After winning the 1969 Trans-Am Championship for Chevrolet, Roger Penske sent shockwaves through the racing world by signing a lucrative deal with fledgling AMC. If anyone could make a winner out of their boxy Javelin they reasoned, it was “The Captain” and his talented chauffer Mark Donohue.
Introduced in 1967, team Javelin participated in the series under the direction of Chicago based racer Ronnie Kaplan. “A” list drivers including Peter Revson and George Follmer had piloted the patriotically painted beasts and though they were competitive, they hadn’t won any races. By the dawn of the 1970 season, AMC brass was ready to see that change. Defending series champion Donohue would drive the primary car and Revson would return (after a stint with Ford) to wheel a sister car.
Chaparral creator Jim Hall took over the Chevrolet effort. He planned to make his return to the driver’s seat after a debilitating crash in his Can-Am car two years prior. Trans-Am veteran Ed Leslie was his second.
The strongest threat to capture the title however was expected to be fielded by Ford. In ’69 there were two factory supported Mustang teams; Bud Moore’s and Carroll Shelby’s. When the season ended, Moore’s team received the nod. Three school bus yellow Boss 302’s appeared at the Laguna Seca Opener; one for legendary team leader Parnelli Jones, another for the capable Follmer and a third as a backup.
But wait, there’s more! 1970 was the year that all the manufacturers decided to come out to play! Dan Gurney brought a pair of nasty Hemi Cudas- One for him and one for his protégé Swede Savage. Sam Posey appeared with a lime green Dodge Challenger and even Pontiac was represented by Jerry Titus and his all new Firebird. If you were a muscle car guy and you liked road racing, this season was unprecedented. The entry list looked promising and the paddock was abuzz with enthusiasts that were pulling for one marque or another.
After the dust settled from qualifying, “PJ” was awarded the pole but Donohue would start alongside in the new Javelin. They were followed by Follmer (Mustang) and Gurney (Hemi Cuda) in row two. Row three: Posey (Challenger) and Leslie (Camaro). Row four: Titus (Firebird) and Savage (Hemi Cuda). Rounding out the top ten were local driver Milt Minter in the Ex-Penske Camaro (Now fielded by Roy Woods) and Hall in the new Camaro. Revson (Javelin) would tag the field after experiencing mechanical issues in qualifying.
At the drop of the green flag, Jones shot into the lead with Donohue in hot pursuit. Follmer seemed content to follow in the second Mustang. Hall was the race’s first casualty, retiring with transmission woes after completing just three circuits. For the first forty laps, Donohue remained within striking distance but eventually Jones began to stretch his legs. Likewise Follmer was never able to challenge for the runner-up spot. The real excitement was watching Revson’s charge through the field. He advanced as far as fifth but was then punted into the guardrail by Posey. Gurney fell out one lap later also due to a balky transmission. Finally, Leslie completed fifty nine laps before busting an axle.
Following Jones, Donohue and Follmer across the finish line was Savage in the Mopar and Minter’s Camaro (Minter would win a race at Donnybrooke later in the season, shoving Follmer out of the lead along the way). Posey was three laps down in sixth, then Titus in the Firebird. Eighth place was claimed by an independent, Craig Murray driving a two year old Camaro. Portlander Joe Chamberlain was next piloting his own Chevy and John Silva Jr. rounded out the top ten in yet another ’68 Camaro.
To be honest, the race was a little anti-climactic after the build-up but it did serve as a preview of things to come. Jones would go on to win the ’70 Championship for Ford and Donohue/Penske/AMC would have to wait another year to claim their title. The Hall Camaros would prove under powered and Gurney’s Hemi Cuda was fast but unreliable. Posey’s Challenger was capable of going the distance but not winning. Tragically, Jerry Titus was killed when he crashed his Firebird practicing for the Trans-Am race at Road America (WI). His seventh place finish at the Opener would remain the team’s best effort.
Years later at a Tran-Am revival, Follmer was chastised for rubbing fenders with another competitor. He explained to the aghast car owner, “This is how we used to do it!”
Photos by John McCuskey