As Dino mentioned in his event intro post, the Speedhunters were out in force at Monterey Car Week this year. But while he and Louis embarked on a blistering tour of the Car Week festivities, I spent most of my time at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca drooling over vintage race cars and soaking up the atmosphere at the 2016 Rolex Monterey Motorsport Reunion.
I’ve got plenty of stories on the way from this year’s Reunion, but I want to start out with a look at one of my favorite cars of the event. It’s not a Ferrari or a Porsche, but a Pontiac – a 1964 Tempest to be exact.
If you are familiar with the history of the SCCA Trans-Am series, or the history of the muscle car itself, you may have heard of Herb Adams’ legendary Gray Ghost.
Herb was a well known engineer who worked for Pontiac during the glory days of the ’60s and ’70s, and is especially renowned for his work on the Firebird Trans Am. In 1970 he decided to turn his wife’s Tempest daily driver into an A-Sedan racer, and it found a lot of success. Things got even more serious in 1971 when they repainted the car silver and decided to campaign it against factory teams in the highly competitive SCCA Trans-Am series.
Running a Pontiac V8 that was de-stroked to 303 cubic inches to meet the series rules, the Tempest made its debut at Lime Rock with Bob Tullius behind the wheel. The team missed qualifying and started at the back of the field, but Tullius quickly made up ground, eventually winding up in second place behind Mark Donahue’s Penske Javelin. Late in the race the Pontiac blew a head gasket and was forced to retire, but the legend of the Gray Ghost was born.
Not only was this a much older and larger platform than the pony car competition, the Gray Ghost was built in a home garage and campaigned by a group of moonlighting Pontiac engineers in their spare time. It instantly became one of the more unique Trans-Am entries out there.
With its extra wide front tires, negative camber and softer springs, the Pontiac was especially competitive in the rain. Unfortunately, the experimental nature of the car led to several mechanical DNFs, but in the races it did complete, the Gray Ghost typically finished near the front of the pack, right there with the factory-backed teams.
After the ’71 season the car was sold, but it continued to be driven in A-Sedan competition and was last seen at a vintage race in 2000. In 2015 it was purchased by John Hildebrand and given a full restoration by Peterson Motorsports in Sonoma before making its debut at the Rolex Reunion.
Not only is the Gray Ghost a Pontiac legend and a true underdog, it was one of the most distinct race cars on track at Laguna Seca over the weekend.
It’s an important and welcome addition to the field of historic Trans-Am racers, and I’m very much looking forward to watching it race many more times to come.