During the last three decades, sports car racing has seen its share of changes. From the rise and fall of sanctioning bodies to the constant evolution of cars and technology, one team has remained a constant over the years, through the glory days and the most turbulent times of the sport.
What started off as a simple means to go racing turned into one of America's most storied motorsports organizations for Rob Dyson, who along with his Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based team are celebrating Dyson Racing's 30th year in professional sports car racing. With a total of 19 championships and 70 victories spread across the ALMS, Grand-Am, IMSA, WSC and USRRC, achieved by some of the most iconic drivers and cars of the era, Dyson Racing's stats are unparalleled to any other sports car racing privateer outfit in North America.
For Dyson, an accomplished New York businessman, the story began at the grassroots level, competing in regional and national SCCA competition in the ‘70s before getting the itch to make the next significant step forward in his driving and team owner career.
The year was 1983. Ronald Reagan was president. Apple released the Lisa personal computer and Chrysler started production of the first minivans. Yet for Rob Dyson, it marked the start of his team's professional racing career, a move that came relatively easy at the time.
"I'd run a lot of club racing and did pretty well with that and won a national championship,” Rob Dyson tells RACER. “We did a couple of pro races in IMSA GTU and they allowed our B-sedans to run. I got a taste of that and realized I can run with these guys.
"I think it was just a natural progression. We started running the typical ladder, which in those days was a lot different than it is now. Kids all of a sudden turn pro, but when I started in the '70s, you had to be more careful. It was a scale deal.
“If you wanted to race, you had to have your own car. It wasn't an arrive-and-drive kind of deal, where the only thing you had to have was your helmet and suit. [Instead], you had to have a helmet and a suit stuffed somewhere in the truck amidst all of the tires, gas cans and tool bins. And the car was sitting in the sand right next to your truck!”
After racing Datsuns in the SCCA ranks, Dyson purchased a Pontiac Firebird, for its slick aerodynamics and ease of sourcing parts, for his foray in the IMSA GTO ranks. The first event came at the IMSA Coca-Cola Three Hours of Lime Rock on Memorial Day weekend, a race he'll never forget for the right, and wrong reasons.
"There were two heats,” Dyson recalls. “Unfortunately, a guy in a Porsche, who was an SCCA instructor, crossed up in front of me in the short chute going to the uphill. I slammed right into him.
“With the Firebird, it was a front-engined car. We had to spend a lot of time in the pits removing bodywork that was flopping around, but the car was fundamentally intact. We had to bend a few frame rails but the engine was good and the radiator wasn't busted. We came out of it pretty lightly.
"We rolled out of [the pits] and didn't have any front bodywork on it. Off we went. It was the beginning of our great adventure in professional racing. What I found was that the quality of driving wasn't significantly different or in many ways better than a lot of the really tough, national B-sedan guys I was racing against in club racing."
Despite discovering the car's flaws, which included a flexing chassis, Dyson continued racing the Firebird through the '83 and '84 seasons, before purchasing Bruce Leven's Porsche 962 and stepping up to the top-level GTP class the following year.
Remarkably, Dyson and co-driver Drake Olson won in their debut at Dyson's home track of Lime Rock Park, the site of his first professional start only two years earlier. Suddenly, he was taking on some of the sport's top drivers, including the likes of Al Holbert, Brian Redman and Hurley Haywood, and beating them at times.
"I never thought we were racing against the big boys,” Dyson admits. “I felt comfortable doing it. I wasn't cocky about it, make no mistake about that. I wasn't thinking we were going to own the series because there were a lot of guys in there that I had known for a long time. Other guys that I had heard about and I respected them all, but I viewed it as a progression. One thing led to another and it all worked out."
By 1986, Price Cobb joined Dyson behind the wheel and played an instrumental role in the team's success, namely in the L.A. Times Grand Prix at Riverside, a victory that remains close to Rob's heart to this day. "Winning at the track, in that event and in that track configuration, and getting that piece of history, that was probably the single-most important race I had done,” he says.
The performance also caught the attention of British rising star named none other than James Weaver, who was making his foray into U.S. racing.
"I think I was pretty shallow because the first race I came to in America, Dyson Racing won. I thought, 'Right, I need to drive for them!'” Weaver recalls with a laugh. “I was at Riverside with Bob Akin driving the Coca-Cola Porsche . Rob and Price Cobb won in their 962 and it had No. 16 on it.
“When I was a school boy, I was a big Pedro Rodriguez fan. And the last race he won, in a Porsche 917, at the Osterreichring, he was also carrying No 16. It just seemed the right place to go, really."
Weaver joined Dyson the following year, in what kick-started a two-decade long relationship with the team. It stretched well through the IMSA GTP days, which saw an influx of competition until the end of the decade. Mighty factory efforts from Nissan, Jaguar and Toyota battled with some of the top privateers, in what many considered to have been the glory days of U.S. sports car racing.
The 1988 season, dominated by the Nissan GTP ZX-T, which took eight consecutive wins, was particularly rewarding for Dyson, as Rob earned the only two wins for Porsche that year.
"They were tough,” Dyson says of Nissan's effort. “That car was really a leap forward, in many respects, and was powerful as hell. Don Devendorf had some really good guys on that car. The whole thing was just very impressive.
“But the other aspect of it was that you had Dan Gurney show up with his Toyota cars and they were tough as nails as well and exceptionally well driven. Then you had the Jaguars show up. That was a beautifully funded effort.
"We were running against some of the other Porsches and you'd get the odd Lancia coming over from Europe or an old March being yanked out. You also had the Corvette and all those guys. What was great was that all of the cars were so different.”
With having proven itself in GTP, Dyson tested the waters of open-wheel racing. Weaver competed in four IndyCar events in 1989, but as the team boss explains, it quickly became apparent where their heart and soul was at.
"It was completely unsatisfying and absolutely no fun,” Dyson says of their short-lived IndyCar venture. “The cars weren't very good. It was sprint racing. We couldn't get the equipment we needed and I felt that we were just technologically way behind. We couldn't catch up. No matter what we did, we couldn't get there.
“It was maybe short-sighted; maybe I'd be running IndyCars now. We just gravitated back to sports cars. They were just more interesting. You could do more with the cars... It was a little bit more of a hot-rodding mentality with sports cars."
The dawn of the decade brought new challenges, with U.S. sports car racing taking a hit following the musical chairs of IMSA ownership and increasing costs that severely affected both factory and private teams. Chris Dyson, who grew up around his father's team, remembers the era.
"GTP was out of control in terms of factory participation,” Chris Dyson says. “There wasn't really an outlet anymore for competitive vehicles to get into the hands of independent teams, as there had been with the Porsche 962.
“That was probably one of the toughest periods for the team. Thankfully, Dad kept everybody around and when the opportunity came with the WSC formula, we went right back into that. I think that was a great avenue for us because the '90s were actually fantastic for the team."
By 1994, the GTP era ended and IMSA created the World Sports Car series, which marked a new beginning for Dyson with a switch to open-top, flat-bottomed prototypes. But Rob's first choice in a produced-based Ferrari-engined Spice chassis wasn't necessarily the winning recipe, as he explains.
"I looked at the rules and they wanted street-derived engines so I pulled out an issue of Road & Track,” Rob Dyson recalls. “They had a winter rundown of the major specs of every car they tested that year. I looked down to see what kind of engines these street cars had. I went down the list and saw the 348 Ferrari had a 3.5-liter V8, twin cam.
“I thought that might be a good thing, so I had one of the guys get a couple of junk engines... and we put it in a Spice chassis. But little did I know that Spice was literally going out of business. When we got the car from them, it was not very well built. We had to go completely through it and fix all of the problems. It was just a disaster.”
Dyson sought engineering advise from Bob Riley and met with the renowned chassis constructor at his shop in Indianapolis. One thing led to another and Dyson helped commission the build of the Riley & Scott MkIII for 1995, an all-new, state-of-the-art prototype. Dyson also made the switch to Lozano Brothers-tuned big-block Ford V8s.
"We picked [the car] up in Daytona,” Rob Dyson says. “I got in the car and set it up according to Bob's specs and pulled out of the pits. As soon as I went onto the banking, I said, 'Boy, this car really feels great.' I came out of the Bus Stop, and wasn't even going full blast, but I knew it was really strong. I knew we had a winning combination. Even though the Ferraris were there and there were several other variants.”
The 1995 season brought immediate success for the new Riley & Scott-Ford package, with five wins, nine consecutive podiums and a 1-2 finish on the streets of New Orleans. However, Weaver lost the championship by a mere two points, with a strategy call early in the season having a likely affect on the title outcome.
“We were in Halifax and had trouble in practice,” Weaver explains. “And in the race, for some reason, the fuel filter went in backward, so we had fuel system trouble in the race and dropped back.
We had two cars there and I had the option to sit out and get in to whichever car [was higher placed] but I thought it was unfair as the others only had one car... If I would have just sat it out [and got in the No. 20], we would have won the championship.”
The team also had a love-hate relationship with the most prestigious race each season, the Rolex 24 at Daytona. While having scored five poles, Dyson and co. walked away with only two wins in the twice-around-the-clock endurance classic, after often having the car to beat.
"We should have won Daytona at least five times,” Rob Dyson says. “We had strong cars, leading extensive periods of time during the event, with extensive leads and didn't win it. We finally won it in '97 and again in '99.
“In 1998, we had a 1-2 going and my co-driver in the car that I was driving with James crashed into the slowest car on the racetrack. Butch [Leitzinger] and Andy [Wallace] and Elliott [Forbes-Robinson] were running the other car and the engine let loose with an hour and a half to go.
“We had a substantial lead in the [main] car. That was really a sad deal. That was probably one of the Daytona's that really hurt.”
Through the adversity, the team always bounced back. On the heels of its second Daytona win, Elliott Forbes-Robinson earned the driver's championship in the inaugural year of the American Le Mans Series, despite not winning a single ALMS round all season.
What's more is that it came in the trusty Riley & Scott, an aging car when compared to the then cutting-edge BMW V12 LMR and Panoz LMP1s. EFR's title chase came right down to the wire in the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"It was complete crunch time and was probably the most pressure-cooked weekends we've ever had as a team,” Chris Dyson recalls. “We came into the last race of the year with a shot to win it... So there was a lot of pressure on everyone. James started fifth or sixth and by the second lap he was third.
“I'll never forget it. I went out to the infield and stood right on the post. Just watching the variety and the excitement of the cars. We were right back to IMSA in the '80s when I was standing on that sideline and there were six or seven different cars, all pro drivers, going for the win.
“I just remember the euphoria that we felt when we won that championship. For the team, it was a huge underlining of where we were at that point. And to win a prestigious championship, it was a huge boost."
Having juggled a dual-series program, which saw Weaver claim back-to-back Grand-Am titles and Chris Dyson making his professional driving debut, the team shifted its focus entirely to the ALMS by 2003, but with a new weapon of choice. After eight years with Riley & Scott, the move was made to AER-powered Lolas, first with the LMP675-class MG Lola EX257.
The “baby” prototype not only took Chris Dyson to his first driver's championship in 2003, but also netted a historic overall victory at Sonoma Raceway, while up against the mights of the factory Audis.
"The MG victory was memorable because that was the first time a LMP2 car beat a LMP1 car,” says Weaver, who shared the winning car with Butch Leitzinger. “That was a fantastic weekend.
“In the morning warm-up, we went around one-second a lap quicker than everyone else, but for some reason it didn't appear on the time sheets. We thought this was fantastic and nobody was going to know that we were really going to be on the pace.
“Butch started and the track started to break up a bit. The Michelin tires were gaining a lot of pickup and the Goodyears didn't. So by the end of the race, the Audis were just dead in the water and we managed to drive straight past them.”
A step up to LMP1 the following year, with heavily developed MG Lolas, saw Weaver and Leitzinger place second in the championship, prior to a switch to an all-new Lola B06/10 AER package for 2006. However, Dyson's radical move to customer Porsche RS Spyders the following year ended up being one of the most debated decisions in the team's history. While returning to their roots with the German manufacturer, the relationship with the factory, and a turn-key prototype needing little development, put the Dyson's in a unique situation they had not faced before.
"Do I regret it? In some respects I do because we had the Lola with the twin-turbo V8 that we were working on and we in essence abandoned that project to go to the Porsche project,” Rob Dyson says on the decision to race Porsche RS Spyders in 2007-'08. “I wish it had gone better for us and for them. But I think it was great racing; the cars were absolutely impeccable. It took too much out of our control, and in those days we weren't prepared to do that. I think that was where the rub was.”
When one door closed, another one opened, as Dyson reunited with the folks at Lola and AER to field Mazda's factory-backed prototype effort in 2009. It brought returned success, including the first overall win for Mazda in ALMS competition the following year and the P1 title in 2011.
"Ironically, while we were working with the Spyder program, I had been seeing John Doonan was having difficulties with the Mazda cars,” Rob Dyson adds. “One thing led to another and off we went with them. That was a great package and it's been an absolutely great relationship."
The partnership with Mazda has continued to this day, with the team's fourth generation Lola-AER prototype package debuting in 2012 in the hands of Chris Dyson and Guy Smith. The duo recorded a monumental victory at Road America that year, which still stands as the closest finish in ALMS history.
Through the years, Dyson Racing has stood out as one of the most accomplished privateer squads in the business. According to Weaver, it's because of the man at the top, who started it all 30 years ago.
"It's Rob's team. If you've got one person in charge who has good leadership skills, it's very hard to go wrong,” Weaver says. “You've got the leadership and resources to back it up. It's one guy [to ask], 'Right, Governor, what are we doing?' It's that easy.
“If you were driving for a big manufacturer, there's layer upon layer of management. The PR side wants this and the management side wants this and the sponsor wants something else. It does make it a lot harder. There are a lot of advantages driving for a good privateer."
What does the future hold for Rob, Chris and the family run operation? The unification between Grand-Am and the ALMS has no doubt changed the sports car racing landscape, but that's nothing new for the team, which has been through the rise, fall and resurrection of the IMSA empire. In fact, with its long-term vision for the greater good of the sport, it wouldn't surprise many to see Dyson Racing continue its winning legacy for another 30 years, on whatever path U.S. sports car racing takes.
"We've changed cars a lot over the years; configurations have changed over the years," Rob Dyson notes. "When I look back on it, I think we've had to take the opportunities as they come and change has been a constant, really.
“Looking forward, we'll have to see how the rule book comes out and see how they handle the competition. I honestly believe they're trying to make it work. Give it a little bit of time and effort, and everyone giving a little, it will work.
“Everybody understands the opportunity we have on a unified series to put all of the road racing guys together. I'm hopeful that it works."