A lack of testing proved to be the downfall of the Porsche-Lola T600 in the 49th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1981. But let us not get ahead of ourselves…
The 1981 season had started out well for the Garretson team. The team was preparing the cars for Cooke-Woods Racing, which comprised Ralph Kent Cooke and Roy Woods. Ralph Cooke was the son of Jack Kent Cooke, a wealthy businessman who among other things, also owned the Washington Redskins Football team. Ralph was an odd one. He was a Hollywood type from southern California who dabbled in movie making and other such pursuits in the southland. He would routinely have his people (he himself would never call) in Los Angeles call our workshop in Northern California to see who was there and working. We learned to just say, all is well, everyone is here! Roy Woods, on the other hand, we knew well. He was an Oklahoma oil man who had been involved in racing for many years. He in fact, drove with us in 1979, and won Sebring with our team. Together though, they were an ‘odd couple’ for sure. Roy, a racer, easy to deal with, Ralph, an LA-type who seemed to have no idea of what was required.
The plan for 1981 consisted of a two-pronged effort with the two 935s that we had, and two brand new Lola T600s that were on order. Bob Garretson would run for the world endurance championship, and Brian Redman would attempt to win the IMSA championship. The 935s would be used early in the season, for the longer races because the Lolas were not ready by the beginning of 1981. John Bright was working feverishly at Lola to complete these cars to be ready early in 1981.
The season started off well enough as the team won the Daytona 24 Hours in the 935 (chassis #009 0030). They then took second place at Sebring in the second 935 (chassis #930 770 0911) and finished third and fourth at Riverside with the two 935s. By Laguna Seca, the first Lola was ready, and it duly won its first race with Brian Redman behind the wheel. The plan had been to run a 935 and a Lola at Le Mans. Around the end of April, the decision was made that the second Lola was to be built up with a 3.2-litre Porsche air-cooled engine, as the 6-litre Chevrolet (run in the IMSA car) was deemed not a good 24-hour engine – although in hindsight, we should have just run a Franz Weiss Chevrolet engine and be done with it. Porsche was not supportive of this action at all as they viewed the car as an outlaw, a non-Porsche vehicle. However, by 1983, Al Holbert had convinced them to support this kind of development, as he built a March-Porsche using an 83G March chassis.
Since John Bright had left Lola cars and come over to join our team as chief mechanic on the IMSA T600, the second car was of course delayed and did not arrive on schedule. While part of the team went on the road to run the IMSA T600 in the races up to Le Mans, several of us including Jerry Woods, Roger Hamlin, John Johnson, myself, Bob Garretson and a few others, stayed home to prepare the 935 for Le Mans and to build the Porsche-powered T600. Since no one had ever fitted a Porsche engine in a T600, a lot of the componentry had to be designed from scratch, to make all the systems fit and work. I spent most of my time, building the 935, while Jerry, Roger Hamlin, and Bob (Garretson) spent a lot of time designing and building the pieces for the Porsche installation.
We certainly needed to test everything prior to shipping it to Le Mans, and this was planned for Sears Point just prior to air freighting the car to France. Unfortunately, we had not received all our spares from Lola at that point. And so, the other half of the team who were on the road with the IMSA car, sent us their spare suspension and wheels after the Lime Rock race via FEDEX. I had to go down to FEDEX and pick up the spares and when I walked in and announced I was to pick up the Garretson shipment, they all looked at me quite strangely. There sat four corners of Lola suspension uprights, drive shafts, wheels, and tyres. I guess that just showed FEDEX could ship anything, anywhere.
I got all the spares back to the shop for the trip to Sears Point for testing, and Bobby Rahal was flown out to do the driving. We never made it. By late afternoon the engine was finally running in the car, but it was too late to go testing, and early the next morning the car was on the plane to France!
Everything arrived safely at Le Mans, but Porsche was very unhappy with the car and they did not want to support the Lola with a Porsche engine at all. At that time, they did not deem this to be a Porsche, so they would not sell us any parts for it, and we could only could get parts for the 935. The Porsche Lola was to be driven at Le Mans by Brian Redman, Bobby Rahal and Skeeter McKitterick, while the 935 was to be driven by Bob Garretson, Ralph Cooke and Anny Charlotte Verney.
Since Anny was a French rally driver, we had no problems with the Technical Inspection, and we started practice. The Lola broke a drive shaft on the Wednesday in practice and was stuck out on the circuit for the whole time, so it did not run at all. And Brian informed us, “Oh, by the way, there is no boost!” We spent all day Thursday before the night practice at the airport next to the circuit running the Lola up and down the runway, testing it and trying to find what was causing the lack of boost. During the last practice on Thursday, the T600 could only do a 4:18, which, while it was not the slowest car, it did not meet the 120% rule in the group 6 class. The 935 qualified without difficulty when Anny Charlotte Verney clocked a 3:55 with Garretson and Cooke posting 3:59. This meant that the Lola did not qualify, and Ralph Cooke said to Brian Redman, “Lets go see Alain Bertaut and tell him who we are.” Ralph expected the ACO to bend the rules for him, but of course that did not happen. Bertaut said, “Brian, you are one of our favourite drivers, but your car is not qualified.” And that was that!
So, we had a large crew to run one 935, and we got to work in shifts which was quite nice for a 24-hour race. Ralph Cooke offered Redman his seat in the 935, but Brian refused and while Rahal was ready to take the seat, it was not offered to him. The team wanted Rahal to drive, as Ralph was kind of a loose cannon, an unknown. The discord in the team was already starting between Ralph Cooke and the Garretson Enterprises side. We went about our business and the 935 ran without any issues for quite a while. Next to us in the pits was a strange team with a Group 6 car called an IBEC. It was some kind of Lola-based open cockpit car with a 3.0-litre Cosworth engine. It looked rather like a go kart, but went pretty fast. It only had two drivers, Tiff Needell and Tony Trimmer with an all-English crew. The car was in the pits with a lot of problems and sometime during the night the car came in, and the crew, led by a guy in dress pants and white dress shoes went to work on the gearbox, for the second or third time. Tiff Needell got out, sat in the pit box and made himself a cup of tea. We asked him what was up, he said, “Gearbox broken again, the lads are on it, I’ll have my tea now.” Little did we know then, we would see Mr. Needell again at Le Mans in 1990, with the Alpha 962.
By Sunday morning the 935 was well up in the standings. It looked like we might win the IMSA class again but then Anny came in with a shifting problem. One of the bolts holding the front of the gearbox to the chassis behind the driver had come loose and stripped. Jerry Woods fashioned a restraint using a truck tie down strap. It held and we continued. At that point, we had fallen a lap down on a French Ferrari 512 BBLM for the IMSA lead. We put Anny back in as she was faster than Bob or Ralph, but Ralph got upset as he was replaced by a woman when speed was needed. At the next stop, the Ferrari had trouble restarting, so Jerry Woods and I went down to watch their stop. The car would not start, and we watched them use a jump battery which was totally illegal. Of course, since this was a French entered car, the pit marshals ‘saw nothing!’ When we complained, they just looked at us like we were from…the USA. Les Americans, what could you do? So, we ended up sixth overall and second in the IMSA class.
Ralph Cooke was so upset after he was replaced by Anny when we needed some speed, and the fact that the Lola failed to qualify, he ended the relationship with Garretson and took all his cars back to Los Angeles. The Porsche-Lola, it turned out, had a leak in the intercooler air inlet. As soon as John Bright welded up the connections and took the car to Willow Springs, it ran like a rocket. If the car had been delivered on time, and we had the time to test, we would have found this relatively quickly. But, so it goes, in racing.
The 935 continued the season with Bob Garretson, Bobby Rahal and various other co-drivers. Bob Garretson won the 1981 World Endurance Drivers Championship in this car.
Written by: Martin Raffauf
Images by: Martin Raffauf, Jerry Woods, John Johnson, Anny Charlotte Verney Collection, Cooke-Woods Racing