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IMSA, OPEC and Homologation Skunkworks – the state of sports car racing in early 1974

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[Editor’s Note: Mitch Bishop and Mark Raffauf’s much-anticipated book, IMSA 1969-1989, which officially launches during IMSA‘s season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, covers everything a sports car racing fan would want to know about the first 20 years of the famed series, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Octane Press, the book’s publisher, provided us a couple of stories revealed by Mitch Bishop — son of series founder John Bishop — including this one on the oil embargo’s impact on racing just as the series was attaining global recognition.]

The biggest news of the year happened away from the track. In October 1973, Saudi Arabia — controlled by OPEC — organized an oil embargo in retaliation for United States support of Israel during the Yom Kippur war. Over the next few months, the price of oil spiked globally and long lines formed at the pumps as shortages spread. Things got so bad that a rationing system based on the last digit of license plate numbers dictated which days people could purchase gasoline.

The shortage quickly put pressure on motor sports, which some saw as a wasteful use of a now-precious commodity. Recently promoted NASCAR President Bill France Jr. organized an effective lobbying campaign in Washington, DC, to keep Congress from legislating NASCAR and other sanctioning bodies out of business. He pointed out the reality that it took less energy to put on a race than to fly an NFL football team coast-to-coast. The strategy worked, but concessions had to be made during the embargo, which lasted until April 1974. Some races were shortened, such as the Daytona 500, which ran only 450 miles.

IMSA’s two major endurance races were cancelled outright. Even though IMSA had become a full member of ACCUS and had won the right to sanction the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1974, the race had to be cancelled due to the shortage; Daytona’s owners could not guarantee a supply of fuel to support the thousands of fans expected to attend the event. Sebring was scrubbed for similar reasons, making the Road Atlanta round the opening race of the 1974 season. The event was stretched to six hours in homage to Daytona and Sebring, and was won by Holbert and Elliott Forbes-Robinson in a 3.0-liter Porsche Carrera RSR. Offered through the Porsche customer program, a brand-new, race-ready RSR could be purchased for $30,000 at the time, a real bargain in today’s dollars.

Other interesting cars showed up for the Road Atlanta opener. GM’s skunkworks had homologated new, wider Corvette bodywork in FIA Group 4 for Greenwood, allowing for a wider track and larger wheels and tires, not to mention increased performance from the big-block V-8 engines. John Buffum’s Hurtig Team Libre arrived with the previous year’s factory BMW CSLs from Europe, making the first serious effort by BMW to wrest control of the IMSA series away from Porsche. Theodoracopulos — known as Harry T. or as Harry Alphabet — and Kwech had the latest European Ford Cosworth Capri RS 3600. Numerous Camaros led by Warren Agor, Tony DeLorenzo, and Gene Harrington arrived with wider bodywork and bigger engines as well. There was even an Alfa Romeo Montreal V8 GT car in the mix. Camel GT fields were getting stronger and more diverse.