Dyson Racing Takes On The Elusive Sebring Win
© Gary Horrocks & Tom Kjos

Poughkeepsie, New York businessman Rob Dyson attended a driving school at Watkins Glen in 1975, and the rest, as they say, is history. History, but also current events in the world of sports car racing, since Dyson Racing will field its most powerful team ever at the 2003, 51st 12 Hours of Sebring. Rob had the racing bug.

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That bug must have bitten both fast and hard, since before 1975 was gone, Rob had Pat Smith—friend, mechanic, crew chief, and team manager, on board. Much of the success since then can be attributed to Pat. Rob approached the former shop teacher in 1975. And he has never left. "I was teaching an auto mechanics course at Duchess County BOCES, and one day Rob came in looking for a student who would be willing to work on his racing efforts on weekends and during the summer. We got to talking. It was only my second year of teaching and I needed to work somewhere in the summertime anyway - and so I decided I would go work for him,” said Pat.

Chris Dyson, Rob’s son, and driver of one of the team’s prototypes added, “Pat has been with us for around 25 years and has done an excellent job. He started in racing with my Dad, and his first assignment was to build up a Datsun 510 for my Dad to race. He has done a great job with our crew, getting them to work together well with each other.”

dailysportscar.com"When I joined up with Rob,” continued Pat, “he had already been racing in amateur competition. As of the 1976 season, I was the crew chief on his Datsun. It was just Rob and I at that point. We just kept going - won a championship in 1980, I think - and all the while I was still teaching. In the early '80s, Rob wanted to go Trans-Am racing, but we decided the races were too short. We moved over to IMSA GTO and out of the couple of years we did that, we only had one good finish. Then Rob bought the 962, so I stopped teaching and went to work full time for Rob in the summer of '84."

Five years of other sports car racing events, then three or so in IMSA GTO, brought Rob Dyson in 1984 to the place his team has been ever since - the pinnacle of the sport - at that time IMSA GTP. On the advice of fellow owner / driver Bob Akin, Rob purchased Porsche 962 chassis 962-101 from Bruce Leven (the world’s fastest garbage man), owner of Bayside Racing (and Bayside Disposal).

Dyson Racing was almost immediately successful. Drake Olson won at Lime Rock, and the team garnered six podiums, including three wins, in the 1985 IMSA GTP season. Olson won the Porsche Cup for North America for the leading Porsche privateer in ’85, followed by Price Cobb back to back in ’86 and ’87.

In the GTP era, the best Sebring finish for Dyson was 3rd in 1988 with Cobb and James Weaver driving. They finished 11 laps behind the winning Bayside Porsche of Klaus Ludwig and Hans Stuck. For whatever reason, success just did not come for Dyson at Sebring.

dailysportscar.comAs the torch in IMSA GTP passed from Porsche to Nissan and then Toyota, Dyson became the leading Porsche team in North America. While Geoff Brabham was dominating the 1988 IMSA season in a Nissan ZX turbo, Dyson Racing won two races with the already aging Porsche 962, more than any other team. Other teams seemed content to race what Porsche (and Andial, of course) provided. Dyson Racing however, led by crew chief Pat Smith, continued to develop the car. The modifications were at first subtle, but by the end of the GTP era in the early ‘90s, very little was left of that original 962. The last of the line had a different tub design, of honeycomb material, and featured a completely new suspension geometry.

When IMSA adopted the World Sports Car rules for ‘94, its top class was thrown into uncertainty. A GTO Nissan 300ZX won Daytona and Sebring, with the new WSC cars struggling for pace and reliability. Other than the Ferrari 333SP, the World Sports Cars were modifications of existing GTPs. Dyson, characteristically it seems, decided to “mark time” while the class sorted out, and modified a Spice chassis to accept the Ferrari V-8 from the 348.

“Marking time” doesn’t mean standing still for Rob Dyson though, as he, Pat, the drivers and entire team worked hard at developing the package. When it wasn’t coming together to their satisfaction, Rob enlisted the help of Indianapolis chassis designer-constructor Riley & Scott. By the end of the season, the Spice-Ferrari was near the pace of the 333SP, and a close and beneficial relationship had been established between the New York team and the Indiana chassis builder. Still, it was clear that the Spice-Ferrari was not the long-term solution, so the decision was taken to acquire a Riley & Scott Mark III.

Riley and Scott had a ‘factory team’, the Wayne Taylor-led R&S Oldsmobiles. Dyson would race against the factory, and while the Oldsmobile backed factory R&S team came out on top in ’96, the Dyson R&S Ford became the team to beat thereafter. There were many Ford-Ferrari battles in that PSCR / USRRC era, and Dyson Racing would be at the center of most of them.

dailysportscar.comDyson broke through to realize one dream when the team won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 1997 - with Rob furiously sweeping the pit to burn off nervous energy in the closing minutes - and appeared to be poised to finally win at Sebring. A Ferrari 333SP of IMSA owner Andy Evan’s Scandia Racing was the beneficiary of at least one controversial caution lap decision that undoubtedly contributed to a 47 second Ferrari victory over the Dyson R&S Ford of James Weaver, Butch Leitzinger and Andy Wallace. Eliott Forbes-Robinson combined with John Paul Jr. and John Schneider to finish 5th in the second team car. The loss was a bitter one for the Dyson team. But other successes continued to flow. Drivers Championships were won by Butch Leitzinger (’97 and ’98 PSCR - below) and James Weaver (’98 USRRC).

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The team won neither of the legs of the 36 hours of Florida in 1998, finishing a very disappointing 13th at Sebring, but Dyson rebounded in ’99 with an overall win at Daytona, and again seemed the team to beat at Sebring - in its inaugural race as a part of the American Le Mans Series.

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dailysportscar.comOnce again it was not to be, as Tom Kristensen held on to win over a charging Weaver, by just 9.2 seconds in the closest finish ever at the historic track. While Forbes-Robinson was able to win the both the USRRC and ALMS Drivers titles in 1999, it was through consistency, not outright speed, as other new cars joined the Sebring and Le Mans-winning BMW LMR. Again, the sport was in a period of uncertainty, and Rob Dyson did the conservative thing by going with the new Grand American Racing Association, that would replace the USRRC. There his team would continue to be competitive with its Riley and Scott Fords. It was the beginning of a three-year absence from Sebring for the Dyson team. But it appears that the plotting to return was underway soon after that departure.

dailysportscar.comRob Dyson was ‘marking time’ again, but certainly not standing still. He was winning races and championships in GARRA, keeping the team’s edge, and son Chris was developing as a driver. The racing in Grand Am was certainly serious business, and Rob was doing everything he could to make that new series a success. But there was still the lure of Sebring, and perhaps Le Mans. So by 2001, Dyson Racing was known to be ‘poking around’, testing options while they raced the model A Riley & Scott. They tested then fielded the new R&S Mark IIIC at Mosport and Mid Ohio. It was faster than the “A”, but difficult to set up and drive, and in the opinion of the team, not fast enough. . When Dyson brought back the old MK IIIA in 2002, many thought that something was up, besides prepping these cars for Historic Racing.

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The new Crawford was tried alongside the R&S IIIA in Grand Am into the 2002 season, as the team went after the Drivers Championship for Chris, usually racing with James Weaver. James by now had been with the team for nearly 20 years. Andy Wallace and Butch Leitzinger have been there a decade or more. Time flies when you’re having fun, doesn’t it? Rumors were finally confirmed when Dyson Racing purchased an MG-Lola and began the shake-down and development at Mosport last season.

It was immediately clear that this was now a team with ‘an attitude’. A good one, it seems - smiles were brighter and more frequent as the 2002 ALMS season progressed. Chris was winning races in GARRA, the new little MG was fast and fragile - and getting faster, and less fragile.

dailysportscar.comFinally, at Petit Le Mans, James Weaver went head-to-head with the Team Joest Audis, showing why so many at Dyson Racing had been wearing those ‘cat-who-had-swallowed-the-canary’ smiles. That was before Andy Wallace went up in flames, of course. Still, there was Rob just a few hours later in the KnightHawk paddock, telling racing stories and looking much happier than a man should who has just lately watched the barbequing of a half million dollars. Pat will fix it, of course. There we learned that the KnightHawk MG-Lola had been purchased to become the Dysons’ traditional second car - number 20, and got our first real inkling of the all-out assault coming.

dailysportscar.comSince then, in quick succession, the team has conducted multiple testing sessions, working on a heavily revised AER turbo motor, new built-for-the-car Goodyears, and who knows how many suspension improvements and tweaks. James Weaver characterized the car as “Quicker than a rat up a drainpipe,” then Andy Wallace admits to a Weaver-driven 1:47.8 at Sebring, a quarter-second faster than Audi’s 2002 pole, and all that with a restrictor designed to reduce horsepower by 10 percent. I am supposing here that Rob Dyson knows his math. A ten percent reduction of horsepower for both the MG and the Audi actually brings the MG closer to the Audi in relative terms—improves its relative weight to horsepower. We’ve learned that former Lola designer Peter Weston joined the team full time in January.

Rob pleads “business obligations,” and adds Didier de Radigues to the driver strength of the #20 car, with son Chris and Chad Block. Certainly business might take him away from preparation and practice, but here’s betting the highest paid pit janitor in the sport will be at Sebring on March 15th, broom in hand. Rob Dyson may then be burning off nervous energy for the same reason that he was at that Rolex six years before.

Pat Smith is starting to think of taking up fishing full time, but admits, "I would like to win Sebring before I quit." Fish on…

 

 

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