Any seasoned racer worth his salt will tell you rules are written to be broken or should I say tested. Half the challenge of racing is figuring out what the other team is doing. In the days of Trans-Am and Can-Am series the rule book was still in the process of being written and as the following story tells us some times it was written by whoever’s check book was the biggest. None the less, it’s clear to see some things never change. As long as there is good old competitive racing someone is going to be looking for that advantage many times being kept behind closed doors.
1968 would be a banner year for Mark Donohue in the Trans-Am series. He successfully defended his 12 Hours of Sebring victory the year before by partnering with Craig Fisher and driving his Penske Chevy Camaro to victory. Donohue went on to win a whopping 10 of 13 races. This was a Trans-Am series record which would stand for 19 years, until Tommy Kendall went 11 for 13 in the 1997 Trans-Am championship, winning the first 11 races that year in his All-Sport liveried Mustang.
Donohue was considered the leading Trans-Am driver of the late 1960s and early 1970s, winning three Trans-Am championships (his last in 1971) while driving Camaros and AMC Javelins, all for Roger Penske Racing.
During their enormous success in Trans-Am, Roger Penske and Mark Donohue would begin to experiment with their Camaros, searching for that all-elusive Unfair Advantage. They discovered that dipping a car’s frame in an acid bath would eat away small amounts of metal from the frame, which, in turn made the car incrementally lighter, and allowed it to be driven faster around the track. The 1967 Z-28 won its last race by lapping the entire field of cars, raising eyebrows throughout the paddock. During a post-race inspection, race stewards discovered that the car was 250 pounds lighter than the 2800 pound minimum weight requirement. Donohue was to have his race victory taken away for cheating. But, owing to his keen business sense, Roger Penske stepped in. Penske threatened that any disqualification could potentially lead to Chevrolet pulling all support for the Trans-Am series. After considering the options, the race stewards allowed Donohue’s victory to stand, but the rules for the 1968 season incorporated a change where all cars will be weighed during the pre-race technical inspection.
Penske and Donohue did not stop acid-dipping after the minor scuffle – the reduced weight allowed them to place weights of certain sizes in specific locations around the car, thus helping to balance the car while being driven on the limit.
They continued to use the “lightweight” car in 1968, at the Sebring 12 hour race. They changed the grille and taillight to the 1968 model, and then painted both cars exactly the same. They sent the legal weight car through tech inspection with the number 15 and again with the number 16 on it. Then they put both cars in the race, number 15 and 16, one car being 250 pounds lighter. They won the race and came 3rd overall, and went on to win 10 out of 13 races that year.
For as long as there is racing, ther will be those of us… er I mean those who will push the limit. Maybe it should not be called racing but instead… Rule testing.