“I got a second once,” Sam Goins recalled of his five years campaigning a 1964 Cheetah in sports car races up and down the eastern half of the country. “Every other race I believe I got first.”
As he tells it, winning at the time was merely a matter of outlasting the competition. “Almost like survival of the fittest,” he said, “and I just didn’t drive it to its full potential.” Given his weapon of choice, he likely never needed to. Bill Thomas‘ Cheetah was one of the few cars that could give Carroll Shelby’s Cobras fits in the mid-Sixties, and Goins had chanced upon the one Cheetah perhaps most responsible for its fearsome reputation: the car clocked at 215 mph at Daytona. Now, more than 50 years of maintaining his Cheetah in as-raced condition, Goins has decided to auction the car off.
While many sources cite Ralph Salyer as the driver responsible for the top speed, Goins said that Gene Crowe told him it was Budd Clusserath at the wheel for that run. Crowe served as chief mechanic for both Salyer and Clusserath, a pair of racers out of Hammond, Indiana, who learned of the Cheetah early on and decided to buy one apiece. According to Crowe’s story, he went to visit Thomas’ shop in Anaheim, California, to set both cars up for racing but discovered that Thomas–unaccustomed to series production–showed him to a couple frames and a pile of parts, leaving Crowe to assemble the cars.
The first two Cheetahs, according to Anthony Young’s history of the car in the Fall 1981 issue of Automobile Quarterly, used bodies built out aluminum by California Metal Stamping and Don Borth according to a design by Don Edmunds. The second two, the two that Crowe assembled, used the first two fiberglass bodies that Jim Gammage produced from molds taken off the first car. Which of the first two fiberglass cars was considered the third and which was considered the fourth, Crowe, Salyer, and Clusserath didn’t appear to sort out.
Salyer’s car later became famous among Cheetah enthusiasts as the only original Cheetah converted into a roadster, a modification Crowe made in part to alleviate cockpit heat and in part to keep the doors from literally blowing off. The latter problem became apparent when, during testing at Daytona, Clusserath ran his car to 215 mph and noted the body’s tendency to balloon due to unequal air pressure. “He didn’t go so fast on the next run,” Goins said. He liked the look of the car as a coupe, however, so rather than cut the roof off, he had Crowe install supplemental door latches and add bracing to the body.
Goins first saw Clusserath’s Cheetah in September 1965 at Elkhart Lake. He and his wife, Elaine, had traveled there from Cincinnati every year to watch the races, but after noticing the small ‘for sale’ sign in the car’s back window, Goins decided he would take a crack at competition. Clusserath, then in the process of having Bob McKee build him a McKee Mark VI, had already removed the 377-cu.in. Chevrolet small-block with dual-air-meter Rochester fuel injection from the car (and replaced it with an L84 327 fuelie that Crowe massaged to an estimated 485 horsepower) and swapped the oil cooler from the Cheetah to the McKee, but essentially sold the Cheetah as he raced it.
While Goins had previously driven in gymkhanas with his fuel-injected Corvette, he said he had no problem racing the Cheetah among sportscars at Mid-Ohio, Nelson Ledges, Lindale Farms, Road Atlanta, and other eastern tracks. He was already familiar with Rochester fuel injection, and the only thing he had to do to the car outside of routine maintenance, was install a hand choke. “I ran the battery down at IRP when it would start and die, start and die, until it wouldn’t crank anymore,” he said.
While he stopped racing it among sports cars in late 1970, shortly before the birth of his son, he did continue racing it in gymkhanas about once a year afterward “just to move the car.” After blowing a radiator at Nelson Ledges, and subsequently overheating the engine, he did have to find another large capacity radiator–the same as the ones Pontiac NASCAR racers used on their cars, he said–and rebuild the engine. Otherwise, the car remains unrestored; Goins said he even has the original magnesium wheels and the tires he bought for it in either 1966 or 1967, though he only uses those for shows.
“My wife and I had a lot of fun with the car,” he said. “We went a lot of places and saw a lot of people.” However, he said he hasn’t had it out for a couple years now, so “it’s just time for somebody else to enjoy it.”
That somebody else will have that opportunity come May 10, when Guernsey’s in New York City will offer it at no reserve in a single-lot auction. For more information about the auction, visit Guernseys.com.