Talking With Elliot Forbes-Robinson
© Andrew S. Hartwell
Elliot Forbes-Robinson is not your typical wavy-haired,
wide-smiling, bravado-filled young gunslinger in racing
gloves. And he doesn't try to look like one. This is one
mature and experienced racing pro that you would never
mistake for Max Papis or Juan Montoya. That is, if he
has his helmet off. Once behind the wheel, however, you
could be forgiven if you thought you were watching a younger
man at work. He drives for Rob Dyson's team in the Grand Am, and he wins for them too. Max and Juan would be fortunate to age as gracefully as has Elliot Forbes-Robinson.
I talked with this ALMS and Can Am champion and he told me about the Grand Am, racing at Phoenix at night, how the Legends car series came about and why he enjoys being with the Dyson team.
Phoenix Rises - But Not Too Early Please On Race Day
"Phoenix was interesting in a lot of ways. One, it was very difficult to get yourself into the way the event was run. On race day we didn't have to be in the driver's meeting until 6:30 at night. So we had all day Saturday off. Really strange. It was hard to get into the racing atmosphere when you aren't doing anything all day long, until evening. You get used to getting up early, having breakfast and heading to the track. All of a sudden you get up, eat, and then lay around watching TV or read or whatever you are going to do. You go work out, have lunch and then head out to the track. There was no practice, nothing, until the driver's meeting."
What Are Your Thoughts On The Future Of The Grand Am?
"I think that the Grand Am is going to do fine. I think you are going to see the privateers in GA and the factories in the ALMS, which is just what they wanted. I think people saw that, at Phoenix, Dyson's team, George Robinson's team, Risi, and Doran all had a chance to win the race there. None of those teams have much of a chance against the factory teams. I think they see they have a chance to win here and I think it is going to do well for the privateer teams.
"The SR2 class is also going to help (the series). There are a lot of people ordering these cars. I went around and talked to some of the other car owners (at Phoenix) who are running Toyotas and other cars and I found 4 people who have ordered SR2 cars. Some of them will probably be at Homestead. I think we could have as many as 6 or 7 at the very next race and up to 10 by the end of the year. If we can get 10 of those and 10 SR1's we are going to have a heck of a field of sportsracers!"
Do you think Dyson might consider running SR2 instead of SR1?
"I don't think he would run it instead, but I could see his son Chris running in that class. I could see him showing up at the same tracks and running in the same race. Larry Schumacher and Martin Snow show up in their SR2 car and they seem to be having a ball. I think we will see more and more people getting their cars - and getting used to them.
What do you mean by getting used to them?
"Instead of like the SR1 cars which have lots of power but aren't quite as fast in the corner, these are the other way around with lots of cornering but not as much horsepower. It will take a while for everyone to get used to how they work but I think they are going to be great little cars.
"I think SR2 will be great for the fans and everybody. There will be more sportsracers (in the field). Guys will be able to run in that class and well, open racecars are just more fun! The SR2 cars are smaller than the SR1's so the fans really shouldn't have trouble telling them apart.
Pat Smith told me a while back that Max Crawford was building an SR1 car. What can you tell me about the status of that project?
" His shop is right down the road from me, so I stop in every so often. Right now, they have been to the wind tunnel several times and are currently building the body molds. They are making the mold off the tub right now, the suspension and gearbox is there, and I believe they have made a deal with Judd for a motor. A lot of the parts are there and they are quite a long way along.
Starting With New Friends And Coming Around To Friends Old And New
"I went to the races with my father when I was 5 years old. He ran hillclimbs and did sports cars and TD's and so I was always there doing stuff with him. When it came time for me to go to college, I ran an Austin Healey Sprite, which I played around with and did Autocross with. Then I went to the bank and got the money to buy a 289 Cobra and when I was able to start racing I got a ride with a Porsche dealer in California. I later drove Porsches for Richie Ginther for a few years. I also ran in Super Vee, which kind of got me started in Professional racing. I won the Super Vee championship in 1974. I ran for Dan Gurney in the Eagles and then in the Can Am, with Paul Newman's team.
"It's funny how you keep going back to people you ran with. When I was autocrossing in the Sprite, there was a guy I ran against named Don Devondorf. We were good friends, but eventually he went off to do his kind of racing and I went off to do mine. Years later, I wound up driving his Nissan GTP car! It is a really good thing how you come back to be with friends again.
The Forbes - Robinson And Dyson Families
" My wife Lounette and I have 3 boys. I hate to even say it but my oldest son is going to be 30 next year! The oldest is Elliot the 3rd. Colin is next, and my youngest is Ian. Ian is still in high school so he gets his license next year - so I have to go through that again! I also have 5 granddaughters! We live on Lake Norman, which is just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.
How did you ever get hooked up with Rob Dyson?
"I had a friend, John Schneider, who I raced with in Trans Am and World Challenge. We did a lot of things together and we still do. John decided we should run a World Sports Car so he made a one-year deal with Bobby Brown and we did a few races. It wasn't working out and so we quit. John said, "You know, I sure would like to try driving a good one at least one time." I said, well let's see what we can do about that.
"I had a talk with Rob and he was not going for the deal to have someone come in and do a rent-a-ride. But we talked and I told him John knew Price Cob, who raced for Rob, and I vouched for him and so Rob said, 'OK, we'll do it.' Rob, John and I were going to run the #20 car at Daytona and go out and have a good time, while Andy Wallace, John Paul Jr., Butch Leitzinger. and James Weaver were going to go out and try and win the race. John Paul was also going to come over and help us get through the night.
"It turned out that, by about midnight, the other car had broken but our car was still running. Andy and James went back to the hotel and Butch Leitzinger came over to help us drive. Low and behold, when the morning came we were leading the race! We ended up winning with James and Andy also helping with the driving. We wound up with seven drivers in the car! We were only looking for a top 5 and here we go and win! This was my very first win at the 24 Hours at Daytona. John had won once before in the Lights class. Everyone was very happy because it was the first time they (Dyson) won it too. Here we are, just a couple of guys going out to have a good time and we win it."
"I went to Sebring with Dyson and, because of the way the points were scored at Daytona, I was leading the Championship! Because of my standing, we got first choice on pit location. Rob said we couldn't just tell you to go away, so I stayed in the car for the rest of the year and I came close but Butch later went on to win the championship. It was a great year!
"They are more like a family than a race team. They asked me to come back the next year and the next year, and now it has been 4 years. I had been to Daytona I don't know how many times. I led it and all sorts of things but with this team I have gotten 3 Rolex's in 4 years! I've won the ALMS and Can Am Championships. This has been the most fantastic thing to happen and it has been wonderful!
His Feelings About The Dyson Team
"This crew, from the time I first went with them, has always been willing to help each other. If someone has a little trouble everyone offers each other suggestions to try. They check the computer to see how they can help. There are no secrets; because they figure the faster everyone goes the better the chance the team wins. You never feel you have to hold things back. If I can offer help to someone I will.
"Pat Smith is a great guy. He works with everybody just great. He is a laid back guy. It looks like he is not doing much but he always turns out a super car. He always looks like nothings going on but (we win).
"Butch and I are now driving Lotus cars in the World Challenge. You can tell how the camaraderie runs because Butch and Andy have both left the team right now to drive for Cadillac, but will still do some races with us. The bond that you seem to form on this team, with everybody getting along, just seems to carry over into doing other things. They are great guys to work with.
Why do you think the camaraderie is so strong on that team?
"I think it's partly because of Pat and Rob choosing people that they feel fit into their situation. People who are easy to get along with and will take care of the car. I think someone who can go fast, take care of the car and work in this organization where everyone works together will stay but, if they don't work out, they won't be here long.
"And another thing. How many guys that are looking to win championships are willing to hire a 55 year old guy to do it?"
Do you know any 55-year old guys?
"No, I passed that last year! I'm two years older than Rob. I'm sure that when he was 50 he would never have thought he would hire someone that was older than him.
The Legend And The Legends Cars
Elliot is credited with starting the Legends Cars series. I asked him how these mini-cars, these "dwarfs", came to be available and so popular.
"Well, it started when Humpy Wheeler mentioned something to me one time about having a class - like putting bodies on go-karts - where he could have racing with lots of different colors. With karts, everyone wears a different helmet but otherwise they all look the same. I happened to find dwarf cars out on the coast so I bought a couple and brought them back to show Humpy. We decided to set up a class spec series. The cars would have a good tire, but one without a lot of grip, so the cars would slide around. We started making them and Humpy did the promotion and you couldn't ask for a better arrangement than that.
"We started to build them in Rodney Combs shop and then we moved to the Allison brothers, who built the cars originally. Then we took everything in house and went into full production. We started our own sanctioning body, which is run by a fellow named Todd Fisher. It turned out to be very good. I think we have had something like 1,500 races a year so far. We have run the cars at Pikes Peak and just about everywhere.
"The cars are powered by a Yamaha 1200 cc motorcycle engine. The cars weigh about 1,100 pounds. It has about a 125 horsepower. If you wreck one, they aren't that expensive to fix. On the other hand, my son went out and ran autocross with it and he won the Carolina's B Modified class for two years. I have run it at the Chimney Rock and Beach Mountain hill climbs. I ran in the top 15 out of 300 cars!
"I quit the Legends cars about a year ago. I just didn't have the time anymore. I have been working with Kelly Moss Motorsports teaching people at Porsche Club Racing events. Between the races and the driving schools, I'm only home once in a while. When I can get the time, I enjoy motorcycle riding in the mountains. John Schneider and I are going out riding this weekend.
"My son Elliot also rides motorcycles. He is picking up a new one tomorrow. He and his wife and my wife all ride together a lot. We take off and go up into the Appalachian mountains, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and ride for a couple of hundred miles and then come home. We all enjoy it and it's a nice way to spend time together. Every once in a while we all have a day off together and we will go out on the lake and do some wave running.
"I love being out there with my sons and his friends. Sometimes I have kids come up to me and say you are older than my dad and I can't see my dad doing this."