Le Mans in 1980 was in kind of a transition. The Porsche 935 K3 had won the prior year. Kremer built on the success and sold quite a few customer cars, and kits to update older cars. Dick Barbour had bought a brand-new car to start the season, and was running for the IMSA championship with John Fitzpatrick as lead driver. The Porsche factory had stopped the 936 program, as these cars were getting very long in the tooth, and not really competitive any more, instead they focused on the 924 Turbo cars. Jean Rondeau, a Le Mans local, had built his own car which was a prototype powered by a Cosworth Ford Engine. The 3-litre Cosworth was a great engine, but had to be de-tuned quite a bit to run for 24 hours. With no 936s running, Reinhold Joest entered his 908-80. This was actually 936-004, but for political reasons it was known as the 908-80. There was the normal complement of other Porsche 935s, Ferrari BBLM and two-litre sports cars as well as several other prototypes from Dome, Alain De Cadenet and a few others.
Dick Barbour Racing entered three cars; chassis 000 00023 was brand new. It had just been picked up at Kremer’s in early June, and it had not yet turned a wheel in a race. Dick would drive this car (#70) with team leader John Fitzpatrick and Brian Redman and sponsored by SACHS. The second-place car from the 1979 race, 009 00030, had been converted to K3 specification with a Kremer kit. It was #71 and would be driven by Bob Garretson, Bobby Rahal, and Allan Moffat and was sponsored by Apple Computer (yes that Apple Computer). A third car was entered for Bob Kirby, Siggi Brun, and Mike Sherwin. This was #72 and was chassis 930 890 0024, our old 935-78. It was not a K3, and was running still in its factory configuration. Chassis 000 00009, our K3 from the start of the IMSA season, had just come from the Nürburgring 1000km where it won group 5 class, and finished second overall behind the Joest 908 turbo. It sat in the paddock as a spare parts car.
We again set up in the paddock the weekend prior to the race. Technical inspections were completed without issue, as we once again had our local ‘fixer,’ Jean-Pierre Avice, to take care of things. June of 1980 was the time of the famous Television show in the USA called Dallas. In the final episode of that season, just a few weeks prior, the main character, JR Ewing had been shot. We figured we would all wear cowboy hats to get everyone excited, but all we got was the question – who shot JR? Of course, we didn’t know any more than anyone else, but we got a lot of attention.
We stayed at a small hotel in the town of Malicorne some distance from the track. It was fairly nice, a typical small French town, but quite far from the circuit. Early in the week, a truck came from Kremer’s in Germany with all the spare parts and bodywork for the new car. The truck driver was amazed that some of the team spoke some German, so he joined us for some nightcaps at the small bar. Note to self: don’t try to drink cognac with a German truck driver, it can be dangerous. The next day I was a little worse for wear!
Practice went well, and all the cars and drivers qualified. Allan Moffat, being used to Australian Touring cars was in for a surprise, as he was not used to the power of a 935, nor had he ever seen the Le Mans circuit before. But he got around okay, and qualified without problem. Fitzpatrick actually put our #70 car on pole with the fastest lap. We were feeling good, then the ACO shenanigans started on the Friday, the off day. The ACO, on that Friday, decided to change the way the pole was determined, and this was after everyone had already run on Wednesday and Thursday. They decided that it would now be an average of the drivers’ times which would set the pole, not the fastest lap time. Dick Barbour or Brian Redman had not pushed too hard because they knew Fitz would set the time. And once the second-place Rondeau dropped their slowest driver, their average moved them to pole and dropped us to the outside of the front row. We cursed the French in our tent, but smiled and went on with things, as there was nothing we could do about it. The 936 only qualified fourth.
Jerry Woods gave all nine drivers the mechanic’s briefing, explaining the tool kit, what was in it, what might go wrong and some basic repairs, like fuel pump belt and such. Dick Barbour then gave his briefing saying that we were going to push hard and we were here to win. So, we knew what was ahead of us. Before the start, it began to rain, so this was going to be treacherous right from the get go. As we stood on the grid with umbrellas, Fitz had a chat with Henri Pescarolo (the driver of the pole sitting Rondeau), and said conditions were bad and he was not going to race into the first corner. The Rondeau was a prototype running a de-tuned 3-litre Cosworth Ford, so did not have the power of a 935, but of course was lighter and handled better. As they came around for the start, Fitz turned up the boost and accelerated past the Rondeau taking the lead into the first corner. Fitz told us later, he had no interest in driving behind Henri in the spray, he would rather see where he was going, and duly came by after the first lap with a nice lead. It is always a sight at Le Mans, the main grandstand full, everyone straining to see who is coming to the Ford Chicane first on that opening lap.
For some reason, Mike Sherwin was allowed to start the third car instead of his two more experienced team mates. I’m not sure why, maybe they figured he should drive in the rain while it was still light. In any case, it was a bad decision, as he crashed heavily on the Mulsanne before the first fuel stop. The car was too damaged to return to the pits, so was out almost before it started. We had to use a fork lift and floor jacks on Sunday to get it back into the truck, so the damage was severe.
The other two cars ran well for a while. After about nine hours, the #71 came in with an engine issue and was retired. Jerry had to build the engine with old head studs, as the factory did not have any new ones available. That of course, is what broke. So, we were then down to one car, but it was running strongly fighting for the lead on and off with the Joest 908 (936), and the Rondeaus. In fact, at the 12-hour mark, we were in the overall lead, but at that point, the car started to have a slight misfire. All three of Kremer’s cars were out by this time, so they came down and were working with us to try and figure out what was causing this misfire. We kept taking parts off their cars at each stop and trying to fix ours. Spark plugs, fuel lines, fuel pumps were all changed. As this went on, we fell from the lead group as nothing seemed to help. The bad weather seemed to follow us as well as it continued to rain on and off. Everything was wet and dirty, all the mechanics were soaked. With about three hours to go, Redman pitted, with the infamous ticking engine noise which meant that we had lost a cylinder. Redman did not really want to continue, but Dick, Jerry Woods and Bob Garretson were insistent. We still had the chance to win the IMSA class. To continue, one basically had to disable the bad cylinder and run on five cylinders. With the help of Herr Wilrett from Porsche, Jerry shut off the fuel and spark to the bad cylinder, and we carried on. We knew we could still win the IMSA class, as the next nearest car (John Paul) was many laps down. By then Fitz had gotten somewhat ill, so Brian Redman and Dick Barbour had to finish the last three hours with the five-cylinder engine. Brian wasn’t too happy about it, but being the professional he was, he did it, and did it well.
Dick Barbour Racing ended up fifth overall and first in IMSA class. If it had been a 12- hour race, we would have won. But at least we finished and did win the IMSA class once again (for the third time in a row). Jean Rondeau had won Le Mans in his own car, beating the Joest 908 (936).
Most of the team went home to the USA. A few of us proceeded directly to Kremer’s workshops in Cologne to prepare the back-up car for the Norisring the next week.
Written by: Martin Raffauf
Images by: Porsche, Martin Raffauf, Jerry Woods, Bruce Anderson, Sharon Trethan