An Alfa Fan is Born
By: Bud Suiter, July 2011
Chapter One, First Generation
How did you become an Alfa Romeo fan? Perhaps it was reading how Tazio Nuvolari came from way behind and won the July 28, 1935 German Grand Prix in a P3 Tipo B, beating the Auto Union and Mercedes teams. Or reading about Juan Manuel Fangio winning the World Championship in the beautiful Tipo 158/159 in 1951. Or Alfa winning the European Touring Car Championship with the GTZ in 1964. Or maybe you saw an 8C Competizone glide by on the highway, or a T33 Daytona win the Daytona 24 hour race in 1968, or a 2900B at Monterrey winning the Concours. Or maybe you drove a new 750F Spider at age fourteen like I did. In my case, I had lots of other help becoming an Alfa fan. When I was eight years old, my family lived on a farm in Carroll County, MD. We raised Hereford beef cattle, Shropshire sheep, Rhode Island Red chickens, rabbits, geese and three horses. The 119 acre farm produced corn, hay, wheat and every garden vegetable imaginable, including a few I’d rather forget, like Brussel sprouts and parsnips. One day, my Uncle Charlie who lived with us for a time was mowing the pastures with our Ferguson 20 tractor. He got bogged down near the creek bed and the rear wheels spun flinging mud everywhere. I was home alone in the farm house. Uncle Charlie came into the house and asked me to help pull the tractor out of the mud with our other tractor, a Ford. After hooking up a large chain between the tractors, he sat me on the lead Ford tractor and standing beside me told me to hold the clutch down while he shifted my tractor into first gear. He then got on the Ferguson tractor and shouted to let the clutch out slowly. I did and the stuck tractor popped right out of the mud. At the age of eight, I was hooked on tractors! When I was nine, my Dad handed me the keys to the 1937 Hudson Terraplane, the oldest of three cars we owned. He said, go ahead and drive it down to the creek and wash it. I did. I was hooked on cars. Meanwhile, the last Saturday of every month my Dad and I drove north from near Union Mills, MD (the Union troops marched through Union Mills on the way to Gettysburg, PA in 1863) to Hannover, PA, a trip of half an hour each way in our Ford station wagon. There was a magazine shop in Hannover that carried Road & Track. We’d buy a copy and drive home. Dad would tell me stories about why European sports cars were better than American sedans. I think he exaggerated here and there, like the time he said that the suspension on the Jaguar XK
-120 was so stiff that if you had a flat tire you could drive on it all the way home and not damage the tire. There were also stories about Alfa Romeo. Our brand new 1955 MG-A, turquoise with silver wire wheels, arrived when I was eleven. Quickly, I assumed the role of cleaning this car, by now using a hose and well water instead of creek water. Dad brought home carbon tetrachloride from the tool and die shop he owned in Westminster, MD. I used the ‘carbon tet’ to clean the wire wheels with a tooth brush. That was before anyone knew that carbon tet could kill you. I was hooked on MGs. When Dad travelled on business, he asked me to drive the MG around the farm ‘to keep the batteries charged.’ That was tough duty. Once he left for the airport to go to Florida and would be gone for a week. I waited until the dust settled after his car disappeared up the dirt road to the main highway, U.S. 140. I then jumped into the MG and flew up the hill after him, intending to turn around and come back down before the main highway. Suddenly, a cloud of dust erupts ahead of me and its Dad coming back home! Seems he’d forgotten his plane tickets. I was embarrassed. He thought it was funny that I couldn’t wait more than five minutes to drive that MG. Then Dad decided to race. He got the mandatory driver’s helmet, soaked his Oshkosh coveralls in flame retardant, installed a seat belt on the MG and drove to Marlboro, MD, located between Baltimore and Washington. I was asked to ride shotgun. The Marlboro track in the fall of 1955 was a 1.6 mile macadam course with a nice straight, many twisties, and a NASCAR-like bowl, in the center of which were the pits. You entered the banked circular bowl at 10 o’clock and exited at three o’clock. At the track, we removed the windshield, installed a small Plexiglas screen that he’d made himself, taped the head lights and went racing. Dad was assigned an instructor who knew MGs. He later said that his instructor scared him silly when he gave him his lesson on how to drive fast. Dad said he had no idea that the MG would do what it could do. After several trips to Marlboro, his logbook showed he had achieved the mandatory track time. Dad was awarded a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) driver’s license.
An excited MG fan, twelve years of age, appearing to do a victory lap at Le Mans, but actually at parade rest on a Maryland farm. 1955
Dad was quick but liked to start from the back of the pack and see if he could catch everybody in front of him. He invariably did, with one or two exceptions. One exception was a slightly newer MG-A that had higher compression pistons and 72 BHP instead of the 68 BHP our engine made. Dad was always right on this faster MG’s bumper by the end of a race but would lose three lengths down the main straight. In one race, the 72 BHP MG came off the bowl a little too hot, went into the next turn a little too hot, and did a little roll over. Since MG-As were convertibles without roll bars, this was a big deal. Dad had seen it coming and immediately stopped. With several other drivers and three corner workers, they gathered around and righted the flipped MG. The driver was fine. The race was restarted and Dad beat this now wrinkled competitor with slightly more horsepower. The other exception was a 1300cc Porsche 356 coupe. He never did catch that Porsche which of course leads to the reason for this story. But first, the Cumberland, MD race was coming up in May of 1956 and our MG-A was entered. In practice, I was so excited I could not sit still. From the hill behind the course, you could see the entire track, so could watch the cars all the way around. After a warm up in practice, our MG pulled into the pits. I ran over to see what was up. Mechanics were gathered around the MG, listening. The consensus was that our MG needed new rod bearings. We would not be able to race. For consolation, we watched Jack McAfee in a Porsche 550 pass
each of the Cunningham long nose white D-Type Jaguars with the Le Mans tail fin in the main event, and finish second to Walt Hansgen in a British racing green short nose D-Type Jaguar. The die was cast: we needed a faster, more robust race car, one that would catch Porsches. The MG with new rod bearings was traded in on a brand new Alfa Romeo Super Spider Veloce (actually now known as a 750F, 1290cc with twin Weber carburetors) at Manhattan Auto, Washington, DC. On the street, you could hear this new 8000 RPM Alfa motor long before the car hove into view. To say this Alfa was loud with the stock mufflers in place was an understatement. My best friend at the time, Gary Stonesifer, said the first time he heard the car go by that it sounded like a fire engine. But before we could track test this treasure, Dad sold the tool and die business and joined Proctor-Silex Corp. He was to manage their operation in San Juan, PR. The Alfa was already part of the family, so Dad drove the car to New York City and put her on a plane to San Juan. Soon there was a race scheduled at Ramey Air Force Base at the northwest end of the island. The Strategic Air Command was promoting sports car racing as a way to entertain the troops. Ramey was an hour and a half drive from San Juan on good roads, past Vega Baja and Arecibo. I couldn’t wait to see how the Alfa stacked up and drove along with him. Mom and my younger brother Ron came along in the new family Ford sedan, the one with a Y-block Interceptor V-8 engine. The windshield came off the Alfa, the new Plexiglas screen went on and the headlights were taped. There were twenty MGs and two white Alfa Romeo Super Spiders in the ten lap race on the airport runways. The course was minimally marked with orange traffic cones. At the start, our Alfa left from the pole position and streaked into the lead. But when they came around on the first lap, Dad was last! Seems he’d missed the cones for turn one and it took him a whole lap just to catch up to the back of the pack. In a few short laps, the Alfa was solidly in first place again and won by a huge margin. This was a race car! Bring on the Porsches! The second Alfa crashed and didn’t finish the race.
The Alfa Super Spider at speed at Ramey Air Force Base – no MGs in sight! 1957
Since Dad had to fly back to Maryland often for business, it was now my job to charge the batteries on the Alfa. And our driveway was a twisty half mile long (same length we had on the farm), but this one was paved. Sure enough, the second time I followed Dad down the hill on his way to the airport, he’d had to come back for something, and I was caught charging the batteries again!
Pete, our Great Dane, checking the equipment out before a battery charging run. 1958
Chapter 2, My Turn Now it’s my turn! I bought five Minis when it was up to me to buy cars. The most expensive was a $750 Cooper 1070S. One Austin 850 was only $20, a stripped body I bought for the windshield. Then a friend pointed out a 35,000 mile Giulia TI sedan sitting on a Chrysler dealer lot in Mystic, CT. All it needed was pistons, liners and rings. So for $500 I drove that Alfa home, too. The pistons, liners and rings later set me back another $250 installed. The price was right and I was hooked on my first Alfa. Two years later, in July 1970, I drove the black Giulia down Interstate 95 from Mystic to the Performance Auto dealer in New Haven, CT for a brake job. The rear pucks on the Dunlop disc brakes were stuck. I walked through the show room. The salesman threw me the keys for a brand new 1969 white boattail 1750 Spider which was just sitting there beckoning to me. And shouted, take her for a spin. I obliged. And bought the car on the spot. I still like this Alfa forty one years of ownership later. I was now hooked on 1750 Spiders.
The Alfa 1750 Spider sporting the original Connecticut license plates. 1970
It was only a matter of time. I’d moved to St. Louis, MO. Now I had to go racing. I’d admired a black 1750 Spider race car at Mid America Raceway west of St. Louis. I called Dave Coman the owner/driver in Tulsa, OK, and the deal was struck. I bought a new Volvo station wagon for a tow car, drove to Tulsa and picked up Number 99 - also the number on Barney Oldfield’s famous Ford racer. The trailer was so heavy the Volvo could barely maintain highway speeds, so when I got back to St. Louis, I bought a new lightweight trailer.
Dave Coman’s mechanic told me they’d just finished the Brainerd, MN five hundred mile race, but the car had been checked out and was ready to go. With short notice, I took his word for it and signed up for the driver’s schools that October 1972 at Blackhawk Farms and at Mid America Raceway. I was immediately in trouble. The front end was so loose at Blackhawk that I had to steer constantly just to keep the Dunlop R5’s pointed in the right direction. Then I blew a head gasket at Mid America a week later. That winter, I shipped the motor to Ward and Deane in Los Angeles, CA. I told Alan Ward I wanted a strong motor. Alan was the hot shoe in Alfas on the west coast at the time and did all his own engine work. He tried to talk me into a two liter motor, but I insisted on the original size. The finished product produced 156 BHP. That was an incredible combination of cams, pistons, new head, and new Weber carburetors. My advisors at the time said that the Webers were peakier but stronger in the power band than the original Alfa-Spica injectors. So I switched. I also rebuilt the front suspension with Ward and Deane parts, Koni shocks, and lots of new bolts, including the longer Alfa 2000 Spider lug bolts and nuts so we could play with spacers. My pit crew consisted of Gary Barfield, who liked cars and Coors, and would drive clear across Missouri to Kansas in his Camaro to buy the beer when he couldn’t get it in St. Louis. The third driver’s school on March 23, 1973 was a cold 45 degrees but a different story: the Alfa was strong and tight. I could spin wheels in third gear with new Dunlop R5 CR82 compound tires on the car. Amazing fun! My notes show tire pressures of 34 PSI front and 31 PSI rear, 1 ½ degrees camber, 1 ½ degrees castor, 20 minutes toe in, 4.78 rear end, NGK 9E cold sparkplugs. NGK was my only sponsor: they gave me spark plugs. And I was awarded my SCCA Regional driver’s license that day. My first race was a seven lapper as part of the driver’s school. As you can see from the photo of the start, the Alfa was at the front of the grid based on qualifying times. This particular photo appeared on the front page of the St. Louis Post Dispatch Sunday sports section the following day. On the second lap, I spun on turn eight, recovered and finished eighth out of 49 cars on the grid, second in class to a Datsun 2000. I had good battles with the Datsuns, especially later at Road America, overcoming their larger engines with better brakes.
Start of First Driver’s School Race, March 1973. This photo is from the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Then came Sunday and my first official regional race. About the only thing I didn’t overhaul on that race car over the winter was the lightweight motorcycle battery. When I started the car for the morning practice, the battery exploded in smoke! A run into the nearest town, Wentzville, found a Western Auto store open Sunday morning with an uncharged garden tractor battery on the shelf. I bought it and chewed nails while it was charging. Back at the track, the new battery went in quickly, just in time to make the rear of the grid for my first real race. The track was wet from rain. I had no rain tires. But the R5s were intermediates, so it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. The car was a lot quicker than I was at this stage. We threaded through traffic and managed a fourth place in DP in the wet the first time out! The next race was the Regional at Blackhawk Farms, west of Chicago on May 5-6, 1973, on a 1.8 mile course that needed my 5.12 rear end which was home in the garage. I could hit fifth gear for no more than one second on the main straight. My pit crew was Hallett (he) and Anderson (she) who stayed in their tent all weekend - their first date. The Alfa qualified ninth
out of 31 cars on the D, E, F, G Production, D Sports Racing grid and finished second overall and second in class, this time behind John Schmidt’s cherry 3-liter Yenko Stinger. This was Schmidt’s home track and I was able to beat him later at Mid America, my home track. We had a nice rivalry. The following weekend was back at Mid America Raceway for my first National race. Group 44 brought all their hot shoes and cars. I have to say I was very nervous before this one. Our race was DP, EP, FP, B Sedan and C Sports Racing. Group 44’s Brian Furstenau qualified first in his MG-B and Group 44’s John McComb won in a Triumph GT-6. Their motors sounded like they turned 9000 RPM. Factory money! I qualified 21 st out of 52 cars and finished 25th after a pit stop to check out the cause of a banshee scream coming out of the engine compartment. Seems the alternator bolt had backed out into the alternator cooling fan! What a noise that made.
First National SCCA race at Mid America, May 1973. Note inside right rear wheel lifting.
But the best race of all, and the best race course for me, was Road America, Elkhart Lake, WI on September 23, 1973. Lots of great memories: an A Sports Racing car lapping me
on the carousel with me pointing for him to go around as we exited. That momentary concentration lapse – keep two hands on the wheel, brother - on my part caused the left rear wheel on the Alfa to drop off the pavement and we twitched a bit. After that race, the driver of the ASR car dropped by in the pits and apologized! What a gentleman! Especially considering the bobble was my fault. Those are the kinds of drivers who make you glad you were part of SCCA in the 1970s. In my class race, I had a real go with a 2 liter Datsun. One lap I’d be in front, next he’d be in front. Late in the race, I was ahead coming down the main straight, where he had the power/speed advantage. So I went to my strength, brakes, and held the throttle down twenty yards further than normal. I really had to mash the brakes to slow down for the right hander and the Datsun didn’t have a chance: he banged right into the back end of the Alfa and spun off into the weeds. Finished that sucker right off! But getting second in class behind that Yenko Stinger – yes again - wasn’t the real story. That course is so much fun to drive and the scenery in the Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin so gorgeous that I’d go back in a heartbeat. The race committee was superb and the sausage and cheese they offer in that area just can’t be beat. There were other races and other stories to tell at Mid America and Stuttgart, like showing up for a practice-only day in primer. But I was headed for the finish line. Chapter 3, The Finish Line Sooner or later, we all assess whether racing is the right thing for us to be doing. In my case, racing an Alfa could not have been a better choice. The sound of that Ward and Deane engine still rings in my ears. I especially liked out-braking everyone into the corners: the Alfa had the best production sports car brakes going in those days. Street stock the 1750 Spider would stop from 60 mph in 109 feet according to Road & Track. With at least two hundred fifty pounds off my race Alfa and huge Dunlop R5s, you can imagine how that car would stop. Today, you have to get to the Porsche Turbo level to stop in that distance. Go ahead, check it out in Road & Track. But in 1974, my wife and I were expecting a first baby. I was now as fast a driver as the car was fast, so I was taking too many chances. I also figured that at 31 years young I was not headed for a World Championship; should’ve started sooner and had a bigger budget. The Alfa had been dropped from DP to EP which made it much more competitive, but how do you compete with the Group 44s? So, I crossed the finish line. Dave Coman saw how much fun I’d had, so he bought the Alfa back in 1975 including the new trailer.
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I was now a true and serious Alfa fan. Can’t wait for that 4C! PS. The GTAs walloped the 911s back in the day. Alfas do beat Porsches.
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