Post 1965 Drivers

George Follmer (written 1975)


 I WOULDN'T HAVE believed it. George Follmer, at home in his living room, talking baby talk to an ancient Irish setter. Not Follmer of the quick temper and tongue honed to sharpness on the hides of countless indiscreet journalists and miscreant fellow competitors. But then the private side of well-known personalities frequently bears little resem blance to the public side.

Follmer's private life centers around a beautiful home in Huntington Harbour, California. Inside the front door there is a giant atrium with a pair of palm trees that arch up through the roof. Beyond that is the living room, and beyond that is a large deck that allows easy access to the Follmer's private boat slip. It's obvious that the owner has done well. That's not so unusual. If this home is beautiful and expensive, so are all those surrounding it. But the other homes belong to stockbrokers, insurance company executives or whatever. This one belongs to a professional racing driver and that's a little out of the ordinary. But then so is George Follmer.

Follmer is 41 years old, and at 41 most drivers are well into their retirement from active competition and busy peddling official autographed tires, steering wheels and such. Follmer, however, is cranking up for another full year of driving and doesn't ever have a tentative plan for getting out of the cockpit.

Part of the reason, I suppose, is that compared to most pro drivers he got started quite late. Then, after two years of amateur racing, a limited budget ran out and he was out of the sport completely for almost four years. When he returned to amateur racing he was 30 years old and has considered himself a full professional for only the past five years.

"I'm still learning," he explains. "Why talk about retiring, just because I'm 40 (41, George), while I'm improving?" And that just about takes care of any discussion of the subject. Follmer isn't ready to quit racing. He's ready to get on with winning, something he's done with remarkable regularity right from the beginning.

His racing career, which has included every major form of road and oval racihg in the world, began with a VW he ran in southern California slaloms and gymkhanas in the late Fifties. Next there was a Porsche Speedster he bought for the 1960 California Sports Car Club road-racing season. At the end of the season-15 wins later-he sold the Speedster and a Porsche 550 Spyder with a 1500-cc engine took its place.

"The Speedster ran pretty good and didn't cost much to race," he recalls, "but that Spyder broke me." That was after the 1961 season, and he didn't race again until the fall of 1964.

Follmer hadn't been on the club-racing scene very long, but he had already made an impression or two. Del Owens, now public-relations director for the Sports Car Club of America, recalls that early Follmer as a "fierce competitor." Bud Erlich, another friend from the early Sixties, typifies him as "very determined." When querying people on their early recollections of a now-famous personality you'll invariably discover that everybody recognized the seeds of greatness. That's understandable. But Erlich insists it was generally agreed that Follmer, because of his determination, was going to become a very good driver. He did the right things. "He found out what it took to make a Speedster a winner and then did those things to his car. He was really on the outside of the Porsche Group," Erlich recalls. "He really wasn't cut from that mold, so it wasn't easy for him to get the information he needed. But he got it, and he won." In fact, with the Speedster he won 15 Cal Club (SCCA's southern California chapter) races, the regional championship and the club's Rookie of the Year award.

After that season with the Porsche Spyder an insurance business got all the attention, and it flourished-at least enough to allow the purchase of a Lotus 23B early in 1964. George tried a Corvair engine but it never worked. Then he convinced Tom Knuckles, a local Porsche dealer, to give him a 2-liter Porsche engine and gearbox. With Bruce Burness and a minimum of tools Follmer put the Porsche engine in the Lotus, The car wasn't completed until three days before the final USRRC Times Grand Prix at Riverside that fall. but he finished 3rd, good enough to convince Knuckles he ought to support the effort for west-coast races the following year.

"For some reason," Follmer remembers, "I was able to convince Tom to give me enough money to go to Pensacola, Florida for the first USRRC race in 1965 and I won the damn thing overall when the good ovcr-2-liter cars broke, The next two races were on the west coast and when they were over I was still in contention for the overall championship, so Tom agreed we should go to Bridgehampton, That's how it went the rest of the season. We ended up doing the entire nine-race series and I won the overall championship. Edged Jim Hall by a couple of points."

That explanation sells the accomplishment a little short. The USRRC was a two-class series at the time: under and over 2 liters. The 2-liter cars ran for their own championship but could also score overall championship points, Follmer and his Lotus-Porsche were both quick and dependable. He failed to finish only once that season and frequently simply outran the bigger cars. It was the stuff racing legends are made of-an amateur driver, in a strange hybrid car mostly of his own creation, racing on a minimum budget and beating the best big-time, big-buck, big-talent driver and team in the country.

That championship season, Follmer says, cost $40,000. He got no salary. All prize money was plowed back into the car. And, he claims, even with a major championship to his credit he wasn't totally committed to becoming a professional driver. He was an insurance salesman with a wife and a kid or two to feed and a mortgage to look after. However, events were going against the insurance business.

For 1966 Follmer signed to drive a Lola for John Mecom in the first year of the Can-Am, He did three races teamed with Parnelli Jones, but then Jackie Stewart became available and Follmer was on his own. With Firestone's help he bought a Lola for himself and finished out the season, He didn't exactly cover himself with glory that year, but he was a consistent contender and more people were beginning to pay attention to the insurance salesman from Pasadena.

"Roger Penske came to my rescue next," George says. "The Captain wanted to run two Lolas in the 1967 Can-Am, so I teamed with Mark Donohue for the first time." Donohue was 4th in the championship that year with two 2nds and a 3rd. Follmer tied for 6th in the final standings with Mike Spence by getting two 3rds and a pair of 6ths,

To continue this chronology, 1968 included three Can-Ams, the full Trans-Am season on the Jim Jeffords factory Javelin team, getting bumped at Indy, and doing a few USAC road races. In 1969 there was a high-water mark. Driving his own Chevrolet-powered Gilbert Cheetah, Follmer won the USAC Championship race at Phoenix. There was also more Trans-Am, this time with Bud Moore, Then 1970 was that beautiful Trans Am year when all four Detroit manufacturers were in it up to their corporate elbows. Follmer was again tabbed for the Bud Moore Mustang effort, again with Parnelli Jones. He did Indy and the California 500 too, and won a pair of F5000 races in a Lotus-Ford. For 1971 George once again ran the Trans-Am with Moore, finishing 2nd in the championship behind Donohue. However, Moore decided to pass up the final race at Riverside and Follmer stepped into a Roy Woods Javelin and won. That association led to a full year with Woods and Javelin in 1972 as well as the fill-in assignment in the Can-Am for Donohue in the Porsche 917-10 after Donohue was injured. That year Follmer became the first driver in SCCA history to win two of the club's pro championships. He took the Can-Am and Trans-Am titles.

In 1973 there was a season of Formula I with UOP Shadow and the Can-Am with Rinzler Motor Racing, This past season Follmer went with Shadow in the Can-Am and for part of the season had a NASCAR ride in a Bud Moore-prepared Ford Torino.

So much for a year-by-year account of the career of George Follmer, offered simply for a little historic perspective on where Follmer came from and what he has done. There can be little argument that he is one of the best road-racing drivers in the country. Indeed, a strong case can be made that he is the best. But in becoming one of the greats in the sport Follmer has also created for himself a reputation as racing's villain-in residence, Truculent is how one racing journalist described him in the course of a devastating character assassination a year or so ago. Now, truculent means overbearing and cruel. He's also been called the Peck's Bad Boy of Racing, and few stories are ever written about him that fail to mention his driving style-cusually characterized as the way Parnelli Jones would have driven if he were as mean as Follmer.

Perhaps half that reputation has been earned. The rest is the generous gift of sports writers who have found it easier to write about Sam Posey's verbal exploits, Mark Donohue's niceness, Peter Revson's family and George Follmer's temper than to come up with original material.

"They've made me the villain," he said over lunch not long ago, "and I don't think I deserve that any more than a lot of other drivers do. I drive to win, and that means driving hard. But I don't drive dirty."

But what about the famous temper, I asked; the time you tried to punch Milt Minter after the Donnybrooke Trans-Am, or the swing you took at Jackie Oliver in the garage at Mosport last year?

"Okay. So I get hot" he allows. "So did Revson. How about the time he knocked Posey off the pit wall at Riverside? Did everyone start writing about what a bad guy Revson was? No way. I'd like for people to realize there's something more to George Follmer than a temper."

This conversation is transpiring in a comfortable restaurant on the water at the Long Beach Marina. The talk of cars and racing is interrupted frequently for little asides from George on the boats that are making their way in or out of the marina just a few feet from our table. I can tell the difference between a sailboat and a powerboat. But George knows boats and can call out makes and lengths just as car enthusiasts quote cylinders and liters. He has a Ford-powered ski boat, there's a small sailboat in the slip behind the house and he's looking around for a cabin cruiser. All right, there is at least this other side to George Follmer, so I try to conjure up a picture of him sedately cruising out to Catalina on a Chris Craft or whatever one cruises to Catalina on. But somehow it's easier to imagine him in that ski boat, throttles full forward, busting wakes and generally terrorizing Sunday sailors wherever he goes. Sorry, George. An image change is going to take quite a PR job.

Perhaps if he hadn't been teamed with Parnelli Jones in the earlier years the image might not have been so easily created. Guilt by association. Jones came up from the jalopy bullrings in places like Modesto, Ascot and Bakersfield, where the wall was just another piece of racing equipment and nudging someone into it was accepted practice for gaining a position. When Parnelli got into USAC and its more sedate Championship Trail racing, a little more finesse was called for and he adapted. But then the Trans-Am got going good. Those big cars with their weight-and fenders-begged for a little of the old driving style and Jones cut a swath through those who had learned their driving by tippy-toeing around an airport circuit in an MG or Triumph. And right behind him was teammate Follmer. He may have come from the tippy-toeing set, but he was ready to learn something new and Jones was a good teacher.

"I learned a lot from Parnelli." George acknowledges. "He didn't actually sit me down and say. 'Look, George, this is the way you take turn so-and-so.' I learned by following him, by watching him. He was some driver."

"I don't know how much I helped him," PJ. says, "but we were a good team. I'd driven with him a little in the Can-Am and knew he was pretty good. When the Ford deal came along for the Trans-Am I knew there would be a lot of pressure on me personally and I wanted someone strong to back me up. George was my choice.

"He has tremendous desire and great physical stamina. He may not be the greatest engineer when it comes to setting up a race car, but he drives hard. Foyt isn't the most talented guy around, but he drives hard and he's successful. That's George.

"His only downfall is he's a little bit of a hot-head. But I am too, so I can't really criticize that."

Parnelli went on to tell me that after the 1970 season a high Ford official suggested replacing Follmer, but Jones made it plain there wasn't anybody around who could do the job any better and that was the last of that talk. And that brings us to one of those other sides George Follmer would like us to know about. Despite his propensity for missing public-relations appearances and for punching his teammates from time to time, car builders, team owners and sponsors call him back year after year to drive for them. Or he's picked from a long list of potentials to get a job done.

For example, when Donohue crashed his Porsche Can-Am car in testing at Road Atlanta early in the 1972 season, Penske immediately called Follmer to take over. He did, and he won the championship that year. Before Donohue announced his un-retirement Follmer was high on the list to be Penske's F I driver in 1975.

"He's versatile and he gets the job done," Penske says simply. "We owe him a lot for our success in the Porsche deal."

For the past two seasons George has been driving for Don Nichols on the Universal Oil Products Shadow team: in For­mula I in 1973 and in the Can-Am last season. He first drove for Nichols in 1970 when the diminutive A VS Shadow was introduced. That first relationship ended rather suddenly during testing prior to the Mid-Ohio Can-Am. Follmer climbed out of the car and refused to drive it again, claiming it was unsafe among other things. Nevertheless, three years later George was on the Shadow F I team. Nichols wanted him back.

That season of F I was an interesting "interlude" in Follmer's career. F I is where just about every professional driver wants to be. It's the top, the ultimate. Getting there is worth any risk. Yet Follmer was unimpressed with the whole thing, and the establishment European racing journalists loved it. He was good copy-someone not only new but different. ("Ronnie's not saying much today? Nip on over to the Shadow pits. Follmer will give you something to quote.") When asked about his impressions of Formula I cars he said, "They're easy to drive because they're so small and underpowered." Easy to drive! Small and underpowered! Heresy! But for a time it appeared as if FI were going to be as easy for him as he boasted. In South Africa he finished 6th for his first World Championship point. In Spain he was 3rd for four more points, but then the season went sour. When he wasn't dropping out with mechanical problems he was finishing well down the list. After the Spanish G P he never finished higher than 10th. During the winter Nichols announced that although Follmer would be driving in the Can-Am for Shadow, Peter Revson had taken over the F I ride. Despite the bravado and all the successes in the U.S., it looked like Follmer couldn't cut it in the difficult world of FI.

He doesn't see it that way.

"I wanted to do F1 to prove an American could do it and that you don't have to be 21. I think I did that."

But what about not returning for the second year? He puts that off to intra-team politics. "Team manager Allan Rees," Follmer explains, "wanted a young, unknown driver to bring along to stardom a la Ken Tyrrell with Jackie Stewart. I just didn't fit that mold. Now he has two to work with, Tom Pryce and Jean-Pierre Jarier, and he's happy." That explanation seems inadequate, but that's the way Follmer chooses to explain the end of his F I career.

So he didn't last long in FI, but Follmer is nothing if not resilient. During the winter after the European season he put together a deal with Royal Crown Cola. the sponsor of Rinzler's Can-Am effort in 1973. to run a car in NASCAR racing. He arranged for Bud Moore to build a Torino and run the team and girded for a full-scale assault on the Grand National circuit. That deal meant he would now have had involvement with a major effort in every major area of motor racing: USAC, Formula I, SCCA and finally NASCAR.

If he classifies F I as highly overrated in its degree of difficulty, he freely admits NASCAR was a different situation. "I had a lot to learn down South. The cars are different. They set them up very loose and it takes some getting used to. And the high-banked super-speedways are something else."

Follmer started running strongly from the start and at first it looked as if a hard-to-come-by Grand National win was only a matter of time. But then the program fell apart. Amid threats by Follmer to sue Moore over the unexpired contract and accusations by Moore that Follmer was incorrigible, they parted ways.

"Moore was the NASCAR expert. I was supposed to keep my mouth shut, get in the car and drive it. He wouldn't believe anything was wrong with the car. At one short-track race I radioed in that the car was pushing so badly in the turns I could barely control it. Bud radioed back that the car was perfect and just drive the son-of-a-bitch. So I kept driving it and a few laps later I lost it and went into the wall. And it was my fault for wrecking the car. I couldn't win."

So FI and NASCAR lasted only one season. But Follmer would like to do them both again. I suppose F I's siren song is difficult to ignore, and he feels NASCAR is the best pure racing to be found anywhere. It would be less than candid, though, to say he will probably get another F I ride. He may have proved to himself you don't have to be a wild-eyed 21­year-old to get it done in Grands Prix, but like it or not those are the drivers the teams are looking for. There's a good chance a Grand National ride will develop for '75, however, and as this is written he has two offers for an Indianapolis ride. There also seems little doubt he will be driving a UOP Shadow in the F5000 series.

FOLLMER MAY be a complex man, I guess most of us are complex to greater or lesser degrees. Yet he seems unusually easy to figure out. He drives racing cars because he does it very well and certainly because he likes it. He also makes a good bit of money at it. Although he is at or past the age at which most practitioners of the profession have given it up for less demanding pursuits, he maintains the skill and desire necessary to continue with it.

I have watched Follmer on and off the track for several years now, and I have never seen a more fierce competitor or more aggressive driving. Even without the Parnelli Jones influence George would have become, although perhaps not so quickly, the kind of driver he is. Yet I have never seen that fierceness, that wild-eyed aggressiveness carryover into his off-track life.

There is a side of Follmer that is not easily understood. Penske says, "He's trying a little too hard now, pushing a little too much." A driver who has raced with Follmer for several years brings up the age thing again. He feels George is very conscious of being 41 years old and trying desperately to over­come, or at least postpone, the inevitable. At this point there are no indications he is any less a driver than he has been.

Indeed, his own appraisal-that he is still improving-may be accurate. But will he be able to recognize, and then accept. the truth when the time comes?

During his career very little has been written about Follmer the family man. At the professional level families just don't seem to play much of a part. Some wives insist on traveling with their husbands for a while, but more often than not that ends when children enter the picture. Willowy blond girlfriends perched delicately on pit counters, clipboard and stopwatch cradled in their laps, seem more in keeping with the scene than a wife and kids. So just as it seemed a little out of character for George to be nuzzling that Irish setter, it is strange to see him surrounded by his son Jimmy, soon to graduate from high school, and daughters Sheryl and Janice, 12 and 13 years old. The vibrations were good. It appears to be, pardon the triteness, a happy family. Indeed, George goes out of his way to get home as quickly as possible after a race.

"I used to hang around after a race and fly back to California the next day, but Parnelli showed me there was a better way. During the Trans-Am he would have Ford charter a private plane, if that's what it took, to get us from the track to an airline connection back to Los Angeles that evening. We'd be home by midnight or earlier.

"I'm so keyed up after a race I can't sleep, so I'd just as soon be flying home if I'm going to be wide awake anyway." Follmer has been married for 20 years. His wife Glenda was there from the start, driving a station wagon full of kids and spare parts to Riverside, Santa Barbara, San Diego or wherever George raced the Speedster. We were sitting in their living room, the "official" interviewing of the afternoon over, idly chatting about the business of racing. The girls had just finished working some word game that was the current rage of the local junior high school on their father and were off in the kitchen to explore the refrigerator. Jimmy was semi-recumbent in a chair across the room, from where he could monitor the proceedings with the studied disinterest of any 17-year-old.

"George has done so much on his own," Glenda offered. He's never bought a ride, not from the first. And he never really got any of those tire deals a few years ago that meant a lot of money to a lot of drivers. He worked for what he got."

Glenda is not used to taking part in an interview, even unofficially, so she was a little nervous. As she talked she glanced at her husband from time to time, judging his reaction" to her frankness. George usually tells about George, but Glenda wanted me to know what she was feeling. She went on to admit that in those early days there were occasions when she felt strongly that the money going into those first racing cars could have been invested better in their home.

George scowled. Then quickly, "But he made up for it." Earlier George had made a strong point that he never sacrificed anything for his family to go racing, and indeed from that first USRRC season on he was either driving for someone or making money with his own car.

In response to the inevitable question, Glenda admitted that George's giving up a good independent insurance business to become a professional driver was what he wanted to do, so she went along with the decision. He was 30, remember, an age at which most men are well settled in their prescribed groove.

For the past 10 years George Follmer's prescribed groove has been racing. He's now an established veteran who demands, and gets, a great deal of money for driving' other peoples' racing cars. He is at, or at least near, the top of his profession and intends to stay there for the foreseeable future,

"I'm getting better as a driver, because I'm young enough in experience to continue to improve. I know I'm good, and maybe better than most.

"I need a challenge and racing still provides it. My age? Well. I don't heal as quickly now, but that's the only difference I can detect. And being "on top," as you put it. provides a very definite plus. I never have to drive a poor car anymore and that means no more balls out the window to make a poor car go fast."

Follmer truculent? He can be, when it suits his mood, Quick-tempered? That too, but it's difficult to compete so fiercely and not have the juices boil over from time to time. Family man with an expensive home in suburbia? There is that side and that's the part of the man that's hardest to accept after experiencing him in the unreal world of a race track, So perhaps George Follmer isn't as complex as we might like to think of him being. What's so complex about a man who found, perhapsa'bit late. that he likes to race cars more than sell insurance and wants to keep doing it?