logistical nightmare. Running four cars at a 24-hour race in a foreign country 7000 miles from home base, well that was a huge effort. We had skipped the IMSA races after Riverside so that we would have enough time to get all the cars, equipment, and our race truck over to France in time. The truck was sent on a container ship and picked up at Le Havre, and then driven to the Le Mans circuit. Amazingly it all arrived on schedule and we set up shop in the Le Mans paddock the weekend before the race. We got through technical inspection and all the administrivia thanks to our ‘team coordinator’ in France, Jean Pierre Avice. He was a Le Mans native and had done this kind of liaison work in the past, notably for Steve McQueen during the making of the movie Le Mans. Since he obviously spoke French, and being from Le Mans he knew most of the ACO staff so things went relatively smoothly for us.
For a lot of the team, this was the first trip to a foreign race. The 1978 effort had only been two cars, so a lot less people had gone over. One of our mechanics, concerned about what kind of food he would get, had loaded the truck with his own supply of peanut butter and Tab soft drinks. He figured, if all else failed, he would subsist on that for a week.
Practice went reasonably well, no major dramas, other than one of the drivers, Bob Harmon, who was in the fourth car and failed to qualify because he was too slow. There was no leniency from the ACO, so Hotchkiss and Kirby would have to drive the whole race themselves. Two major developments occurred on the sponsorship front that caused a huge turmoil. We were sponsored by Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil, so we constantly had girls in bikinis around the team at all times. Fan interest was HIGH! Additionally, Dick Barbour and Paul Newman had apparently stopped at a famous Paris restaurant called Fouquets on their way to the circuit. The owner was so excited, he decided to sponsor the car, so during practice the sign painters appeared and the logos were added to the car amid great fanfare and spectator interest.
Competition at the race would be stiff. There were factory 936 Porsches, Rondeau prototypes, Dome prototypes, and prototypes from Ford. There were also several Group 5 935s from Kremer, Loos and others. We ran in the IMSA class which had very similar rules to Group 5. Our major competition in the IMSA class would come from one other 935 of Jarier, and a bunch of Ferrari 512BBLMs. The Ferraris did not run in IMSA at all, so we wondered how they got into the IMSA class, but it was beyond our control. Our goal was to finish and win the IMSA class, as we had done in 1978.
The race started off calmly enough and all four of our cars circulated without major issues, although we had a lot of issues at pit stops. Due to Paul Newman driving, the crowds were immense in the pit lane and we had trouble getting the cars into the pits at all. Fairly early we got several 40-foot ropes and the mechanics would stand out in the lane with the rope and start pulling the crowds back when our cars were coming in. That helped with the stops, but poor Paul was just hounded by the paparazzi the whole time. After about five hours, the #71 lost an engine, as the head gasket had broken which was a fairly common 935 issue. The others continued at their pace. The German 935 teams were going flat out, neither Kremer or Loos wanted to be beaten by the other. We were not comfortable running that hard, so we maintained our pace. Into the night the prototypes started to fade and drop out. The 936 of Wollek and Haywood had some issues then blew up the engine early Sunday, while the Ickx 936 was disqualified for on course assistance. All the Rondeau’s had issues, and both Domes from Japan dropped out. Both Ford factory prototypes were in and out of the pits constantly with many issues. As it got dark, the weather deteriorated rapidly. Massive rain and fog came in and conditions were appalling. Visibility was bad and road conditions were treacherous, so there were a lot of crashes. At one point the #72 came in with big front end damage and a broken wheel, and lost quite a bit of time getting repaired. It eventually left the pits with the front air dam off the #71 car which was back in the garage with the engine issue (the #72 wheel sits today in my house as a coffee table!).
By daylight on Sunday, both Loos cars were out with blown engines, one of the three Kremer cars was in difficulty, and about half the Ferrari 512BBs were out. It was still raining heavily. The #70 car was now running second overall behind the Kremer K3 of Ludwig and the Whittingtons, but we were some number of laps behind. Late morning, Dick Barbour came by the pits flashing his lights (we had no radios back then). At first we had no idea what he wanted, but then heard the leader had stopped on the Mulsanne and Don Whittington was working on the engine. The fuel pump drive belt had broken off, and he was trying to install the spare. It took him a while, but he managed a few more miles and stopped again as the spare belt had broken. At this point Kremer were very lucky that Don Whittington was driving as he had mechanical skills (unlike his brother Bill or Klaus Ludwig), and had paid attention during the driver briefing from Kremer before the race. He had no more fuel pump belts, but he did have an alternator belt. Using duct tape from the on board tool kit, he fashioned a belt out of the alternator belt and somehow got the car back to the pits, over an hour later. They had lost all of their lead over us. Just then Dick came in to hand over to Rolf Stommelen, and our left front wheel was stuck on the car. All the rain and water and dirt had seized up the wheel nut. We had to saw it off and replace the whole front upright, which cost us about four laps, and gave the Kremer car a cushion once again.
By noon on Sunday, over half the field had dropped out. Only about twenty cars were still running from the 55 that started. We pushed hard to make up time, but in fact lost a cylinder with about 20 minutes remaining. So we ended up second overall and first in the IMSA class. The Porsche 935s finished 1-2-3, and a 934 was fourth overall. Seven of the top ten were Porsche 935 or 934. So while the Factory 936s had not done the job, thankfully for Porsche, the customer 935s had not failed. Our cars had finished 2nd, 8th and 9th overall, and 1st, 3rd and 4th in the IMSA class. A .750 batting average in baseball, just as in the 24-hours of Le Mans, not too bad!
Our largest problem came after the race. The crew was exhausted, so we put one car in the truck, then decided to come back on Monday morning and gather up the other three cars. We left them in the tent up on jack-stands and removed the keys. The next morning, we came back, and the steering wheels had been stolen off of all three cars (still sitting on the jack-stands). Another .750 average. Three out of four steering wheels lost! Jerry Woods came up with the idea of using vice grips to steer with, attaching one vice grip on each side of the fitting on the steering column. In that fashion we got the other three cars put away, and left Le Mans, a little wiser. Never leave anything out in the paddock overnight!
As an aside…the 1979 Le Mans #70 car just recently sold at auction in Monterey for $4.4 million dollars!
Written by: Martin Raffauf
Photos by: Porsche & Martin Raffauf