"Batmobiles" Invade Road America
Photos and story by Harry Kennison
Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, most of my high school buddies had fathers who worked for one of the "Big Three" automakers and, when it came to automotive performance, seemed to subscribe to the theory "you can't beat cubic inches." There were a few of us, however, who devoured every issue of Road & Track as soon as it arrived in our mailboxes. We found ourselves spellbound by the beauty, agility, and speed of sports cars from a distant land; names like Ferrari, Lotus, Maserati, and, of course, Porsche. With writers like Henry Manney III serving as our spiritual guides, we quickly learned that you could indeed "beat cubic inches," especially if it was a twisty road course and the race length was more than a quarter mile (or the distance between the Big Boy and Ted's Drive-in at opposite ends of Woodward Avenue).
Detroit was definitely not what most Porsche-philes would consider an ideal place to become addicted to sports-car racing. Drag racing perhaps, but not sports-car racing. But, if you were a teenager like me who was fascinated with sports cars, you could look at a map of the Midwest and quickly see that Detroit is strategically located within a day's drive of some of the finest road racing circuits in America—Mid Ohio, Watkins Glen, Mosport, and last, but not least, Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
My first trip to Road America was back in August 1966 when my best friend (OK, his dad owned a Lotus Super 7) and I tossed a tent, sleeping bags, and cooler into the back of our TR-4 and hit the road for Wisconsin (No room for a tent or cooler in the Super 7 and no passenger-side wind screen either!). We cut through the night across Michigan, around the lights of Chicago (throwing quarters into the toll booths and leaving a "chirp" of Michelin rubber in our wake), up through Milwaukee and finally arriving at "Elkhart Lake, population 634." By the time we reached the track camping area it was well after midnight and whatever parties were going on, were long over. We pitched our make-shift tent, went to sleep, but could not have dreamed what awaited us when we awoke.
Turns out we'd somehow ended up in the paddock area instead of the camping area, and were surrounded by dozens of McLarens, Lolas, and yes, Porsche 906's. In fact, there were no fewer than a half dozen 906's entered in the Road America 500, the final event of the United States Road Racing Championship that year.
The Porsche 906, also referred to as the Carrera 6, evolved out of the more familiar Porsche 904. The 904, designed by Ferdinand "Butzi" Porsche, was a thinly disguised race car that happened to be street legal like most of its Porsche racing predecessors. The 906, on the other hand, was a pure race car designed by an up-and-coming young engineer named Ferdinand Piech (on today's Porsche Board of Directors). It utilized the 904's brakes and suspension components, but there the similarities ended. The new 906 featured a light-weight, tubular, space-frame chassis and swoopy, fiberglass body; hence the nickname, "Batmobile." It also marked the first time Porsche had used a wind tunnel to reduce aerodynamic drag. Design elements of the 906, including the plastic bubble windshield and Plexiglas rear engine cover, would be found on future Porsche race cars from the 907's and 908's on up through the fabled 956 and 962 race cars of the 1980's.
So how did those "Batmobiles" do in the 1966 500-mile race around what many consider to be (author included) the most spectacular road course in America? How about first, second, third, and fourth in the under 2-liter class and 5th overall.