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MY FIRST drive of an out-and-out competition car was dually memorable. The machine was the 1981 Lancia Beta Montecarlo Group 5 Turbo, two-thirds of the way to its triple crown in the FIA World Championship for Makes. The venue was central Florida’s Deland Airport. And part of my drive was accomplished in pitch darkness.
Group 5 was the pinnacle of sports car endurance racing 1976 – 1982. Its F.I.A. regulations required cars to retain the shape of their original coachwork, “except as concerns the wings and aerodynamic devices allowed.” This phrase guaranteed Lancia’s Group 5 entry would never be mistaken for a road-going Montecarlo (called the Scorpion in its brief U.S. availability, 1976 and 1977).
Regulations called for production engine blocks, albeit with mods. In the Lancia’s case, its cast-iron block was underbored (from 84.0 down to 82.0 mm); its crankshaft was destroked (from 90.0 down to 67.5 mm). These values yielded a displacement of 1425 cc which, when multiplied by the 1.4 turbocharging factor, gave 1995 cc, deftly under the class’s 2-liter limit.
The turbo’s maximum boost was 20.6 psi for endurance racing; an adjustable wastegate gave mechanics (but not the driver) a sprint option of 23.0 psi. To put these in perspective, road-going turbos today run perhaps 12 psi.
In early 1981 when I drove the car, the Lancia Group 5 had already won the World Championship of Makes twice, 1979 in its under-2-liter class and 1980 overall in a tie-breaking tally with the over-2-liter Porsche 935 Group 5. It was destined to win overall in 1981 as well.
R&T’s Lancia Group 5 car arrived at Deland Airport, not far from Daytona International Speedway, less than 18 hours after its running the 1981 24 Hour Pepsi Challenge. In R&T, June 1981, I reported “Lots of tool clanging, a paucity of chatter punctuated only by an occasional thoughtful pause when anyone particularly attractive wandered by, or when the recurring question ‘Ma quando si mangia qui?’ (‘When do we get to eat around here?’) was met by shrugs all around.”
The race car was fitted with a fresh engine and gearbox, Daytona gearing giving 140 mph at its 9000-rpm rev limiter in 5th gear. I was advised to slip its clutch off the line, but clearly didn’t comply sufficiently. As I reported, “Whomp. Whomp. Whomp. In this, your first drive in a Group 5 car, you’re propelled forward with embarrassing little hops as each cylinder fires…. But then the revs reach 5000 and the boost gauge enters its positive zone—and all hell breaks loose.
“…It isn’t until 3rd grows from helluva racket to helluva-helluva racket that you glance at the boost gauge and see it edging past 1.5 bar.” This 22.5-psi was the sprint setting. “The mechanics, standing around and smiling nonchalantly, almost shyly, have been having some fun themselves with the adjustable wastegate.”
Chief mechanic Luigi Podda performed the acceleration tests (“Better you break it than I do….”) and the Group 5 Lancia reached 60 mph in 3.6 seconds and passed the quarter mile in 11.3 at 123 mph. In the slalom, I set a record of 68.5 mph (which stood for three years until bettered by a Formula Ford). A makeshift skidpad at the intersection of two Deland runways was stymied by radically different surfaces offering grip galore on one and low-coefficient slide on the other. The car still posted values in the 1.0g vicinity.
As dusk approached, the car was running fine, but electrical glitches had it devoid of any lighting. Nor did Deland Airport have any provision for nighttime operation. However, the team responded with improvisation. We set up another car, with its high beams on, 4000 ft. down the runway.
I headed for the headlights and used the car’s 9000-rpm rev limiter in lieu of any tach illumination. Catapulting through the pitch black, I still maxxed out 5th gear and reached the Lancia Group 5’s Daytona top speed of 140 mph.
It’s no wonder surreal things like this remain vivid, even after 34 years. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015
WOW!!! What an absolutely fantastic story. Loved it. The story oozes of a truly great and memorable experience from a time not long before each and every aspect of our lives was controlled by computers. Unfortunately I never read the story in R&T as I didn’t start subscribing until early 1983. But I do vividly remember your first account of the first generation Mazda Miata you drove (in Japan?). One could read between the lines that your smile went from ear to ear. More of the same kind of stuff, please!!