WINNING THE VEGAS HELLDORADO
WEEK SCCA RACE: (May
in the 3rd person
Looking back, Dennis F. Stevens considers winning the Las Vegas
Helldorado Week SCCA amateur race in May of 1960 to be a career
highlight.. The amateurs, like Stevens
raced on Saturday and the professionals, like Dan Gurney and Stirling Moss,
raced on Sunday.
In 1959, Stevens’ agent, San Francisco’s flamboyant Frank Werber, who
managed the Kingston Trio and did a little racing himself, introduced Stevens
to Dan Gurney, and Stevens was hooked.
As they say – racing was in his blood.
Stevens purchased a 1958 Porsche Carrera Speedster from an air force
officer stationed at Beal AFB, just north of Sacramento. Purchased new, the officer had owned the
Porsche for less than a year with the intention of racing it. That is before the realization set in that
sports car racing, amateur or professional, could be extremely expensive.
Gurney lived in the Los Angeles area but like Stevens made San Francisco
his adopted hometown. Starting out on
what would be a brilliant racing career, Gurney went out of his way to help
Stevens get his SCCA racing license and the two became fast friends.
May of 1960 was a very busy time for Stevens. His agent, Frank Werber had arranged an
audition in New York with Word Baker and Jullan Stein to understudy Jerry
Orbach, Kenneth Nelson and Richard Stauffer in the Sullivan Street Playhouse
production of The Fantasticks. Stevens won the role and the play opened May
3rd – and the Helldorado sports car races (armature and professional
respectively) were held on the second Sat-urday and Sunday; also in May. At the time, the professional race in Vegas
was not open wheel – Grand Prix style
– but consisted of modified street vehicles like the Porsche 718 RSK, driven by
Stevens pleaded with director Word Baker to give him Friday, Saturday
and Sunday off, in order for him to compete.
It wouldn’t be the first time Baker acquiesced to such requests.
With the Carrera secured on its trailer, Frank Werber towed it from San
Francisco to Vegas and had it pre-pared when Stevens flew in from Manhattan to
qualify late Friday afternoon and drive in Saturday’s race. On Sunday, instead of driving his BRM (for
the Owen Racing Organization), Dan would be driving the RSK.
Saturday’s race got off to a quick start with two Corvettes taking the
lead, followed by a street legal Porsche 550, driven by Stevens’ friend Wynn
Robinson. Following Wynn was a Jaguar
and then Stevens’ Carrera. Among the
cars trailing Stevens, was an Aston Martin, Austin Healey 3000, MG Roadster, Bugatti
252, Mercedes-Benz SL500 and yet another Corvette.
The Corvettes, with their 283 cubic inch 230 horse power engines were
favored to win. In comparison, the
engine size of Stevens’ Carrera was 1500cc (91.5 cubic inches) produc-ing 155
brake horsepower; technically, not in the same league. In fact with the exception of the Porsche
550, most of the automobiles in the race had engines three times the size of
the Carrera. But then Porsche is
The first half of the race Stevens merely attempted to hold his fifth
place position and not get sideswiped or trigger an accident. Suddenly, ahead of him was a bad
incident. One of the leading Corvettes
had spin out and hit the wall. Debris
was scattered all over the track.
Wynn Robinson driving the Porsche 550 made it through without
incident. In attempting
to avoid hitting the Corvette’s hood, the Jaguar spun out – but managed
to recover. Stevens wasn’t so
lucky. He ran over the hood and nearly
lost control but recovered quickly. The
undercarriage of the Carrera took a hit and Stevens intuitively started
monitoring the gauges for any indication he might be losing precious fuel or
oil. The tires seemed okay.
The caution flag came out requiring all cars to hold their position at a
significantly re-duced speed while the track crew cleaned up the debris. It seemed that Stevens had escaped
unscathed. The caution was soon lifted
and they were back up to over 100 mph.
Out of the 19 automobiles still in the race; with one of the leading
Corvettes out and the Jaguar losing a position, Stevens was now in third place
– just behind Wynn Robinson.
Robinson, a factory trained Porsche mechanic, owned and operated a small
Sacramento sports car dealership. Even
though the Carrera was based in San Francisco, Stevens took it to his friend in
Sacramento whenever it needed servicing.
It was Robinson who landed Stevens his first sponsor – Socony Mobil –
which dropped the name Socony in 1966 and then merged with Exxon in 1999. Sponsorship helped defray the cost of tires,
gas, oil and transportation to and from the races.
As the race neared the end, Robinson was in second place, “drafting”
behind the Corvette. He was a smart
driver and Stevens was convinced Robinson would end up winning the race as he
had done at Watkins Glen, the month before.
Then Robinson makes his move.
Drafting behind the GM sports model his gas pedal is only half
de-pressed when – suddenly he pulls out from behind the Corvette and presses
the pedal to the medal. Picking up speed
he easily passes the leader. Taking a
cue from the more experienced driver, Stevens slips in behind the Corvette and
soon is allowed to ease up on his pedal and still maintain position.
Entering one of the courses tighter turns a little hot, in order to
avoid rear ending the Corvette, Stevens gears down and taps his brakes. …What the hell!!
No brakes. …The Corvette’s hood
had done some damage, after all.
Although over revved, Stevens has no choice but go to 1st gear; not used
since the start of the race. The
synchronization gear box allows for a smooth transition from 2nd and the
Carrera avoids hitting the Corvette.
Dennis silently thanks Dan Gurney for suggest-ing he go with the faster
“C” ring for first gear, when setting up the transmission. Gurney had also suggested running the “B”
ring instead of a “C” ring in the third gear slot. This would allow Stevens to power his way
through most minor curves without reaching a speed that would cause him to have
to touch the brake with the “heel” of his right foot or let up on the gas pedal
with his “toe” (thus the phrase, “heel and toe”).
2nd gear had a “C” ring which might prove probmatic on some of the
tighter turns, forcing Stevens to drop into 1st. 4th gear had a “B” ring which allowed the
Carrera to hit 112 mph at 7,000 rpm. The
Porsche redlined at 7,500 rpm. Luckily,
the Carrera’s 5th gear – seldom used in this type of race – carried an “A”
ring. Normally, with a “C” ring you
would have to be doing over 100 mph for the gear to be effective.
With a “B” ring, the speed dropped to 90 mph; and with the “A” ring – to
approximately 80 mph. Otherwise, 5th
gear merely allowed you to cruise along – saving gas.
Stevens knew he should pit. But
he also figured that if he played his cards right he might finish the race
relying solely on his gear box. After
all, Stirling Moss had done it the year before at Laguna Seca.
Relying solely on the gear box had an unintended consequence. Without brakes, Stevens tended to enter the
turns faster than normal; four wheel
drifting his way through. On one
such curve, the Carrera and Corvette changed positions. Now all Stevens had to do was catch Wynn
Robinson’s Porsche 550.
In his attempt to catch Robinson, Stevens puts the pedal to the
metal. With virtually the same engines
(both with four Weber downdraft carburetors), the lighter 550 Spyder should
have had the advantage over the heaver Carrera Speedster. But, as it turned out, the gearing of the
Carrera took away that advantage.
Stevens was drafting on Robinson as the two Porsche’s came out of the
final turn and headed for the finish line.
Roaring down the straightaway, Stevens made his move. Drafting had allowed him to regain nearly
one-third of his carburetor setting, which setting was now reflected in the
millimeters between his current gas pedal position and the floorboard.
Stevens’ move consisted of
pulling out from behind Robinson and once again pressing the pedal to the
metal. Fast approaching the finish line,
as the extra fuel ignited in the piston chambers, the Carrera came alongside
the 550 Spyder. Both in 4th gear, the
two Porsches were side by side approaching 120 mph.
Stevens credits Dan Gurney for his winning the race. Robinson had a “C” ring in his 4th gear slot
where, upon Gurney’s advice, Stevens had gone with the “B” ring. Simply put, drafting together with the “B”
ring gave Stevens the engine response necessary to cross the finish line at
7,000 plus RPM and nearly a car length ahead of Robinson.
The following day, Sunday, Gurney easily took 1st place driving his
Porsche 718 RSK.
TRIVIA #1: Since Stevens didn’t race
enough to establish positioning, he didn’t qualify for an official race car
number – representing his SCCA standing.
He was allowed to choose any number over 250. He chose the model number of his 360 Carrera. He kept the number throughout most of his
TRIVIA #2: In 1960, Stevens placed 3rd at
Riverside; 5th at Monterey (Laguna Seca); 6th at Cotati; and won again in
Sacramento. Stevens drove in six races
in 1961 and seven in 1962. He retired
the Carrera after only one race in 1963 – Cotati – where he finished 9th.
TRIVIA #3: In 1963, Dan Gurney went on to
race for the Brabbam Racing Organization – and the rest is history.