Jack Cannonball May
SCCA: Triumphant Spitfire, or Once More, unto the Breach!
Late afternoon four weeks after the autumnal equinox, shadows through the trees dappled the tarmac. The rolling hills reverberated with the howls of straining high-performance engines. A checkered flag signaled the finish of the Champion Spark Plug Road Race of Champions. The trees at Road Atlanta were in full fall glory, and the sky was deep blue. The weather was crisp and perfect. But right then, I was not perfect.
With my fly-yellow Spitfire, I had evolved from a novice racer from whom much is hoped to a regional champion racer from whom much is expected. We held the lap records for F-Production cars at the race courses in Gainesville, Savannah, Palm Beach, Charlotte, and Daytona. I had already been Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Southeast Regional Champion three times: in 1975, 1976, and had just won again in 1977. Yet, the National Championship had eluded us every time.
I led this 1977 National Championship race all the way until the last lap. Gremlins struck my 1967 Triumph Spitfire Mk III, which was now pulled to the side of the race track. Its 1296 cc engine suffered a dropped valve and mechanical collapse. That year our engine builder, crew, loyal supporters, and I went home heartbroken.
Produced from 1962 through 1980 in several models, Spitfires were modestly priced English sports cars of Italian design with trim lines and sleek bodies. These cars had an OHV four-cylinder engine with displacements ranging from 1147 cc to 1493 cc. The third variation, designated the Mk III, had horsepower rated at 75 bhp. The Triumph was unusual in having a relatively sophisticated but controversial single transverse-leaf swing axle. Published road tests for the Mk III cited performance of 0-60 times of 14.5 seconds and a top speed of 95 MPH.
Spitfires were easily converted to competitive race cars for SCCA events. The Mk III was categorized as F-Production, a class made up of cars of equal performance potential. A quiver of MGs and a handful of Austin Healeys were the other popular race cars in this division.
The Triumph Spitfire Mark III underwent a number of permissible alterations to become a competitive racer:
Doors were welded shut, increasing the rigidity of the chassis.
A roll cage added more stiffness to the frame.
Brakes were fortified with dual master cylinders and racing brake pads.
Wheel wells were flared to permit larger slick racing tires.
A spoiler on the front improved handling and increased top speed.
A compressed air system maintained oil pressure on high-speed corners.
A factory-approved optional close-ratio gearbox improved performance.
While engine modifications restricted the car to the original dual SU carburetors, the pistons, camshaft, and other internal parts needed only to conform to original dimensions. In race trim, the engine developed around 130 hp at 8,000 RPH. We estimated that the car would turn the quarter-mile in about 14 seconds at 100 MPH, maybe comparable to a Corvette of that era. Stresses so far in excess of the original design resulted in an engine that felt to us like a hand grenade—liable to explode!
Next year, another race, another Saturday morning. This was a fall day for poets and for car racers. My team and I found Road Atlanta as weather-perfect as the year before. In practice my Triumph Spitfire was in delightful balance as we qualified in a conservative third place, saving the car and its engine for the big event. The crew mounted new Goodyear tires on the magnesium wheels, to be scrubbed in during the morning warm-up session. All was right in our world.
Full of adrenaline, I took my yellow charger on the course for warm-up exercises and drove at a careful pace, getting the oil and water temperatures to proper operating levels. Then I went for one hot lap. Fresh rubber, the cool Georgia air, the car was magnificent until about halfway down the back straight. The power fell off ominously and the engine began to rattle. I knew instantly that we had dropped another valve–shades of last year's disaster.
Coasting into the pits, I was lower than a snake's belly. My super race engine was now scrap metal. My hopes for redemption for the ignominious year past were dashed. My crew chief and mechanics could sense my dejection when I climbed out of the car. "Don't worry," they said, "we can rebuild you a new engine. After all, we have two hours." Raiding the parts bin of the race track, my dedicated crew began working feverishly to assemble a replacement engine.
I had to take a walk to relax. Time was flying. Other racers in other classes were on the racecourse challenging for the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. I knew the agony of defeat. Time, like the race cars on the course, continued to speed by.
Too soon we heard the call to bring all 24 cars for the F-Production event to the starting grid. My machine was pushed into place while the mechanics continued to frantically complete installation of the "new" power plant. The five-minute warning sounded. Many competitors started their engines. My team hit the starter . . . and hit it again and again. Finally the four cylinders came to life, the timing light strobed on, and the timing was adjusted. Two minutes! I was buckled in. I tensed like a greyhound in the slips. My crew hurriedly assured me that this would be a good engine. I would find out if they were telling the truth in one lap.
The cars moved out for the parade lap. Gauges registered normal. The exhaust note was crisp and camey. When the green flag dropped, all 24 cars headed as one for the first turn. It was time to stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood. If I go too slowly, I will lose. If I go too fast, I will crash. My Triumph felt eager, strong, and ready to spit fire!
Road Atlanta is a 12-turn racecourse that undulates for 2.5 miles through the red clay hills of north Georgia. There are considerable elevation changes and several blind corners. The back straight is nearly a mile long, challenging the mettle of any car. Would these fickle four cylinders be up to the task? So far, so good. At the end of the straightaway, the tach showed 8400 RPM, about 126 MPH.
Fantastic! By the second lap I flew past the three cars ahead of me, light as a deer. I was in first place! My competitors became small dots in my rearview mirrors. I relaxed and slowed down, saving my equipment. Then starting to shift early, I was still worrying about the durability of the new engine.
Two laps to the checkered flag, I prayed for this race to end. Suddenly the water temperature gauge was bouncing around. Hot! Déjà vu. Ugh. I slowed as much as I dared, as the small specks in my rearview mirrors quickly began to enlarge. The last lap, the last turn. The water temp gauge maxed at 250 degrees. My team had worked a miracle, and the engine had given its all for almost 50 miles.
The checkered flag waved for me as I was —at long last— National Champion. Victory was a matter of staying power. My triumphant Triumph had carried me to the pinnacle of amateur road racing. Long live Spitfires!
An earlier version of this story was published as Cannonball Jack May, “1967 Triumph Spitfire Mk 3,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car: Spitfire at 50, 2012 (August), 64-65.