The phrase ‘Lola Limp’ makes light of a dreadful situation faced by Lola F5000 drivers in the 1970s. The Lolas weren’t the strongest chassis, which meant that any decent frontal shunt was bad news for the driver’s legs. Kevin Bartlett and Warwick Brown are two of many drivers who would suffer from ‘Lola Limp’.
In fact, it was the severe leg injuries Brown sustained when he crashed his Lola T300 at Surfers Paradise in early ’73 that prompted him to look to the American F5000 scene.
“Up until the accident,” Brown says, “my plan was to be Formula 1 World Champion. After that, reality bit a little and I thought, ‘well, maybe I’m not going to be World Champion’. And that’s when we looked at America rather than Europe.
“I thought maybe I can make a lot of money out of it. But there’s no amount of money that could make you do this if it’s not in you. It would frighten the hell out of you. I used to do it because I had a belief that I had a gift for it, and one of the byproducts of that was that you could make a lot of money out it.”
And there was certainly a lot of money in the American F5000 scene.
Plans were made for a limited US campaign with a new T332 in the latter half of 1974.
His first race was at Ontario, a very fast Indianapolis-style oval/road course comprising two corners on the oval and then an infield road section.
“We arrived at Ontario with a Dodge van and a trailer, and maybe a spare gearbox and engine. Lo and behold, who pulls into the pits behind us but the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team, with Mario Andretti’s car. A pantechnicon, two cars, six spare engines, multiple suspension sets, 15 blokes walking around. We had three.
“I said to (Peter) Molloy, ‘Have you seen this? Who talked us into this? We must be nuts!’ Peter got hold of me and said, ‘Just be cool, just do what you normally do and leave the rest to me’.
“So, out we go, and first session we were third quickest. Peter had done a special engine for me, and the difference was that the Americans had big inlets, because they thought big inlets meant more power – which it did, but with our smaller inlets, the power was much smoother, and we could get off corners better. It did lack a little bit on the straights, but it worked for us.
“Then the Americans came over. Al Bartz, the big Chev engine builder, and others. They knew who Molloy was, but they looked at our tiny little intakes and said, ‘What are you gonna do with that?’. But after that weekend Molloy got six or seven orders for engines from American guys.
“In the heat race I finished second, and in the main race I was right up there, behind Andretti and Brian Redman. Firestone had given us these tyres, and that was the first time we’d been given tyres, and they said, ‘We’ve got a special set for you, Mario’s tyres’, and anyway the tyres just gave up and that was it.
“Molloy will tell you today that they dudded us with a crook set of tyres. Because we had them, and they knew we had them. We spoke to Goodyear after that, from that day on for the rest of my career I never paid for a set of tyres.”
In his third and last race of that campaign, at Riverside, Brown was third behind Andretti and Redman. Not bad company.
Then he came home for the Australian Grand Prix, to be held on the new ‘grand prix’ circuit at Oran Park. Brown was leading by well over half a minute when the harmonic balancer failed and cut a brake line, 13 laps from home. It was a bitter disappointment, but it at least proved a point.
“I’d gone to America and competed with the best in the world, and found that I could do it. It lifted my confidence to another level and that showed when I came back to Australia.”
For ’75 Brown signed to drive a Talon-Chev for American entrant Jack McCormack. The deal looked good on paper but, in hindsight, Brown says it was a mistake.
“It was a works team, but it was under resourced. The car was excellent. We had our ‘74 Molloy engines in it, but the yanks had come on a bit with engines since then. I think if we’d had competitive engines we would have won races. It was a more rigid car than the Lola, so in terms of having an accident it was no worries. It was probably not as good in high speed corners as the Lola but it had better slow corner mechanical grip.
“My problem, compared to Mario and Brian, was that I was trying to make up half a dozen car lengths down the straight. I could make some of that up through the corners, but not all of it.
“Molloy couldn’t stay over there the whole year as he had too much work on, so there was no development.
“I had a Ryan Falconer engine in ’76, and didn’t that have some mumbo! If I’d had that engine the year before, I’d have given them a heap of trouble.”
Brown was back in a Lola for 1976, but the circumstances under which he came to drive for Bob Bay Racing were horrendous, to say the least.
“Bob’s driver (in 1975) was BJ Swanson. It was his first full year of Formula 5000 and he was brilliant, but he was having lots of accidents. We became really good friends. BJ was 23 and I was a bit older, and I said to him – like Molloy had with me – ‘Listen mate, you’ve got a great future; you’ve just got to calm down a little. You’ve got that much adrenaline going on, you’re getting into situations you can’t get out of. Just come back a quarter of a second a lap and be a bit more analytical about it’.
“So we line up at Mid Ohio, Redman’s in front, I think Andretti was second, and BJ and I were on the second row. Going down into the first corner it was almost a repeat of Walker’s thing at Sandown; I felt him coming, he’s on the dirty side of the road, and I could see straight away there’s no way he was going to make it – he was either going to hit me or crash or both. I just hung in there and as I saw him come up beside me, his car had a bit of a twitch, and then he went off and into an armco fence. The fence split and he virtually got decapitated.
“It took them ages to get him out of the car. I went to see him in hospital that night before they switched off the life support. It was terrible. I kept thinking, ‘Why didn’t he listen to me?’ If he’d had the luck to have a Molloy to guide him, he’d have been world champion.
“So I ended up replacing BJ. It started out OK but Bob was a chronic alcoholic, and we ended up suing each other, which was unfortunate. How foolish – a little Aussie guy getting involved in the American legal system. I should have run away at a hundred miles an hour.
“We ended up fixing it between us in a bar one night, but he still ended up owing me money.”
But out of that came the big break: a deal with VDS, the F5000 megateam owned by Stella Artois beer magnate, Count Rudi van der Straten. VDS gave Brown a run in their new but troublesome Lola T430 in the final two races of ’76.
“I’d known VDS because I’d been racing them for years, and the team manager was Steve Horne, who later became Tasman Motorsport. He was a Kiwi and he knew me, and he said to the old man (Count van der Straten) ‘put Warwick in the car and he’ll do something’.
“So VDS put me in the T430. (Peter) Gethin didn’t like it; (Teddy) Pilette absolutely hated it. I had a Morand engine which was at least 50 horsepower down on the others, and in the first race I ran pretty close to them. That impressed the old man and he fired Pilette and asked if I wanted to do the next Rothmans Series with Gethin.”
It was the start of a successful four-year partnership with VDS that would take Brown into the reborn Can-Am – which he almost won in 1978. The only thing that stood in his way that year was, somewhat ironically, another Aussie, in the form of Alan Jones. (ED: See issue #96’s ‘Aussies in Can-Am MkII’ stories for how that panned out.)
“We arrived at Ontario with a Dodge van and a trailer, and maybe a spare gearbox and engine. Lo and behold, who pulls into the pits behind us but the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team, with Mario Andretti’s car. A pantechnicon, two cars, six spare engines, multiple suspension sets, 15 blokes walking around. We had three.”