Jim Busby has been racing or managing cars on the International Motor Sports Assn. Camel GT circuit since 1975, but the most memorable of his 96 races was last year’s Times Grand Prix of Endurance at Riverside. And he didn’t even win.
Busby was driving with Rick Knoop in a Porsche 962, but he was also manager of the team that included a companion car driven by John Morton and Pete Halsmer.
Late in the 600-kilometer race, Morton, in car No. 68, was leading. But closing rapidly was the No. 67 car, with Knoop driving. No one else was close. Busby was in the pits waiting for the Morton-Halsmer car to take the checkered flag when he noticed that Knoop was gaining with every lap. Busby, the team manager, had to make a decision.
Should he let the car he had driven win by signaling Morton to slow? Or should he signal Knoop to let up and allow Morton to win? Or should he put up the “race for it” sign and let them fight it out?
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do around a race track,” Busby said. “A lot of people watching figured we were slowing down the 68 car so we could have a nice picture of our two cars for a poster, but that was far from the case.
“I had just turned over the 67 car to Knoop when the engine in the 68 car blew with four laps left. Knoop was picking up 17 seconds a lap, but the race really belonged to Morton and Halsmer. They had done a better job and deserved the win.
“What we didn’t want was to have them start racing one another and maybe knock each other out of the race so we decided to radio Knoop and tell him not to pass the 68 car. We showed ’68-67' on the pit board for them both to see. We didn’t want them tangling and letting some other car win. We felt a 1-2 finish would be a whole lot better than 0-0.”
The margin of victory, 0.138 seconds, was the closest finish in IMSA history.
Now Busby is planning strategy again as manager of the two-car team for Sunday’s Times/Ford six-hour race, but he has made one significant change. This year, he will share a car with Morton.
“No, it wasn’t a case of if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Busby said, laughing. “It just worked out that way. We will have Jochen Mass and Darin Brassfield in the other car, so we feel good about defending our championship at Riverside with two solid cars.”
The Busby team’s fortunes will have to change, however, if there is to be another 1-2 finish. Crashes have plagued the team in the young 1986 season, especially the No. 68 car.
Jan Lammers crashed 68 in the 19th hour of the 24 Hours of Daytona, destroying the chassis.
There was no No. 68 at Miami while a replacement from Germany was awaited, and it no sooner arrived than Busby rolled it during a prerace test at Sebring. It could not be repaired in time for the race and was withdrawn.
Two weeks ago, at Atlanta, Mass and Brassfield drove it to a sixth-place finish, but it wasn’t handling properly, apparently still suffering from its Sebring crash.
No. 67, which Busby and Morton will drive at Riverside, has been only slightly more fortunate. It finished third at Daytona after leading for more than 11 hours.
Miami, though, was double trouble. Busby crashed it during practice. Three days of around-the-clock repair work had it ready for the race but then Brassfield crashed while running third.
In the Sebring 12-hour race, it finished second, eight laps behind the Porsche 962 of Bob Akin, Jo Gartner and Hans Stuck.
“I was very uncomfortable in the 67 car that day,” Busby said after driving less than an hour of the once-around-the-clock race. “I was still somewhat rattled from flipping the 68 car, so I withdrew myself from the race. I’m glad to get credit for finishing second, but Morton and Brassfield did all the work.”
At Atlanta, where a Corvette driven by Sarel van der Merwe and Doc Bundy snapped Porsche’s 16-race IMSA win streak, Busby and Morton finished fifth.
“We have two fully sound cars again,” Busby said. “Both ran well at Atlanta, so we’re back up to full strength. We expect to be double tough on our home track.”
Busby, of Laguna Beach, and Morton, of El Segundo, were weaned on Riverside’s high-speed 3.25-mile road course.
“Riverside is very special to me,” Busby said. “My dad took me to my first race there in 1957, when I was 14. We sat up in Turn 6 and I thought, ‘Gee, I’ve got to do this some day.’
“I have tested there as long as I can remember and I won there in ’81 with John Fitzpatrick, so I have a lot of personal attachment to the track.”
Morton’s roots at Riverside go back to 1962 when he attended Carroll Shelby’s driving school and drove the first Shelby Cobra.
“The Riverside track is the first thing I remember seeing when I came to California,” Morton recalled. “I had a special feeling, learning to drive a race car there, and it’s never gone away. Every time I go there, I have that special feeling.
“It has been the focal point of my career. I have won several races there and last year’s was certainly the most important one I ever won. When I heard the track was going to close, I wanted to win the final IMSA race there and that’s what I thought I’d done last year. But now there’s another race and I still want to win the last one. So that means we’ll have to win again Sunday.”
The Porsches should benefit from the return of the Times race to six hours from the much shorter 600 kilometers of last year, which lasted only 3 hours 27 minutes.
“Riverside is good for the Porsches because the course is so long,” Morton said. “That 1.1-mile backstretch lets the Porsches really wind up. It is a very difficult course because it is so fast. Ground effects make it almost like racing on a speedway.
“Up through the esses (a series of switchback turns) there is very little letting off the throttle, so the element of high speed never goes away. It presents us a danger not found elsewhere on a road circuit. Because of that, you can never relax, never let up.”
Busby sees his main competition coming from another Porsche 962, driven by Al Holbert and Derek Bell, last year’s IMSA champions.
“Al is always tough to beat,” Busby said. “He’s a great driver and has a great team. He’s never won an IMSA race at Riverside, so he’ll be bearing down extra hard, but we feel confident that we are capable of beating him.
“This year you can’t discount the other makes, either. For years IMSA races were a Porsche show, but this year the Chevy, the Jaguars, the Buick and the Ford are all tough.
“The pace will be much faster than last year, even though the race is longer. I think it will make for the wildest and most competitive road race seen at Riverside since the old Can-Am series in the early ‘70s.”
Busby, 43, has won six Camel GT races, the first at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1976 while driving a Porsche Carrera. That same year he was named IMSA Driver of the Year. He also has two class victories in the 24 Hours of LeMans, in a Group 5 car in 1978 and with Doc Bundy in the IMSA GT class in 1982.
When BF Goodrich decided to field a two-car IMSA team last year, the tire company sought out Busby to manage it. One of his first decisions was to name himself as one of the drivers.
“I’m like Holbert in that I manage the team and drive, too,” he said. “I love to drive and I don’t want to step down. Not too far down the street I’ll probably have to quit, but not right now.
“Some of the decisions I have to make, like the one last year at Riverside, are tough, but I always want to do what’s best for the team first.
“I want all of us to win. And if one car can’t win, I’d like to see them finish second. We did it last year--and even if we weren’t trying for it, it made a hell of a poster, didn’t it?”