The Walter Mitty road races at Road Atlanta is probably the biggest and most significant vintage racing on the east coast.
My 1967 Mini Cooper S 1275 cc (Snoopy Dog) had undergone a complete engine rebuild during the winter and was ready for this very important race. Many thanks to Don Racine of Mini Mania for sponsorship and supplying all necessary parts to rebuild Snoopy’s engine.
The Friday, April 27 sessions were spent completing final break in and shake down. Road Atlanta is a very fast track and we adjusted the suspension accordingly.
Saturday, April 28, the weather had gotten very hot – high 80s. Climbing into Snoopy, I felt very confident we would do well in qualifying. Driving down to pit road, a misfire developed and would not clear. I turned around and headed back to the paddock. Everything seemed to look okay. By now qualifying was well underway. By the time Chrys Zouras and Bryan Howle (Midlands Motorworks) had tested the electrical system and diagnosed that the distributor cap and coil lead were faulty, qualifying was over. We did not record a lap time. Not to worry. I’ll start on the back of the grid for the big race on Sunday. However, my Zapata team mates David Conrad (MGA) Carl George (MGA) and Charlie Kates (Lotus) had qualified well and were in mid pack overall and high up in their class for the big race.
Sunday, April 29, called for even hotter weather – 90s – and it was exactly that. Chrys and Bryan arrived at the track early and corrected all the electrical failures encountered earlier. There were no warm up laps offered, so a quick lap around the paddock was all the testing that was done. Snoopy seemed to be okay.
Lining up in the false grid put me somewhere I had never been before – DEAD LAST – 43rd out of 43 cars. I think the leading cars were halfway through turn one and going up the hill when I took the green flag at the start. “Okay, Phil, concentrate and do what you know how to do – pass cars!” The problem with carving through the pack is you are governed by the performance of the individual car you are attempting to pass; i.e., fast cars driven by inexperienced and slow drivers, or slow car being driven by good drivers. The sixteen cars I passed in this 7-lap race consisted of Chevy Corvairs, Yenko Singers, Porsche 356, Sprites and Midgets, and BMW 1800. On lap 4, my brake pedal was going down further and further. Knowing all the brake pads (front) and brake shoes (rear) were new, it had to be an hydraulic problem. I turned the brake bias further to front bias. It helped for 1 lap. By now I had caught up with my teammate and chief, Carl George, in his very quick and new engined MGA – reasonably quick car driven by a very good driver. The Zapata teammates race hard. No quarter is given or expected. But we race fair and safe. When the opportunity presented itself, I got by Carl and set after David Conrad in his even quicker MGA. By now the brake pedal was all the way to the floor board. We have a saying for this experience in England. “It’s like putting your foot into a bucket of SH_T!” David’s car was faster that the Mini down the back straight. As we took the white flag – last lap – I had my plan. Let him gap me on the approach to the 6-7 turn, knowing my Mini was quicker there, slingshot out of 7 to get the slipstream (draft) down the long straight through curves 8 and 9. It was working! His MGA sucked me right up behind him and heading down the hill to turn 10A. As soon as David hit the brakes, I dived to the inside and pumped the brake pedal like mad to slow the car and turn in 10A. I was in front and just made it to the line. I ended up in position 27 and first in my class. David Conrad was first in his class and Carl George was second.
Zapata Racing had a good result and celebrated accordingly. Many thanks to Hoosier Tires which I think, with the suspension change, made Snoopy Dog the best handling it has ever been. Also thanks to Mini Mania for all the parts and Midlands Motorworks in Columbia, SC. And, as always, thanks to Zapata Racing Team.
I think that in my 57 years of road racing (52 years in a Mini) – and given this was a sprint race – I can number this race as one of my top ten epic drives of all times!