US F5000: Intro
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.