Motor Racing / Pat Ray : Wally Dallenbach Jr. Is Hoping to Steer New Car Down a Familiar Road

It is not often that a race driver who has won a major series one year changes cars to compete in the same series the next year. But Wally Dallenbach Jr. is doing just that as he prepares to open defense of his Sports Car Club of America Trans Am championship this weekend at Riverside International Raceway.

Dallenbach’s 1985 season was one that most 21-year-olds only dream about. After being Rookie of the Year in 1984, he capped his sophomore season by winning 5 of 15 races and the championship in the Jack Roush/Protofab Mercury Capri, beating out his teammate, Willy T. Ribbs, to become the series’ youngest champion.

So why break up a winning combination?

“While it is true that we are going from Ford automobiles to a Chevrolet Camaro this season, it will still be the same team that I raced for last year,” Dallenbach said.


“Charlie Selix and Gary Pratt of Protofab form one of the top combinations in racing, and, with the addition of car builder Bob Riley to the team, I know that anytime I go on the track I will be competitive, and a driver can’t ask for more than that.

“The key to success for any driver is his team. No matter how hard a driver wants to win, he probably won’t be successful unless he has a team that also is hungry for wins and is willing and able to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Although you probably would never guess it, Dallenbach said that there was a time when he really wasn’t very excited about racing a third year in the Trans Am series.

“Honestly, I had hoped to move up to faster cars, such as a GTP class in IMSA,” he said. “After winning this series last year, I didn’t feel there was much more to prove.

“That all changed, however, the first time I tested the new Protofab Camaro. That’s all it took for me to regain my enthusiasm, and I’m really looking forward to the coming season.”

Dallenbach almost got a chance to drive a GTP car in the recent L.A. Times/Ford Grand Prix of Endurance at Riverside. When South African Sarrel van der Merwe came up with a stiff neck and was unable to drive the Chevy Corvette GTP, Dallenbach was named to replace him as the backup to Doc Bundy.

Unfortunately for Dallenbach, who had given up his original ride in a Camaro in the GTO class, Bundy was involved in the horrendous three-car crash early in the race and Dallenbach never got to drive the car, except for one hot lap on Sunday morning.

“That thing is a rocket ship,” he said. “The speed is incredible and coming up on slower cars takes a little getting used to. The closing speeds are fantastic and you really have to look a long way ahead. It was fun, but being a spectator for the race wasn’t.”

Although he hopes to get another chance in the GTP car, Dallenbach’s main objective this season is the Trans Am, and he expects it to be a real battle.

“I doubt if anyone will dominate like we did last year, winning 12 of the 15 races,” he said. “The Nissan turbos (Paul Newman and Jim Fitzgerald) are very fast but have had trouble finishing races, and the Buick (Elliott Forbes-Robinson) is a proven car.

“Then there is the Roush team (Chris Kniefel and Pete Halsmer), who will have a pair of new turbocharged Merkur XT4i’s that figure to be very fast. We may have our hands full, but I think the Camaro can do the job.

“If we do, I am sure that it will lead to bigger things for Protofab and, hopefully, me, too,” he said.

If he had his choice, it would lead to Indianapolis and a chance to follow in the footsteps of his dad.

Wally Dallenbach Sr. drove in 180 Indy car races, winning five times. He raced at Indy for 13 years and came within 12 laps of winning in 1975 when a piston failure sidelined him. His best finishes were a pair of fourths and a fifth. He is currently the chief steward of Championship Auto Racing Teams.

“I was brought up on the Indy-car scene,” Dallenbach said. “I know a lot of the people, and it’s kind of like home. Besides, I feel that the transition to an open-wheel Indy car would be easier than to say a NASCAR stock car, even though I have driven mostly sedans.

“The open-wheel car, while very fast, handles, accelerates and stops much better, and with practice I doubt if it would be too difficult. However, the key word is practice, and any Indy car effort would have to be with the understanding there would be plenty of testing,” he said.

And some fatherly advice?

“I’m sure my Dad will help, although I must say that so far he has let me develop my own driving style,” he said. “He’s the reason I am here, but most of his advice has been tactics of racing, when to go for it, when to cool it. He also is quick to bring me back down to earth when I need it.”

Would his Indy car racing cause a problem, with his father as the chief steward?

“I doubt it, knowing my dad,” Dallenbach said. “He’d probably be tougher on me than anyone else, but you might have trouble making some people believe it.”

You get the feeling he intends to find out.

INDY 500--Five starting positions remain for the 70th annual Indianapolis 500 May 25, and they will be filled during final qualifications Saturday and Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Veterans Dick Simon and Gary Bettenhausen each will make another try after being frustrated last weekend, Simon by a disqualification and Bettenhausen by slow speeds. Derek Daly will attempt to qualify the car that Herm Johnson crashed during practice, and veteran George Snider will shoot for his 21st 500 in one of A.J. Foyt’s spares. Two-time winner Gordon Johncock’s hopes of making a comeback after a one-year retirement apparently fell apart when he couldn’t raise enough money to buy one of Roger Penske’s backup cars. Penske wound up selling it to the Machinists’ Union for Johnny Parsons to drive.

STOCK CARS--Modifieds and NASCAR sportsman cars will return to Saugus Speedway, along with hobby stocks and an Ego Challenge, Saturday night. There will also be an exhibition race for super modifieds. Hobby stocks will also race Friday night on the one-third mile paved oval. . . . Steve Smith and his 1962 green Chevy will go for their fifth win in seven starts Sunday night at Ascot Park in the bomber oval division of a NASCAR tripleheader. Also on the card will be pro stocks and Figure 8s.

SPEEDWAY BIKES--Sam Ermolenko, who planned on riding locally for only a week during a lull in the British League season, will stay for another week to ride against another British League rider, American Speedway Final champion John Cook. Both will ride tonight at Ascot Park and Friday night at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. . . . The second annual Bruce Penhall Classic, an all-scratch program, will be held next Wednesday night at San Bernardino’s Inland Speedway. Mike Faria and U.S. champion Alan Christian are favored. Reports from Europe indicate that Penhall, a two-time world champion, may come out of retirement later this season. He has not ridden competitively since winning the 1982 world title in the Coliseum.

MOTORCYCLES--Bernie Schreiber of La Crescenta, who won the world trials championship in 1979--the only American to accomplish that feat--is on the comeback trail after switching to a Yamaha 350cc machine. Schreiber recently scored points in the Spanish round of the 12-event world championship. The U.S. round will be run June 1 in Mount Vernon, Wash. . . . Camel Pro road racers will ride Sunday at Sears Point Raceway, north of San Francisco, with Wayne Rainey of Norwalk the favorite. . . . A CMC motocross will be held Friday night at Ascot Park.

OFF-ROAD--Ascot Park will try something new Saturday night--a Monster Mud Bog championship. Vehicles, including top fuel dragsters, super modified Jeeps and pickup trucks, will run in timed events through four feet of mud for 250 feet on the track’s front straightaway. Mike Pinson of Anaheim, who holds the record of 2.78 seconds for 200 feet, will compete in his top-fuel Sundancer, powered by a 1,000 horsepower Chevrolet engine. . . . In last week’s Mint 400, winds up to 40 m.p.h. contributed to machine breakdowns as only 113 of 367 starters finished the desert grind. Larry Ragland, a Phoenix water-bed manufacturer, drove the entire race in 8 hours 33 minutes in a single-seat buggy, winning overall. Three truck drivers, Walker Evans, Manny Esquerra and Rod Hall--all in different classes--each won his eighth Mint 400 class championship. Evans drove a full-size two-wheel drive Dodge pickup, Esquerra a Ford Ranger mini-pickup and Hall a four-wheel-drive Dodge.

SPRINT CARS--The California Racing Assn. tour of the Southwest will continue this week with races Friday night in Mesquite, Tex., and Saturday night in Lawton, Okla. Brad Noffsinger won at Tulsa and Lealand McSpadden at 81 Speedway after four rain delays. Last Saturday night’s race at Oklahoma City was rained out.

Times staff writer Shav Glick contributed to this story.