Monday, January 14, 2019

An Evening With Chip Robinson

Chip Robinson today.

I was fortunate to be invited to a local Porsche Club Of America dinner, at which Chip Robinson was the featured speaker.  I remember him as one of Al Holbert's co-drivers, but in-period I never gave him his due.  His talk, and his answers in Q&A, were very interesting and candid.  A candid, retired, road racing driver is always worth a listen.  Words I've put in quotation marks are paraphrases, but close to what Robinson actually said.

Robinson's first passion was off-roading.  But he soon found himself successful in small-bore open-wheel cars.  This quickly led to a full pro season in Formula Super Vee, in which he was likewise successful.  Some may remember FSV as a rung on the ladder to a CART ride (I saw Michael Andretti race an FSV at the Minnesota Fairgrounds in the early 1980's).  Robinson finished second in the championship in his first year, but ran out of sponsorship money and believed his career to be derailed.

Out of the blue, he got a call from Bob Tullius offering him a ride in the Group 44 Jaguar XJR-5.  "I think Tullius admired my no-drama approach to racing," Robinson said.  "Besides, I was cheap." Robinson remains grateful to Tullius for the ride, giving him his big break, and for saying "You've got a contract for the season, take your time, adjust to the car and the series."  In his opinion, Tullius is a good guy.  This contrasts with other things I've read about Tullius (including from front-rank drivers who drove for him).  Which, I suppose, just goes to show that people are multifaceted and it depends on the person, the day, and the circumstances.

I was a big fan of the XJR-5 because it was an all-American effort at top-rank sports car racing on this side of the pond,
Lee Dykstra did the chassis for Bob Tullius.  Also because of its lovely, clean, graphic design--and the sound of that
big, normally-aspirated Jaguar V-12.  But it didn't make the downforce or the power of a Porsche 962, and when
Jaguar decided to go FIA racing, it passed on further developing the XJR-5 in favor of a new, clean-sheet de-
sign and hired Tom Walkinshaw to run the team instead of Tullius.  Coming from open-wheel cars, Robinson
remembers this car as big, heavy, and unwieldy.

He was successful in the Jag, which led to a ride with Al Holbert in his Lowenbrau Porsche 962.  Many will remember Holbert's 962's as the cars to beat in IMSA GTP racing in the 1980's.  "But when Al was killed in the plane crash, the team just folded, without words being said or announcements made. Everybody just went home.  We didn't make another race."

Robinson remembers the 962 as having much better brakes, power, grip, and handling than the XJR-5. He also remembers turbo lag, even at this late stage of the 962's development (1988), but it was not a problem: "You just drove around it--get into the throttle earlier."  By this time (Robinson reminded us) Holbert was building (and selling) his own 962 chassis tubs.  He was also running trick, proprietary, engines jointly developed with Andial.

Al Holbert's "regular" co-driver in this iconic car was D. Bell, whovever he was  ;-).  But when Holbert and Porsche began
laying the ground work for a CART racing program, Al retired from driving and hired Chip Robinson to drive with Bell.
Wins and championships continued, but when Holbert's private plane crashed in September of 1988, the 962 program just
folded up.  It turns out that my memory is only partly faulty: I did see this car race at Road America in 1988, and have Al
Holbert's autograph to prove it.  But it was in the gold/white/green/red Miller Beer livery.     

After the collapse of Holbert Racing, Robinson again got lucky: a contract to co-drive the Nissan 
GTP with Geoff Brabham.  Once again, he was part of a dominant IMSA GTP program.  "I got there just when the car was coming right.  It had been blowing tires and crashing; some of us in the paddock called it The Black Coffin."  When the Electramotive (Nissan) team switched from Bridgestone to Goodyear tires, that problem disappeared.  It turned out that the Bridgestones couldn't handle the downforce the chassis was generating.  Don Devendorf (Electramotive's Principle) was a genius.  That car had massive downforce.  Of course, a V-6 allows for even bigger side tunnels than a flat 6."

Above and below: the Nissan GTP.  Robinson escaped its early developmental problems, when it was nicknamed "The
Black Coffin," and arrived to drive just when the car was coming right and clearly faster, and just as reliable as, the
Porsche 962.  It's a symptom of my own Aesthetic Disease that I paid little attention to the now-dominant Nissan:
The "look" of the car, and the graphic design of its livery, left me cold.  Also, it dethroned the 962 just as the Glory
Years of CART got under way.  Around the turn of the decade, my Road America spectator budget and my TV
eyeball attention were totally focused on CART.

When should you quit?  Robinson's answered the question as follows:  He drove some CART races for Dick Simon, with indifferent or worse results.  Simon was running a shoe-string operation.  "When Nissan shut down its GTP operation, we had 225 people involved in developing and maintaining two cars.  By sports car racing standards, the budget was insane.  I was not interested in driving for teams that were struggling from race to race.  Also, Bobby Rahal has the best quote I've seen about race car driving: 'You have to want to go into that turn at 225 m.p.h.'"  Also: "I found myself living in airports.  For the last two years of my career, I bought a motor home and drove to the races, by way of National and State Parks.  It was a great experience."  In other words (mine), if you want to succeed at the top level in motorsports, you must be single-minded in pursuing that goal.  That's not a way to live a balanced life.

Robinson was asked about his IROC experience.  "I qualified 4th at Daytona, and thought 'that's OK.' So, I'm driving into Turn 4 and Dale Earnhart is way back in my mirrors.  'Still good,' I thought.  Next thing I know, he's next to me, on the inside line.  Ovals are a specialty."  He was also asked about the toughest drivers he raced against.  That was interesting too.  He didn't mention some of "the greats."  He provided a fairly long list, of which I can't recall all, some of whom were predictable, and a couple of which were call-backs for me.  "Hurley Haywood... Bob Wolleck... I remember the tenacious drivers.  Price Cobb was hard to pass, and would have been harder, except that his Porsche 962 was on those atrocious Goodrich tires.  Davey Jones was fast, but made mistakes.  You could beat him by sitting on his tail and forcing him into a mistake.  I remember lapping Alex Job, in a car that was throwing oil, three times in a couple of races.  I went to the Stewards: 'Why is this guy even out here with us?  He's a hazard.'  Alex is a monument to persistence and dedication in this sport."

When I was invited to hear Chip Robinson talk, I went mostly to hang out with the couple who asked me.  Boy, am I glad that I went.  As the expression goes, "He could write a book."  But when legendary figures like Derek Bell, Brian Redman, and David Hobbs get book deals only because they are legendary, I'd never have heard Robinson's recollections but for this talk.  Thanks, Merrill & Denise!