A Legacy That Lives On

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Thirty years ago last night, the racing world was rocked by a private airplane crash in Columbus, Ohio. Legendary IMSA car-owner and driver, Al Holbert, was killed when his plane crashed not far from the Ohio State University campus. At the time of his death, Holbert was the IMSA career leader in wins with forty-nine.

Why am I writing to commemorate the anniversary of the death of an IMSA legend? Because Al Holbert also had a significant impact on IndyCar. Holbert was heavily involved in an IndyCar program that was just beginning to see success, when Holbert lost his life. Had he lived, the history of CART in the late eighties and early nineties may have taken a different path.

Al Holbert spearheaded the Porsche IndyCar program in the mid-eighties. The American driver who graduated from Lehigh University with a Mechanical Engineering degree in 1968 worked for Roger Penske as an undergraduate. He began racing Porsches in SCCA before turning professional in 1974 and had an association with Porsche throughout the majority of his racing career.

Holbert was a racer’s racer. He won IMSA titles in 1976 and 1977. He also won the 1983, 1985 and 1986 GTP championship. He won Le Mans in 1983, 1986 and 1987; along with the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1986 and 1987 and Sebring in 1976. In addition to his sports car success, Holbert drove in nineteen NASCAR races between 1976 and 1979, scoring four Top-Ten finishes.

Wanting to eventually lead Porsche into CART after they had a poor showing in the 1980 Indianapolis 500; Holbert drove the entire 1984 season for veteran car-owner Alex Morales in a March-Cosworth – mainly to gain a better understanding of the IndyCar world. In his only Indianapolis 500 start in 1984, Holbert finished fourth. He also earned a fifth place finish at The Meadowlands and a seventh place finish at Cleveland that season.

Holbert’s relationship with Porsche galvanized his efforts to take the German manufacturer into IndyCar racing. In 1987, while he was still driving in IMSA as well as running his own team, Holbert was also overseeing his fledgling IndyCar program. To put it bluntly, their 1987 debut at Laguna Seca near the end of the season was a disaster. The Type 2708 monacoque chassis, driven by Al Unser, was bulky and uncompetitive. It started twenty-first and finished dead-last, in a twenty-four car field. Unser had had enough and Holbert tabbed himself to drive the Porsche chassis at the season finale at Tamiami Park in Miami. He failed to qualify.

In the offseason, Holbert and Porsche executives decided to go with a March 88C chassis powered by the Porsche engine. They tabbed Teo Fabi to be the driver. After their terrible debut at the end of the 1987 season, Porsche Motorsports – under the direction of Holbert – and Fabi debuted in 1988 at Phoenix with a seventh place finish. While the team did not fare well at Indianapolis that season with a twenty-eighth place finish – Fabi had finishes of ninth at Milwaukee, seventh at Portland, tenth at Toronto, eighth at Mid-Ohio, sixth at Road America, fourth at Nazareth and tenth at Laguna Seca (the first race after Holbert’s death). That was eight Top-Ten finishes in a fifteen-race season for a brand new team.

After Holbert’s death, the Porsche team was understandably rocked. Derrick Walker was hired away from Team Penske to replace Holbert in heading up the Porsche Motorsports IndyCar program. Fabi continued as the driver and had an even more successful 1989 season. He opened the season finishing sixth at Phoenix, but had an even worse outing at Indianapolis where he finished thirtieth. But after the Month of May; Fabi set off on a string of races where he finished no worse that fourth in nine of ten races. The one race with a worse finish was The Meadowlands, where he finished ninth. In that ten race span, he finished third at Milwaukee, second at Michigan and Road America and scored Porsche’s first and only IndyCar win at Mid-Ohio.

Things looked promising for 1990. There was a new March 90P chassis that was far-advanced using carbon fiber in the monacoque construction. It was sleek and low to the ground. But just before the season started, CART politics rendered the chassis ineligible for competition. The chassis had to be hurriedly reconstructed using honeycomb aluminum and it was not ready until after the season started and the Porsche team had to revert to the 1989 chassis.

John Andretti joined Fabi at Porsche and actually out-performed his veteran teammate. Fabi had a third-place finish at The Meadowlands, but could only muster two other Top-Ten finishes. Andretti had two fifth-place finishes and seven Top-Ten results altogether.

Fabi did win the pole at Denver, however and things looked promising even though race results were not there. At the end of the season, Porsche decided to pull the plug on their IndyCar program after only three full seasons. Derrick Walker bought the assets of what was left of the team and formed his own team that competed in CART and the IRL, with their last fulltime season in 2004.

The loss of Al Holbert was felt across the spectrum of the racing world. While most people remember him for his success racing sports cars, the IndyCar world recalls his impact with Porsche in the late eighties.

The Porsche IndyCar team was just beginning to find its way when Holbert lost his life. There is no telling what may have been different had his plane not gone down. Not to disparage Walker’s leadership, because he was put in a very tough position – but Holbert was the kingpin in Porsche’s IndyCar efforts. Most likely, he would have convinced the German manufacturer to stay the course beyond the 1990 season. Had they become the dominant player in CART in the early nineties that some predicted they would – how much of IndyCar history would have to be rewritten?

Would they have dominated the scene instead of Newman/Haas and Penske? Would the Porsche engine become the engine of choice over the Ford-Cosworth? Would they have became a factor in the political IndyCar landscape that eventually saw American open-wheel racing split into two competing series? It’s interesting to ponder the possibilities and the what-ifs.

Thirty years ago last night, the racing world lost a prominent figure. But most importantly, his family lost a father and a husband. The forty-one year-old driver was a born-again Christian and was reportedly a great friend and family man. Al Holbert was laid to rest in Ambler, Pennsylvania – just a few miles from his Abington, Pennsylvania place of birth. His legacy and his impact on motorsports lives on.

George Phillips

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4 Responses to “A Legacy That Lives On”

  1. George, this recount of Al Holbert’s racing life is so very well researched and written, have you given any consideration to submitting it to Racer.com?

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Thanks for a sad, but interesting trip down memory lane, George.

    Porsche sticking with IndyCar would be a fascinating bit of alternate history.

  3. With the entry of the 2.2l twin turbo engine in IndyCar, I was hopeful that someone with the “wheels” ($$$) would try in influence Porsche to return to IndyCar. If fields are ever to expand, it will become absolutely necessary for there to be another engine.

    On a personal note, back in the mid-late ’70’s, I was very much into sports car racing. For a time Al and his co-driver Hurley Haywood OWNED the sports cars. I met the two of them at Road Atlanta back in the day and thought at that time that sooner or later they would make it to IndyCars.

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