The 1986 Los Angeles Grand Prix was Rob Dyson’s first time at Riverside. He and co-driver Price Cobb won it and Rob calls it one of his best race results. Rob relives the iconic race with John Zimmermann in the January issue of Vintage Racecar magazine in their Legends Speak feature:
Going into the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside in April of 1986, one of our Porsche 962s had been wrecked, so we got a new tub from the factory but it needed all the other parts from our wrecked car. In essence we were building the car in the paddock between sessions. The guys were out there striping and painting and tuning the car, and in between sessions we were trying to make it a little bit better, but we were also completing the decals and all the other stuff.
It was the first time I had ever been to Riverside. Obviously I`d heard a lot about it, and the L.A. Times Grand Prix was one of the all-time great races in sports car history. We were using the longest course configuration, which went way up into the back to the Carousel, and it had that long straightaway into Turn 9. My initial impression of the place was that it looked so familiar from all the pictures I`d seen, particularly the Kink before the Esses, which is kind of a classic view that you got from the track. What amazed me was how in the older pictures you see everyone going back and forth through the Esses whereas we were going almost straight, just touching the curbs.
Our car was very good, but we were up against the full retinue of IMSA, everybody was there. Also in 962s were Bob Wollek and Paolo Barilla for Bruce Leven, Al Holbert and Derek Bell, Jim Busby had two cars with himself and John Morton in one and Jochen Mass and Darin Brassfield in the other, and Bob Akin was driving with James Weaver. It was actually the first time I met James, who later became a big part of our team. The Corvette team was there with Doc Bundy and Sarel Van der Merwe, Bob Tullius had two Jaguars for himself, Chip Robinson and Hurley Haywood, and two Ford Probes were entered with Pete Halsmer and Lyn St. James in one, and Klaus Ludwig and Tom Gloy in the other.
It was just Price Cobb and I in our car for the six-hour race. The car was great fun to drive with the variety of corners and a lot of speed differential from one part of the course to another. The climbing turn coming up out of the Esses was where all the photographs were taken, then you got on a short chute and dumped down the hill into Turn 7 and then a long straightaway back up to the Carousel. It was pretty bumpy on the back straight and then Turn 9 was legendary, kind of like a speedway banked turn, and several people had gotten seriously injured or killed there, so I greeted it with a lot of respect. At the same time, I thought it wasn`t really that bad, kind of wide and with a lot of asphalt, so if something happened you could at least do something to slow yourself up.
Earlier that week, John Kalagian had flipped his March in the Esses. His crew was paddocked right next to us, and the car was completely trashed. This was pre-HANS devices, so John got bounced around and became a quadriplegic. That was my introduction to Riverside. What it told me was: “Don`t go off the racetrack.” There`s so much sand, and it`s all soft, and as soon as you hit your car is going to roll.
The race started and was pretty uneventful. Price had qualified our car 10th, so he started and did two stints, then I got in and while I was going down the back straight flat-out, Bundy went by me in the Corvette, which was run by the Hendrick team. I couldn`t believe how fast the car was going, but what I did not know was that he had had pit troubles and was trying to make up time. He went around into Turn 9 and as he went by the pits I guess he pinched Lvn St. James in the Probe, who nudged Chip Robinson in the Jaguar, and the cars literally went flying.
I come around Turn 9 and all I hear on the radio-thank god we had radios-is Smitty (crew chief Pat Smith -Ed.) saying, “Big crash, front of the pits, slow down.” There was stuff, junk, all over, it was unbelievable. So the yellow came out and I`m motoring around, starting to pick up the leaders. I think we were running 2nd or 3rd before the wreck, and then Smitty said, “Just stay on the main line because we don`t want to get any pickup on the tires.”
I was sorry to see the wreck, but was elated that nobody got hurt. Smitty told me a couple of laps later that everybody seemed to be all right. When Bundy went by me I knew he was a man on a mission and as he went into Turn 9 I thought “Gee, he is going awfully fast.” It just struck me that if he had just been more patient it might have been a different result.
One of the striking images was the burning Ford Probe with Lyn St. James crawling out of it, and as I went around a full lap under the yellow, which in that configuration was a long period of time, I saw Chip`s car up in the weeds not far from the motor homes.
The yellow was out for a long time as they cleaned up the wreck, so I used it to really learn the racetrack-all the nuances, where the cracks were in the pavement, where the timing marks were and all. I`d had maybe 15 or 18 laps in the car during the practice sessions-which in those days were still pretty long-but we were still building the car.
So I used the caution period to learn the racetrack visually, then when the green flag waved for the restart, I took off, passed Weaver, and was catching Derek Bell in Al Holbert`s car about two to two and a half seconds a lap. I figured either there`s something wrong with their car or I`ve really mastered this racetrack. It turned out that I had mastered the racetrack, but they were having some wastegate problems that ultimately took them out, so off we went and it was our race to win. Wollek was behind us, and Mass and Weaver. I didn`t know all those guys that well by then, I hadn`t raced enough. Going through the Esses I saw Wollek was catching me, so I decided I had to step it up, and I was able to hold him off.
At the end of the day I was just so honored to be racing at Riverside because it was such a storied track, I was honored to be running the full configuration and not the shorter “Can-Am” circuit as they called it, and I also was pretty proud of our guys for putting a car together that was parts before the weekend started and here we won the race! So it was a bunch of things that made me feel really satisfied.
It also gave me a lot of satisfaction to know I could run with these big boys, who were not business guys, but race drivers who made their living doing that. I was an amateur or a semi-pro or whatever you call it, and here I could run with them and beat them. That was really a confidence builder. It also added a little credibility to the team. It showed we weren`t just a bunch of nobodies, and one of the interesting things was that an actual car owner had won a race like that against all the factory competition.
The car was in perfect shape at the end of the race, although I did have a moment. I was coming by the pits and I see this relatively slow-moving Corvette ahead. As I went underneath him he came over into me, so I said, “I gotta stop this,” and I literally moved up and bumped him, because I didn`t want him coming down any further and forcing me into the soft stuff. Fortunately I hit him in the middle of my car`s door, so it didn`t touch the wheels or the chassis. I kind of planned it that way, just to wake him up. We were right at that kink going into the Esses, which in those cars was almost flat.
I still look at it as one of the best race wins I`ve ever done, and the trophy was a large silver bowl like you see in the old pictures of the guys who`d won it before, guys like Dan Gurney and Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, all the guys, and they were holding this same silver bowl. That`s one of the main trophies that we have in our trophy case.
Afterward I went to a business meeting in Los Angeles on the Monday, I was building my radio business then, and I went into the meeting and they asked: “How`d you do at the race?” One of the guys said, “Hold it, I`ve got the newspaper right here.” And it was then that I thought, “Gee, I think this racing might help my business along.”