BS Levy’s Runoffs Memories: Search for the Holy Grail

Esteemed novelist and VM columnist Burt “BS” Levy is headed to Road America for the 2020 SCCA Runoffs this week. While gearing up for the event he took a trip down memory lane and put a few thoughts down about his experience with the storied event.

It wasn’t just the biggest race of the year, it was also, back in the day, the only so-called “amateur” race that counted. Just getting invited took some doing. You had to finish in the top three in your class in your division to get a bid. In some less well-subscribed classes in some less populated divisions, it wasn’t a tall order. But in the Northeast, Cendiv, Southeast and West Coast, it took some major doing. Just to make the cut. And then you found yourself up against the very best in the country. So you had better do your homework in the garage and bring your A game behind the wheel.

WEST vs EAST: Terry Visger in the silver, “west coast” Huffaker MGB on the pole and Brian Fuerstenau in the “east coast” Group 44 MGB square off in the Eprod runoffs race in 1977. Visger won 3 EP championships in a row in Huffaker MGBs. Photo: Hal Crocker

As a bush-league local racer, I knew about the SCCA Runoffs long before I ever made it down to spectate, open-mouthed and slack-jawed, as Bill Schmid’s Porsche Super 90 and Brian Fuerstenau’s Group 44 MGB came blasting over the crest of the old Road Atlanta’s daunting Bridge Turn, nose-to-tail, lap-after-lap, to settle the SCCA’s E-Prod National Championship. Or howabout future Paul Newman teammate/friend Jim Fitzgerald’s Z-car coming out under the same bridge full-lock slideways and drifting well out into pit lane. That was a scary place to tread, as the divider between pit lane and the steeply downhill “asphalt waterfall” towards Turn 12 turned into a rough, lumpy gully about two-thirds of the way down, and God help you if you hadn’t made it back to the racing line. The thing you remember is that the great majority of Runoffs races were like that. Hard fought. Unbelievably competitive. Close finishes were the norm rather than the exception.

You really had to be there.

Elliott Forbes-Robinson’s running away from the rest of the EP field in the rain at the 1972 Runoffs. The team was a Porsche factory-backed effort run by retired American F1 star Ritchie Ginther and EFR was right at the beginning of what turned out to be a stellar career. But the wheels for the rain tires had a slightly different offset, and EFR and Porsche lost it in the tech shed when the rear track was found to be a few fractions of an inch too wide. Photo: Hal Crocker

Back prior to 1964, SCCA national titles were like the mostly fictitious “Mythical National Championships” NCAA college football teams (and their fans) used to jaw and dream about. But then some bright soul fronted up the notion of a real, single, end-of-season/winner-take-all race to settle the national championship in each of the SCCA’s myriad classes. The first-ever SCCA Runoffs (then called the ARRC for “American Road Race of Champions”) was held at the well-remembered and lamented Riverside Raceway in California, and the plan was to alternate venues between Riverside and Daytona, which is what took place for the first six years. But in 1970, The Runoffs (soon to be branded as the Champion Spark Plug Road Racing Classic, or CSPRRC) found its actual and spiritual home at Road Atlanta.

Start of the 1972 EP race on a soggy track. EFR in the pole-sitting Porsche ran away and hid, but the outside-front-row MGB of Logan Blackburn scored its second straight EP Runoffs win after the Porsche was disqualified in the tech shed. Photo: Hal Crocker

The old, pre-chicane Road Atlanta was a fabulous but challenging and even harrowing layout. Oh, maybe too much of it was a dynamometer for the engine-builders (the run from slow Turn 7 to that daunting Bridge Turn was flat-out all the way, and made up a full third of the circuit) and however fast your car would go, it would go even faster on that steep, gut-check swoop into the infamous Road Atlanta “Dip.” But it was a great, sweeping, uphill/downhill playground and the best drivers relished the skill, bravery and feel it required.

John O’Steen in his Porsche 356. Photo: Hal Crocker

I witnessed my first-ever, in-person Runoffs there in the early 1970s. A bunch of us went down in a Dodge van—driving straight though, of course, and naturally we hit rain and fog through the mountains south of Chattanooga—and we stayed at a decaying but once-gracious old southern hotel called the Dixie Hunt on the not-yet-gentrified town square in nearby Gainesville. We were there to root for some of our CenDiv friends who’d made the cut, but the stature, style and import of the event took us over. There were only a few big 18-wheeler rigs then—Bob Sharp’s heavily sponsored Datsun squad and the various, spanking-white and also company-backed British Leyland bunch from Group 44—but the neat thing was that, while they were usually favorites in their various race groups, they were far from shoe-ins, and it was wonderful to see all the privateers and independents there to mix it up with them. And, more often than they’d care to remember, come out on top.

1973 – Brian Fuerstenau took the Group 44 MGB to his only EP title (but third runoffs victory) ahead of Lee Mueller in the “west coast” Huffaker MGB. Photo: Hal Crocker

The racing was more than memorable. But so were the politics—you could count on that for sideshow entertainment, every year—and of course the infamous, pre-race and especially post-race Tech Barn, where so many championships withered and died. I’m not saying there was cheating, but I remember one particular, multiple Showroom Stock National Champ whose car got biffed in the back in a first-lap scrum that left the rear bumper cover dragging. Revealing, for all to see, the big, flame-cut holes in the support beam in an effort to get rid of a little unhappily placed weight…

Logan Blackburn at the top of the esses. Photo: Hal Crocker

Or the other, presumptive National Champ who crossed first under the checker but had already lost a few in the Tech Barn in prior years. During the victory-lane interview, the emcee asked how he felt. His answer: “I’ll let you know after we make it through Tech…”

Visger leading the pack down the esses. Photo: Hal Crocker

But the racing and the competition and the camaraderie always overshadowed the sour notes and bruised feelings. In those days, it was not just the biggest race on the calendar, but the only game in town. That’s not entirely true anymore. There are other places amateurs can drive or race for essentially the same money (or perhaps even less?), but the SCCA has evolved because of it and become far more accommodating and user friendly. And The Runoffs is, still today, a veritable Olympics of amateur road racing in North America. It moves from track to track nowadays—a move this writer long championed—but it remains not just the pinnacle of an entire season’s effort, but perhaps the greatest motorsports entertainment value on the planet.

You want to see some great racing…come to The SCCA Runoffs!