5 April 2016

Studebakers and the secret to winning a premier vintage road race

The assembly of vintage racecars captivated filmmaker Jeremy Heslup when he arrived in Veracruz, Mexico. He was there filming a documentary on the 2013 Carrera Panamericana road race. A sports car enthusiast, Heslup was immediately smitten by the race-prepped Alfa Romeos, Datsuns and Lancias. Being new to the Carrera, however, he was puzzled by the respect accorded to one particular group of racecars: the Studebakers. Sitting next to lithe European sports cars, these Champions and Commanders looked like stodgy, hulking monuments to 1950s American excess – certainly, assumed Heslup, no match for their nimble opposition.

But then their engines fired up, the race began and Heslup was quickly forced to rethink his opinion of the Studebakers.

•••

Beginning in the 1940s, the designs that sprang from the Raymond Loewy Associates offices shaped the U.S.’s visual landscape. And many of these designs remain in use, as fresh and relevant as ever, to this day. It is hardly an exaggeration to say, as a New York Times Book Review critic once noted, that the Loewy team changed the shape of the modern world.

The Loewy studio's design triumphs were as disparate as they were beautiful, counting among their successes Coca-Cola vending machines, iconic logos for Shell, Exxon and Lucky Strike, Air Force One’s livery and the NASA Skylab.

This legendary design group, however, never penned a racecar.

Or so they thought.

In the early 1950s, Loewy came across a design for a car that his team member, Robert Bourke, had been fiddling with for some time, a sketch that would become the 1953-54 Studebaker Champion Regal Starliner and Studebaker Commander. Touted as “The New American Car with the European Look,” these Champions had low-slung noses and sleek bodywork making them far more aerodynamic than their predecessors, a trait that, unbeknownst to Loewy and Bourke, would one day make these cars worthy of their names

At about the same time that Bourke was penning the Champion, a now-legendary race was beginning in Mexico. Commissioned by the Mexican government in 1950 to celebrate the Panamerican Highway’s opening, La Carrera Panamericana took its place alongside similarly dangerous road races like Italy’s Mille Miglia and Sicily’s Targa Florio. Between 1950 and 1954, factory teams from Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Lancia – as well as iconic drivers such as Phil Hill, Eugenio Castellotti, and Juan Manuel Fangio – descended upon Mexico for this border-to-border race.

During this short timeframe, 27 people died as a result of the Carrera. Combined with the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans disaster, the Mexican government cancelled the race (the Mille Miglia was ended in 1957 for similar reasons, while the Targa Florio survived until 1977).

In 1988, a Mexican enthusiasts’ group revived the Carrera as a 2000-mile vintage race that, while safer than its original form, remains a high-speed affair in which crashes, injuries and even fatalities, serve to focus participants’ minds. The race is a grueling, cross-country dash requiring both expert driving and physical endurance just to finish.

•••

Victory, of course, requires not only skill but also the right car. And more often than not over the past three decades, the Carrera’s “right car” has been a Studebaker. When Heslup first covered the race in 2013 (which led to his documentary, The Last Great Road Race), the winning car was a Studebaker (as it had been 19 times before that). In 2014, when he returned to document the event, a Studebaker won it all again. Ditto for 2015, when Studebakers took all three spots on the podium.

“When I first did the Carrera in 2013, I didn’t really like the Studebakers,” recalled Heslup recently from his home in Los Angeles. “But after seeing just how freaking fast and loud they are – I mean, these things are capable of 200 miles per hour – and realizing how visceral it must be to race one through Mexico at full speed, I now want a Studebaker more than any car in the Carrera.”

Even veteran Carrera drivers like American Taz Harvey eventually come around. After tasting success in a Datsun 510 and 240Z – and realizing that these small cars were simply too underpowered to win overall – Harvey is now preparing his own Studebaker for the 2016 race.

“There’s an old saying about there being no replacement for displacement,” says Harvey, “and this really comes into play when you start getting up to 7,000-8,000 feet….so being super-competitive, we decided that if we’re going to win this thing overall someday, we need to start looking for a Studebaker.”

•••

So how did Studebakers, never intended to race, dominate road racing in Mexico?

The Carrera’s premier Competition Class is restricted to cars manufactured in 1954 or before. As veteran driver and car-builder Mats Hammarlund points out, the Champions’ and Commanders’ original shape offers some built-in downforce unmatched by their era’s counterparts. Peek beneath their shells though, and you’ll quickly notice that these Studebakers have largely ceased being anything that Loewy’s designers would recognize.

The Carrera permits significant modifications to its fastest class, Turismo Mayor (grand touring), provided they retain their original wheelbase and meet basic safety requirements. Once in Hammarlund’s hands, then, these cars undergo a transformation converting them into purpose-built race cars. The Studebaker’s original inline-six is removed and replaced with a Chevrolet-based, Hammarlund-built race engine capable of wringing 600 horsepower from its 366 cubic inches.

“These engines are quite special,” notes Hammarlund, “since they have to run on regular pump gas and work really well for seven straight days of racing; transit through traffic without overheating; and run smoothly through lots of different altitudes.”

The car’s internal structure is a scratch-built Hammarlund chassis. They also completely redesign the suspension and steering systems. With his background in European racing, Hammarlund’s builds are likely to incorporate more rally technology, whereas his American and Mexican counterparts lean toward a NASCAR influence.

Whatever the build philosophy, these cars have become the ones to beat in Mexico. Indeed, Hammarlund-built Studebakers have won the Carrera outright four times in the past six years, while also claiming a pair of second-place finishes and one third-place finish.

Raymond Loewy and Robert Bourke would indubitably be proud, if a bit surprised.

Videos

A glimpse of the 2014 Carrera Panamericana:

Trailer for Heslup’s Last Great Road Race:

10 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Greg Olusczak Lakeland, Florida, USA April 5, 2016 at 15:46
    Glad they resurrected this great race. I hope they continue it to infinity! It is good to see the Studebakers, orphaned cars that they are, dominating this race. I have gown to appreciate the 53-55 Studies in the last 2 Decades!
  • 2
    Arthur Lovett Mississippi April 6, 2016 at 21:11
    Excellant
  • 3
    Bob Marcks Scottsdale, AZ April 7, 2016 at 01:26
    I was a Raymond Loewy designer, on the Studebaker account in 1953--55, working for Bob Bourke, a very talented designer. Studebaker did have a rugged V-8 engine option, which set some records of its own later. I owned a '54 Commander V-8 hardtop coupe.
  • 4
    Martin Colorado April 7, 2016 at 07:00
    The Studebaker was a completely underrated vehicle. The cars and trucks the company built were forward looking and a number of their ideas are still being incorporated in cars built today. Long live the Studebaker!
  • 5
    Dr. Robert Carley Ontario, Canada April 7, 2016 at 09:17
    My father loved Studebakers. We had a 1949 bullet nose, and a 1954 Loewy. It was, unfortunately, a Champion four door (he had a family), but it still had that Loewy look to it. There was also one back in high school with the Bearcat V8, and what a sound that engine gave. I've often thought of buying one myself.
  • 6
    Frank Fay Augusta Maine April 7, 2016 at 09:47
    Not many USA cars of this vintage had available V8 engines. Most Studebaker fans would be disappointed on learning that the cars were running with Chevy Engines. The Studebaker V8 is a very powerful engine it's own right....just visit the Bonneville Salt Flats and you'll find Loewy Coupes competing there too, some with Studebaker engines.
  • 7
    Bob Doughty Monaca, PA April 9, 2016 at 15:19
    We had a "brand new" 1950 Studebaker Champ when I was 4 years old. Dad took very good care of it and he drove it for over 100k miles back in the 50s and early 60s, when it was rare for a car to go that far without major engine repairs. Still wish I could buy a Studebaker Hawk!!
  • 8
    Gene Elliott Dallas April 9, 2016 at 16:40
    I had a 54 Hudson Hornet but it wasn't the most powerful Twin H version. It still would outrun everything except the Studebaker Golden Hawk rated at 100 more hp than mine had.
  • 9
    Rodney Woolnough Tasmania australia April 9, 2016 at 20:47
    Larks racing that's what we need
  • 10
    Dick Anderson Atlanta GA April 11, 2016 at 17:49
    Certainly an interesting article. But the race, as resurrected in 1988, was a lot more fun in the beginning - they had as many cars as they could handle - everybody couldn't wait to come back. And - it had cars of all types & brands in the premier "Turismo Mayor" class. The original rules required the engine to be from the same manufacturer "family" as the car brand and have no more than 30% more displacement than the original engine. The original 51-54 Studebaker engine had 232 cu in displacement, so it could have been increased to a MAXIMUM of 302 cu in. - and they had no other brands at that time from which to "borrow" a bigger engine. But, if any of you remember, the 51-54 Studebaker was FAST - that little engine would rev fast and made more power than it was rated at - it was the car to beat in its class in Drag Racing for the next 40 years. So, a later Studebaker engine (some were supercharged - I don't recall if the Pan-Am rules allowed this) would have been OK. Remember the Golden Hawks? They used a 289 cu in version of the original 232 cu in engine and it was a VERY good engine. With an 0.080" overbore the 289 would come up to 302 cu in, be totally LEGAL and fit perfectly under the "Original Intent". Properly done, this engine would have been VERY competitive. For the record; Later, Studebaker merged with Packard, so with a little "give or rationalization", perhaps the Rules would have allowed a Packard Engine. At 352 cu in (and a little later yet, 374 cu in), it was much bigger than the 302 cu in allowed but it could have been destroked to make a very powerful and competetive engine. With a bit more stretching; Later yet; AMC purchased the Packard engine for use in the Nash and made a smaller 320 cu in version, which could have been pretty easily destroked to 302 cu in - probably a better solution yet. But all of these alternatives would have required INGENUITY & INNOVATION. However, MONEY & "Political Influence" ALWAYS overpower common-sense and the RULES. (if you don't believe that - look at what is happening TODAY in Politics) Some people said it was "hard" to find and soup up a Studebaker engine (simply NOT True) - so they decided to allow Chevrolet V8 engines (at 350 cu in - WAY too big for the Rules), which were certainly plentiful and probably a bit cheaper (however, most likely the engine cost is the smallest part of these racing budgets - it certainly was for me). Neither Chevrolet nor GM were EVER affiliated with Studebaker in any way. And, the Chevy small-block V8 (which was NOT made in 1954 - 1955 was its first year) is without a doubt the greatest "production" engine and the most developed engine EVER for performance & reliability. Great - now even the least technical guy can go buy a Chevy V8 and put it into a Studebaker. However, it DESTROYED the PREMIER Class. The Studebaker body was very desirable because it was smaller, lighter and (more IMPORTANTLY) had FAR SUPERIOR Aerodynamics to any other car in 1954 - there was no comparison. Its aerodynamics are so good, in fact, that Bonneville Speed Records are STILL being set every year by '53 & '54 Studebaker bodies cars - 62 years later. Instantly - ALL the other, genuine cars, of the many brands that were made in 1954, that had competed for the first 6 or 7 years were OBSOLETE. The Studebaker, with a Chevy V8 was smaller, lighter and Much, Much FASTER (about 75 mph!)! The cars that USED to compete - and put on a heck of a show - were mothballed. As far as I know, none of the owners built another car - they were DONE. As a comparison, my 54 Lincoln came with 317 cu in, so it could be increased to 412 cu in and use any engine in the Ford Family. We chose the 351 Cleveland, which was a high performance STOCK FORD engine in the early 70's - and totally in line with the " nearly the same as 1954" idea for these cars. In 1988 through 1992 we had stiff competition from several other brands, like Buick, Oldsmobile, Ford, Mercury, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler & Cadillac - under the Rules as re-written for the NEW Pan-American Road race of 1988. A year of 2 later, just for fun, I went to Bonneville with my 600 HP engine and ran 160 MPH. A friend of mine, with a Record holding Studebaker ran 235 MPH with the SAME power. I also had a 700 HP engine that was legal - it would have got us going about 10 MPH faster - 170MPH. How could anyone with an Olds, Merc, Ford, Dodge or Cad or Lincoln compete against the Studebaker with a Chevy V8 engine? They Couldn't - and they CAN'T - and they DON'T! If you want to run their fastest Class - Turismo Mayor - you HAVE to run a Studebaker. Goodbye Competition. Pretty soon interest fell off and the car counts went down. In the early years the race was ALWAYS Full - 125 cars total were allowed. - many were turned away - Register earlier NEXT year! So, to interest more people, they instituted many new classes - mainly for later model cars - to try to keep up the total count (after all, the promoters need to make money). There are still a lot of cars out there that have NO PLACE to race. They were made Specifically for "La Carrera Pan-Americana de Mexico". Their owners, like me, only get to talk how about how much fun we USED to have.

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