Rudy Braun's #75 Old Blue
by Wayne Ellwood
In 1974 Greenwood introduced the wide body cars. His team car, the "mule" for much of his suspension and chassis development, was referred to as the "Batmobile" by the press. Performance on the track soon built respect for this state-of-the-art car, culminating in its fame as the Spirit of Sebring 1975.
In its day, the 1974 wide body was a rolling advertisement for Greenwoods accomplishment and vision as a race car constructor. Serious racers lined-up to buy one of his "customer" cars, a group of twelve "series-built" coil-over designs for IMSA and SCCA. But the story of the Batmobile covers a lot more ground than any of the customer cars ever did.
One of the more unusual, and mysterious, appearances for this car was during the 1975 IMSA season. It appeared in so many different guises, under different sponsorship, that it is really quite a challenge to keep them all straight. One of the most interesting forms for this car was the "Old Blue" design, run by Canadian Trans-Am racer, Rudy Braun, and John Greenwood. Apart from Rudy and John themselves, few people even remember this configuration. Fred Cady, who manufactures decals for model cars, and Lance Smith, owner of the car, are two of the few who remember the car and have helped in the research for this story.
Going back to 1974-75, Rudy Braun had approached John Greenwood to build a race car for him and Bob Adam. The first car Rudy bought was a Trans-Am configuration (the white #5 car) which he ran for two years with John Greenwood as driver. The second car was the IMSA spec. car, "Old Blue".
As Rudy tells it, he and John got along amazingly well. The initial 1974 season in Trans-Am was encouraging enough that Rudy continued into 1975 and also took up another car for the IMSA series. This car turned out to be the original wide body car that Greenwood had introduced at the Detroit Auto Show in January 1974 and subsequently used as his "mule" for ongoing chassis development and a model for the customer cars.
This car had previously run in various colors, with drivers such as Greenwood himself, Sam Posey and Milt Mintner. Greenwood said they could drive it for a while and then Rudy could see what he wanted changed. What Rudy wanted to change was the colors. Accordingly, the car was done in a two-tone French racing blue and the dark blue that came from Rudys choice. The graphic scheme for "Old Blue" was developed by a friend of Rudys, out of Vancouver, Paul Smith, who was a graphic artist. Rudy recalls that the final pinstriping and the "dog" graphics were applied one night as they sat in the paint shop (separate from Johns shop) and drank a few beers. What was amazing was not that the shop was so casual, but that the quality was so high. The painter applied the pinstriping freehand
quite complex since it goes from narrow to wide to narrow.
When they tested the car at Mid-America, it was quite impressive. The first real run was at Elkhart Lake. Rudy remembers that Zora was there. Greenwood had always had a good relationship with Zora and Gib Hufstader. While there was never any direct sponsorship or financial support, the GM engineers were interested to see how the privateers were doing with any new parts that could be channeled to the racers. Remember, the wide body panels were also developed with considerable assistance from Randy Wittine and were homologated by GM under manufacturing contract with Diversified Fiberglass. Apparently the net results of everyones contribution was more than adequate, because Rudy remembers that the car was very fast.
Rudy had planned to continue into the 1976 season with John. A new car was being readied and was at the point of being painted. It even went through its trials at the IMSA season finale in 1975, Spirit of Sebring 76, with John nearly blowing Hurley Haywoods Porsche off the track as he flew by him the high banked oval. But Rudys career was also starting to takeoff. Hard choices had to be made and Rudy dropped out of racing. It was a hard decision, according to Rudy, but one that he doesnt regret.
The rest of the story for the Spirit of Sebring 75 is truly intriguing. Each configuration of this wide body car served to test new ideas and new approaches to racing. Over its two important years of racing, John Greenwood had used this car to introduce the wide body design, the Kinsler cross-ram Lucas fuel injection system, Bob Riley coil-over suspension, and many other minor inventions. This was an era in which one car appeared in many guises and, while everyone thinks there must have been many cars pouring out of the Greenwood shops, in reality there were only a few cars and a couple of men dedicated to racing. The "Old Blue" configuration added to the list of achievements and to the mystery of the Greenwood cars.
The Spirit of Sebring '75
an interview with Lance Smith, by Wayne Ellwood
Early in January 1974 a landmark car appeared at the Detroit International Auto Show. It was wide; it was swoopy. It had huge fender extensions; it had an undertray and diffusers. It was John Greenwoods new widebody race car, quickly dubbed the Batmobile. This new car represented both the culmination of Johns learning experiences with his early team cars, the super-fast BFG cars, and more than just a little help from Randy Wittine, Zora Arkus-Duntov and others inside the Corvette program. Credit where it is due, though, John was the mastermind and driving force. To the public, this car was just another extension of his (and Burts) endless innovations.
The car went straight (more or less) from the show room floor to the race track. Introduced at the IMSA Road Atlanta in 1974, it won its first race, hands-down. The rest of the year included a series of wins. But more importantly, this car was Johns "mule" for his ongoing development of the coil-over series of (two) team cars and (one) partial chassis. In 1975, this car ran as the "Spirit of Sebring 75" and (twice) as "Old Blue". It was written about, photographed and it gave the competition fits. The first to imitate its many new features were Porsche and BMW, quickly followed by Monza and other privateers. But John (and Corvette) were there first.
Then the car was (effectively) lost. Corvette lore says that the car was sold at auction (not too far off) painted pink (right color range) and possibly driven to Las Vegas (and lost along the way). From there the car was never seen again. But like all treasures, it is hard to hide this much glitter. The car resurfaced early in 1997 in the hands of Lance Smith, sleuth to the pre-'76 Greenwood cars, collector and historic racer. What was lost had been found and there is a story in here. Get ready for this, Lances story is about to turn another myth on its head.
Lance, just before we get going on the "Spirit" car, tell us again how you got started with this fascination for the Greenwood cars.
Well, Im still a fairly young guy, so when the widebody car was introduced in 1974, I was really still in college. But the car made a huge impression on me. It was for me. I sketched it. I dreamed about it. I started putting these flares and fat tires on my street cars.
Once I was established in business, the need to own these cars came back to me. I bought the Shulnberg (customer chassis #08) car and then I found the DeLeo (customer chassis #12) car and the "Swiss Cheese" car (which is just about ready, by the way). But behind it all was the idea that if I could just find one of the coil-over cars, I would be really happy. Actually, to make matters worse (in terms of personal torment), the Spirit of Sebring 76 was for sale a couple of times throughout this period and I could have had it, if I could have come up with that much money.
So when did you start to think you had a lead on the 75 car ?
Well, I think the trail actually started in 1976 right after John sold the car. You will recall that after he set a lap record at Daytona in the 1975 car at the IMSA season finale, he sold the car and brought out the 1976 Spirit of Sebring.
I started my search, like I always do, by scanning the magazines. I saw an article by Walt Thurn in Corvette News, I think, that said that Juan Olivera had shown up about half way through the season with an ex-Greenwood ultra-car. The car ran as #96, at least for the first race at Mid-Ohio. But Juan had none of the Greenwood graphics, so the car didnt attract as much attention. Anyway, he seems to have run about three races in 1976 and then everything disappeared. Thats where the mystery originally sets in.
When I tried to find Juan Olivera years later, I started with Phil Currin because he had also run in that race. I was pretty sure that Phil would keep all his stuff so I asked him if he knew where Juan came from. He checked his log books and said that Juan came from Port Huron, MI. So I got on the phone and tried to track him down. Dead end. Same with his co-driver. I was getting nowhere so the idea kind of slipped away again for a couple of years.
About two years later Im still looking through the magazines and there is an ad for Dennis Tracy with a car that looks like the Greenwood car, with a model sitting on the hood. The car was painted red and white but it sure looked like the car. I called his shop to ask if that was the Greenwood car. I got someone on the other end who must not have known what I was talking about because they kept telling me it was the Rick Hay car. Now the two cars were different in several respects (color most obviously) so I didnt believe this story. But, still, since I was hitting dead-end, I let go of that lead too.
Now, just to keep the story short, what had really happened was that Juan had been killed in a motorcycle accident on the street, in the 1976 year. His estate tried to sell the car and, I think, a friend of Oliveras had committed to buy it. But he never seemed to close the deal so whether he bought it, or whatever, Dennis Tracy got the car. I havent actually talked with Dennis about this part, but I figure that since Dennis had done work for Juan, he was probably helping the widow to find a new buyer. Of course, at the same time, Dennis was already sponsoring a number of other racers like Rick Hay (#69) so he wouldnt have had the time or money to put the car back on the track. So he used it for promotional purposes and brought it out to a lot of shows and swap meets to draw attention to his shop.
In 1982, Dennis sold the car to Mike Barretta in Munich for $15,000. Mike is an importer of American cars to Europe and a bit of a club racer over there too. Barretta painted the car in his colors (all red) with white accents and blue lettering.
So, now, back to my story. I was following ad in Hemmings. Mike Barretta is trying to sell two Greenwood cars. But the terminology is a bit obscure and the photos are reversed. The first car advertised is listed a 1975 Greenwood but it looks more like a "customer" car. The second one is listed as a 1976 wide body race car (ex-Garcia) car, but the photo is more like the "team" car with the second generation bodywork and it has a carburetor not the cross-ram injection, and its shown without the roof in place. This is very confusing... Add to this the fact that the Garcia car was supposed to have been taken to South America and crashed beyond repair. But... I called anyway.
My first phone call to Mike helped to clear up a few points. Yes he did buy one of the cars from Dennis Tracy and yes the other was from South America. The Tracy car had a carburetor on it when he bought it and a cast iron block. Barretta also remembered that one of the drivers for the Tracy car had been a doctor. Well, Milt Mintner had been a doctor and he had driven the car once at Talladega, so that was possible.
There were still a lot of questions unanswered but this looks too good to pass-up. So I start off on a fairly extended series of discussions and exchange of photos with Mike Barretta. Ill make this part of the story short, too. But, I do have to say that it was complicated by the fact that Mike was unclear on some of the details about the car. Some of the pieces, like the unique one-off curved vinyl-covered dash, virtually confirmed the car, But other pieces had been taken off the car ( the cross-ram injection, Johns original seat) and others had been removed or changed. Another example of how things get changed over time was the body work on the car. When Mike Barretta had bought the car he decided to do a bit of club racing with it. He only raced it about five times in the five or six years he had the car but, unfortunately, on one of the occasions he crashed and did some front end damage. He replaced the first generation Greenwood front end with a newer second generation front. The difference is that the flares have a "step-down" on the first generation but a more extended parabola on the newer version. This was important because it is part of the detail that helps you to track a car, using ads and photos.
So, you cant jump to conclusions in this game. Still, after getting all the stories straight and checking the sequence of events, it was looking real good. Plus, as a clincher, Mike also had the original shipping orders that proved it came from Dennis Tracy to Frankfurt and then on to Munich.
It was time to call Dennis Tracy. When I asked Dennis if he had sold an "old Corvette" to Mike barretta, he said, "Oh yeah, the Greenwood car." Clang, clang, clang. Bells are ringing. I dont want him to go buy the car back, so Im getting real careful. I asked him, "So what do you know about it?" He says, "Oh, its the Olivera car". Well, thats it. I get off the phone as quickly as I can without looking suspicious and the wheels are turning. I think I might have done a little dance.
I had reached the point that I was certain about the car. A visit was in order. But this is also the point in collecting cars when your nerves come into play. Now Im pretty sure about the car but Mike says there are two other people who might be interested in it. Charles Hance, who owns the third coil-over chassis, had been in touch with him and asked for pictures to help him buildup his (third) coil-over chassis. But are there others? Do they know what it is? Are they serious? Can I keep myself under control to negotiate a fair price? How will I get it home?
Finally, Mike and I did agree on price and because his business is import, he arranged the shipping. The car was sent to Canada by ship and from there to Cleveland by truck. It cleared customs at Cleveland and then on to my place here in Pittsburgh.
So, after all these years, how close is the car to original?
Amazingly close. Now there are some things which have been changed but nothing that cant be fixed.
First, the engine is not an all-aluminum engine. Its cast iron 454 with an LS-7 crank and 10.5:1 compression. It had a four barrel on it when I bought it. I think this change was probably made when Dennis Tracy got the car. It would have made for a more reliable engine and permitted both Tracy and Barretta to use it on the street too. I plan to leave the block for the moment but I have installed one of my own cross-ram manifolds and Kinsler/Lucas mechanical timed-injection systems from the Shulnberg "customer" car. I also replaced the (second-generation 1976) front clip with a first-generation 1975 model (also off my Shulnberg car). The first generation fenders still have the cutouts for the headers, even though John never did go with that configuration for the customer cars. When Mike crashed the car, he took out the headlight buckets and lights. He had saved the buckets so I put those back in and I found some new covers. Now its legal for our historic races (and the street) and I also made some molds so that I can repair any future damage.
Sidebar on Dash Detail
The dash is a one-off fabricated item. It has a familiar Greenwood look for the main pod in front of the driver with the tach and large oil pressure gauge. The rest of the dash is unique to the Spirit of Sebring 75, however. It was constructed with a curved section on the passenger side to house all the other minor gauges, switches and circuit breakers. This dash, which is visible in the early magazine articles on this car, was a major point in the vehicle identification process.
The main switches in the right hand side pod are: start, master ignition, master power, ignition on, axle cooler, lights, fuel pump #1, fuel pump #2 (now listed as high pressure start, for the Kinsler/Lucas fuel injection system, and wipers. This is followed by a row of breakers for the main electrical circuits (one for each side of the car, in Greenwood tradition). The original brake light breaker has been replaced with a switch, presumably after John sold it. (The console pod area has all the Stewart Warner gauges. There is water temp, oil pressure, amps, fuel pressure, transmission temperature, oil level (in the dry sump) and the Hobbs meter (engine hours). To the left of the driver are the high/low beam switch, left/right turn signal, and a switch for supplementary radiator fans, also added by some owner after John and probably for street driving purposes.
The accident also seems to have taken out the Emory Donaldson needle-bearing bushings in the a-arms. These can be replaced but its another one of those little details that drive you crazy. The cage and chassis are original and the dash is the same unique variant that John originally constructed for the car (see sidebar). The chassis is stamped as Greenwood #002 on the front upper cross brace and again with a Greenwood plaque in the normal serial number location on the windshield pillar.
Now this also brings up a couple of other interesting points. First, all three chassis for the coil-over cars were acid-dipped. John didnt do this for any of the other cars in this era but it does suggest that all three chassis were started at the same time, even if they were finished at different points in time. Then, there is the question of why this chassis was given serial #002. Theoretically, it should be #001. I cant answer that one. Also, up to this car, Burt had used black for the chassis paint. After this car the chassis would be painted gray. This car was repainted in gray before being sold to Olivera.
Johns original seat with an extension for his right leg and a separate seat belt for his right leg is also there. I have replaced the steering wheel that was in the car when I bought it with an original Firebird type. John sat further back in the car so he used a tilt column with the Firebird wheel which sat out about an inch and a half further than some of the other wheels. The original tilt system is gone but I will replace that. The car has its Sterling mags, coil-over suspension all round, and dry-break fuel system that John and Burt built-in.
The original work on the chassis was by Ron Fournier who has also worked for Penske, Foyt, Holman & Moody and so on. His work is impeccable and you can tell it is a craftsman who put this chassis together. Ron did the work right in Greenwoods Dearborn shop at 2700 Princeton Street. When John moved his shop to Florida, Ron stayed right there and used the same equipment to start Protofab. I dont think he is still with Protofab, but its interesting to see how the good guys circulated around the major teams and started all the businesses we think are so hot now.
The car, itself, has been configured a couple of different ways by John himself. I have seen one magazine picture where it was equipped with an (early) vertical stack fuel injection system. And then, part way through 1975, the car ran a couple of races (one was Mid-Ohio) with Rudy Braun dressed as "Old Blue", which was what John is reported to have called his original #48 car. Then the car ran one race as the "Spirit of Riverside 75".
There is one really exciting bit of evidence on this car that also proves the body work to be pretty much the original stuff, except for the front clip, of course. Early in 1975 John and Burt were experimenting with rear-mounted coolers. Huge NACA ducts were cut into the door panels and fed tunnels in the rear fender extensions. The original work has been patched over, but its really rough. The evidence of that experiment is still with the car. I find that very exciting. Remember, this was his "mule" car and he tested everything on this car before it went on to the other cars.
Have you driven the car since you got it home?
Yes, Ive had it out a few times. I took it to the Poconos event with the red paint still on it. Then I painted it white and put some partial lettering on it for Steamboat Springs Aug. 29-31, 1997. Then, most recently, dad and I took it to Watkins Glen Historic Races on September 04-07, 1997. That was a bit of a disappointing weekend because I cut a tire going down into the boot and the car drifted into the tire wall. The body damage wasnt very bad, just a bit of glass repair, but it was a still a bummer (or is that bumper?) You know, I was scheduled to come into the pits on the next lap and dad was going to take it out. If that had happened while he was out and he had told me that there was no steering when the tire went down, I probably wouldnt have believed it. That had never happened to me before and it was just amazing how little control was left. It just reconfirmed my opinion that you never borrow someone elses car because if something happens, chances are good that your story isnt going to sell... even when its true. You just have to experience these things to see how very real they are.