Tales from the Pits: Who’s the Best?

The argument over who was the best driver was taken to new heights a few years back by the English journal Motorsports in an article naming the top 100 of all time, thus pitting Jenatzy against Clark, Ascari (pick one) against Hill (pick any) and so on. Comparing drivers of different eras is as silly as comparing tennis players of different eras. Comparing drivers of the same era is hard enough! IROC never seems to have proved much and the early races were run on road courses when many of the pro US drivers had no experience on them.

In the ’50s, drivers of the East Coast seldom came west and vice-versa. Being a California boy, I thought our West Coasters had the edge. Actually, in the big bore classes, it seemed a toss up between the two Phils–Walters and Hill. They were seldom on the same grid. Phil Hill was “pleased” to have beaten his former idol (Walters was a top east Coast Midget pilot when Hill made a few starts in one around LA in the late ’40s) at Elkhart Lake driving an XK C (the Hornburg car recently sold to Europe and visible on this website’s Villa D’Este video) to Walter’s 2.6 Ferrari coupe. At March Field in ’53 Walters waltzed away from the field in the Cunningham C5R’s last race, but failed to finish; Hill’s 2.9 Ferrari hadn’t the speed for an airport course with twin mile long straights.

In the small bore class–F modified__the matter is easier to resolve in the mid 50s because so many of the top drivers were piloting the same machine, the Porsche 550 Spyder. The first four cam engined Spyder raced in the US was Johnny Von Neumann’s which tore up practice at March Field in ’54. My Dad came off the track and reported that “Johnny was passing OSCAs like OSCAs pass MGs.” But an MG pilot pulled out of the pit lane in front of the Porsche and it crashed and burned. John had a second 550 but with a pushrod engine. It would be nearly a year before the next four cammer arrived. In it John had some good races with Pete Lovely’s Pooper and Miles’ R2 MG special, but then he hired Miles to drive for him when all the customer 550s arrived. In ’56-7 we often had six or seven on the grid at a race, and in order of speed the pilots were: 1. Miles 2. Ginther 3. Kunstle 4. McAfee 5. Weiss 6. tie between Porter, Beagle and McHenry. Lovely stepped into a Spyder a couple of times and was up near the top. Only Jack McAfee raced multiple times in the East, and he won nearly all of them, whereas he won only a few times on our coast.

A bit later the RS and RSKs arrived. At our first big pro event, the Examiner GP at Pomona. Miles was in an older RS and Sammy Weiss had a new RSK. Mid way they were running 4th and 3rd, with Miles dogging the faster car but unable to get by. In the turn entering the front straight Miles showed me the Pitt maneuver for the first time in sports car racing, bumping Weiss into a slide and then passing. It turned out to be for the win as the two big bore cars then leading them both retired. Ken raised the bar in the under 1500cc class beginning in ’53, and later became a top high horsepower pilot as well.

The grid for F modified at Santa Barbara in 1956 shows Miles, Ginther and Jean-Pierre Kunstle on the front row, with John Porter, Troy McHenry and Walt Turner also in 550s further back, as well as the 550 engined Lotus of Bill Eschrich with wheels poised in case Miles stalls!  He didn’t, taking the win instead.

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