George Follmer (b. 1934)
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George Follmer

George Follmer
George Follmer was one of many US drivers who entered motor sport during the 1960’s, but unlike so many, Follmer would quickly demonstrate just how talented he was, winning the 1972 Can-Am series and making his debut in Formula One racing in 1973 at the late age of 39.

Born in 1934, Follmer was destined for an engineering career, but like so many others interested in mechanical things his interest turned to cars and he was soon taking part in the inevitable gymkhanas, and other mild sporting events in a Volkswagen. His interest centred on road racing and he began to take part in the Sports Car Club of America amateur events with a variety of sports cars.

The US Road Racing Championship

Follmer gradually improved his technique and in 1965 he built up a Lotus 23, and then installed a 2-liter Porsche engine. This car was a real flyer and with it he won the US Road Racing Championship, which is the premier event of the amateur racing season in the USA. This brought Follmer to the attention of John Mecom, the millionaire who was sponsoring several cars in 1966. He offered Follmer a seat in a Lola-Ford for the then-new Can-Am Championship.

The Ford engine was soon switched for a Chevrolet, but Follmer made little impression on the series, although he did get a fifth place at Riverside and wound up in tenth place overall in the Championship. Things didn't improve much in the following season and the best he managed was a sixth place. Still in a Lola for 1968, he again contested the Can-Am series, but the McLarens were unbeatable again, although Follmer did have the satisfaction of finishing second in the final round at Las Vegas.

USAC Racing

Follmer continued in Can-Am during 1969, but also decided to tackle USAC racing on the banked-oval tracks. He qualified for the Indianapolis 500 retiring after only 27 laps, but he won the short Phoenix 150 race in a car powered by a Chevrolet engine, which was the first USAC Championship victory for Chevrolet power. He was now becoming better known and he drove in the Ford Mustang team in the Trans-Am saloon-car championship, winning the Bridgehampton round for Ford.

At Indianapolis in 1970, he drove a turbo-charged Ford-V8-powered Hawk, qualifying at 166.052 mph, but he retired after only eighteen laps this time. He remained with Ford in Trans-Am racing, winning one race and taking three seconds to help his team leader, Parnelli Jones, clinch the championship again. Follmer was busy during 1970 - as well as taking part in USAC and Trans-Am events he took on the task of driving the new AVS Shadow in Can-Am racing; this car was tricky to handle and seldom lasted the distance, but it got Follmer some much-needed publicity. He also handled a Lotus 70-Ford V8 in the new Continental series in the US; he managed a couple of quick wins at St Jovite, in Canada, and Mid-Ohio, but the Lotus 70 was not a good car and it was soon overwhelmed by the McLarens, Lolas and Eagles.

George Follmer in the Can-Am Porsche 917/10 at Watkins Glen during 1973
George Follmer in the Can-Am Porsche 917/10 at Watkins Glen during 1973.
1971 was a year better forgotten, nothing seeming to go right. In 1972 Mark Donohue was injured in a bad crash in Roger Penske's turbo-charged Can-Am Porsche 917/10. Penske asked Follmer to deputise and he adapted magnificently to the 1000 bhp car, winning the races at Road Atlanta, Lexington and Elkart Lake before Donohue returned to the team. Since Follmer had a commanding lead in the Championship he was allowed to win the races at Laguna Seca and Riverside, to run away with the prize.

George Am

For 1973, Roger Penske asked Follmer to stay with the Can-Am team and, although Donohue did most of the winning in the 917/30, Follmer won at Road Atlanta again and finished second at Mid-Ohio and Edmonton to take second place to his team-mate in the Championship. The highlight of Follmer's 1973 season was when he was asked by Don Nichols to join his UOP Shadow Formula One team whose cars were built in Britain. Follmer got off to a good start with a sixth place in South Africa, following up with a fine third place at the Spanish Grand Prix on the tricky Barcelona circuit. The car become steadily less competitive as the season wore on, however, and he did not feature in the first six again.

Both he and team mate Jackie Oliver were dropped from the Shadow Formula One team for 1974, but amidst inter-team rivalry, their shadows dominated the CanAm series, Oliver scoring four wins and Follmer three second places. George retired at the end of the year. Though long-retired from professional motorsports competition, Follmer still competes in vintage races, often driving the very same cars in which he competed during his heyday.
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