Learn about Trans Am racing history with Jay Leno

The SCCA Trans Am series achieved iconic status in the late 1960s and early 70s. In this episode of “Jay Leno’s Garage,” Jay Leno, NASCAR commentator Mike Joy and historic racer Ken Epsman take a look at some of the cars that made this era of Trans Am racing so special. Along the way we learn about the history of Trans Am racing and historical Trans Am racing.

In an attempt to move beyond amateur racing with a Pro Series, the SCCA launched Trans Am in 1966. The series initially consisted of modified production cars in two classes: those with engines less than 2.0 liters and those with engines larger than 2.0 liters but limited to 5.0 liters or 305 cubic inches.

The latter opened up opportunities for Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and AMC to use their pony cars, which were just coming onto the market at the time. The Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, Plymouth ‘Cuda and AMC Javelin all raced in the factory-supported Trans Am series during this golden age, which lasted until 1972. After that, rule changes removed Trans Am from its production base of the formula.

1971 AMC Javelin Trans Am race car on Jay Leno's garage

1971 AMC Javelin Trans Am race car on Jay Leno’s garage

Not included in this list is the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, which was named after the series but was unable to compete because its engine exceeded the maximum displacement of 5.0 liters set by the regulations. Firebirds raced in the Trans Am, albeit with less consistent factory support than the Camaros, and GM paid the SCCA a $5 fee for each Firebird Trans Am road car sold. For a while, that was SCCA’s biggest source of income, Joy notes in the video.

What set Trans Am race cars apart was their street car resemblance. The original rules called for stock bodies and powertrains, which made racing interesting and spawned classic homologation specials like the Ford Mustang Boss 302 and Chevrolet Camaro Z/28. These cars were driven by famous drivers like Dan Gurney and Mark Donohue, making the Trans Am series a bigger deal in its day than NASCAR, which was still mostly popular in the South, says Joy.

The rules enforced some interesting workarounds, like the massive oil pan on the Ford Mustang shown here (because dry sumps were illegal), or using the base front fascia from the 1970 Camaro racer instead of the fancier Rally Sport version to save weight. Not everything was stock — the Camaro uses a Chevy Impala rear axle to increase its track width — but at least the cars looked that way.

At a time when “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was still a reliable strategy, this made Trans Am an important marketing tool for automakers. That was especially true for AMC, which worked with first Kaplan Engineering, then Penske Racing, and finally the Roy Woods team to promote its Javelin as an alternative to the Detroit Three Pony Cars. The effort earned titles in 1971 and 1972, giving AMC and the Javelin a brief moment of glory.

The video, like most of Leno’s videos, ends with a ride in one of the cars. In this case, it’s the #89 1966 Ford Mustang originally driven by Jim Whelan. It’s a treat to hear the 289 in action on the road with GT40 heads.

The Trans Am series still exists today, but the race cars don’t have much in common with street cars, and the series has been overshadowed by NASCAR, Formula 1, IndyCar and IMSA racing in the US, but by the cars from that era from 1966 to 1972 are still cult.