John Morton – The Throwback
© Gary Horrocks
dailysportscar.comJohn Morton is a throwback. This is not an indication of his age, but is more of a reflection on his thoughts towards life in general. Having been involved in many forms of the sport since the early ’60s, when asked what was his favorite era was, he simply stated, “in the late ‘50s, before I started racing. Then F1 was mystical. Now it is like watching billiards.”

It is evident from that comment that he was a fan of the sport, and that he really respects the historical aspects. He became hooked on this sport just like many of us by attending races and following events in whatever ways that he could.

John really started his racing career when he enrolled in the Carroll Shelby Driving School at Riverside in 1962, where his instructor was Peter Brock. One thing led to another, and soon John was working at Shelby, doing the odd job, sweeping floors, doing whatever it took. During this time, he was racing a Lotus 7 in amateur events, which he eventually upgraded to a 23, powered by the twin cam Ford / Lotus motor.

dailysportscar.comAs an indication of how the times were back then, John went to the Sebring race in 1964 with Shelby, to, in his own words, “be a night watchman.” Shelby was starting to develop the big-block Cobra at this time, and Ken Miles and Phil Hill were scheduled to drive the prototype, but Ken stuffed the car into a tree in practice. Phil went elsewhere to drive, and Ken and John jumped in with the crew to repair the car for the race. They're on the right in this image.

Ken started the car, and unexpectedly, it kept going. The plan was to have another driver jump into the car, but no other drivers were available, as none of the other cars had yet retired. The call came to John, asking if he would like to drive the car. “Even though I had not driven the car and had not driven at Sebring before, I didn’t feel there was any pressure on me, as there weren’t really any high expectations. The only thing I was intimidated about was the competition, and that is what made it memorable for me.”

Sadly, the car was out fairly early with a blown engine.

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As the Shelby empire continued on in ’64, John found his Lotus supported and entered by Shelby in some of the USRRC races of the year, even being transported in the Shelby truck. But all things must change or end, and as the Shelby effort went to Europe in ’65, John found himself looking for work. “When they went to Europe, most of the US based crew were let go as things had changed. It was an amazing time and I didn’t really know how good it was until it was over.”

John then found himself working in a variety of jobs, including wrenching in the Can Am for Lothar Motschenbacher and others, all while still driving his Lotus, now powered by a Porsche motor. In ’69, Pete called, asking if John would be interested in working for him at BRE, fabricating and building race cars. “I had a pretty crappy job at the time, fabricating oil pans, so I figured why not. The money was better, and I worked it out that I would get to drive. I would not be the lead driver, but at least I would get to drive. We started with the Datsun 2000 Roadster in 1969, racing it in SCCA D Production, where we were leading in the championship race when the engine failed. We then went to the new at the time 240Z for 1970 and that was the year that we won our first National Championship. In 1971, when the 2.5 Liter Challenge came about, we started building the 510, and ran both the Z car and 510 programs and won Championships in both cars. In 1972, we focused on the 510, and yet again won the 2.5 Liter Challenge. That was in the days where it was common for drivers to work on the cars. When do you see that now?”

It was during this era that Sylvia Wilkinson was introduced to John. She followed the team for two seasons, and summarized the goings on in the excellent book “The Stainless Steel Carrot – An Auto Racing Odyssey”. The book described the atmosphere of racing in an earlier era, when the pressures were less and the enjoyment was maybe greater. “Now, the corporate sponsorships prevent the real characters from speaking out. Back then there were pressures, there always was and always will be, but then it was possible for a smaller team to succeed. There were money pressures, but nothing like today.” After finishing the book, John and Sylvia hooked up and have been together since.

The 2.5 Liter Challenge came about when the SCCA decided to run the smaller displacement cars in the Trans Am as a separate, stand alone series. Pete examined the rules, saw that the Datsun 510 looked promising and approached Datsun for funding. Obviously Datsun went for it, and the rest is history. The 510 was considered a “poor-man’s” version of the BMW 2002, and under the direction of Pete, with assistance from Trevor Harris, John Caldwell and Art Oehrli, it was able to out-BMW the BMW, and also narrowly defeat the long established Alfa Romeos in 1971. The next season was absolute domination for the BRE Datsun team, as they won nine of eleven races (at Laguna Seca, below), giving John his second consecutive championship, despite the SCCA adding a significant amount of weight to the cars.

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The Datsun 510, because of its racing success, became a legend on the streets in the US. Predating the current “Fast And Furious” scene by a good 30 years, there was a time when it seemed that you could not go anywhere without seeing a clone of the BRE creation. Even now, anytime you see a 510, and there are a surprising amount of them still around, they will usually have flares, wide tires and an airdam.

During the later stages of the BRE era, Pete bought an F5000 car, and entered John in the F5000 series. It was not much more than a one off that was possibly a precursor to something more full time, but the hoped for funding did not materialize. Even though it was more of a checking things out effort, John was able to come away with 7th and 4th place overall finishes in the two races entered. With the economy not doing well, Pete decided it was time to get out of racing and take up hang gliding. As the 2.5 Challenge went away and the F5000 series did not offer anything for Datsun, John found himself looking for work again.

Sportscar racing was not doing real well during this time, but John did manage to get some time in, racing in the IMSA sanctioned GF Goodrich Radial Challenge, winning races in ’73, ’74 and ‘75. In a way, this series could be looked at as a continuation of the 2.5 Liter Challenge, but with closer to production cars, using regular street tires. This series was popular for a very long run and produced some close and entertaining racing.

One day in 1975, John got a call from a friend, inquiring if he would be interested in roofing a house. “I wasn’t really interested at all, but he kept at it saying the it would be a three day job, and that the pay would work out to be $100 a day. Finally I relented. While we were doing the job, we got to talking with the house owner, who happened to be living off his wife’s trust fund. The roofing job did not work out as promised, as I think I ended up making about $30 a day. Not sure if we were slow or what, but when it was all done, we had convinced him to buy us a F5000 and go racing, all off his wife’s money. It wasn’t the most successful effort, but I did OK. After the season was over, his wife wanted out, so we were able to buy the car for a very good price. I guess maybe the roofing job worked out OK after all.”

When the SCCA decided to revive the Can Am Series in 1977, they did so with a new rules package, converting old F5000 cars to closed bodywork. John managed to convert the car and race it in the Can Am. Despite operating on a shoestring budget, John was able to finish 3rd twice in the three races they entered in 1977. They continued racing the Can Am through 1982, when the series folded yet again. In that year, John was able to finish 6th in the season points, recording a season best 3rd at Mid Ohio.

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Bouncing around in IMSA during the ‘70s, John saw some success and eventually made it to Le Mans in 1979 in an Interscope Porsche 935, where they retired after 11 hours. “That was my first time in a 935, and I really didn’t like it much. It was a factory built car that did not have the later developments that made the car better. Basically it was like driving a 911 with 550 horsepower, a wing and wider tires. You either liked it or not. I guess I just didn’t get enough time in it to get comfortable.”

That same year, he had teamed with Tony Adamowicz to finish 2nd overall, 1st in class at Daytona - in a Ferrari Daytona. This eventually turned into quite a long run in the IMSA GTP series, through a contact with Phil Conte. “When Phil decided to get into the GTP Class, we first used the Mirage that the Andretti family tried to race at Le Mans, then he bought a Lola T-600, powered by a Chevy V-8 and then progressed to the March chassis. From there, I hooked up with Jim Busby, first in the Lola 616 Mazda, winning class at Le Mans, and then into the Porsche 962. When I had heard that Riverside was going to close, I thought it would be really great to win the last race there.

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Well, I was able to team with Pete Halsmer to win in 1985, but that ended up being the First Annual Last Race at Riverside. By 1987, I was racing with Bob Tullius in the Group 44 Jaguar, and was able to win the Third Annual and truly the Final Race at Riverside. Having taken my driving school there through Shelby, it really made those victories special. Add into that the fact that Tullius knew that he was about to be replaced by Walkinshaw in the Jaguar program really made it even more special.”

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His success in IMSA competition led to some more rides at Le Mans, where John was able to enjoy his best finish of 3rd overall in 1986 in the Joest managed Porsche 956. “This was a really interesting time. Ted Gilred, a vintage driver worked out a deal to have Joest run the Porsche for us. At one point he was due to drive, but eventually it was settled on that George Follmer, Kemper Miller and I would drive. Ted had just been appointed as the US Ambassador to Argentina by President Reagan and was rather on the right side. At this time, the French Government would not allow us to fly over their country in our efforts to bomb Ghadafi, so as a “statement”, he decided to have the car named the “Spirit of America” and decorated as an American Flag. Believe me, there for a while, all I could think of was how this was the ideal target for some deranged terrorist. What a statement to make – shoot up the American Flag car in France.”

dailysportscar.com“The race it self was pretty rewarding. Follmer spun the car early, requiring a tail replacement. If it wasn’t for that, we might have been able to challenge for second, but there was no way that we would catch that Factory Rothmans car. Unfortunately, a crash claimed the life of Jo Gartner in this race. It really bothered me, especially as I had thought it might be Jochen Mass, who I knew quite well. From my view, all I could see was that it was a dark colored Porsche. We ended up having a 3-hour pace car period to repair the track, and as we did not have radios to communicate in those days, it was quite tough on me. When it was all over, I think I ended up winning $400 from that race. I really got screwed from someone on that deal.”

Just as rewarding though were other drives at Le Mans. “In some ways, winning the C-2 Class in 1984 for Busby was more rewarding. I guess that is because we actually won the class. I really enjoyed driving for Luigi Chinetti, especially with all of the history and success that he had enjoyed in the past. It was really a great honor to race for him in the big 512BB Ferrari. I really think we could have won at least class in 1982, but a gearbox failure put us out while we were 4th overall in the 20th hour. In the end we had to settle for being classified as 9th.”

In 1987, John also found himself behind the wheel of the Nissan GTP. “Originally, Elliott Forbes-Robinson and Geoff Brabham were to be the drivers, but Geoff was also racing in CART, so when conflicts arose, Nissan need another driver. The replacement driver was supposed to be my teammate at Jaguar, Hurley Haywood, but he didn’t really like the car. Eventually it got to the point that the team asked me to drive for them. I really felt that I was in an awkward spot, so I spoke with Hurley about it. He said that it would not bother him at all, as he really wanted out of the ride anyway. In 1988, it really became sweet to be a part of the team, as we won quite a bit and really took it to Walkinshaw. After winning their first IMSA race at Daytona, Tom just thought they would walk through the IMSA schedule. We at Nissan took off and just dominated from then on.”

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“After putting so many miles on the Busby 962, I couldn’t believe how fast the Nissan GTP was when I first tested it. It was really amazing when I first drove it at Firebird. Unfortunately I did not stick around as long as I would have liked, as at Lime Rock, while shaking down our spare, it flipped and I got beat up pretty badly. I obviously did not race there, and I was replaced by Tom Gloy for the next race. I ended up teaming with Geoff Brabham to win five races that season, but I was replaced by Derek Daly near the end of the season as the team thought I was still screwed up from the accident. I didn’t think I was any more screwed up than I was before the accident, but they ended up replacing me with Chip Robinson for the next year. That team was amazing, but Kas Kastner and Don Devendorf were not easy to drive for. Don was an incredibly gifted engineer, but was way too focused. He was kind of like the “Absent Minded Professor” in many ways.”

Further success at Le Mans came in 1994, when John was part of the Cunningham Racing Nissan 300ZX GTS effort that dominated all of their competition. While John’s car was a DNF at Daytona, he was part of the winning effort at Sebring and was 1st in class, 5th overall in France. But this ended up being the height of glory for the Nissan effort as rule changes banned the turbo motor, forcing them to run normally aspirated in 1995.

After Nissan pulled out (yet again for John), he was able to hook up with Chrysler for the Canaska-Southwind Viper effort at Le Mans in 1996 and then Oreca in 1997, filling the remainder of his time with vintage racing and various GT races.

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dailysportscar.comThis included a strong effort with John Graham (right) in 1998 and 1999 in the CJ Motorsports Porsche GT-2 (below). For John, his last extended drive was with G&W Motorsports in 2000, when they ran a Grand Am schedule, partnered by Price Cobb and Michael Schrom. Recent efforts have really been focused towards teaching the racing craft to younger drivers. According to Sylvia, “John still is able to do what it takes to be competitive. I still monitor the timing when he races, and I can see that he can more than hold his own out on the track. Even at age 61, he is right there, much like Paul Newman has been. I witnessed Paul in his early days and it was quite obvious that he could have been really special as a driver, and even at his advanced age, he is still able to hold his own.” In 2002, John won the Grand Am GTS class at Mt Tremblant in a Porsche. Still winning 40 years after he started.

Looking at John, it is difficult to believe that he is actually that old, but to realize that he first raced at Sebring in 1964 really puts it into perspective. “I haven’t really retired; I just refuse to go away. I feel that I can still drive and drive quite well. I really hope to get a drive at Sebring in the next year or so, as that would make me the only driver that has driven there in five different decades.”

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“In many ways, racing has come full circle, but in others it is the exact opposite. It started with rich gentlemen drivers hiring fast drivers to race for them. You still have some of them racing, spending large amounts of money doing so, but many teams now involved in sportscars are supported by rich drivers buying their rides. It is nearly impossible for someone without money to come up through the ranks and make it. A prime example is Rocky Moran Jr. His dad raced for a while, and did a good job, but Jr. is really good. He can’t get a ride while many others, less qualified than him are getting the rides. It’s really a shame things are that way now.”

Part of John’s success must be from his refusal to grow up. Always a pack rat, he spends much of his time playing with mechanical things. His hobbies include restoring vintage scooters and flying. Another indication of his refusal to grow up was that after this interview took place at Portland, Sylvia explained that it would be a few days before they could be reached as they were riding back home to Southern California on their BMW motorcycle, via the coast. Forget the air-conditioned comforts of a luxury sedan. That is not John. And that is a good thing. The bad thing is that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Life, and especially racing would be much more enjoyable with more like John and Sylvia around.

The black and white images are from the Dave Friedman books – “Remembering the Shelby Years 1962-1969” and “Trans Am – The Pony Car Wars 1966-1972”.

 

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