The Greatest Muscle Car Battle Ever Fought
Updated on August 15, 2015
When most folks hear the name “Trans-Am” they conjure an image of Pontiac’s long-dead Camaro clone. But the name itself came from a series of professional road races that ran in its original form from 1966 until 1972, which coincided with the golden age of muscle cars. Each of the domestic manufacturers that sold an eligible car competed in the series, with the highest levels of competition in 1970, the year at which we’ll be looking.
The rules for the series were pretty restrictive in those years. At first only a roll bar was required. By 1970 all teams were building complicated (by the day’s standards) roll cages inside the OEM body shell (ship-in-a-bottle style, the entire unibody was required to remain intact).
Engines were a max of 5.0 liters (305 cubic inches) and some manufacturers had to juggle parts to achieve that displacement. Engine blocks and cylinder heads had to begin as OEM castings. Some manufacturers created special packages with components better suited to Trans-Am racing to meet the availability rules. Crankshafts were free as long as the throws and firing order were the same as OEM, and four-bolt main bearing caps could be fitted. Cams were free but only flat tappets were allowed unless rollers were OEM. Intake manifolds were free, but had to fit the engine without modification, and were matched to a single SCCA-approved four barrel 750 CFM carburetor. Most engines produced +/- 450 horsepower with the Boss 302 the most powerful at 460 HP and the AMC Javelin the least at around 440 HP.
Exhaust was open, as were shocks, suspension linkage and shock mounting locations. Wheel sizes were limited to 15 x 8 front and rear, with both Goodyear and Firestone providing slicks to the field. When viewed from today’s perspective, Trans-Am racers appear more like stripped down street cars than full race cars. But don’t let looks fool you. These car competed in some of the most competitive, hardest fought and legendary races ever, and no wonder given the driving talent behind the wheel: Mark Donohue, George Follmer, Peter Revson, and Sam Posey would all go on to race in F1, while F1 veterans Dan Gurney, Vic Elford, and Ronnie Bucknum, and ’63 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones also competed in the Trans-Am that year.
The event format typically consisted of races around two hours, plus or minus. In any event, it required all cars to stop for fuel and provided an opportunity to change tires. Crazy as it seems today, the driver could remain in the car, with the engine running, while 11 gallon dump cans sloshed gas into the car’s fuel cell. A crew member manning a fire extinguisher was allowed over the pit wall (but not required).
For 1970 there were 11 races in the series, ranging from Mont Tremblant in northern Quebec, Canada, to Kent in Washington State, down to Riverside Raceway in Southern California (one race in Texas was cancelled early in season, reducing the total races from 12 to 11). Let’s run through the cars team by team:
American Motors Javelin – Penske Racing
After winning the 1969 Trans-Am Championship for Chevrolet in 1969, Penske parted company and took on the challenge of developing the until then uncompetitive Javelin into a race and championship winner. The Penske team tested the 1969 cars entered by another team but discarded them as unraceable. Instead they set about building two Javelins using all the knowledge they’d accumulated in developing the Camaro over several seasons. For 1970, the Javelin had two strikes against it: the cars were less aerodynamic than their competitors, and the AMC engine, no matter how much effort was spent in development, never equaled the small block Chevy is power.
in 1970, lead Penske driver Mark Donohue scored three podiums in the first four races in what was essentially a brand new car. In the fifth race at Bridgehamption, Long Island, he scored the first victory in the Trans-Am for AMC. Despite two more wins, two seconds, and a third, Ford won the championship that year, 72 points to Penske’s 59.
Chevrolet Camaro – Chapparel Racing
In a single season Chevrolet dropped from dominating to struggling for wins. Penske Racing had been running the Camaro Trans-Am program and were growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of support and amount of red tape involved in dealing with General Motors. So with their championship winning team jumping ranks, Chevy turned to long time partner Jim Hall of Chaparral cars to take over the factory entry for the Camaro. Hall built three new chassis for the 1970 season for himself, Ed Leslie, and Vic Elford. Indy Car racer Joe Leonard also drove for the team at times that season. Chevrolet had but one win, Vic Elford at Watkins Glen, and one pole position earned by Ed Leslie at Mid-Ohio. Chevrolet finished third in the 1970 Trans-Am Championship with 40 points.
Dodge Challenger – Autodynamics
Plymouth Barracuda – All American Racers
Chrysler Corporation jumped into the Trans-Am Championship with both feet with their muscle car twins: the Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda. The Mopar folks selected two different teams to run two of each car model, Ray Caldwell’s Autodynamics shop out of the Boston area would run the Challenger while Dan Gurney’s All America Racers in Santa Ana, CA would take responsibility for running the Cuda. AAR would design and develop the chassis/rollcage structure and install them in the four E-Body race cars, with Caldwell trailering his cars back to New England for full race preparation.
As an aside, all teams acid-dipped the unibodies at the time, not to lower the overall weight, as there was a minimum, but to be able to relocate the weight lower in the car for better handling. It’s long been told that one of Caldwell’s Challengers was either dipped too long or not neutralized sufficiently so that the metal was now so thin it needed repair after every race.
Joel Miller at AAR handled engine building duties for the Cuda while Caldwell turned to Chrysler drag engine guru Keith Black. Black took the high performance four bolt 340 block , retained the 4.040″ bore and reduced the stroke to 2.960″, reducing displacement to 303.8 cubic inches. Power was in the 450 HP range.
Gurney enlisted rising star Swede Savage as his lead driver but the team produced only a fifth (and last among major manufacturers) in the championship with only 15 points and Savage’s second place finish at Road America to show for the effort.
Caldwell hired longtime stalwart Sam Posey as lead driver, with the second car not entered until the last two races when driven by former Honda F1 driver Ronnie Bucknum and Tony Adamowicsz, respectively. Posey put in as best a season as could be expected. Despite no wins, Posey had several podium and top 5 finishes, collecting 18 points and outscoring the AAR Cuda team.
Ultimately, the analysis has been that the E-Bodies were just too large versus the Mustangs, Camaros, and Javelins, and were never able to compete with those smaller platform cars.
Pontiac Firebird – TG Racing
TG Racing had been building Firebirds for customers in addition to those for their own two-car team. For 1970 Jerry Titus and his partner Canadian businessman Terry Godsall decided to focus all their resources on a one-car effort with Titus as driver. The team built three chassis that were used during the season. Over the course of the season the team was constantly testing and updating the cars, and Titus would then choose the one best suited to each race track. The team convinced the SCCA to allow the Firebird to run with a Chevy engine instead of the problematic Pontiac engine based on the fact that Canadian Firebirds were delivered with Chevy engines. So the TG Racing cars were basically Camaros with a little Pontiac bodywork.
Ford Mustang – Bud Moore Engineering
Bud Moore Engineering became involved in the Trans Am series in 1967 with Lincoln-Mercury and the newly introduced Cougar model. Unfortunately, the Mercury program lasted only one year, as Ford realized that running both Mustang and Cougar were not cost effective. Instead Ford turned to Kar Kraft to build Mustang Boss 302s for the 1969–1971 seasons.
With the intention of supporting a winning effort for 1969, Bud Moore was brought back to form a team that was based on the Kar Kraft built Boss 302, and he pulled out all stops by hiring Parnelli Jones and George Follmer as drivers. The hardfought 1969 season brought out record crowds, vaulting the series to instant stardom.
Fords, which were arguably the fastest cars in Trans Am, were further dialed in for 1970, with significant upgrades made over the 1969 Boss 302 Mustang configuration. Bud Moore’s Ford Mustang team fought hard and emerged as the victors of the Trans Am Manufacturer’s Championship in 1970.