Book review: IMSA 1969-1989 relives US sportcars’ wildest time

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Book review: IMSA 1969-1989 relives US sportcars’ wildest time
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Jan 24, 2019, 11:28 PM

A hardcore book for fans of the American sportscar series that recently turned 50, but this is no anorak’s guide adorned with pretty photographs for the coffee table – it contains some epic stories that truly chart the formation of a fast-evolving series that’s stood the test of time, featuring some larger than life characters.

How many motor racing books do you know that contain a sentence like this: “During that time, he abducted and raped at least twelve women and killed at least eight of them in locations that spanned the entire United States”?

Welcome to IMSA 1969-1989, a tome that casts its eye over America’s premier sports car championship with a forensic thoroughness – and doesn’t shirk it when it comes to the gnarly stuff. And while the cars that were driven were fast, and in many cases staggeringly beautiful, it turns out that some proper wrong ’uns took their turn behind the wheel!

In the chapter entitled ‘Bad Boys: Drugs, Money & Racing’ this book lifts the lid on stories that were, I’m sure, most unwelcome at the time. But it’s a credit to authors Mitch Bishop and Mark Raffauf that they don’t airbrush the history of the likes of John Paul Sr and Jr, the Whittington brothers (who would arrive at Road Atlanta, which they then owned, in their P-51 Mustang warplanes!) and Randy Lanier, all of whom were connected to the illegal drugs trade. But it’s the story of ‘violent psychopath’ Chris Wilder that really leaves you open-jawed, which is where we came in…

Rolf Stommelen, Peter Gregg, Toine Hezemans, Porsche 935

Rolf Stommelen, Peter Gregg, Toine Hezemans, Porsche 935

Photo by: LAT Images

Beyond the salaciousness that is contained towards the end of the book, the depth in which Mitch Bishop (the son of IMSA co-founders John and Peggy Bishop) and Raffauf (who’s worked at IMSA since he was 16!) have gone into the subject matter here is quite staggering. It’s clearly been a labour of love, and after the genesis of the organisation, with NASCAR’s Bill France Snr playing a huge role too, comprehensively tells the story of the evolution of its series, which continues to thrive today.

“I was there since 1974,” says Raffauf, who still works for IMSA out of Daytona directing its racing operations. “And of course there was a lot of stories that happened that people didn’t know about, and we all had a lot of laughs about this and that.

“We shared a passion for it, Mitch from the family side and me from the employment side – I’ve taken pretty much every position there was at IMSA from one time to another. And we had a passion to get this book done, and it was a very enjoyable project.”

The showpiece Daytona 24 Hours and 12 Hours of Sebring events helped shape not only a national championship but a truly world-class racing operation, and it’s great to reflect on some truly wonderful eras – and there’s some excellent photography in here too, used expertly.

Bob Wollek, Derek Bell and John Andretti, Porsche 962

Bob Wollek, Derek Bell and John Andretti, Porsche 962

Photo by: LAT Images

Perhaps IMSA’s crowning glory was the GTP age of the 1980s, which spawned luscious machinery like the Group 44 Jaguar, Goodwrench Corvette, Kreepy Krauly March and Lowenbrau Porsche that live fondly in the memory. It concludes with Nissan going toe-to-toe with TWR’s Castrol Jaguars, the Eagle Toyotas and the Porsche 962s that have moved on to fabulous Blaupunkt and Miller High Life liveries. And don’t forget the legion of simply mega GT contenders too.

“We didn’t build layer upon layer of rules,” says Raffauf. “We previsualised what we wanted the product to look like and then worked backwards. We wrote the simplest rules: the entire rulebook, including sporting regs, was a three-by-six inch booklet. Making the sport easy to understand gave it accessibility to a lot of people.

Davy Jones, Raul Boesel, Jan Lammers, Jaguar XJR-9, leads Geoff Brabham, Chip Robinson, Arie Luyendyk, Michael Roe, Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo

Davy Jones, Raul Boesel, Jan Lammers, Jaguar XJR-9, leads Geoff Brabham, Chip Robinson, Arie Luyendyk, Michael Roe, Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo

Photo by: LAT Images

“We ended up with the single-most spectacular type of car in the GTP, with the greatest diversity of technology – good-looking, absurdly fast and the best drivers in the world. I think the ’80s were just the best era for that.”

Throughout, there are lesser-known tales, too, that might even sound like urban myth today, such as the Portland ’89 race – which ended with two chequered flags (one on lap 94 and another on lap 102)! Then there was the 1976 Daytona 24 Hours in which, one by one, the cars misfired and ground to a halt due to water in the fuel supply…

John Bishop launched IMSA with the promise of ‘Racing with a Difference’. Well, this is a book that stays true to that message, as told by people who lived it and loved it.

Chip Robinson, Derek Bell, Al Unser Jr., Porsche 962

Chip Robinson, Derek Bell, Al Unser Jr., Porsche 962

Photo by: LAT Images

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Series IMSA
Author Charles Bradley