Words and photos by Jack Webster & Eddie LePine
The Motorsport Diaries recently caught up with one of the most interesting race drivers we have ever met. He raced in an era that a lot of drivers did not survive. He piloted one of the most powerful sports racing cars ever built – and won with it. He pioneered modern motorsports sponsorships. Oh – and he became a member of the Road Atlanta Flying Club. More on that later in the story.
Charlie Kemp might not be a household name, but the guy has been contributing to the history of motorsports for his entire life and should be recognized as what he truly is: a great racing driver; a fabulous promoter and great story teller.
Charlie started his racing career in 1953, when at the age of 16 he drove a ’49 Ford in his first race at the Speedbowl quarter-mile dirt track in Jackson, Mississippi. From that point onward, Charlie never looked back. From Fords to McLarens, to Shelby Mustangs, Lolas and finally Porsches – Charlie Kemp drove them all.
The Shelby connection is very strong, with Charlie Kemp piloting the winningest Shelby car of all time – the 1965 Shelby GT350R Fastback. He won 17 straight races between 1968-69 and through 1971 took the same car to 54 races and 32 wins. Of his signature southern drawl, Carroll Shelby said that if Charlie raced as slow as he talked, he would have never won anything. Of course, Charlie proved that actions speak louder than words.
Charlie has raced with and against some of the most legendary drivers of the golden era of racing in the 1960’s and 1970’s, including AJ Foyt, Stirling Moss, Peter Revson, Denny Hulme, Parnelli Jones, Pedro Rodriguez, Mark Donohue, Jackie Stewart, Francois Cevert and George Follmer.
From that first race in 1953, Charlie continued to compete right up through the Riverside CanAm in 1979 – piloting a Lola T332 in that last race. CanAm fans will remember him from his Holiday Inn sponsored Lola T222 in 1972 and of course for his most famous ride – the RC Cola Porsche 917/10 in 1973.
Not merely a racing driver, Charlie Kemp was a great businessman and very adept at providing “value added” benefits for his sponsors. He was doing this in an era that was at the beginning of commercial motorsports sponsorships – and his successful partnerships with sponsors would serve as a blueprint for the growth of motorsports which continues to this day. Charlie saw very early the importance of not only racing successfully, but marketing successfully as well.
“When I first started getting sponsorship, I was winning races with the Shelby and people started to call and say ‘we will give you some money to put our decal on your car’. Now, that was fine, but in order to get more money, enough money to really make it worthwhile, you needed to have press relations, PR. We would send out press releases to newspapers – stuff that nobody did in that era.”
Charlie picks up the story: “It goes way back with RC Cola and me. It goes back to the period when I was racing the Shelby. RC Cola actually came and sponsored my Shelby back in 1970. We had painted the Shelby blue with RC Cola stickers on it. In 1971, when I first got into CanAm we had an RC deal there and they gave me a sponsorship for running the McLaren in CanAm. But it was a real limited deal – it was only for 5 races. But that was the beginning of a relationship. Then after 1971, instead of RC, Holiday Inn came on board to sponsor the team, including the Lola in the CanAm series.”
A lot of people will remember Charlie’s Lola T222 from that 1972 season, the orange #23 with the Holiday Inn logo on it. Charlie’s cars were always nicely turned out with well thought out and attractive color schemes which highlighted his sponsors products.
After 1972, Charlie was looking to go bigger – much bigger. Partnering with businessman Bobby Rinzler, it was full steam ahead into one of the most eventful seasons of racing in the history of the CanAm series.
Rinzler would acquire the previous year’s championship winning Porsche 917/10s from Roger Penske and Porsche, (Penske was moving on to develop the Porsche 917/30). but such a transition from a one car operation to a major factory backed two car Porsche team was a leap forward, and due to his good relationship in the past with RC Cola, Charlie Kemp was able to step up and make it all happen.
“Bobby (Rinzler) bought the two Roger Penske Porsche 917s at Riverside (at the end of 1972). RC had already contacted us and said if we were going to do that (run the Porsches) they would put together a really big package for us. My relationship with one of the vice presidents in advertising, that went back to the 1970 deal, really set us up to get that sponsorship in 1973.
“We did a really good job in ’72 for Holiday Inn – we did shows, had the big truck with Holiday Inn on it, did postcards for every hotel. RC was impressed with the work we had done with that sponsorship, and that was the key to getting the RC Cola deal for 1973.”
“I was a businessman and I learned a long time ago that you had to deliver something for your sponsor. We went all out. In 1973 we had Leslie Taylor do all our public relations work, we did a lot of work for RC. We were always available to do promotions. We worked really hard at it and that paid off.”
Things were coming together rapidly for the newly formed RC Cola/Rinzler Racing team. With the beginning of the 1973 season just around the corner, Bobby Rinzler signed the driver who would be Charlie’s teammate for the 1973 CanAm season: Francois Cevert.
Francois Cevert? You certainly don’t remember him driving the RC Cola Porsche 917/10 do you? That’s because it wasn’t to be. As Charlie remembers it: “When we had got the deal, Bobby (Rinzler) signed Francois Cevert, who had driven a McLaren in 1972, to be my teammate for 1973. But Jackie Stewart got involved in the deal and convinced Francois to concentrate on Formula One. So, Bobby let him out of the contract.”
We find this sequence of events very interesting. Cevert signs on to drive the RC Cola Porsche, but before the beginning of the 1973 season, asks to be let out of his contract so he can focus exclusively on Formula One. Did Cevert know of Stewart’s upcoming retirement at the end of the 1973 season? Did Stewart tell Cevert he wanted to spend the season mentoring the young heir apparent to the retiring World Champion? We will never know, as at the end of the 1973 season, Cevert was killed in practice for the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, which was to be Jackie Stewart’s final race. With the death of Cevert, Stewart and the Tyrrell team withdrew from the race and Stewart never raced again.
Charlie continues: “I liked Francois a lot, he was a really good guy and we got along very well. Of course, he got killed at Watkins Glen later that year. It was a real shame. So, at that point, we were short a driver and Porsche began pushing us really hard to hire George Follmer, because he was the 1972 champion. At that point, nobody had signed him (for CanAm) – he was doing Formula One in Europe for Shadow. Anyway, Porsche wanted George to driver somebody’s Porsche (in CanAm). And since we had the two (1972) factory cars – that’s how it came about.”
Charlie then relates to us a story that we were previously unaware of – how Porsche did not have confidence in the development of the Porsche 917/30 and looked to Kemp and Follmer as the factory’s best bet as a backup plan. You also have to remember that for the 1973 CanAm season, both Brumos Porsche with Hurley Haywood, and Vasek Polak Racing with Jody Scheckter (and either Steve Durst or Brian Redman in the second entry) were in the mix as well. If Cevert had continued as Kemp’s teammate, might George Follmer have ended up with Vasek Polak? Seems likely to us.
Fortunately, George signed on with RC Cola and Rinzler, and he was a big asset to the team. As it turned out, Porsche’s lack of faith in the 917/30 was short-lived, as Porsche and Penske sorted out the beast, which after stumbling at the beginning of the 1973 season, went on to take the final 6 races in a row and the championship. Only Charlie Kemp (Mosport) and George Follmer (Road Atlanta) in their RC Cola Porsche 917/10s scored wins in 1973 besides Mark Donohue in the Porsche 917/30.
But before the season began, Follmer was relating to the team that all was not going well in the development of the Penske Panzer – the Porsche 917/30.
Charlie relates what was going on: “George was doing some (development) work with Porsche in Germany. Of course, they were working on the 917/30 over there (with Penske). But Porsche was somewhat concerned that the car was not coming along like they thought it would. So, George told us that the car was not handling, not doing what they expected it to do. Porsche was a bit scared that somebody was going to beat them in 1973. So, we became the secondary Porsche factory team behind Penske, because we had the cars that Penske had won with in ’72.”
The 1973 CanAm racing season turned out to be one for the history books, a season that is still talked about in racing circles today. It was an awesome season to witness – the most powerful racing sports cars ever developed were piloted by some of the finest drivers the sport has ever seen.
Porsche had a banner year – so good, in fact, that the SCCA (in their infinite wisdom) decided to kill the Porsche 917. It was regulated out of existence, since no one could come up with a car to beat it. No fewer than 7 Porsche 917 models participated in the bulk of the 8 races that made up the 1973 CanAm Championship, piloted by legendary drivers such as Mark Donohue, Jody Scheckter, Hurley Haywood, Brian Redman, Steve Durst, George Follmer and of course, Charlie Kemp.
Racing was dangerous back in the 1970s – much more dangerous than it is today. If you take a look at the guts of a Porsche 917/10 CanAm car with the bodywork off, you find it hard to believe that drivers piloted those machines at speeds approaching 200mph. There was little to the car other than engine, gearbox, driver seat and tubing. No real safety gear. Fuel all around the driver. Tracks with no run off area, with guardrails right next to the track.
Sometimes it is amazing that as many legendary drivers and heroes survived that era as they did. We are so fortunate that they did survive, so they can relate to us their tales of competition, close calls, success and failure on the race track. We are truly blessed to be able to sit down with someone like Charlie Kemp and be able to tell part of his story.
And now, one last story from Charlie. It is about his membership in the Road Atlanta Flying Club. Now to be a member of this elite, infamous and unofficial club, one has to do a back flip on the infamous back straight at Road Atlanta. Members from the CanAm era include Denny Hulme in a McLaren, Mark Donohue in a Porsche 917/10 and of course, Charlie Kemp in George Follmer’s RC Cola Porsche 917/10.
We will let Charlie tell the story, as only he can. There are details here that have never been made public before.
“What we were doing, we were testing (at Road Atlanta). I had won the Mosport CanAm race – which was the last of the 250-mile races (note: afterwards, races would be run as 2 heat events). At that point, we were carrying 120 gallons of fuel – I mean, it was stuffed in everywhere you could think of and at 6 pounds per gallon you were talking about 720 pounds of fuel!
“So, as the car races, the car would get lighter, lighter and lighter. By the end of the race, the ride height would come up and the handling would deteriorate. So, we tried to set the cars up running half tanks so there wouldn’t be such a change in handling.
“With George also doing Formula One, I was doing all the testing of the cars. We came to Atlanta to get the car set up. We were to set the gear ratios and all that. In Canada, the deal Porsche had with Roger (Penske) and Mark (Donohue) – they had the 5.4-liter engine at Mosport. The rest of us had the 5.0-liter engines – so we didn’t have the same horsepower that Mark did. But at Mosport, Mark had a problem when he ran into the back of a car, knocking part of the front fender off and I won the race. So at Road Atlanta, we got the 5.4 liter. So, I set my car (#23) up on the first day of the test, and I broke the track record that Denny Hulme had set, and beat it pretty good. I was really fast.
“George’s car had a different tail on it than mine. I had the old standard tail, and George had the new larger tail which was more aerodynamic at the rear. I went out in George’s car to set it up, because George was in England with Shadow. I went around a couple of times – adding speed, adding speed. I came up a little rise on the back straightaway and the front end lifted off of the ground – and it scared me, of course! At 170-180mph, suddenly you have no steering! It flopped back down, I went into the pits and we lowered the ride height on the front and took a couple of degrees out of the rear wing – so it wouldn’t have so much downforce on the rear.
“After we did that, I had not changed the gear ratios at that point, so I went back out and the car started going a little faster, a little faster, a little faster – and the car felt stable. So I had Bobby (Rinzler) and the crew put the stopwatch on me and I was going to try and break my track record from the day before. So I hammered down and coming down the back straight, the 3rd gear was set too high and I had kind of gotten the bit between my teeth and was really going to keep on going for it.
“I made a mistake, because as you come over that rise, the ideal thing is to shift right on top, where the front end would dip, but I was still accelerating in 3rd and I was doing about 190 and there was a little breeze at the time that got underneath the car and at that speed it lifted off. I went up 100 feet into the air, did a complete loop and came down on the nose and destroyed the car. Broke my ankle and back, separated by ribs and ended up in the hospital for about 10 days.
“George ended up winning Road Atlanta in my car, since his was destroyed in my accident. So, after Atlanta, he (George) had won one race, I had won one race, so we were tied for first in the championship. The next race was five weeks after my wreck and I wanted to drive, so I got George a new car. So they taped my ankle and put me in a back brace and strapped me in and I ran 4th at Watkins Glen. So after three races, I was still leading the championship. Mark won Watkins Glen, George broke at Watkins Glen.
“I was so weak and I couldn’t take any pain killers and drive, so they gave me a big shot of Hydrocortisone. After the race was over, I was so tired I couldn’t get out of the car…Those cars were so hard to drive…”
Hard to drive? That’s an understatement. Piloting a beast like the Porsche 917/10 a mere five weeks after suffering major injuries in a massive accident at Road Atlanta? Amazing.
Hats off to Charlie Kemp and all the drivers like him from that dangerous time.
They all certainly had ‘The Right Stuff’.