George Follmer is one of those rare few who take to the tarmac in a fashion uncommon among the ranks of road racing. His career spans decades and many different series including United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC), SCCA, Trans-Am, Can-Am, IndyCar, Formula 1, and NASCAR. His sage-like approach to all things motorsports netted him a holistic understanding and skillset that can only be built with seat time.
Follmer holds championship wins in Trans-Am, Can-Am, and USRRC, and has piloted factory-supported racing machines from Ford, Chevrolet, AMC, and Porsche — playing both sides of the domestic brand loyalty war, and pitting American iron against German engineering from across the Atlantic.
Follmer, now age 82, is a national sporting treasure and wealth of experience. His story is one worth telling, and we think it is important to preserve automotive history. In a digital age of flashy, fleeting content, a legacy like Follmer’s cuts a swath through the web pages of history.
What was your first memory of becoming interested in cars and racing?
George Follmer: I showed interest in it pretty early, around 10 to 12 years old. In 1958, I started doing gymkhanas and slaloms with a VW Beetle in parking lots — just fun stuff, something to do on a Sunday afternoon. I met a lot of people while doing it, and I knew a few people that were kind of interested in it, but they didn’t have the commitment I had. It was fun and I had success at it so that was it. I did those events for about a year or so until I had the chance to move on to a faster car — the Porsche.
I got a little 356 Speedster and started running Cal Club and SCCA stuff. It took me a while to get the hang of it, because I still had to learn the tricks of the trade, like how to build a car and how to make it work, it was trial and error a lot of the time. I had to find friends and people that did it better than I could and ask them questions — that’s how you did it.
Did you set out with the goal of becoming a professional driver?
GF: No, I was just doing it for fun at first, I liked it and had fun doing it. I eventually got to a point where I had success at it, and I kept growing with the sport until one thing lead to another and I moved up again, into an even faster Porsche. At that point I ran out of money, so I had to stop. I had the desire, I just didn’t have the resources to do it, so I had to go to work and make some money. I became an insurance salesman, and that’s the way it was.
With some money saved, I bought a Lotus 23, it was what I felt was one of the better platforms available. I messed around with putting a Corvair engine in it and it didn’t work very well, so I found a racing sponsor to help me with it. I met a fella named Tom Knuckles, he was a Porsche dealer in Pasadena. We formed a racing partnership under the banner of his dealership, Trans Ocean Motors.
Did you field the Lotus in the USRRC?
Follmer’s Lotus 23.
GF: After I got it sorted out, which took a while because we had to change some things in the car, but it was still a Lotus. Professional sportscar racing was just getting started when they came up with the United States Road Racing Championship, and I thought it would be fun to go run it and see if the car was any good or not, and we won it! That was my first foray into professional racing.
We had to go all the way from California to Pensacola, Florida; my helper, crew chief, and mechanic loaded the Lotus up on a little two-tire, single-axle trailer, loaded up the station wagon and away we went. We didn’t really have anything but some tools, and we bought the tires down there — they wouldn’t give me the tires until I gave them a check, that was the last time I ever bought a tire. I campaigned it in ’65 when we won the National Championship; we ran a couple of other races, but I was still selling insurance — and it was busy!
When was the tipping point of changing gears into Trans-Am and Can-Am?
GF: I kept sportscar racing part-time until ’68, when a guy out of Milwaukee named Jim Jeffords started putting the AMC Javelin Trans-Am team together. It was a big change, I think we raced 13 times that year, so it really was a full-time job. At this point I had to make a decision whether I was going to race or sell insurance — you can figure that one out. It wasn’t an easy decision because I had three kids in school, a wife, mortgage, you name it.
I talked it over with my wife and she supported me, so I signed the contract to drive that car all year. Around this time, I started driving other things, too, like moving up to IndyCar racing — from then on I was always doing one, two, or three series at a time. I spent a lot of time in airplanes; I’d race one place, leave and go to the next one — sometimes in the same weekend.
Why the decision to spread yourself around in different series and not focus on one?
GF: I wanted the experience of racing other people and other kinds of cars. In those days sportscar racing didn’t pay very well, so I thought if I’m going to do this, I might as well make it pay. Pretty soon I wasn’t having to worry about rides, I had plenty of offers to drive for other people.
Where were your racing brand loyalties, how did they come about?GF: It began when I had the opportunity to race for Ford. I had raced for Penske in a Camaro before Ford, and of course the AMC Javelin was before the Camaro. When the offer from Ford came along I thought it was a better opportunity because there were more serious efforts being put forth by Ford than some of the other factory teams. Since their car was better engineered, I figured I’d have more success with Ford.
I started racing late, so I didn’t get a good start. I had the interest when I was young, but didn’t start young — and that meant that I had fewer opportunities.
Tell us about your stint in Formula 1 with the Shadow Team and its car.
Follmer in the Shadow Formula 1 car.
GF: That was in 1973, and by that time I’d already won the Trans-Am and Can-Am Championships. I’d also done Indy, as well as some manufacturing and endurance racing. I was 39 years old when I was given the opportunity to go. Most Formula 1 drivers are long retired by 39, so I wasn’t taken very seriously; but it was something I’d always dreamed about. I took the opportunity and went on with Shadow – I scored points in the first race and was on the podium by the second one.
I didn’t know the tracks or what to expect; you have to race a track a few times before you learn any tricks. Our team was young and inexperienced, and our cars were new and not well-sorted, so it was a great educational experience because we had to race and sort out the car at the same time. We had an engineer on staff, and we’d give him feedback to change things, we were always working on the car. I had an interesting season, it was difficult not getting to see my kids all the time, but it was an accomplishment, and I did really well considering. I came home after one season since there was opportunity here, and I wanted to pursue other venues that were closer to home.
Tell us about your relationship with Porsche, having raced the 356, 934, 917, and RSR.GF: Well, in my early career I was a Porsche driver, and I had an opportunity to a guest drive a factory 904 at Sebring. I went down there and raced; Peter Gregg and I drove the 904 and won our class. I always had an interest in racing Porsches, the 934 I drove was a Trans-Am car, and in ’76 we won the championship again. I look at them as good, dependable, and competitive cars. You could race them and have a good chance of finishing — to finish first you first have to finish the race.
I had previously driven Can-Am for Roger Penske, and the 917 offer came through him. We ran two Lolas and I worked with Roger off and on. When we’d do endurances races we’d have to two drivers that teamed together. They’re good cars, fast cars, and I got along with them — when you get along with a product you know, that’s one less thing you have to worry about when you get in them.
Tell us about being teammates with Parnelli Jones. With both of your fierce competitive streaks, people probably think you’d hate each other.
Left to right, George Follmer, our own Bobby Kimbrough, Parnelli Jones.
GF: We are to this day the best of friends, we were teammates and he was obviously the number one guy for Ford, and I was there to back him up — and that’s what I did, that’s what they paid me to do, and I happily did it for two years. We raced each other, there was no question about it, and of course we tangled a couple of times because we were both racing to win. The idea was to run one-two, though, so we would get the team managers upset from time to time because we were competing against each other for no reason other than we wanted to beat each other. We both had success and have had a very close friendship since — with a lot of respect.
While climbing the road racing ladder were there other drivers you looked up to or were inspired by?
GF: I always had a lot of respect for many of the guys because there were talented drivers in almost every series. When I did NASCAR, I had a lot of respect for Petty, McPherson, and Yarborough; those guys were very good at what they did. You had to race against them to learn what they were doing. It was that way in IndyCar too, with Andretti, Foyt, and the Unsers. To get better in your own profession you have to compete with guys that are better than you.
We were thrilled to hear Follmer relay his legacy to us in abbreviated terms. For a comprehensive record of his career, relationships, cars, and more, check out the book Follmer American Wheel Man, by Tom Madigan. The diversity of cars, tracks, and driving style that he cultivated over his many years of racing could no-doubt fill volumes, but we will have to be satisfied with his restrained demeanor and fond memories.
Follmer’s story is one of a man with a passion, following that passion into a career with which he could support his family. The superstar persona of many of today’s drivers is absent in this tale, and highlights the accomplishments of a man with pride in his craft and a craving to learn more.