Over the last couple months, we've been celebrating 50 years of racing at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with personal recollections from some of the racers who've made their mark at one of America's finest natural-terrain tracks.
To learn more about Mid-Ohio's heritage and see more evocative photos from the track's first 50 years, click here to open the free Mid-Ohio@50 digital special.
This week, we're wrapping things up with Derek Bell, who recalls some of his most memorable Mid-Ohio moments – not all of them victories. Of course, paired with Al Holbert in Holbert's superbly prepared and run Porsche 962s, Bell won three straight IMSA GTP races in the mid-'80s. But races that remain just as vivid in the Englishman's mind include a Lumbermen's 500 where a financially prudent decision came back to haunt him, and a crazy-hot Can-Am debut in 1973.
Over to Derek…
Mid-Ohio always was, and still is, a wonderful track; really lovely and beautifully prepared. I enjoyed the layout and the demanding corners, and it's just a great circuit to race on – I had some great races there over the years. With places like Columbus and Cleveland within easy driving distance, it's always been very popular with spectators, too.
My first time racing there was in 1973 (BELOW). I remember getting a call from Lothar Motschenbacher asking if I wanted to drive his McLaren Can-Am car, so why not? I'd never driven anything with that kind of horsepower; the Porsche 917 had something like 600 horsepower. So I came out to Mid-Ohio and I thought it would be a piece of cake, because I'd heard the Can-Am was all McLarens and Porsches.
I can't tell you where I qualified [ninth, 8.2sec off Mark Donohue's pole]; I remember Hurley [Haywood] was in the race, too, and I was thinking, “I've got to beat Hurley Haywood!” I believe I passed him, but then I passed out! The temperature was up in the 90s and, at the end of the first heat, I was absolutely exhausted and had to lie on a bed of ice to bring my body temperature down. I remember I stepped out of the car after getting whatever position – I think it was sixth or seventh, in fact – thinking that we had another race in an hour and I just about fell flat on my face. I had no energy. I was absolutely wiped out.
Then I was terrified, because I'd been brought all this way from England to drive this Can-Am car which was, of course, only moderately competitive – it didn't have any of the very latest stuff on it, but it was still a good car. I thought, “Bloody hell, I've got to do another race in an hour and I can hardly stand up!” But in those days, one would recover pretty darn quickly and I was only in my 30s anyway.
In the second race, I paced myself a little better. I mean, some of the guys never made it to the second race – it was so humid and so hot. And, of course, the cars were hot and bloody physical to drive! They didn't have power steering like there is now, and they had these big, chunky tires. I don't know where I finished [fourth in the combined results], but I know I just sort of drove it to finish, rather than not finish…or finish in a bloody hospital.
In 1979, I went back with “Hobbo” – David Hobbs – and we drove BMW North America's works 320i (LEFT) that had the turbo. Unfortunately, I went and stuffed it off the road in practice; it was very rare for me to do that. I remember I put my wheels on the grass and got loose over the brow – I don't know which corner it's called, but it's where you sort of jump when you come out of a right-hand corner when you go over the top of the brow. We still raced, but we didn't win it. But he and I won at Elkhart Lake about six weeks later in that car.
I'm proud that Al Holbert and I won three straight years in the IMSA series with the Holbert Racing Porsche 962 (RIGHT), back in 1984, '85 and '86. But, prior to those years in the Lowenbrau Porsche, I went back and…long story that I won't bore you with, but the outcome was I did three races in three weeks in three different cars for three different teams. I ended up driving the Lumbermen's 500 at Mid-Ohio for Andial, for Alvin Springer, with Rolf Stommelen. Of course, in the Lumbermen's 500, anything went, and pretty much anything apart from grand prix cars or Indy cars was allowed in. You have these really good Formula 5000-based Can-Am cars and 2-liter cars – I think Bobby Rahal was in one of those little flyers. I remember we qualified seventh or eighth and Stommelen was just the quickest sports car driver in the world at that time, bless his heart. He and I got paired together quite a lot, subsequently.
I remember the previous week, at Elkhart Lake, Alvin Springer had talked to me about driving in the Lumbermen's for the Andial team. He said, “I'll give you 10 percent of the prize money.” I said, “No, no, no, I want three and a half thousand dollars,” or something like that. I had spent the last three weeks in America racing, getting nowhere and earning nothing apart from my travel. I felt I had to get home with a couple of dollars in my pocket, but the Lumbermen's used to have a big prize of $50-60,000 for the winner.
We qualified seventh or eighth, behind a bunch of these Can-Am cars, which were single-seater Formula 5000 cars with bodies, really, and we were on the grid when Alvin said, “How about doing it for prize money?” And again I said no, the hell with that. I'm just going to go for a fee and know I can at least cover my costs. So, of course, we went out and won the race and Alvin came out smelling of roses! He probably would have paid me $20,000 or something.
After the IMSA days, I've been back there more recently to drive an Audi S4 in the SCCA World Challenge GT series. Didn't do that well, but we were always in the top three or four, and the track was still as challenging and as fun to drive as ever.
For more on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and its 50th season of racing, visit the official website at MidOhio.com.
Sept. 16-18, the Grand-Am Rolex Series takes center stage with the EMCO Gears Classic presented by KeyBank. For tickets, CLICK HERE.