Learn the history of Trans Am Racing with Jay Leno

Learn the history of Trans Am Racing with Jay Leno

The SCCA Trans Am series became iconic in the late 1960s and early 70s. On this episode of “Jay Leno’s Garage,” Jay Leno, NASCAR commentator Mike Joy and historic driver Ken Epsman take a look at the cars that made the era of Trans Am racing so special. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about the history of Trans Am racing.

The SCCA started amateur racing in 1966 with a professional series. The series initially divided modified production cars into two categories: engines with a displacement of less than 2.0 liters and engines with a displacement of more than 2.0 liters, but max. 5.0 liters or 305 cubic inches.

The latter created an opportunity for Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and AMC to launch their then-new pony cars. The Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, Plymouth ‘Cuda, and AMC Javelin all competed in the Trans Am series with factory support during this golden age that lasted until 1972. After that, due to rule changes, the Trans Am went out of production. -based formula.

1971 AMC Javelin Trans Am Race Car in Jay Leno’s Garage

Missing from this list is the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, which was named after the series but was unable to compete because its engine exceeded the 5.0 liter maximum displacement set by the rules. Firebirds competed in Trans Am, albeit with less consistent factory support than Camaros, and GM paid the SCCA a $5 fee for each Firebird Trans Am road car sold. For a while, it was the SCCA’s biggest source of revenue, Joy notes in the video.

What distinguished Trans Am race cars was their resemblance to road cars. The original rules specified basic bodies and powertrains, which made racing interesting and spawned such classic homologation specials as the Ford Mustang Boss 302 and the Chevrolet Camaro Z/28. Those cars were raced by famous drivers such as Dan Gurney and Mark Donohuemaking the Trans Am series bigger business in its day than NASCAR, which was still mostly only popular in the South, Joy says.

The rules forced some interesting solutions, such as the huge oil pan shown here on the Ford Mustang (since a dry oil pan was illegal), or the 1970 Camaro racer using the stock front fascia to save weight instead of the more popular Rally Sport version. . Not everything was stock—the Camaro used a Chevy Impala rear axle to increase the track—but at least that’s what the cars looked like.

At a time when “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was still a reliable strategy, it made the Trans Am an important marketing tool for automakers. This was especially true for AMC, which partnered first with Kaplan Engineering, then Penske Racing, and finally the Roy Woods team to promote the Javelin as an alternative to the Detroit Three pony cars. The effort took titles in 1971 and 1972, giving AMC and the Javelin a brief moment of glory.

The video ends like most of Leno’s videos, with them driving in one of the cars. In this case, it’s the No. 89 1966 Ford Mustang originally raced by Jim Whelan. It’s a treat to hear the 289 with GT40 heads in action on the street.

The Trans Am series still exists today, but the racing cars have little in common with the road cars, and the series has been overshadowed in the United States by the likes of NASCAR, Formula 1, IndyCar and IMSA racing. However, the cars of the 1966-1972 era are still iconic.

This article was originally published by Motor Authorityeditorial partner ClassicCars.com.

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