If, in 1972, you had any audible automotive pulse, you’d know Mark Donohue (driving for Roger Penske) won Indy, a 25-year old Emerson Fittipaldi took the Formula One championship (for Lotus) and About-to-be-King Richard Petty won his 2nd consecutive Winston Cup (and 4th overall). Those of you with a heightened automotive interest – or nothing else better to do – might also know that John Morton, driving for Peter Brock’s BRE Datsun team – took the 2.5 liter Trans Am Challenge championship. Not only did BRE’s second championship significantly assist in establishing the Datsun brand, it provided the editorial fodder for The Stainless Steel Carrot, Sylvia Wilkinson’s highly detailed chronicle of that championship season. First published in 1973, an expanded edition (and the subject of this review) was re-released in 2012.
Having read John Morton’s Inside Shelby American during the Christmas break (and viewed at least a portion of Ron Howard’s Rush some six times over the same period) it’s not as if I needed to take a deep dive into ‘70s motorsport quite this quickly. But there’s a lot to like in the John Morton narrative. His own book details the enthusiasm for driving that, along with a small inheritance from an uncle, moved him to depart Clemson, buy a Lotus Seven and trailer it to California. With a date at Carroll Shelby’s driving academy (Pete Brock was his instructor) serving as grad school, Morton was off and walking, working by day as a gofer for Shelby and racing the Lotus on weekends. One thing – of course – led to another, including (some fifty years later) Morton’s own book, which provides a truly unique perspective on Shelby American’s early years.
So, with a few thousand of Morton’s own words under my belt I approached Sylvia Wilkinson’s ‘Carrot’ with more than a little hesitancy. Wilkinson, an accomplished author of both novels and non-fiction, embedded herself with the Brock team long before that term had been made popular. And while the 2.5 liter ‘Challenge’ was, in relative terms, little more than a filler for the star-studded fields that comprised the Trans Am and Can Am series, it was not without its dramas. Pete Brock, still popular among Shelby’s fans (and Shelby investors), was – by his own admission – the team *sshole, responsible for maintaining competitive focus while also handling marketing and PR. Morton, in a season that saw the BRE team dominant, was restless, viewing (incorrectly, I think) the 2.5 class as just so many sh*tboxes, and chomping at the bit to drive something appropriate to his talent.
That, of course, is the ‘stainless steel carrot’, a Lotus-Ford single seater purchased by Brock to compete – with Morton at its helm – in the SCCA’s Formula 5000 series. As a single seat formula propelled by (in the main) domestic V8s, Formula 5000 – at least figuratively – was as far removed from small-bore Trans Am as V. Putin from S. Palin. For Morton it was more than the next big thing; it was the thing, and with his small inheritance long since expended on motels, gas and (not incidentally) rent, it represented his one obvious ticket to the Big Leagues.
Wilkinson’s highly detailed chronicle, which includes a number of seemingly stream-of-consciousness observations from Morton himself, is an incisive look at a time and place in motor racing history that, like the low budget, back-of-a-pickup political race, we probably won’t see again. And with an afterword that brings us up to date with the players – both living and deceased – we’re provided an ending that is at once satisfying, while unavoidably leaving us with a big ‘what if’. In that, it’s not only a story of John Morton and BRE; it’s the story of all of us.
The Stainless Steel Carrot, by Sylvia Wilkinson, is published by Brown Fox Books. It may be purchased directly from the author at http://johnmortonracing.net/.