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Lost In Time

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Book Review: Lost In Time - Formula 5000 in North America

The more I think about it, the more I now disagree with Zimmermann's title here... Formula 5000 is no longer lost in time. No … Thanks to this book - with a sweeping and well-paced telling of its tale - I think that it has been skillfully frozen in time.

By Doug Stokes

Wed, Jun 2, 2021 12:26 PM PST

LOST IN TIME

Formula 5000 in North America

by John Zimmermann

Foreword by David Hobbs

Racemaker Press / Boston

ISBN: 978-0-9998754-4-5

Hardbound 224 pages 10.25” x 10,25”

$85.00 USD

Once upon a time … and over the period of 9 years 8 months, from May of 1968 to August of 1976 ... 329 men and one woman (Italian Formula 1 driver Lela Lombardi became the only woman to start a Formula 5000 race when she drove at Ontario Motor Speedway - September 1974) took part in a new professional racing series that saw some 82 events try very to blow the roof off the joint at 22 different venues across the United States and Canada. The machines they raced were open-wheel, single-seat “formula” cars powered by 5-liter (305 cubic inches) stock block V8’s which had begun life as engines for prosaic everyday American motorcars.

cover of the book "Lost In Time" by John Zimmermann
They say to not judge a book by its cover.. But this cover is just as appealing as the book's interior - so maybe just this time!

Far from exotic (sans multiple overhead cams and turbochargers) these (relatively) simple (but very broad-shouldered) engines gave the series its name and were the catalyst for some of the most competitive and exciting open-wheel ever seen here or abroad.

The series was called Formula 5000 and it put on a damn good show whenever and wherever races for the new breed were held.

And now, after many years and many miles of research, the full story of this fabled racing series has a worthy repository in the 224 pages of John Zimmermann’s new book that he so aptly titled “LOST IN TIME”. Published by Racemaker Press, this is the full racing record and the true story of the people and events that made this fabled series such a great show wherever it played.

formula 500 racers speeding down a straight portion of the race track
Do you recognize this place?

Mounted up unashamedly with big bellowing American (5,000cc) V-8 engines powering light and quick monocoque chassis’ from here and abroad, Formula 5000 cars rode on fat tires and were put into the control of drivers who convened from all over the map representing just about every discipline in motorsports from Sprint Cars to Formula Vee to Formula 1, and from NASCAR stockers to Indy Cars. 

It was a wonderful amalgam of big names and nobodies, all in (as we said) very fast V-8-powered formula cars on the most challenging road circuits in North America. Whether you were around for the show as some of us (like me) were or are just now learning about this remarkably competitive series ... this new and comprehensive history of those drama-packed days will both remind and reveal. 

The nearly 100 photos and illustrations that augment and condition the text are well-chosen and in many cases quite evocative. These cars and their drivers were all as reachable as they were colorful, and personality was part of the presentation and every event. 

For me, the “Linden Leap” at the first Long Beach GP (the sight and sounds of a huge herd of brazen open-wheel monsters coming off of Ocean Boulevard and getting airborne as they turned hard right onto the steep downhill slope of Linden Avenue, their drivers having the temerity to gas those SOB’s as they shot, nose down and tires shaking, toward a tight left into the Convention Center parking lot) will never leave my noggin. I thought myself a fairly tough dude at 34 years old at the time, but my knees turned to jelly the first time that I watched those machines take that crazy nose dive. There are a thousand other thrills that these wonderfully simple, but so proudly blatant, machines provided to motorsports fans across the short span of their existence. Whether you were there or not, the pages of this book will help you remember them and sigh.

The cast of characters here, the players … ranges from the likes of Roger Penske, Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Sam Posey, George Follmer, and David Hobbs, to Jody Scheckter, Eppie Wietzes, Lou Sell, Gordon Johncock, Graham McRae, Tony Adamowicz, John Cannon, Tom Pryce, James Hunt, Tony Brise, and Dick Smothers along with Indy 500 winners Bobby and Al Unser, and the Series’ winningest driver, Brian Redman … to say that it was an all-star show seems almost too modest now. 

Some would likely say that the first Long Beach Grand Prix in September of 1975, really put Formula 5000 on the map, even though the series had been running for seven years by then. The Long Beach organizers had envisioned a full-up Formula 1 race for their inaugural event but the FIA … the world sanctioning authority, in all their wisdom, insisted on a “circuit test event” first.

That race turned out to be a great success, with crowds almost overwhelming the circuit and word of the event catapulting the sleepy former “Navy Town” into international headlines and recognition that still guilds the city to this day. The iconic ocean liner “Queen Mary” had been docked there since 1967, but it took the Long Beach GP to wake the town up to its full potential. 

As fate would have it, the promoter of that watershed event was there at the end in 1976, and for all the excitement and action that Formula 5000 had provided, he and others could not find a way to keep the show together. The Sports Car Club of America then stumbled awkwardly ahead and set up a new racing series that draped clumsy “Can Am-style” full bodies (which fit like silly Halloween costumes) over the sleek open-wheel Formula 5000 cars, and the era was gone.

Though he doesn’t dwell long on the downfall, the author relates that unhappy part of this story in a factual, and sober way. As it must be evident by now, anyone who was there has felt that same way for a long time. And, Zimmermann's, highly-accurate and well-paced story of this special series is beautifully backed up with all the technical details about the machines themselves, the facts and figures about the tracks that they competed over, the complete event results, and the event racing record of all 330 drivers who took part.

formula 5000 race car taking a corner during a race.
Ah, the days where one could get this close to the race..
formula 500 racers speeding down the track with spectators in the stands in the background
Lost In Time brings back fond memories of these times.

Every race season is brought back to life here in this conscientious author’s accurate and detailed relating of each year’s series of events. The names and places all and each event consistantly reminding the reader of what a colorful and competitive mixture of people and machines that roamed our racetracks was with this series. Fittingly, the photos here chosen to illustrate the text are all excellent reminders of the breed and the excitement that this series brought to every track that it (quite literally) took over for a weekend, turning each circuit into a big-time, big show, professional open-wheel racing battleground.

For many long-timers in the sport, this book will be the series’ long-delayed eulogy. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I now disagree with Zimmermann's title here, Formula 5000 is no longer lost in time. No … I think that it has been skillfully frozen in time, with a sweeping and well-paced telling of its tale.

About The Author

Doug Stokes's profile picture

Doug Stokes

Doug has a long and wide-ranging history in the motoring business. He served five years as the Executive Director of the International Kart Federation, and was the PR guy for the Mickey Thompson's Off-Road Championship Gran Prix. He worked racing PR for both Honda and Suzuki and was a senior PR person on the first Los Angeles (Vintage) Grand Prix. He was also the first PR Manager for Perris Auto Speedway, and spent over 20 years as the VP of Communications at Irwindale Speedway. Stokes is the recipient of the American Autowriters and Broadcaster’s 2005 Chapman Award for Excellence in Public Relations and was honored in 2015 by the Motor Press Guild with their Dean Batchelor Lifetime Achievement Award. “… I’ve also been reviewing automobiles and books for over 20 years, and really enjoy my LA Car assignments.” he added.

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