US F5000: Matich
It’s fitting that Matich was the first Australian to try his hand in US Formula 5000. After all, Matich’s F5000 programme began off the back of his US Can-Am sports car effort.
It’s fitting that Matich was the first Australian to try his hand in US Formula 5000. After all, Matich’s F5000 programme began off the back of his US Can-Am sports car effort. Things mightn’t have gone to plan with the sports cars, but the experience of running in the ’67 Can-Am at least meant Matich knew what he was in for racing in the States.
For his brief 1971 US F5000 campaign, Matich would be driving a McLaren rather than one of his own Matich cars (the first Matich A50 F5000 was still on the drawing board). But then by 1971, Matich’s M10B had been extensively modified. As Matich’s ex-McLaren mechanic Derek Kneller reflected recently: “It was a McLaren only for the first time we raced it. After that it was a Matich.”
Matich won the 1970 Australian Grand Prix in the McLaren in November before being narrowly defeated by archrival Graham McRae in the eight-round January/February Tasman Series. Then it was off to the United States for the opening round of the L&M Continental F5000 series in April.
Matich’s US F5000 debut was a stunning success. First time out at Riverside, he qualified third in the 35-car field and went on to to finish second in each of the two heats – thereby winning the round overall. He backed that up the following weekend at Laguna Seca with another pair of second places. When Matich left the States to return home (he only planned to do the first two rounds), he was leading the L&M series…
His American campaign resulted in a revealing interview by Max Stahl in Racing Car News in which Frank and his wife Joan were shown at Sydney airport holding up a wad of US dollars they’d won, part of the $13,500 they’d collected for doing just two rounds of the series. That was a substantial sum of money 46 years ago.
“We had the car in LA on the Saturday prior to the race meeting which gave us one full week,” Matich told RCN.
He did a day’s testing at Riverside “because I hadn’t seen the circuit for about four years and they’d done a lot of alterations” and then went straight into the official qualifying session on the Friday, which started 90 minutes late, and then “unfortunately a chap got killed pretty early in the practice session and that knocked another 40 minutes off.”
Matich qualified third, which was high enough to prompt other teams to come over to check out this strange foreign entry powered some unknown engine that wasn’t a Chev, wasn’t a Ford and wasn’t even a Plymouth or a Dodge. Many of them must have been wondering just what a Holden was… “It was a different car to them,” Matich told RCN, “different in its concept – the only car for example that had engine covers and cowlings. They couldn’t understand what this was and sort of felt that the idea was to make it look pretty! Little wheels, smaller tyres, generally the whole engine. They just couldn’t understand why we’d bother. You know, what’s the point? Why don’t you use a Chev?” The Repco-Holden even sounded different. “Oh, very different. Didn’t sound hard – well, so I’m told, everyone commented it was a very soft sounding car and we weren’t revving as high as the other ones.” As it turned out, the Holden-powered McLaren had a big advantage in the high speed, banked turn 9. “I took one look at it and thought, ‘Ooh hell, what am I going to do with this lot?’ They would all come down the main straight and go straight into it. The quicker ones, like Sam Posey and David Hobbs, were getting to 172, 173mph (278km/h) or something in the straight – we were
getting 168 – and they would brake and go back into fourth and hold it until they reached the pits.”
“And I was doing this too, for the first day, but on the second day I started using top. I’d come down the straight and just brake and go into the thing in top gear and, oh boy, our car was just so bloody fast through this corner it was tremendous… It was this corner that won the event for us. Our car was just so superior here. More stable and in comparison to Posey and the other ones that came near. I would probably get about three, maybe four lengths, on the average… and that was a hell of an advantage.” But then it rained. “It wasn’t just a wet track,” Matich continued, “it was hailing and that was unreal. They didn’t delay the start or anything and just trying to stay on the road behind the pace car was something unreal because we were using tyres that had no tread at all. Not the slightest mark of treading. David Hobbs (on pole) just spun off the road in the pace lap. The poor bugger just spun around in front of me and he was going sideways, backwards, and it all happened at 15 or 20 miles an hour… when they dropped the flag everybody sort of snaked and wobbled away.”
When they got to the first corner, most of them hit the brakes, locked up and discovered that they couldn’t turn. Matich was forced off the road by another car on the inside that had its wheels turned but was ploughing straight ahead.
“He just couldn’t do anything about it. So I can’t turn and I’m definitely limited in what I can do because they’re slowing up too much. I want to turn the corner but this guy’s in there, and I can’t go forward and get away from him, which I could if these bastards weren’t slowing up so much. So I just kept going straight and it’s pretty smooth, a bit undulating, and I miss two curves completely and try to join up on Turn 6. But I can’t because there’s cars just everywhere... it was just unbelievable.
“Bud Morley – his feet were hanging out the front of the Lola. So there I had to stop and until they moved cars I couldn’t get through. Anyway from there I just tippy-toed along until the thing gradually got dry and I just sort of gradually worked my way back up. Our Repco engine, with the covers and that over it, is a very responsive engine, whereas those guys with peaky engines were in a lot more trouble than I was.”
Using his Turn 9 top gear technique, Matich passed Jim Dittemore’s Lola on the final lap to finished second.
“The second heat (in the dry) was a good race. There were a lot of wrecked cars again though, I think 10 to 12 cars written off in this heat, and I mean demolished.”
Amid the carnage Matich survived to win his first American race and the Riverside round overall. Next weekend Matich was a solid second to Sam Posey at Laguna Seca. And that was the end of a brief but successful campaign.
Matich tried again in 1973 with a two-car team of a new Matich A51 chassis and an earlier A50 as a spare. These were entered and financed by Earley Racing, a team run by a father and son, both podiatrists from Ohio. There were as many as four Matich cars there that year, with John Walker running his A50 (although not part of the Matich team) in addition to the American-based Fordpowered A50 of John Gimbel. This car had been driven to 11th at Laguna Seca in 1972 by no less than George Follmer, that year’s Can-Am series
He took an Australian-developed car, with an Australian engine, to the other side of the world, to a Formula 5000 scene much bigger and much more competitive than ours, and came out on top.
winner (at the wheel of the fearsome Porsche 917/30KL).
Matich qualified fifth at the first round at Riverside and went on to finish a strong third in the first heat. He didn’t finish in the second. A promising start, but things went downhill from there.
At Laguna Seca he qualified 11th but retired in both heats. At Michigan he broke a gearbox in the first heat, then came through from the rear in heat two to finish fifth.
At Mid-Ohio Matich was 13th overall but at Watkins Glen, with Vern Schuppan now in the spare Matich, they destroyed (at least) three Repco engines in practice because of oil surge problems. Both cars were withdrawn from that event and a frustrated Matich abruptly called time on the US campaign.
It was a disappointing end to his international efforts: no doubt it was a well-resourced campaign (particularly in comparison with the other Australians that year) that should have delivered more. But the failures of ’73 shouldn’t distract from the magnitude of what Matich achieved in 1971. He took an Australian-developed car, with an Australian engine, to the other side of the world, to a Formula 5000 scene much bigger and much more competitive than ours, and came out on top. In terms of international success for an Australian driver and Australian technology and equipment, it’s probably second only to Sir Jack Brabham’s Formula 1 achievements. It was also the first international race victory for a Holden engine!
Frank Matich’s brief ‘71 US campaign was a resounding success. The Repco-Holden V8 was something of a curiosity but the Americans soon came to understand it was the equal of their Chevs.