What Trans Am Is Like Today

Photography Credit: Chris Clark

Story by Preston Lerner • Photography as Credited

Ask the experts how to make racing better, and most of them will offer the same formula: more horsepower, less downforce, no driver aids. Bonus points for cars that look bitchin’ and sound awesome while thundering around historic road courses and daunting street circuits.

Seems like an impossible dream, right? Actually, it’s the formula behind one of the best, if most overlooked, road racing series in North America: Trans Am.

Of all the cars I’ve raced, modern Trans Ams are the most fun to drive,” says Boris Said, whose logbook encompasses everything from prototypes to stock cars. “The new ones are even better than the old ones. We used to get 650 horsepower out of 310 cubic inches. Now they’re using NASCAR motors making 850 horsepower. That’ll get your attention leaving a slow corner. It’s like racing a really fast vintage car.”

A Strong Heritage

Officially known as the Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli in honor of the spec tire, this racing throwback is a cost-effective alternative to the ultra-expensive, factory-built cars marketed through customer racing programs in IMSA, World Challenge America, and one-make series such as Ferrari Challenge and the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup. Featuring tube-frame chassis, silhouette bodies that mimic street cars, and honking American pushrod V8s, Trans Am thoroughbreds can match the lap times turned by GT3, GT4 and TCR cars at a fraction of the cost.

“In terms of bang for the buck, you can’t beat it,” says Lawrence Loshak, a Trans Am race winner who’s earned SCCA national championships in production cars, formula cars and sports racers. “The cars are crazy fast. We’re approaching 190 mph at most tracks and 200 mph at Daytona. Sometimes we have to start braking before the first brake marker! It baffles me that the series isn’t two, three, four times larger than it is. But I think it’s on the brink of getting back to where it was in its heyday.”

Make that heydays. Trans Am is America’s longest-lived road racing series. But since its inception in 1966, it’s been through more ups and downs than a helicopter doing air taxi duty.


Photography Courtesy Ford

At the first race of what was then known as the Trans American Sedan Series, at Sebring, the winner was future Formula 1 world champion Jochen Rindt, with Over 2.0-Liter class honors going to Bob Tullius of Group 44 fame. But the series quickly became synonymous with factory-backed pony cars–Mustangs, Camaros, Barracudas, Javelins and so on–driven by heroes such as Parnelli Jones and Mark Donohue. There was also a 2.5-liter championship, famously won by John Morton in a funky BRE Datsun 510.

This is generally thought of as the golden age of Trans Am. But the fuel crisis of 1973 killed the pony car craze, and when the manufacturers bailed, the wheels came off the series. In 1980, in an effort to attract some new blood, Trans Am shifted from production-based cars to tube-frame chassis with fiberglass bodies that resembled–very vaguely, in some cases–vehicles sold on showroom floors.


Photograph Courtesy Ford

There were some stellar years during the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, with headliners like Willy T. Ribbs, David Hobbs, Scott Pruett, Lyn St. James, Hurley Haywood and, most successful of all, Tommy Kendall. But it tended to be feast or famine, depending on the participation–or lack thereof–of car manufacturers, which periodically sunk a bunch of money into the series and dramatically raised its profile.

“We’ve had a lot of manufacturer involvement over the years, and it’s nice to have all those resources and see all the win ads,” says series President and CEO John Clagett, who’s been with Trans Am on and off for the past 35 years. “But by and large, factories come, and factories go whenever they’ve accomplished their goals.”


Photograph Courtesy Ford

And Looking Forward

By 2006, the factories had disappeared from the scene, and so had most of the competitors. The entire schedule consisted of two races, both of them run at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kansas. At the end of the “season,” the series was euthanized.

But interest in ground-pounding V8-powered door-slammers never went away. And big-bore GT1 cars, most wearing Corvette bodywork, remained a perennial fave in SCCA club racing. So in 2009, SCCA Pro Racing revived the Trans Am series, based on GT1 rules.

The initial response was tepid. But the series developed traction in 2011, when longtime Trans Am driver and team owner Jim Derhaag put together a new management team under the Trans Am Race Company banner. “The concept was to go to historic and heritage-type venues and put together a rules package that, number one, was cost efficient, and two, wasn’t going to change on a continual basis,” Clagett says.

With SCCA Pro Racing continuing to sanction races and provide operational support, the series has grown steadily.


Photography Credit: Chris Clark

Trans Am now features four classes. The bottom two, known as SGT and GT, are catchall categories for everything from Viper ACRs and Lamborghini LP 570-4 Super Trofeo cars to limited-prep home builds that slot into the correct performance window. As Trans Am Technical Director Aaron Coalwell says, “We try very hard to fit your car in.”

You can think of the second-tier class, TA2 presented by AEM, as Spec Miata meets NASCAR, with a semi-spec rules package designed to promote close competition while holding the line on cost. Tube-frame cars must be bought from one of three approved chassis builders, and seven approved engine builders provide sealed motors for the appropriate bodywork: a 376-cubic-inch LS3 for a Chevrolet Camaro, a 368-cubic-inch Windsor for a Ford Mustang, and a 392-cubic-inch Hemi for a Dodge Challenger. (Power is equalized by a less expensive version of the LS3, badged as the TA2 Choice Engine, that can be used in any car.)

Turnkey cars are available for as little as $111,000, which is a steal by pro racing standards. With nearly 500 horsepower motivating 2830 pounds, a TA2 car will obliterate a significantly more expensive TCR machine and lap as quickly as a GT4 costing twice as much. Admittedly, sophistication isn’t the class’s strong suit. Conceptually, TA2 entries are stock cars modified for road racing, and they feature last-gen components such as live axles, H-pattern shifters and 15-inch steel wheels.

“People think that the car is going to be a wild animal and you’ve got to climb into a ring with a lion to drive the car,” says Joe Stevens, owner of Stevens-Miller Racing, which runs five arrive-and-drive cars in the TA2 class. “But it does everything a race car is supposed to do. Another great thing about the class is the depth of the fields. No matter where you start, you’re going to be racing door to door with somebody for 100 miles.”

TA2 has caught fire, routinely drawing 25-car fields. That's large enough to justify a standalone run group. (The other three classes compete in a second run group.) The class has also become a popular destination for drivers looking to make a career out of racing. It’s no coincidence that more than a dozen young guns with NASCAR development contracts have sampled TA2, most notably Justin Haley, who went on to score a win in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 Monster Energy Cup race at Daytona earlier this year.


Photography Credit: Chris Clark

But even though TA2 is growing faster as a class, TA remains the king of the hill because the rules are much more open. With a wheelbase of 102 inches, the tube-frame chassis are designed and scratch-built specifically for road racing, so they brake and corner far better than the TA2s. They also pack a much bigger wallop thanks to a carbureted, fire-breathing 6.0-liter V8. (Loshak likes to say that the cars “have America coming out the exhaust.”) Many of them are ex-NASCAR engines overbored from 358 to 366 cubic inches, and they’re good for as much as 850 horsepower and 550 lb.-ft. of torque.

“The TA car is absolutely nuts to drive,” says reigning TA champ Ernie Francis Jr., a 21-year-old tyro who graduated to Trans Am after stints in karting and Spec Miata. “It has so much horsepower that it never stops pulling, but you have such big tires that you can really roll a lot of speed through the turns.” As for the lack of antilock brakes or traction control, he says, “In a TA car, you are the traction control.”

Telemetry is prohibited, and the only permissible driver aid is a sequential gearbox with auto blip on downshift and shift-without-lift capability. But you get a weight break for running an H-pattern ’box, which is the weapon of choice of past champions Boris Said, Amy Ruman and Simon Gregg. You can also save additional weight by forgoing tunnels in the undertray, thereby reducing aerodynamic grip.

“The GT3 cars look great, and they have a lot of downforce, which makes them fast around the track. But they’re real vanilla compared to the TA cars,” Said says. “You have to be a butcher to drive a GT3 car fast. There’s no finesse at all. You need a tenth of the skill you use in Trans Am.”

That’s exactly what attracted Chris Dyson to the series. Best known for his exploits in prototypes and GT3 cars, Dyson formed a Trans Am team to complement his oval track program of midgets, sprint cars and Silver Crown cars.


Photography Credit: Chris Clark

“Trans Am makes more traditional requests of the driver,” he says. “It’s old school in the way it rewards the artistry of driving. You’ve got to drive the cars with a special type of discipline because of the lack of driver aids. And because of the rules package, there’s not a lot of obsolescence. The cars retain good residual value on the club market.”

The value proposition remains one of Trans Am’s most appealing features, especially when you consider how much cheaper it is to repair a tube-frame chassis than to replace a crash-damaged tub. Which raises the question: If the costs are so modest (relatively), the cars are so much fun to drive, and the racing is so competitive, why isn’t Trans Am a bigger deal?

A couple of reasons: For starters, manufacturers aren’t eager to invest in a series offering no obvious relationship to their street cars or opportunity to generate revenue for their customer racing programs. Also, the 100-mile sprint race format means you can’t pair an amateur with a pro, which is a common practice in endurance racing. So if you’re slow, you can’t count on pit strategy or a paid co-driver to prevent you from finishing DFL.

Still, as Loshak says, “I would guess 99% of the racers in the country would like to drive a TA car if they could.” If they start voting with their feet, we just might see road racing muscle cars on center stage again, back where they belong.

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Comments
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slowbird
slowbird Dork
1/29/20 9:24 a.m.

I love Trans-Am, past and present. In its current iteration, it just needs about 2-4 more front-running TA cars to start approaching the glory days. But I keep hoping they'll get there. The cars still look and sound awesome. TA2 is cool too.

They also just announced an XGT class for older, out-of-homologation GT3 cars, so my pipe dream of someday racing a 2000s Ford GT lives on.

(There's one that raced in 2018! Someone truck it over here and let me drive it)

z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
1/29/20 9:37 a.m.

TA is great! I do wish they bared a bit more resemblance to the street-going versions, but that's a very minor gripe. 

Makes me wonder what happened to the signed Tommy Kendall poster I used to have in my bedroom when I was younger. 

Mike924
Mike924 HalfDork
1/29/20 9:41 a.m.

I remember seeing them at Mosport in Ontario Canada when the Audi Quattro's ran.  Still miss the thunder, but glad to see it making a comeback.  It needs some Live TV coverage to show some more love.  

_
_ Dork
1/29/20 10:46 a.m.

How can I watch this on a monitor? Not an iPad. Not a tv channel. A monitor. Preferably free. 

frenchyd
frenchyd PowerDork
1/29/20 10:57 a.m.

In reply to The Staff of Motorsport Marketing :

And for those of us past a certain age, can enjoy Vintage Trans Am Racing.  No they aren't as fast, but they can be affordable. Easy to pick up a older Camero, Mustang,  or even Jaguar and whip up a tribute car.  
While it won't get you invited to Monterey most vintage groups will be happy to have you join them even if it's nothing more than a stripped out street car with an automatic.  

mikeatrpi
mikeatrpi HalfDork
1/29/20 12:00 p.m.

I love TransAm.  So happy to see them back at Lime Rock too!!!!!

Rons
Rons Reader
1/29/20 2:02 p.m.

An early 80's Trans Am car, the late Loren StLawrence Michelob 450SLC https://www.racingsportscars.com/type/photo/Mercedes-Benz/450%20SL.html

frenchyd
frenchyd PowerDork
1/29/20 2:33 p.m.

In reply to Rons :

I really like cars like that in the Trans Am. Something besides the usual pushrod engine stuff. 

Rons
Rons Reader
1/29/20 5:44 p.m.

In reply to frenchyd :

The SCCA really messed around with the Trans Am series, for 1980 they got rid of the Group 5 funny cars and we had the tube cars with some tubs they were on a good path. In 80 John Bauer won the championship in an ex IROC Carrerra. In 81 Eppie Wietze won in a Corvette. They were on track.

Then they startred allowing turbos and a new generation of funny cars and really destroyed the series.

TR8 Todds New TR8 would have been perfect there and the log book may show an entry or two.

DirtyBird222
DirtyBird222 UberDork
1/29/20 6:45 p.m.

I enjoy watching the Trans Am races when you can figure out how they are being broadcast. I don't mind the tubeframes either, just look at how great the racing was in the original Daytona Prototypes. 

I would love to see a return to a true showroom stock style series in some fashion. IMSA's Michelin Tire Challenge has strayed so far away from that formula it's not as fun to watch. It's always nice when you can relate to a car on a track that you can literally go down the street and buy. The older GS and ST classes filled that with some awesome racing as well. SCCA should reignite the old Firehawk series to run on the same weekends as Trans Am. Make it a traveling circus. 

z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
1/30/20 7:04 a.m.
frenchyd said:

In reply to Rons :

I really like cars like that in the Trans Am. Something besides the usual pushrod engine stuff. 

When I was looking up old TA car, I really, REALLY dug the Jag I saw.........think it won the title in '77 it said?

frenchyd
frenchyd PowerDork
1/30/20 12:41 p.m.

In reply to z31maniac :

Looking at group 44's  cars back then and talking to them  is why I started on the V12.  I assumed that like the Chevy, Ford etc. everything was specially made for racing but they assured me it wasn't that way.  I thought the earlier 3.8 in line six was well made but once you open up a V12 you understand how strong it really is.

 Their tube frame car really is little more than a late model modified with a stock roof panel and all the rest of the body skins are Fiberglas. They only saved a little weight that way but assumed that because the series was getting much more competitive with bigger fields  they needed to be able to quickly replace damaged panels. 

Mike924
Mike924 HalfDork
1/30/20 12:57 p.m.

In reply to Rons :

Also in that race is something that I only saw race in the 200X Challenge.  An AMC Concord!!

https://www.racingsportscars.com/photo/1981/Portland-1981-06-14-077.jpg

 

rglfinn
rglfinn
1/30/20 1:16 p.m.

Trans Am is such a great series. Who can forget the late 60's/early 70', then the 80's battles. The current TA2 class is just fantastic. I go to VIR and to boot I get to watch SVRA and Trans Am together. Probably the best fan bargain out there. The TA2 cars at least resemble the current models much better than NASCAR or Pro Stock in NHRA. Another exciting class to watch is the Factory Stock Showdown class in NHRA and NMCA featuring the current crop of COPO Camaros, Cobra Jet Mustangs, and Factory Pac Challengers.

Aaron_King
Aaron_King PowerDork
1/30/20 2:15 p.m.

I took my 12 year old son and a friend of his to the Trans AM race at Mid Ohio this summer and it was awesome watch and listen to.  Dyson's Mustang has to be one of the best sounding race cars I have ever heard.

frenchyd
frenchyd PowerDork
1/30/20 4:02 p.m.

In reply to rglfinn :

In the mid to late 70's Trans  Am used Vintage racing at Brainerd as it's noon filler. We got a couple of 20 minute practice sessions ( I think more to weed out the cripples than any real speed practice) on Saturday. Then Sunday we lined up and roared off.  
Free entry ( well except $10 we put in our clubs kitty )  borrowed suit,  helmet, seatbelt, and fire extinguisher.   Nothing else!  
The MGT group met prior to the race and agreed to let the slowest car set the pace and the rest of us would pass and repass, always ensuring the slow guy always led the pack of us across the start finish line.  The last lap was the only real race.  Mark Brandow  and I  were  the fastest His supercharged MGTC easily had more power than My bone stock TD but I had a few tricks up my sleeve.  I had started the pace lap with my windshield up as had everyone in our group but I tipped it down in the slow part of the pace lap.  I had a full tonneau zipped 1/2 open so air would slide over the cockpit. That slight reduction in drag And strategy I hoped to make up for his power advantage. 
Tucking right up behind his gas tank he pulled me along with him as he passed everyone else in the T group. I kept peeking out behind him on his left ( MGTC is right hand drive) but just a couple inches would slow me down.  
Down the long straight I stayed tucked in. On the banking and leading to the straight before turn three I stayed glued to his gas tank.  Just momentarily faking a pass to his left just before turn 3. (A 90 degree+ Sharp turn to the right.  That drew him completely to the left side of the track.  The moment he lifted and went for the brakes I dove hard right with my foot still planted on the throttle.  
A MGTC has single leading shoe brakes, while a MGTD has double leading shoe.  Massively better at stopping power.  Positioned in front of him now he couldn't use his power to overtake me ( although he tried, but MGT series are momentum cars. Every use of your brakes costs you.). I was able to hold him off until after turn 9. When he just motored by me  on the straight leading up to the main straight.  I deliberately let him pass me on my right which put him on the inside going into the last turn before the main straight and the finish line.  
Staying high, I barely lifted going into turn 10 While he actually had to downshift into 3rd.  Trying to maintain momentum I went slightly wide, even putting outside tires on the grass. But I exited doing 60 compared to about 40-45? I tucked in behind Bob Bodines 250 TDF Ferrari which had come around to lap us, for whatever draft I could get, Here he came though. Mark really had the bit between his teeth and the finish line seemed too far.  Whatever draft I picked up from Bob was just enough.  I finished 12th to Mark's 13th 

To watch Group 44 win the Trans Am race

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