The IMSA season in the 1970s always started with the two toughest races on the calendar, the Daytona 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours. Daytona was tough because back then, there was no chicane, and more than fifty per cent of the race was in the dark. The traffic was very difficult, as in the old days they would start with upwards of 80 cars on the 3.84-mile oval/infield circuit. Bob Wollek once told me he viewed Daytona as much more difficult than Le Mans, just because of the traffic. Sebring back in the 1970s was also very tough, this course being built on old airport runways from the second world war. The airfield was a training base for the B17 bombers, and it seemed the facilities had not been changed much since then. The circuit was very bumpy, and notoriously bad on suspensions and gearboxes. Facilities for crews and spectators were minimal, but routinely 75,000+ racegoers would show up, camp out and have one big party.
The 1979 Daytona race had not gone well for the Dick Barbour Team. We had run two cars, and both had fallen out with engine failure. It turned out we had some faulty boost gauges that were misreading the actual boost and the 1.15 indicated on the gauge turned out to be 1.35 or some such, so both engines failed before the 24- hour distance.
For the 1979 Sebring 12 Hour, we re-doubled our efforts and entered three cars. The #6 car (our main car) was 930 890 0024. This car had been new at Le Mans in 1978 and was a factory built 935-78 (935-77A). It was driven by Dick Barbour, Rolf Stommelen and Rick Mears. Paul Newman (who had driven at Daytona) was making a movie so he was replaced by Rick Mears. The team had a good history with Rick, as he had driven a Garretson built Porsche Buggy to victory in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 1976. He was a great racer and really got along well with the team. He would go on to further greatness winning the Indianapolis 500 four times, as well as multiple Indy car championships with Roger Penske.
The second car 930 770 0910 (#9) was driven by Bob Akin, Roy Woods, and Rob McFarlin. This car was a 935-77 that Dick had bought from Otis Chandler and Jim Busby early in 1979, and this was the first race for this car with the team. The third car entered was actually our updated 934½ to be driven by Bob Garretson (our team manager), Gary Belcher and Bob Bondurant (of Ford Cobra fame in the 1960s). This car was 930 770 0959 (#3).
Dick Barbour always liked to follow the ‘Tortoise and Hare’ strategy. He would choose one car to be the hare, and run towards the front. The other(s) were to circulate at a more sedate pace, keeping relative pace, but not taking any chances, to make sure they would finish. This strategy had worked to perfection the previous year at Sebring, when the ‘hare car,’ with Dick, Rolf Stommelen and Manfred Shurti had issues and dropped out, and the tortoise car with Bob Garretson, Brian Redman and Charles Mendez (the race promoter), won the race. In this instance (1979), Dick’s #6 car would be the ‘hare.’ This was probably for the best, as Rolf Stommelen was not the kind of guy who would be a good tortoise! Rolf was one of the best guys around, certainly one of the top 935 men at that time. He would always fiddle with stuff, and was constantly looking for changes to be made to the car to make improvements. But he would always go quicker, so we did not mind the extra work too much.
Competition in IMSA in the late 70s was tough as a lot of teams had the latest equipment from Porsche. Porsche was good about that, anyone could buy a car, get the latest engines and parts, and run at the front. Porsche also provided a parts truck at all the races with a factory representative (Peter Schmitz in 1979) for technical support. The 935 competition at the 1979 Sebring 12 Hour included, Peter Gregg, the Whittington Brothers, Interscope (Ted Field), Preston Henn, Gianpierro Moretti, John Paul, Al Holbert and a few others. There were also many Carrera RSRs and 911 GTU cars making up the lower classes. A total of 84 cars practiced and 72 qualified and started, so once again, it would be a 12-hour traffic jam.
Rolf qualified the #1 car on the pole almost two seconds faster than Peter Gregg, while the other two cars qualified seventh and ninth. Qualifying back then was not that big of a deal, as a lot would happen with over 70 cars starting. Getting to the finish without damage or major problems was the key.
The race went well early on. Rolf ran towards the front with Peter Gregg and Al Holbert. After about two hours in the lead, Gregg’s car had the engine fail. However, after a few hours, the #6 car had a long pit stop to fix a brake issue. The 935, used aluminium 917 type pedals with a small steel tube pressed in behind the brake pedal used to adjust brake balance. The tube had worked its way out and jammed the brake balance bar which caused the brake pedal to be stuck down, and not return properly. A freak problem for sure. Greg Eliff, the chief mechanic on that car, had to crawl in there and effect a repair working in the pedal cluster – not an easy job at all. He jury rigged a temporary fix by using two hose clamps to centre the tube. Luckily this held for the rest of the race, but would need a complete overhaul afterwards. As this was certainly an uncommon issue, Peter Schmitz from Porsche even climbed in to direct the mechanics on what needed to be done. Rolf Stommelen was hard on the brakes, which might have had something to do with it. But he went fast! This cost us several laps on that car. The Holbert/Paul 935 then led at the 8-hour mark, at which point their transmission broke. This was a common problem at Sebring due to the bumpiness of the track, and the transmission would take a real pounding.
The #3 and #9 cars circulated at their pace, and had very few issues. The Garretson, Belcher, Bondurant car had one minor problem with the door. If memory serves correctly, the door kept opening, so some work was done on it, and Belcher was sent back out. He came in again immediately, door flopping open and said, “Hey, I need some warranty work, it’s still not right.” So, that car lost a few laps to the team car of Akin, McFarlin, and Woods. Once the brakes were repaired the #6 car was flying and Rolf set the fastest lap of the race trying to catch up. Rolf, Rick and Dick Barbour drove as hard as they could to catch up, and at the end finished fourth right behind the Garretson, Belcher, Bondurant car which was third. The Akin, McFarlin, Woods car ran faultlessly and won by a lap over Redman, Mendez and Miller who were in the Busch 935, entered by Charles Mendez, the race promoter, who earlier had their own braking issues as well.
The team had won its second Sebring in a row, and the Tortoise had proven to be faster than the Hare once again at the 1979 Sebring 12 Hour. Charles Mendez was a good sport about it, and hosted the whole Dick Barbour team to brunch on Sunday morning (Sebring race is always on Saturday) at the Sun and Lakes Estates Pool in Sebring. The local newspaper headlines read, “Barbour Porsches take 1st, 3rd and 4th.” It was a nice headline…and the pastries were good too.
Written by: Martin Raffauf
Images by: Martin Raffauf