Vern Schup­pan

Australian Muscle Car - - US F5000 -

For a driver who’s raced in F1, has won Le Mans and has also fin­ished third in the Indy 500, Vern Schup­pan is sur­pris­ingly lit­tle known in this coun­try. Part of the rea­son for that is the un­con­ven­tional ca­reer path which the South Aus­tralian chose: he’d upped stumped and headed for Europe with dreams of world mo­tor rac­ing dom­i­na­tion even be­fore he’d ac­tu­ally con­tested his first car race.

In­deed, by the time he did make his first race start in Aus­tralia, he’d al­ready made it to F1 and had fin­ished sec­ond at Le Mans. By then he’d also done a lot of For­mula 5000 races, both in Europe and the States.

In ’74 Schup­pan was run­ning Bri­tish For­mula 5000 for Ir­ish en­trant Sid Taylor. At the end of the year Taylor took the team to Cal­i­for­nia with hopes of get­ting amongst the huge US prizepool.

The Aus­tralian qual­i­fied fourth at La­guna Seca (be­hind Mario An­dretti and James Hunt) but did not start the fi­nal af­ter blow­ing an en­gine in the heat race. The car had been run­ning with­out an air­box, with just thin mesh cov­er­ing the eight in­take trum­pets, and some­how a stray bolt went into one of the trum­pets and was in­gested by the en­gine – with dis­as­trous re­sults.

It was a cap-head bolt, un­like any­thing that was ac­tu­ally on the Sid Taylor Lola, so where it came from and how it man­aged to find its way past the mesh was some­thing of a mys­tery.

At River­side Schup­pan qual­i­fied fifth, this time ahead of Hunt. As a re­sult of the twin-heat sys­tem, Schup­pan ended up start­ing be­hind Hunt in the fi­nal, which proved not the place to be as Hunt slid on some oil on the open­ing lap and spun his Ea­gle. With nowhere to go, Schup­pan’s Lola t-boned the fu­ture world cham­pion’s Ea­gle.

“Fun­nily enough I must have im­pressed Ea­gle team owner Dan Gur­ney as he came up af­ter the race and asked me to drive for him,” Schup­pan says. For the ’75 sea­son at Ea­gle he would re­place Bobby Unser, who Gur­ney felt wasn’t get­ting the job done on the road cour­ses.

Even though the Ea­gle 755 was no match for the Lola T332, Schup­pan did well, fin­ish­ing sec­ond at the first Long Beach Grand Prix, with no brakes.

“Dan said, ‘Oh you slack­ened off a bit at the end.’ But when the me­chanic got in the car to move it, he couldn’t stop it and crashed into some­thing – it lit­er­ally had no brakes!”

For 1976 Gur­ney per­sisted with the Ea­gle. It showed prom­ise at Po­cono, where Schup­pan set fastest lap, while the wet at Watkins Glen prob­a­bly masked its short­com­ings.

“In qual­i­fy­ing the right rear tyre came off and I fol­lowed the Armco fence all the way down the straight – and didn’t hit any­thing! Be­fore the heat Dan took the ra­di­a­tor cap off and didn’t put back on. I spun on my own wa­ter… I started from the back in the fi­nal and it’s rain­ing hard. I’m up to third af­ter the first lap. We did so much wet rac­ing in Europe that we were gen­er­ally ahead of the Amer­i­cans.”

Schup­pan was on for a re­sult but ended up crash­ing af­ter a clash with com­pa­triot War­wick Brown. Af­ter the race Gur­ney re­lented and bought his charge a new Lola T332 for the rest of the sea­son.

Schup­pan has mixed feel­ings work­ing for the leg­endary Amer­i­can.

“I didn’t have a lot of in­put with Dan. He had some strange ideas. He was dif­fi­cult in many ways. Dan be­lieved he could be quicker in the car. Test­ing at River­side one day he asked whether I could take the esses flat? I said the car would fly off the road! Any­way Dan got in the Ea­gle to see for him­self. He thought the car was pretty good, but then he was five sec­onds slower than my lap record pace…”

But by then it was over as US F5000 was re­con­fig­ured as the re­born sin­gle-seater Can-Am. As Schup­pan re­lated in AMC #96, he thought the new en­closed F5000 cat­e­gory was a dis­as­ter.

“We were shocked. The logic was that it would bring back the glory days. It was pie in the sky. They wrecked a fan­tas­tic se­ries: 12-car trains – the Unsers, An­dretti, Redman, Jackie Oliver, John Can­non, all in there bomb­ing around.”

“Test­ing at River­side one day Gur­ney asked whether I could take the esses flat? I said the car would fly off the road! Any­way Dan got in the Ea­gle to see for him­self. He thought the car was pretty good, but then he was five sec­onds slower than my lap record pace…”

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