"Trans-Am." Say that to most racers, and they'll probably think you said, "Big, bellowing V8s." But for a few golden seasons in the late 1960s and early '70s, fans of the fab fours (engines, that is) had alternative Trans-Am exhaust music to enjoy.
In fact, a high-winding, twin-cam Alfa Romeo with only 1.6 liters won the very first-ever Trans-Am race outright.
The scene was Sebring, Fla., in 1966. The day prior to the annual 12-hour sports car enduro, the SCCA launched its new Trans American Sedan Championship manufacturer's series with an International Touring Race lasting four hours. Though the 44-car field included several Ford Mustangs and Plymouth Barracudas, plus a Dodge Dart, young Austrian sensation, Jochen Rindt, danced to the front in a sweet-sounding, bright red Alfa Giulia GTA prepped and entered by the factory's competition department, Autodelta. Driving the whole way solo, making only one pit stop to his rivals' two, Rindt, his car badly battered after a practice rollover, beat Bob Tullius and Tony Adamowicz in the Dodge Dart by more than a lap. Other Alfas finished third, fourth and fifth.
Alfa Romeo would never again participate in the Trans-Am directly. It didn't need to. With some factory assistance, its loyal privateer teams nicely handled the job. Co-drivers Horst Kwech/Gaston Andrey and Harry Theodoracopulos/Sam Posey won the Under-2.0-Liter Class, aka U-2, in four of the remaining six races (the other two were taken by Ford's Lotus-Cortina), and Alfa wound up with 57 manufacturer points. That was 11 more than Ford, whose big, bellowing V8 Mustangs only won four times overall.
What kinds of cars were these? That's still a good question. According to the SCCA rulebook, which was based on international FIA Group 2 regulations, Trans-Am cars were "sedans." The club, founded to cater to America's post-WWII fascination with two-seaters, was now recognizing the mid-'60s groundswell of interest in small family cars. Yet Alfa's GTA was a pricy two-door sports coupe with two-plus-two seating. It came to the new U.S. series fully developed through several seasons of hard European racing. Its only real opponent was the Lotus-Cortina, which did have a genuine sedan bodyshell, but also lots of performance modifications, including a twin-cam cylinder head. Club racers with their own BMWs, Minis, Volvos and VWs didn't stand a chance.
The definition of "sedan" was stretched still further in 1967, when Porsche's new 911R was allowed in. It had tiny auxiliary seats like the Alfa's, and thus met the letter of FIA rules. Predictably, the Porsche coupe with its full 2.0-liter six just ran away from the 1.6 Alfa. Beginning with the opening round at Daytona, Porsches all but dominated the season's 12 races and clinched the U-2 manufacturer's title by round 10. That, coupled with increased manufacturer and public interest in the big cars, sent the small ones into decline. A single year after the class had looked so good, the term "small bore" had taken on a second meaning. And the story read much the same in 1968 and '69.
For 1970, though, the FIA finally agreed the Porsche was not a real sedan. The SCCA's three-time U-2 champion was sent away. At the same time, as Trans-Am grids were getting packed with increasingly fast V8 cars, the club created a separate series for the small ones, giving them shorter, sprint-pace races of their own.
The Lotus-Cortina threat was gone by now, but Alfa's evergreen and much-loved Giulias were still around. Would they easily dominate the revamped series? Not if BMW enthusiasts could prevent it. The 2002ti was new, and it was fast. BMWs actually won two out of the year's 12 races. But the Alfas were even faster, and there were more of them. Alfa had its second U-2 title clinched by round 11.
Ominously, that round happened to be the first time one of the new Datsun 510s appeared.
So far, even though the under-2.0-liter cars had their own races, they were part of the Trans-Am. But for 1971, the SCCA decided to split them off into a separate series. That might raise their profile, and thus raise manufacturer interest. The series was now called the 2.5 Challenge, putting the displacement limit at 2.5 liters. That meant Chevrolet's new 2.3-liter Vega would be eligible, hint-hint.
Chevy didn't take the hint, but Datsun did. The U.S. marketing name of the Nissan brand in those days, Datsun only had a 1.6-liter, single-cam powerplant in its 510 sedan, but the company had motivation and money. It put both into an openly factory-backed effort by Peter Brock's Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE), already a national championship-winning team in sports car racing with Datsun's 240Z and driver John Morton.
Brock was so bent on making a professional presentation that he skipped the first race. The car wasn't painted, so it wouldn't do proper credit to Datsun. That decision, made so early on, must have come back to Peter Brock's mind during the hectic last race of the season.
It was a good season. As in years past, Alfa was partially assisting the Herb Wetanson team, whose drivers were Horst Kwech and Harry Theodoracopulos. To meet the BRE challenge, the Alfa guys moved up to a modified Giulia model called the GTV, which was a bit heavier, but had better brakes and more torque from its 1800-cc engine.
In the absence of the factory Datsuns (though a couple of private examples were there), Kwech duly won the opening race of the new 2.5 Challenge series, beating the best of a trio of BMW 2002s by a Lime Rock lap. The long-awaited BRE team finally appeared at round two, Bryar (New Hampshire), and proved to be just as formidable as had been feared. Showing good speed and better handling, Morton built up a lead of 40 seconds before a driveshaft joint failed. Gus Andrey won for Alfa.
With stronger shafts in place, the Datsun was untouchable at twisty Mid-Ohio. Morton led every lap and won BRE's first 2.5 Challenge race by 55 seconds.
He did much the same at race four, Edmonton, but Kwech had something for him at the fifth round-better top speed on Donnybrook's long straight. They raced each other so hard, swapping the lead, both cars broke. Burt Everett's Alfa finally won.
Morton again dominated the races at Road America and Olathe, a Kansas airport circuit, but at Watkins Glen, Kwech's Alfa pushed the Datsun so hard it suffered a rare engine failure. Mindful of his sponsorship, Brock claimed he himself had allowed the car to run out of fuel. The car performed normally at Riverside, where Morton finished just ahead of Alfa's Everett.
With nine races run, the championship would be decided at the final round at Kent.But Kent (Washington) cancelled. Alfa would win by default.
Unwilling to accept that, Brock and Datsun talked Laguna Seca into hosting the 10th round of the 2.5 Challenge during a Can-Am weekend. The deal brought the track the best race of that weekend. Kwech got ahead at the start, and though Morton was faster, whenever the Datsun tried to pass, the Alfa blocked it. When Morton finally did squeeze ahead, Kwech simply rammed him into a spin at the Corkscrew.
At that point, to break it up, Brock called his man in for refueling. He figured the Datsun would go to the front again when the Alfa pitted.
But the Alfa didn't pit. Kwech ran the entire race non stop.
BRE protested, and the Alfa's fuel tank was measured. It came to 18 gallons. The legal limit was 15. Morton was awarded the victory, and Datsun-equal with Alfa on points at 60, but up six wins to four-was named champion manufacturer.
After a year like that, the 2.5 Challenge must have a bright future, right? Yes! The 1972 season had most of the stars from the year before, while both the big teams, BRE and Wetanson, picked up commercial sponsors Simoniz and Pepsi. Brock used his to run a third car for some high-profile guest drivers: Bob Sharp, Peter Gregg, Sam Posey, Hershel McGriff, and NASCAR star Bobby Allison. Joining the fun with a fast English Ford Escort was talented newcomer John Buffum, a future rally ace.
To cut the story of a long season short, there were 11 races in 1972, and Datsun drivers won nine of them. BRE actually chose to miss one round again due to politics and economics, this time, so it really only lost once. That happened at Donnybrook when an Alfa-driving backmarker took Morton out. Morton's final victory tally was six, with the other BRE wins going to Gregg (2) and Sharp. Datsun clinched its second manufacturer's title as early as race eight.
Not that Alfa's drivers didn't fight for it. Horst Kwech was racing hard with Morton at Donnybrook and was caught up in the incident, but kept going to win. He also gave the Datsun men fits at several other tracks, even starting from pole and leading a few times. But his car gave more trouble. Basically years old now, the Giulia design was being asked for too much.
So was the SCCA, apparently. There was a widely publicized scandal in victory circle at the last race, Riverside, when the head of the club, A. Tracy Bird, refused to present any trophy to winner Morton. The embarrassed race steward finally whipped off his own old fishing hat and handed it to the befuddled driver, who was heard to say, "But I don't fish!"
Just what that was all about was never really clear, and it didn't matter anyway. The club actually was about to kill off its successful baby-car Challenge series. For 1973, the small-bores would be folded back into the big-car class, which had been struggling with the loss of manufacturer support and the rise of rival sanctioning body IMSA. The Trans-Am would continue, but under very different rules, and the sparkling little "Under-2" cars would never again shine like they did.