Dominic Dobson: Seattle’s Greatest Racer

Dominic at the 1988 Indy 500.

Dominic at the 1988 Indy 500.

Seattleite Dominic Dobson still carries on racing competitively to this day, even after a professional career that spanned two decades and took him through the most grueling forms of American and European motorsport. Despite a somewhat late start and a constant struggle for funding, his dogged determination would take him from racing school instructor to the top rung of American motorsport. This journey was fraught with letdowns and terrifying close calls, but also moments of elation and glory.

Dominic at Laguna Seca, 1984, where he finished seventh in his Ralt RT4 Formula Vee. Photo credit: Dan Wildhirt

Dominic at Laguna Seca 1984, where he finished seventh in his Ralt RT5 Super Vee. Photo credit: Dan Wildhirt

In the early ’80s, Dominic stitched together several drives in Super Vee while working as an instructor for Bob Bondurant Driving School, then based at Sears Point. With solid, consistent finishes, he was able to get his nomex-bound foot in the Indycar door in 1984, when he was invited to test an ex-AJ Foyt machine at the Indianapolis Raceway Park. His slight frame was not an ideal fit for a cockpit designed for a hefty man like Foyt, and predictably, he “flopped around in that car like a fish.”

If the ergonomics weren’t a major issue, the bump in power certainly was. The Ford DFX motor, a 2.65-liter V8 built by Cosworth and force-fed by an enormous single turbocharger mounted aft of the engine, was in a different galaxy from the four-bangers he was used to. The boost came in slowly, but the delivery was somewhat progressive – you just had to tread gently, as any sensible person would with almost 900 horsepower under their right foot and big, unfriendly slicks at the rear. “It was a big eye-opener for me,” laughs Dominic, “it felt like an Atlantic car on cold tires – if you tried to go flat at the apex it was easy to spin.”

By the time the DFX was discontinued, it was making 850 horsepower. Note the size of the snail in back.

His performance garnered the attention of Leader Card Racing, who signed him on as their road course specialist. Jumping at the opportunity to race in the big leagues, Dominic made a decision he would later have mixed feelings about. “I should’ve done another season in Super Vee, tried to win the championship, and signed on with a better team, but I was so excited at the prospect of racing in CART that I jumped for the first offer,” he laments. Nevertheless, he used it as a springboard and scored several points with the outfit over the next two years.

Despite this, Dominic snagged the 1986 CART Rookie of the Year with his tail-out, aggressive style of driving. However, money is what counts, and when Leader Card Racing had decided to throw in the towel, he found himself without an Indycar drive for the ’87 season. That didn’t stop him racing, however.

Dominic’s first competitive car came in 1989 with Bayside Racing.

Undeterred, Dominic joined the SCCA Playboy Endurance Series, which afforded him the chance to team with heralded drivers like Innes Ireland and Stirling Moss. While the Porsche 944 Turbo he campaigned with them was a far cry from the thoroughbred Indycars he had been used to, his exploits also got him a ride in a Porsche 962 in the IMSA GTP category. With nearly 800 horsepower and incredible downforce from the ground effects, he would get another taste of the purer stuff he was surely missing.

Coming To Terms With The Porsche 962

In many ways, the 962 defined sportscar racing in the eighties. Gobs of power, torque, downforce from the underbody, and reliability that most manufacturers could only dream of made this machine a top choice among major teams and privateers alike. Yet, it took a certain technique to get the most out of them, and they could not be driven quite like the open-wheelers of the day.

For one, the 962 was comparatively heavier, which meant it wouldn’t respond to “flicking” quite as well as an Indycar, and had to be driven with a little more consideration to not damage the tires. Being a car designed for long-distance racing, the 962 “rode like a street car and was well-appointed – though I was used to Indycars which were pretty crude at the time.” In fact, it even started with a key that resembled those found in the production Porsches of the day.

Note the plush interior and the red key in the center of the dash – in a car capable of 220 mph!

What stood out starkly in contrast to the Indycars was the power delivery. The 962’s flat-six motor underwent multiple evolutions through its long run, using both single- and twin-turbo setups and varying displacements, but the ever-present turbo lag always had to be considered. One had to slow the middle of the corner entry down a little and turn the car earlier to get it straightened out as early as possible. “If you hoped to turn the car with the engine’s torque, you were hopeless,” remarks Dominic, since the delay was significant and when the turbos woke up they came on incredibly strong.

His success in IMSA GTP opened the door to Le Mans with Vern Schuppan. Partnering with a French-Sicilian and a Brit proved an interesting experience at Le Mans ’89, where the team was met with a series of flags during the drivers parade. The French flag flew for Jean Alesi, and Will Hoy’s Union Jack stood billowing above their orange 962, yet a third flag – this one black, red, and yellow – was designated for Dominic. The trouble was, Dominic was not German, despite what the organizers thought. Yes, he was born in Stuttgart, but he carried an American passport!

The striking Team Schuppan 962 before it met its demise.

If the race began comically, it ended violently. There was a quality-control problem with that configuration of the 962 at Le Mans that year with the fitting on the fuel rail. With 150 pounds of pressure, when the line came loose, it sprayed a powerful stream of fuel directly at the red-hot turbocharger, thereby “forming the perfect flamethrower.”

“At that point, I was already in fourth gear heading down the Indianapolis straight, and when I saw flames, I knew I had to park it,” Dominic recalls stoically. The only problem, aside from inferno quickly creeping into the cockpit, was that the blaze melted the rear brake lines. Pushing well over 100 mph and without full braking ability, Dominic had to bravely nudge the guardrail to bring the burning car to a halt.

Returning To Indycar

In 1988, Dominic strung together his own outfit on a shoestring budget to go to the Brickyard and give it a shot. Just managing to get the money together, he spent as little money in food and lodging as possible to meet their minimal budget. It was a different time – it’s hard to envision a current Indycar outfit doing that. “We were definitely not dining at St. Elmo’s,” Dominic laughs. Four guys slept in one hotel room, and many of their meals were at Denny’s. Since driving alone was not his only challenge, his achievement there is all the more impressive. 

Seeing as this was the first time he ran the event, the ‘Rookie Test’ was enacted to see if the young man had what it took. This trial entails building speed in steady increments, from 160 mph all the way to 200 mph. If the nerves that accompany competing in one of the world’s most iconic races weren’t enough, this challenge made his first foray at Indy a nerve-racking one. “It’s actually very scary – since the car seems to get worse with speed.” Sliding at both axles, Dominic hung onto his steed and rode it out, clever and capable enough to not embarrassingly end his first attempt at the Indy 500 in the walls.

Qualifying for the Indy 500 takes a special approach. “The first time I qualified for Indy, I was scared shitless,” he recounts. It required total concentration, however. Prior to qualifying, Dominic would find a quiet spot in the garage and visualize his approach: “I don’t want anyone talking to me. I’m running laps in my head.”

Despite the pressure, the Indy 500 is Dominic's favorite motorsport event. "In an Indycar, at Indianapolis - there's just nothing better."

Despite the pressure, the Indy 500 is Dominic’s favorite motorsport event. “In an Indycar, at Indianapolis – there’s just nothing better.”

Psychology aside, the technical side of things is very demanding as well. “In qualifying,” Dominic mentions, “You set your car up to compensate for the tire degradation over four laps.” The grip levels are constantly changing; for sixteen corners you have sixteen different approaches.

The goal is to ensure a constant speed, and make sure your tires last the four laps. It is, as Dominic notes, “like climbing to the top of Everest before running out of oxygen.” Having to put the package together with just one week before the event, the pressure was enormous. Moreover, the speeds were something that took some getting adjusted to – so it’s surprising he managed at all, let alone set a record.

After four incredibly aggressive laps running very close to the walls and sliding the car quite a lot, Dominic managed an incredible speed of 210.096 mph, which made him the Fastest Rookie in Indy history. Capable of pulling that number out from under his hat, “I will never forget that speed,” recalls Dominic with a palpable sense of pride coming through the receiver.

That qualifying lap was the result of strong concentration, the right setup, focus, and good timing. After consulting with his engineers about the asphalt temperature, the aero balance, and the other minutiae that can make or break a lap, the decision was made to get out there and put it on the line. “The Indycars could be quite nervous, and if you were off with the setup you were slow.” 

“It was a perfect day. The sun was shining. My engineer asked me how I felt about the front wing, and then said; go for it.” Focused on making the most of a hard-earned opportunity, Dominic would go a little higher and run nearer to the walls to find a few extra miles per hour; threading the needle and leaving less margin for error in search of the best possible lap. “Your heart is beating and your brain is exploding, and then you have to go and pose for photographs,” he says with a chuckle.

Dominic storming up the hill in a Radical SR8 at Pike’s Peak in 2015. Photo credit: Radical Sports Cars

No Rest for the Wicked

Today, Dominic continues on to check items off his bucket list. Thus far, he competed in the Pike’s Peak hillclimb last year, where he won the “Rookie of the Year” award and an overall victory in his class – though that’s hardly surprising. Even at the age of fifty-seven, Dominic was still capable of mastering the demanding, high-downforce Radical SR8. I suppose an Indycar driver’s fitness regimen and periods of all-vegetarian diet can help keep one competitive well into middle-age.

What is even more impressive is the wide variety of events Dominic has competed in. Few professional drivers have raced in the Indy 500, Le Mans 24 Hours, Daytona 24 Hours, Sebring 12 Hours, Goodwood Hillclimb, Baja 1000, a smattering of NASCAR Craftsman Truck races, and touring car events, too. With a yet-to-be-determined effort at the Bonneville Salt Flats, he is one of those rare drivers who has put nearly every jewel in the racing clown.

Dominic pursues another Shelby GT350R at Laguna Seca during the Monterey Historics. Photo credit: Tam’s Old Race Car Site

Nowadays, he doesn’t stray far from the racetrack or the showroom. In fact, his latest venture is as a co-founder of VR Motion Corp., a Hillsboro, Oregon-based company designed around driver development with high-end simulators, which keeps young talent pushing forward in these days of increasing testing costs and fewer available seats. Prior to that, Dominic was the Chief Development Officer for LeMay – America’s Car Museum, in Tacoma, Washington, and he continues to sell amazing cars through Dobson Motorsport.

His professional career spanned two decades at one of the more dangerous times in racing history, and yet, he escaped with only a broken kneecap and a few concussions. Sure, he ended up in the ocean at one point during his run at the Baja 1000 – though he wasn’t driving at the time – but his career is one marked by both clever driving and good fortune. That combination, topped with a dollop of tireless dedication to speed, means he continues to live doing what he loves doing most – something most of us can’t help but be a little jealous of.

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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