US F5000: Intro

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

Amer­ica’s F5000 scene of­fered big-buck to­bacco-funded prize­money. It at­tracted Aus­tralia’s best open-wheeler driv­ers of the 1970s who in­vari­ably punched above their weight. This is the back­grounder.

Some­times it’s the sim­ple ideas that are the best. And in the com­plex world of top level open­wheeler rac­ing, they don’t come any sim­pler or eas­ier to un­der­stand than For­mula 5000. A large For­mula 1-style open­wheeler with a pow­er­ful race-tuned 5.0-litre stock-block V8 in the back – what’s not to like about that? In­deed, what made the idea ap­peal­ing when For­mula 5000 be­gan in the late ‘60s holds true today, nearly 50 years later, as we get set for a mod­ern-day rebirth of the orig­i­nal F5000 con­cept (the new FT5000, or S5000, de­pend­ing on which name Su­per­cars Aus­tralia set­tles with).

Not that the at­trac­tion of such a for­mula was read­ily ap­par­ent back in the day. Aus­tralia was ini­tially re­luc­tant to em­brace F5000, when in the late ‘60s the search was on for a vi­able re­place­ment to the clearly-fail­ing 2.5-litre premier for­mula.

The Aus­tralian 2.5-litre for­mula was ef­fec­tively the same as For­mula 1, with 500cc less en­gine ca­pac­ity. This had served us well through the ‘60s and, at a time long be­fore we had an Aus­tralian F1 GP, it linked us to the in­ter­na­tional F1 scene, with a num­ber of F1 stars and their cars com­ing down un­der each sum­mer to com­pete against our (and the Kiwi’s) best in the Tas­man Cup.

But the 2.5-litre for­mula was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ex­pen­sive, and it was los­ing its ap­peal as spec­ta­tors be­gan to look to tour­ing cars for their mo­tor rac­ing thrills.

De­bate raged over whether we should go for a 2.0-litre thor­ough­bred race en­gine for­mula, or the new stock-block 5.0-litre. Then in July of 1969 CAMS an­nounced it had cho­sen the 2.0-litre for­mula – only to over­turn the de­ci­sion a few months later un­der the weight of pub­lic out­cry.

Even so, F5000 was a leap into the un­known. Not ev­ery­one thought it was a great idea; there was no guar­an­tee it would work here. For a start, those who warned it would be no cheaper than ei­ther of the two smaller en­gine regs were proven more or less cor­rect. While today large V8 en­gines of this type are com­par­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive and vir­tu­ally bul­let­proof, that wasn’t ex­actly the case in the early ‘70s. Back then, 500 horse­power from a small-block 5-litre Chev was test­ing the friend­ship when it came to en­gine longevity. Fail­ures were com­mon in early F5000 rac­ing.

What was re­ally good about F5000, though, was its thriv­ing in­ter­na­tional scene. What had be­gun in Amer­ica as ‘For­mula A’ in 1968 quickly spread to Eng­land, where it picked up the For­mula 5000 name. The cars were big, loud, pow­er­ful, and bru­tally spec­tac­u­lar to watch and, on some cir­cuits, as fast as F1 cars. In some early races, in Europe and in the States, F5000 and F1 cars raced to­gether – and some­times the stock-block V8s won.

Frank Matich was the first Aus­tralian adopter of F5000. When he raced his new McLaren M10B for the first time, at War­wick Farm in Oc­to­ber ’69, it was pow­ered by a 5.0-litre Chev. Pretty soon, though, the Chev would make way for a Holden V8 spe­cially de­vel­oped for For­mula 5000 by Repco in Mel­bourne.

Be­fore long the en­tre­pre­neur­ial Matich was de­vis­ing his own Matich F5000 chas­sis, as was Elfin Sports Cars in Ade­laide. Just as the Matich A50 and Elfin MR5 would prove com­pet­i­tive against the best Euro­pean and Amer­i­can F5000 chas­sis, so too did the Repco-Holden en­gine hold its own against the Chevs. Aus­tralian For­mula 5000 tech­nol­ogy and in­ge­nu­ity was the equal any­thing else in the world.

It didn’t take long for the lo­cal F5000 scene to take off. With top Aus­tralian open­wheeler driv­ers of the time such as Kevin Bartlett, Max Stewart, John McCor­mack, Bob Muir and Alan Hamil­ton switch­ing to F5000, fol­lowed by the new breed of younger driv­ers led by John Walker and War­wick Brown, the early ‘70s was a vi­brant time for the cat­e­gory.

With the Ki­wis hav­ing adopted it even be­fore we had, the an­nual Jan­uary/Fe­bru­ary Tas­man Se­ries be­came a dow­nun­der F5000 spec­tac­u­lar, with a host of top Amer­i­can and Euro­pean teams and driv­ers tak­ing on the an­tipodeans.

With the Tas­man Se­ries con­clud­ing at the end of Fe­bru­ary, and the Aus­tralian Driv­ers’

Thun­der and fright­en­ing... Frank Matich (above) is third in a huge field at River­side. Colin Hyams (right) was among the Aussie F5000 con­tin­gent State­side. Be­low: Gra­ham McRae flew the Kiwi flag high. Cham­pi­onship not start­ing un­til mid year, the cal­en­dar al­lowed plenty of time for teams to re­group af­ter the gru­elling eight-con­sec­u­tive­week se­ries. Or, the 15-week break pro­vided the chance to chase in­ter­na­tional suc­cess in the Sports Car Club of Amer­ica For­mula 5000 Se­ries. With se­ries spon­sor­ship from to­bacco brand L&M, the Amer­i­can F5000 scene of­fered the kind of prize­money that was un­heard of in Aus­tralia.

On the whole, the Aus­tralians who took on the US chal­lenge punched well above their weight. Some even made money out of it – some even stayed on, mak­ing a ca­reer out it in Amer­i­can rac­ing. For all of them it was a huge ad­ven­ture, and most of them re­turned home bet­ter driv­ers for the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Over the com­ing pages we high­light their achieve­ments that in sev­eral cases re­ceived very lit­tle cov­er­age lo­cally four decades ago.

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