A Forgotten Era – with James Dean, Steve McQueen, and Others
Story by Randy Wells
Photos by Randy Wells, and from the Ted Rodgers, Steve Schmidt, and Bob Tucknott Collections. All used with permission.
It was not unusual for thirty of these low-slung “bathtubs” to show up for a single event. Racing a brand new 1954-1958 Speedster in California was magical.
One of the main draws of competing in the Porsche Speedster was that it was cheaper and lighter than a 356 coupe. Nobody thought anything about driving these “budget” Porsches to the track. If you were lucky enough to have a station wagon, you flat towed it. Or, if you were one of the serious few, you had an open trailer.
Drivers never put the top up and used the bare minimum of safety equipment since that didn’t make their car any faster. And they saved all they could for every go fast hot rod part available. That meant trick venturis, special gearing, open exhausts, and the best recapped rubber they could afford.
Far from Europe and the U.S. east coast, the “Speedster Wars” of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were a moment in time. Races took place in northern and southern California on airports, in parking lots, and over a handful of road courses. It was an era of uncomplicated competitiveness. Everyone had the same equipment. Your position at the finish line had more to do with the risks you were willing to take and who showed up that day.
Yep, times were good. You lived in the moment, one race at a time. Prize money barely covered your gas, and nobody thought it would last forever. It didn’t. Neither did the tracks.
Only two of the road courses used exist today, Laguna Seca, near Monterey, and Willow Springs, near Mojave, 90 miles north of Los Angeles. For the most part, northern California Speedsters used makeshift venues like Candlestick Park, the Port of Stockton, and Vacaville. Laguna Seca and Cotati Raceway were the ‘permanent’ road courses. Sears Point was just being developed as the era was winding down in late ‘68.
Southern California events took place at Santa Barbara Airport, San Luis Obispo Airport, Paramount Ranch, Pomona Fairgrounds, Willow Springs, Riverside Raceway, Bakersfield, Palm Springs Airport, Holtville, and Del Mar Fairgrounds.
The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and the California Sports Car Club (CSCC or “CalClub”) were the sanctioning bodies for the early Speedster Wars. Since the Porsche Speedster had an engine between 1300 and 1600cc it originally fell into the F Production class. It was supremely competitive, and in 1955 the Speedster won the F Production championship.
Never a fan of Porsches, the SCCA abandoned the FIA displacement-based divisions in 1960 and certified cars by relative performance. All Speedsters joined the Super model in E Production. The Porsche 356 four-cam Carrera was assigned to C production, where it continued to win.
To fully understand the times, it’s helpful to consider the California Speedster Wars drivers. There were the professionals like Dan Gurney, Skip Hudson, Roger Bursch, George Folmer, Ronnie Bucknum, Scooter Patrick, Davey Jordan, Alan Johnson, Bob Kirby, Walt Maas, Denny Harrison, Dale Hersh, Don Wester, and Wyn Robertson. Bruce Jennings and Milt Minter drove the Carrera GT Speedsters. Jennings (a.k.a. King Carrera) went on to win three national SCCA championships in his “giant killer” Porsche.
Charlie Gates, Nevon Lyon, Pat Tobin, Bob Sheldon, Richie Lukes, Harry Shoreman, Read Buckman, Bob Tucknott, Ed Barker, John Grove, Frank Copeland, Charlie Kulmann, Jim Kennedy, and others were also regulars. Ed Barker reportedly kept the nicest looking car. Competition on-track was fierce, but everyone was willing to help off-track. And you camped out under the stars.
Speaking of stars, Hollywood allowed two of its celluloid heroes to participate in Speedster racing, at least for a little while. James Dean owned a white 1955 Speedster and entered the CSCC Palm Springs Road Race with number 23 on March 26, 1955. He finished second and appeared twice more in his Porsche two months later, at Bakersfield and Santa Barbara. He died in a 550 Spyder that Fall on September 30th, immediately before the release of the film Rebel Without a Cause.
Steve McQueen owned a black 1958 Porsche Speedster 1600 Super with number 71 emblazoned on its sides. McQueen drove it to a 1959 class win in Santa Barbara. Other races followed at Del Mar, Willow Springs, Laguna Seca, and Hourglass Field near San Diego. He later graduated to a Porsche 908/2 in which he and Peter Revson finished second overall at the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring.
Davey Jordan, who raced a Speedster in SoCal from 1958 to 1965, remembers it well. “That was a great time, probably the favorite part of my racing career,” he recalls. “I was a member of the Pacific Sports Car Club (PSCC) and spotted a 1958 red 1600 Speedster in the showroom window of Ted Corrozza’s VW-Porsche store on Sepulveda Blvd. in Manhattan Beach. It was priced at $2995.
“My wife Norma and I traded in our ’53 Plymouth and ’40 Ford hot rod and bought it,” Jordan remembers. “A few months later I talked her into letting me race the Speedster ‘just once, to see what it was like’. It was a CalClub Santa Barbara event over the Memorial Day weekend in ’59. The race was for D, E, and F Production classes. It was won overall by Steve McQueen in his black Speedster, I was 4th overall and 2nd in F production.”
“At Santa Barbara in 1962 I finished 2nd in #14 on both days,” Jordan continues. “On Monday morning I got a phone call from Bill Walters, the parts manager for John von Neumann’s Competition Motors. He told me that any competition parts I needed for the Speedster he would give to me free of charge. He also said I should bring the car in for a new silver paint job. I promptly made a list of short track gears, specified a 6/31 ring and pinion, and took the Speedster in for a respray!”
Another Speedster, #83561, was from NorCal. Its career began in autocross with second owner Charlie Pistante, who won more than 100 events and two regional championships in his Porsche. In 1962 Pistante sold the ’57 speedster to Bob Tucknott of Castro Valley.
At first, Tucknott autocrossed the baby blue Porsche wearing #21 at the Alameda County Fairgrounds parking lot. But he soon gravitated towards racing at places like Stockton, Cotati, and Vacaville in F Production.
When well-known local shop owner Harry Weber decided to support Tucknott as part of a three-person Speedster team, the car was painted a bright orange color, and the suspensions and engines gained a few trick parts. Tucknott eventually retired from racing and sold his ’57 Speedster in 1972, but not before working with the developer of Sears Point on various configurations of the racetrack.
Fast-forward to 1992 when Ted Rodgers of Oregon decided to buy the ex-Tucknott Porsche and have Rod and Gary Emory undertake a full restoration. Now in dark blue, the old warhorse continues to be vintage raced to this day with stock pistons, stroke, wheel widths, and rubber. Its last major appearance was at Rennsport Reunion V in Monterey where the Speedster Wars between Rodgers in the #119 ex-Bob Tucknott bathtub and Steve Schmidt in the ex-Dale Hersh Speedster #19 were reignited for a brief moment in time.
© 2017 Randy Wells. All rights Reserved.