Fast Masters: When Jaguar ran a bizarro XJ220 racing series for retirees
The Jaguar XJ220 is a supercar that’s rarely celebrated alongside similarly exotic peers of its era such as the Ferrari F40 or the Lamborghini Diablo. Although the sleek coupe had a turbulent birth into the world (it was originally slated to feature a mid-mounted V-12, and several customers canceled their deposits when the design shifted to a twin-turbo V-6), the XJ220 also happened to be the fastest production car in the world. For about a year, anyway. The Jag’s top speed of 212.3 mph gave it a brief reign in 1992, until the 231-mph McLaren F1 stole its thunder in ’93. Nonetheless, the Jag was a high-tech triumph whose audience was ultimately limited by low production numbers and a sensational $750,000 (at the time) price tag.
Still, perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Jaguar XJ220’s history is the bespoke made-for-TV racing series that Jaguar built to try and raise the company’s (and the car’s) profile with American audiences. Called “Fast Masters,” it launched in 1993 in partnership with ESPN and made use of a fleet of bone-stock XJ220 supercars being driven exclusively by former (and a few contemporary) race car drivers were at least 50 years old.
The idea of a “race of champions”-style competition was nothing new, of course. Putting a set of motorsport retirees inside a 547-horsepower car worth three quarters of a million dollars, however, and then unleashing them on a closed course without any financial skin in the game themselves, was so clearly a recipe for expensive disaster that it’s amazing Fast Masters ever made it past the first pitch meeting. These weren’t Camaros or even Porsche 911s—Jaguar only ever made 275 examples of the XJ220. A painful percentage of that number were totaled for the viewing pleasure of ESPN’s audience.
Each of the Fast Master XJ220s was under the care of Tom Walkinshaw Racing, a long-time collaborator with Jaguar that also had a hand in the development of the supercar. The venue of choice was Indianapolis Raceway Park, with the configuration swapping between the very tight 5/8-mile oval and a strange road course-style chicane setup that cut through the middle of turn one.
And all the races ran at night, because of course they did.
Looking at the names of the competitors that ran through Fast Masters is a veritable who’s who of yesteryear’s speedsters, including luminaries such as Vic Elford, David Pearson, Parnelli Jones, Bobby and Donnie Allison (with the former five years removed from his near-death experience at Pocono), Bob Bondurant, Buddy Baker, Bobby Unser, and Derek Bell.
Fifty drivers in total would get behind the wheel for Fast Masters, and the incredibly diverse field also included unusual choices such as drag racer Ed McCulloch and the venerable Paul Newman.
The series was originally scheduled for six rounds in total. The first five were planned to include three heats of 10 to 12 laps each, with the two top points-getters moving on to the sixth “championship” round. In actual practice, Fast Masters was pure chaos from the second the green flag was waved. One crash after the other created a war of attrition that saw only handful of the 10 original entries make it across the finish line by the end of the night (led by McCulloch, somehow), with the third heat scrapped entirely. In fact, so much XJ220 carnage occurred across a mere 20 laps of competition that a New York Times piece covering the series quoted one of the show’s producers as saying that Jaguar would be “tapped out” if the wrecks continued.
As a result, Jaguar instituted series of changes to try and preserve the ultra-precious metal being put in harm’s way during the remaining weeks that Fast Masters was under contract. Gone was the blind draw that had assigned starting positions (in its place was a more traditional qualifying session), and all heats would be capped at a miniscule eight laps. Possibly because two cars had been completely totaled, there were now only eight XJ220s on the track at any given time, and never on the full oval. The opening oval heat was simply wiped from the program entirely, which now consisted of a road course heat, a “last-chance” heat, and a feature event to round things out.
With the desired cooling effect achieved, the rest of Fast Masters proceeded with considerably less on-track insanity. Bobby Unser would take the checkered flag—and $100,000—in the championship event, beating out Pearson, Brian Redman, David Hobbs, and Jones in a 12-lapper that saw two cars eliminated courtesy of impact with a wall.
It’s hard to see how Fast Masters brought anything other than sheer misery to Jaguar, ESPN, and series sponsor Havoline. The XJ220 wasn’t even officially on sale in the U.S. at the time the series was being filmed, as it was still awaiting federalization, and it’s hard to understand why a small company like Jaguar was willing to roll the dice on $7 million in inventory on what ended up being a once-weekly bumper car session that lasted a paltry 16 laps (although rumors persist that Fast Master rides were refurbished by Jaguar and re-sold as quicker ‘XJ220 S’ models). It stands out as one of the most bizarre efforts in the annals of single-make auto racing, and a weird, wonderful footnote in the convoluted tale of Jaguar’s erstwhile exotic.
Videos of each race:
Round 1, Heat 1
Round 1, Heat 2
Round 2, Heat 1
Round 2 Feature
Heats 1 & 2