An accident at the beginning of the second lap of the 1952 Grand Prix on the streets of the village of Watkins Glen, N.Y. effectively ended competition on public roads, leading to the building of permanent circuits at the Glen and other venues.
Promoter Chris Pook revived the idea in September, 1975, hosting a Formula 5000 race on the streets of Long Beach, California. Pook had high hopes for the venue, looking to promote a Formula One race there the following March.
Formula 5000 was an ideal choice for the opening race. Also known as the L&M Championship Series, it brought together many of the top names from both Indy car and sports car racing. Co-sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America and the United States Auto Club, it featured many of the biggest stars including Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Mark Donohue, David Hobbs and Brian Redman. It was also the American introduction and a major career step for future Formula One World Champions Jody Scheckter and Alan Jones. It also launched the sports car career of Hawaiian drag racing ace Danny Ongais.
The cars were powered by a maximum 5-liter engine, although many of the cars ran with engines ranging from 3.5 through 4.7 liters. Manufactures included such greats as McLaren, Eagle, March, Lola, Lotus and Chevron. The formula was introduced in 1968 by formula cars powered by large American V-8 engines – taking a concept inspired by the defunct Can-Am Series and replicating it using open-wheel cars.
Races were unique in that events divided the field into two short qualifying heats, followed by a longer feature race. Tony Brise won over Andretti, Tom Pryce and Vern Schuppan in the opening 12-lap heat at Long Beach, followed by Al Unser taking the second heat, followed by Redman, Scheckter and Hobbs.
Unser, Brise and Andretti set a torrid pace in the early laps of the 50-lap feature race.
“That was the first race for my Lola T332 in 20 Mule Team Borax colors," Redman recalled. “The Long Beach race had a massive turnout, with a number of Formula One drivers. I remember in the race I was lying fourth. Mario was leading, then Tony Brise – Graham Hill’s pretege – was second, Al Unser Sr. was third and I was fourth, and we were all together. The track was extremely rough, especially the uphill before you came into the pits. About 10 laps into the race my limited slip broke again – it broke in practice the night before the race and Jim Hall had the team replace it. So I no choice. I had to be very easy on the throttle; I couldn’t go flat-out over the bumps and I couldn’t give it full throttle going down from Turn 1.
“But we won! First Mario had a broken drive shaft; then Tony Brise had a broken gearbox and Al Unser stuffed it into the wall. Suddenly I was in the lead!"
Redman finished 29 seconds ahead of Schuppan, with Eppie Wietzes the only other competitor finishing on the lead lap. The victory clinched the second of three consecutive championships for Redman, who landed full sponsorship for 1976 from 20 Mule Team Borax as a result of the triumph.
Crowd estimates ranged from 46,000 to 65,000, with the event deemed a huge success. Formula One raced there from the following March through 1983, followed by Champ Car from 1984 through 2008, then the Verizon Indy Car Series, which continues to the present as Long Beach continues to be America’s most durable and successful street racing event.
Formula 5000 was not as lucky. Only one year after the Long Beach event, the series staged its final race. With public sentiment calling for a return to the Can-Am, the SCCA announced a revival of that fabled series for 1977. Many of the former F5000 teams converted their cars with new bodywork to compete in the new series.
Not everyone agreed with the move.
“Formula 5000 fantastic," Redman said. “The cars weren’t crazy, price wise. They were extremely fast. For eight years I had the fastest lap at Watkins Glen, faster even than Mark Donohue’s Porsche 917-30 and faster than the Formula One cars. They were also very strong cars. I had several hard hits in them, and – touch wood – I never had an injury other than bruising."
Redman’s next racing home in America would be racing with IMSA. He won the Twelve Hours of Sebring in 1978. Three years later, he raced fulltime in IMSA Camel GT, where he won the first GTP championship with a Lola T600.