It amazes me how this race still sets off people’s passions. No one would probably even remember it today if it weren’t for those hard-core Alfa fans who mistakenly insist the cheating Alfa was robbed of the championship. More than 10 years ago, after a Trans-Am panel discussion at the Petersen Museum, we sent out a newsletter that mentioned how the driver of the cheater Alfa admitted it was a cheater car. We couldn’t believe the mail I got from people saying they had thought more of me than to make something like that up! The whole discourse is on tape. All of us who were there heard it but of course we knew the whole story because we were so deeply involved in the controversy.
There are so many rumors still circulating about that race, like how I paid someone off to have the Laguna Seca race added to the calendar at the end of the season so we’d have a chance to get more points and beat the Alfas for the championship. I wouldn’t even have known how to do that and I certainly wouldn’t have done anything the Japanese (the honorable Mr. K at Datsun) would have thought inappropriate. For those that don’t know the story of what happened let me digress. In our first year of running the BRE Datsun 510s in the 2.5 Trans-Am series in 1971 we were behind the seasoned and favored Alfas in points almost to the end of the year. But, thanks to our amazing team and driver, John Morton, we were steadily gaining on them as we improved our cars. We had a really good shot at winning the last race at Laguna Seca. Winning that crucial event would give Datsun/Nissan the necessary points to win the SCCA’s 2.5 Trans-Am championship.
During the race the lead Alfa, driven by Horst Kwech, and our leading 510 with John Morton behind the wheel, were battling hard. Kwech kept trying to run John off the track (another controversy is whether or not Kwech was doing this intentionally). Kwech knew that even if he crashed into Morton and they both went out, there were several other fast Alfas running. If we went out and any of them finished, Alfa would win the championship. This championship battle brought thousands of fans to Laguna to see this final race. The race was a barn burner that still has those who were there saying it was one of the greatest races they’d ever seen. After a lot of trading paint Kwech’s Alfa hit John right at the top of the corkscrew, spinning him out but John quickly recovered and was back on track re-passing the Alfa which then hit him again! That’s when I decided these two needed to be separated because it was obvious that Kwech would continue hitting John and it didn’t matter if he took himself out in the battle. I signaled John in for the one pit stop we’d have to make for fuel. That put Kwech well in the lead, but I knew he’d also have to stop for fuel as there was no way he could run the distance on the 15 gallons the cars were permitted to run. Only Kwech never stopped! His Alfa cruised on to an easy win and miraculously sputtered out of fuel just past the finish line! It appeared that Kwech had gambled on having enough fuel to finish the race. But I knew better.
If this had happened earlier in the season he might have gotten away with this but by the end of the season we had learned the Alfa could only run about one hour and seven minutes on a full tank. I pulled John in for fuel at one hour and ten minutes knowing by then something wasn’t right with the lead Alfa. We weren’t the only ones to notice. I had a protest written at the close of the race but I needn’t have bothered as another team beat me to it. When the SCCA officials checked the Alfa’s fuel capacity it was much larger than regulations allowed. The Alfa was disqualified. The next day the official results were posted. BRE had won the race and the 2.5 TransAm championship for Datsun/Nissan!
You may wonder how I can remember such details, like how long the Alfas could run on a tank, almost 5 decades ago. The experiences of the BRE team were captured in detail that season (and the next two years) by talented author, Sylvia Wilkinson, in her book “The Stainless Steel Carrot”. We first came to know Sylvia when she approached me at the beginning of the season about being, what is now called, an “embedded journalist”. She wanted to write a book about an up-and-coming race car driver and had astutely recognized John as a good candidate. It’s not possible to adequately describe how brilliant this book is in capturing the activities and thoughts and feelings of the team as we worked our way through the entire season to become champions.
The chapter on the Laguna race exposes how some team members thought I had pulled in John to fuel early because they thought I didn’t have enough confidence in his driving when it was exactly the opposite. I knew John was fast enough to again pass Kwech but I also knew Kwech would probably take him out again and there simply wasn’t enough time left to gamble. The book also shares how a team member got on John for not being more upset with Kwech continually hitting him (car-to-car), but if you know John you know he’d never lose control of the situation. Sylvia also heartbreakingly describes what it was like for John to not win the race on the track.
Anyone who’s heard me talk about this race knows how emotional I get when I feel for how John was robbed of his rightful place on the podium, being handed the trophy, kissing the girl, shaking Mr. K’s hand, waving to the cheering crowd and the public acknowledgement of winning the Trans-Am 2.5 Championship in his first year with the Datsun 510. The reaction of Alfa fans was much worse. I understand it in the moment when most had no idea what had really occurred but there’s no excuse for it in the years past.
I will leave you with the following excerpts from Sylvia’s book below. (note: The second, and final, printing of the book is now sold out except for two copies we have available on our website plus a few copies we offer that are personally signed by Sylvia, John, myself and 7 other BRE team members, two who are now deceased).
The BRE crew runs back and forth with information to the camper trailer where John sits smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. John Knepp sticks his head in the door smiling. “The fifteen-gallon tank on the Alfa just went to sixteen point one gallons and they covered up the gauge”. (note: later it was disclosed that the Alfa’s tank was THREE gallons over!)
On Sunday morning it came over the loudspeaker “The number three Alfa driven by Horst Kwech has been disqualified in the Two-Five Challenge Trans-Am race for having an illegal fuel tank. The official winner is John Morton in the BRE Datsun.”
During Sunday’s Can-Am race, John and his wife Jan walk to the back of the track to watch the race from different turns. Walking down by the fence below the people on the hillsides, the first crowd reaction, the delayed reaction to the victory comes. There is some applause, a few cheers from guys wearing Datsun jackets. But most of the them, as soon as they see his name on the back of his jacket, start hissing.
“I shouldn’t have worn this damn jacket” says John.
Jan says, “I didn’t think people would be that way. Wanting a cheater to win. I’m not prepared for people to be like that.”
“You got him on the fuel tank, huh, Morton?” A spectator walks up to John. “I didn’t get him. The officials got him.” John replies.
“He was outrunning you.”
“We were close. If he’d stopped, I think I would have won.” John pulls away. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s bad enough already. I’m sick of talking about it.”
Going to the post-race gathering when the Can-Am race ended, leaving the elevator, the comments on the Datsun win start up again as John walks through the crowd.
“That’s Morton. He’s an average-looking son of a bitch, isn’t he?”
“I wouldn’t walk around with that name on my jacket.”
“Default. Won by default.”
John and Jan leave the party after the checks are passed out. The next day, someone mentions that Stirling Moss gave a speech on cheating after they left, how there was no room in the sport of motor racing for such actions. He commented that during his participation in the sport from 1947 to 1962 “… although I heard mumblings from time to time, I cannot remember one occasion when anyone was proven to have knowingly cheated. I don’t know whose fault it was that Horst Kwech’s car was running an illegal gas tank, but I was absolutely appalled that anyone could consider cheating in motor racing.”
John: “I’ve gotten disappointed before in different ways but not getting to drive a car or having a mechanical failure are different kinds of disappointments from not getting to win a race. Getting it, like those people said, by default illustrated one thing. You win and everybody waves. I guess I never knew that people were so damn fickle and two-faced. But that’s because I had always been an underdog until this year and people thought it was nice to see an underdog win. Now with Brock, I become the favorite; people expect me to win. But in these little cars I won’t be the favorite anymore unless it’s some guy who owns a Datsun and wants to feel good; from now on out, people are going to want to see me lose. I don’t think I’ve ever cheated at anything.”
Peter Brock commented later on the crowd’s reaction. “These people have been following the series too long for it just to be a motor race. They have all chosen sides by now and you can’t blame them. It’s like the World Series; they call the umpire a son of a bitch because he made a good call.” Before the truck left for Los Angeles, Brock had lettered on the van – 1971 2.5 TRANS-AM CHAMPIONS. His sign painter had come prepared to do the job, just in case.
Above excerpt from the Stainless Steel Carrot by Silvia Wilkinson. A great book.