During the last three decades, sports car racing has seen its share of changes. From the rise and fall of sanctioning bodies to the constant evolution of cars and technology, one team has remained a constant over the years, through the glory days and the most turbulent times of the sport.
What started off as a simple means to go racing turned into one of America`s most storied motorsports organizations for Rob Dyson, who along with his Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based team are celebrating Dyson Racing`s 30th year in professional sports car racing. With a total of 19 championships and 70 victories spread across the ALMS, Grand-Am, IMSA, WSC and USRRC, achieved by some of the most iconic drivers and cars of the era, Dyson Racing`s stats are unparalleled to any other sports car racing privateer outfit in North America.
For Dyson, an accomplished New York businessman, the story began at the grassroots level, competing in regional and national SCCA competition in the `70s before getting the itch to make the next significant step forward in his driving and team owner career.
The year was 1983. Ronald Reagan was president. Apple released the Lisa personal computer and Chrysler started production of the first minivans. Yet for Rob Dyson, it marked the start of his team`s professional racing career, a move that came relatively easy at the time.
“I`d run a lot of club racing and did pretty well with that and won a national championship,” Rob Dyson tells RACER. “We did a couple of pro races in IMSA GTU and they allowed our B-sedans to run. I got a taste of that and realized I can run with these guys.
“I think it was just a natural progression. We started running the typical ladder, which in those days was a lot different than it is now. Kids all of a sudden turn pro, but when I started in the `70s, you had to be more careful. It was a scale deal.
“If you wanted to race, you had to have your own car. It wasn`t an arrive-and-drive kind of deal, where the only thing you had to have was your helmet and suit. [Instead], you had to have a helmet and a suit stuffed somewhere in the truck amidst all of the tires, gas cans and tool bins. And the car was sitting in the sand right next to your truck!”
After racing Datsuns in the SCCA ranks, Dyson purchased a Pontiac Firebird, for its slick aerodynamics and ease of sourcing parts, for his foray in the IMSA GTO ranks. The first event came at the IMSA Coca-Cola Three Hours of Lime Rock on Memorial Day weekend, a race he`ll never forget for the right, and wrong reasons.
“There were two heats,” Dyson recalls. “Unfortunately, a guy in a Porsche, who was an SCCA instructor, crossed up in front of me in the short chute going to the uphill. I slammed right into him.
“With the Firebird, it was a front-engined car. We had to spend a lot of time in the pits removing bodywork that was flopping around, but the car was fundamentally intact. We had to bend a few frame rails but the engine was good and the radiator wasn`t busted. We came out of it pretty lightly.
“We rolled out of [the pits] and didn`t have any front bodywork on it. Off we went. It was the beginning of our great adventure in professional racing. What I found was that the quality of driving wasn`t significantly different or in many ways better than a lot of the really tough, national B-sedan guys I was racing against in club racing.”
Despite discovering the car`s flaws, which included a flexing chassis, Dyson continued racing the Firebird through the `83 and `84 seasons, before purchasing Bruce Leven`s Porsche 962 and stepping up to the top-level GTP class the following year.
Remarkably, Dyson and co-driver Drake Olson won in their debut at Dyson`s home track of Lime Rock Park, the site of his first professional start only two years earlier.
Suddenly, he was taking on some of the sport`s top drivers, including the likes of Al Holbert, Brian Redman and Hurley Haywood, and beating them at times.
“I never thought we were racing against the big boys,” Dyson admits. “I felt comfortable doing it. I wasn`t cocky about it, make no mistake about that. I wasn`t thinking we were going to own the series because there were a lot of guys in there that I had known for a long time. Other guys that I had heard about and I respected them all, but I viewed it as a progression. One thing led to another and it all worked out.”
By 1986, Price Cobb joined Dyson behind the wheel and played an instrumental role in the team`s success, namely in the L.A. Times Grand Prix at Riverside, a victory that remains close to Rob`s heart to this day. “Winning at the track, in that event and in that track configuration, and getting that piece of history, that was probably the single-most important race I had done,” he says.
The performance also caught the attention of British rising star named none other than James Weaver, who was making his foray into U.S. racing.
“I think I was pretty shallow because the first race I came to in America, Dyson Racing won. I thought, `Right, I need to drive for them!`” Weaver recalls with a laugh. “I was at Riverside with Bob Akin driving the Coca-Cola Porsche . Rob and Price Cobb won in their 962 and it had No. 16 on it.
“When I was a school boy, I was a big Pedro Rodriguez fan. And the last race he won, in a Porsche 917, at the Osterreichring, he was also carrying No 16. It just seemed the right place to go, really.”
Weaver joined Dyson the following year, in what kick-started a two-decade long relationship with the team. It stretched well through the IMSA GTP days, which saw an influx of competition until the end of the decade. Mighty factory efforts from Nissan, Jaguar and Toyota battled with some of the top privateers, in what many considered to have been the glory days of U.S. sports car racing.
The 1988 season, dominated by the Nissan GTP ZX-T, which took eight consecutive wins, was particularly rewarding for Dyson, as Rob earned the only two wins for Porsche that year.
“They were tough,” Dyson says of Nissan`s effort. “That car was really a leap forward, in many respects, and was powerful as hell. Don Devendorf had some really good guys on that car. The whole thing was just very impressive.
“But the other aspect of it was that you had Dan Gurney show up with his Toyota cars and they were tough as nails as well and exceptionally well driven. Then you had the Jaguars show up. That was a beautifully funded effort.
“We were running against some of the other Porsches and you`d get the odd Lancia coming over from Europe or an old March being yanked out. You also had the Corvette and all those guys. What was great was that all of the cars were so different.”
With having proven itself in GTP, Dyson tested the waters of open-wheel racing. Weaver competed in four IndyCar events in 1989, but as the team boss explains, it quickly became apparent where their heart and soul was at.
“It was completely unsatisfying and absolutely no fun,” Dyson says of their short-lived IndyCar venture. “The cars weren`t very good. It was sprint racing. We couldn`t get the equipment we needed and I felt that we were just technologically way behind. We couldn`t catch up. No matter what we did, we couldn`t get there.
“It was maybe short-sighted; maybe I`d be running IndyCars now. We just gravitated back to sports cars. They were just more interesting. You could do more with the cars… It was a little bit more of a hot-rodding mentality with sports cars.”
The dawn of the decade brought new challenges, with U.S. sports car racing taking a hit following the musical chairs of IMSA ownership and increasing costs that severely affected both factory and private teams. Chris Dyson, who grew up around his father`s team, remembers the era.
“GTP was out of control in terms of factory participation,” Chris Dyson says. “There wasn`t really an outlet anymore for competitive vehicles to get into the hands of independent teams, as there had been with the Porsche 962.
“That was probably one of the toughest periods for the team. Thankfully, Dad kept everybody around and when the opportunity came with the WSC formula, we went right back into that. I think that was a great avenue for us because the `90s were actually fantastic for the team.”