Back when Joe Hoppen saved the Trans-Am
The Trans-Am may well be the longest running professional road racing series in
the world. However, it is also something else: the longest running soap opera in
motorsport. During its nearly 40-year lifetime, the Trans-Am has undergone so
many changes in format to keep on breathing, that its transformations rival those
of a plastic surgery devotee seeking one last face lift prior to being committed to
Originally created in 1966 as a means of validating Detroit’s then growing muscle
pony car set, the Trans-Am flourished through 1970 when no less than six
different brands’ Ford’s Mustang, Chevrolet’s Camaro. Pontiac’s Firebird,
American Motors’ Javelin, Plymouth’s Barracuda, and Dodge’s Challenger were
all represented by factory supported teams. It was the year after that when things
began to unravel as the factories cut back, wanting to be politically correct by
concentrating on emissions and safety as a means of easing the pressure from
Bambi vs. Godzilla
By 1973, the situation had become bad enough that the SCCA scrapped its
original format focusing on Detroit, and admitted the foreigners, such as Porsche
as full fledged contestants. The SCCA title chase had been reduced to what was
a weak clone of IMSA’S Camel GT Challenge – ironically the product of IMSA
president John Bishop’s inventive mind; the same John Bishop who had given
birth to the Trans-Am as the Executive Director of the SCCA.
The problem for the SCCA was that IMSA did it better, and with the oil crisis in the
fall of 1973, and the winter of 1974, the Trans-Am was in deep trouble, Indeed,
just a handful of events were held during the latter year, as once again SCCA
officials sought a solution. Their answer was found in the largely amateur ranks of
their National Championship program.
Under the new formula, the Trans-Am would draw its entries from the A, B and C
Production categories, the amateurs racing for purses less than modest, but still
more money and the trophy only prizes they were used to on the National scene.
What the SCCA discovered was that few people cared; so few in fact that potential
undertakers were gathering by the end of the 1975 season.
It was at this point that Josef Hoppen entered the picture. In terms of “White
Knights,” Hoppen was probably the most unlikely candidate for the job. Born in the
decade before the Second World War, Hoppen, who had worked in Porsche’s
competition department as a young man, came to the United States in 1957,
going to work for a Volkswagen dealer in Daytona Beach, while racing a series of
Porsche Spyders in the SCCA.
By the first part of the 1960’s he had gone to work for Volkswagen of America as a
field representative, coming back to VWoA’s New Jersey headquarters as a rising
executive in the middle of the decade. Because of his motorsport background,
VW’s management sent Hoppen to look after the company’s interests in Formula
Vee, the new clan of Volkswagen powered open wheel single seaters, at such
special events as the Nassau Speedweeks.
In 1968, Hoppen was made the boss of VWoA’s Special Vehicles Department, the
purposely vague title hiding its true mission to utilize motorsport as a marketing
tool, especially in light of the fact that as of 1969, VWoA would be importing and
selling Porsches, as well as Audis in North America. For Hoppen, the plunge was
to be deep. Within months, he was involved in the Can-Am, putting together a
program that brought Jo Siffert to the series under the banner of VWoA’s newly
established Porsche+Audi division in the Porsche 917 P/A Spyder.
It was to be a precursor to a multi year program that Hoppen hoped would bring
Porsche victory over the then dominant McLarens by 1971. Although winning in the
Can-Am would take a year longer and involve much politics, not to mention the
development of the specialized 1000 plus horsepower 917 open cockpit Turbos,
Hoppen’s dream would become reality – so much so that when the SCCA
decided to kick the 917s out by rendering them uncompetitive for 1974, the
change killed the series.
By this point, however, the scope of Hoppen’s activities had broadened to include
John Bishop’s newly formed International Motorsport Association, founded by
John Bishop in 1969 with the help of NASCAR’s Bill France, Sr., after being forced
to resign from the SCCA in as power struggle that didn’t go Bishop’s way. One of
the first people the ex-SCCA executive sought out for help after establishing his
sanctioning body was Hoppen, who at the time was looking for an alternative to
Over Under Sideways Down
“The SCCA was giving us a hard time about the 911, having made it ineligible for
the Under Two Liter Division of the Trans-Am, and had also been unhelpful with
getting our 914 National Championship program off the ground. John seemed to
provide not only a balance to that, but a venue where we could display the
attributes of both models to our customers.” It was to be a long marriage, one
extending into the 1980’s when Hoppen retired and Bishop sold IMSA. Still, it
wasn’t always a happy one.
“Sometimes, I think John didn’t understand that I worked for a company which
sold street, not race vehicles. What we were not was in the race car business, our
involvement in motorsport was intended strictly to help boost the recognition and
sales of our street products,” In short, Hoppen’s largess came with strings that
either Bishop didn’t see, or didn’t want to see, at least not in the beginning.
By 1973, though, the commercialism of which Hoppen was so well aware, and
which has for so long driven Porsche’s competition activities, became imbedded
in Bishop’s psyche, much to the IMSA founder’s dismay. For Bishop, the secret to
the success of Camel GT was close competitive racing. Likewise, the secret to
IMSA’s success was a large diverse competitor base that would form the
underpinnings of that exercise and provide the kind of on-going revenues IMSA
needed to survive and prosper.
In fact, there was much of both. Unfortunately, for the most part. The competitor
base used Porsches. Likewise, the close racing was a fratricidal clash among
the Porsche Carrera RSR set. Such was the domination of the 911s from
Zuffenhausen that BMW’s factory CSL coupe operation, which the Munich
company believed would have little trouble using IMSA’s Porsche privateers to
wipe the pavement with, lasted but a year before returning to Germany at the end
of 1975 in defeat.
Had Hoppen’s mandate been different, Bishop possibly could have gotten the
Special Vehicles Manager to back off a bit. But, since it wasn’t, and since Hoppen
intended to pursue it to complete success, Bishop had to find another way. That
turned out to be the homegrown, tube-frame All American GT silhouette racers. In
effect. These were front-engine Can-Am cars clothed in production body shells
whose admittance to the Camel GT was controlled strictly by Bishop and IMSA.
As a plan to foil the Porsche crowd, the AAGT concept was perfect at least as long
as the opposition was based on Porsche’s non-turbo Carrera RSR. Unhappily for
Bishop, Porsche had discovered the joys of turbocharging in the Can-Am, and
had transferred that knowledge to its 911 universe in the form of the 1974
bewinged, Martini sponsored Carrera RSR Turbo which finished second overall at
Le Mans that June behind a full blooded Matra V-12 sports racing prototype.
The Turbo RSR was a true prototype in that it was the predecessor to the 934 and
935 Group 4 and Group 5 coupes that would vie for the FIA’s new silhouette World
Championship of Makes in 1976. Initially, the much more modified 935 was
intended as a “factory only” entry, while the more “stock” 934 would become the
customer car Porsche hoped its Carrera RSR owners would purchase to replace
their current racers.
Ultimately. Bishop would be faced with the problem of what to do with the 935
once it was released for customer sale in 1977. However, in 1975, as the German
firm began development work on the 934, the sole issue before the IMSA
president was how to introduce it into the Camel GT family without furthering
Porsche’s domination of the series.
Hoppen saw the issue simply: “For 1976, only the 934 would be available to our
IMSA customers since we would cease production of the Carrera RSR after 1975.
When I explained that to John he accepted it, and said that the 934 would be
allowed to compete in the Camel GT for 1976.” Bishop was uneasy about his
decision, especially after the trip he and his wife Peggy took to Porsche’s famed
Weissach test center in the summer of 1975 to see the new 934 in person.
While the 934 was by no means perfect with its high (more than 2400 lb) weight,
narrow 12-inch wide rear rims and low downforce aerodynamics, Bishop saw a
car with tremendous potential when compared to its predecessor. After coming
home he polled his Carrera RSR owners for their opinion on the issue of the
934’s suitability as replacement for the current 911s. Universally they complained
about the increased costs of their intended 1976 mounts, which was all Bishop
needed to change his mind.
“I was in Weissach with Peter Gregg and Al Holbert,” remembered Hoppen,
“doing some final shakedown test on the 934 in October when John called me to
say that he had changed his mind and would not permit the 934 to race in IMSA.
Because I was surrounded by Porsche’s management, I simply said that we
would discuss it later when I go back to the United States and hung up. However, I
can tell you I was truly shocked. It was an unpleasant surprise.”
Indeed. as was Hoppen’s usual custom, he had committed on behalf of VWoA to
purchase nearly a dozen of the new car for onward sale to his customers.
Perhaps even more importantly he had done so, again as he usually did, without
telling Volkswagen of America, which generally didn’t care about such matters as
long as the cars were resold quickly. Now, Hoppen was the proud possessor of a
bunch of expensive vehicles, for which, unless he could find a quick solution, he
had no customers.
“Even though I was able to get Porsche to take back some of the cars, there about
five or six for which I was still on the hook. Believe me, I was really scrambling to
find a way out.” Hoppen’s position wasn’t helped when Bishop stuck to his
decision during a subsequent meeting in New York where Hoppen’s arguments
for the 934 proved fruitless.
Still, the VWoA man’s resourcefulness could not be discounted as he arranged a
second New York meeting, this one with Cameron Argentsinger, whose family
had first brought racing at Watkins Glen, and who then headed the professional
end of the sport for the SCCA. “I told Cameron,” said Hoppen, “that I would bring
the heart of the IMSA Camel GT to the Trans-Am if he would allow the 934s to run
in the series. Given the fact that it was on its deathbed, I thought such an infusion
would be attractive to him.”
So attractive that Argentsinger accepted the offer, creating a new category where
the high profile IMSA set could play, and where the orphaned 934s could find a
home, thus removing Hoppen from his potentially embarrassing financial
obligations, With promotional support from Volkswagen of America, the Trans-
Am’s profile grew, as no less than four 934s battled each other for the
championship honors in the newly established Category II title contest (Category I
being retained as the home for the National arena production cars of 1975).
With Friends Like These….
With drivers like Holbert, Hurley Haywood, Paul Miller and George Follmer, who
would win the crown for car owner Vasek Polack, the Trans-Am arose to again
become a viable professional motorsport property, and all because of necessity
on Hoppen’s part. Bishop attempted to rectify his mistake by changing his mind
once more in the summer of 1976, permitting the 934 to compete in the Camel
GT. But, by then it was too late. The Trans-Am had re-established itself as a
competitor to the IMSA championship. As Bishop so candidly put it, “It’s not good
to get Porsche angry at you.” More to the point, it wasn’t smart to leave someone
such as Hoppen holding an invoice that couldn’t, or didn’t want to pay. On such
ironic twists the fates thrive, and, in this case the Trans-Am and its future were the