This piece first appeared on Hagerty on 23 February 2016.
In 1962, having just dropped out of college to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional racing driver, 20-year-old John Morton limped his Jaguar XK150 from Illinois to Riverside, Cali., where he enrolled in Carroll Shelby’s racing school.
As only the second American racer to win at Le Mans – which he did for Aston Martin in 1959 – Shelby was already something of a legend in American racing circles even before his Cobras and Mustang GT350s made his name synonymous with high performance. When Morton learned that Shelby operated a racing school in Southern California, he signed up, eager to learn from the best.
Arriving a week in advance of the school’s start, Morton had little to do but wander around Riverside Raceway and kill time. One day, a man rode up to him on a Honda 50 motorcycle and introduced himself.
“Hi, I’m Peter Brock,” he said. “I’m going to be your instructor here.”
“Well, shit,” Morton recalls thinking. “I paid to learn from Carroll Shelby and now I’m getting some guy I never even heard of.”
On February 20, 2016, fifty-four years after this inauspicious first meeting – and with numerous national championships to their names – John Morton and Peter Brock shared the stage at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. They were flanked by former colleagues from Brock Racing Enterprises who had come to together to swap old stories – some of which, according to Brock, even stood a good chance of being true – from the team’s most legendary years.
BRE traces its roots to the shop floor of Shelby American, where Brock – fresh off a stint at GM where, at 19 years old, he had helped design the car that would become the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray – developed the Daytona Coupe and where Morton got his professional break driving a 427 Cobra with Ken Miles at Sebring in ‘64. When Ford redirected Shelby’s resources into beating Ferrari at Le Mans in the GT40, Brock took fabricators Bruce Burness and Jeff Schoolfield along with him to form Brock Racing Enterprises.
Although history will forever, rightly, associate the BRE name with Datsun, Brock & Co. bounced around the racing world for several years – building cars for the likes of Hino, Toyota, and Triumph – before finally convincing the brass at Nissan Japan that they could make a winning race car out of the Datsun 2000 Roadster. With Frank Monise at the wheel, BRE was quickly living up to its word by winning championships on the west coast. Soon thereafter, reunited with John Morton, BRE won a combined four national championships in a C Production 240Z and a Trans-Am series Datsun 510 (1970-71 and 1971-72, respectively).
The 240Z, of course, was manufactured and marketed as a performance car from the outset, but even the folks at Datsun were surprised at what their little econobox, the 510, was capable of on the track. After seeing Morton take home multiple checkered flags, car buyers who couldn’t afford an Alfa Romeo GTV or a BMW 2002 were flocking to Datsun showrooms. Saying that BRE’s success on the track singlehandedly shifted American attitudes toward Japanese cars, is hardly hyperbole.
Still, even amidst all this success, BRE was not above the occasional boneheaded mishap. Among the stories shared at the Petersen event there were not one, but two anecdotes about team members failing to properly secure race cars to open trailers, only to look in their rearview mirror to see cars sliding off the back of the trailer and onto the road in the middle of traffic.
A mere week after one of these incidents, Schoolfield and crew member Joe Caviglieri found themselves in Colorado on a Friday morning tuning a car for that weekend’s race. With the track closed and thus unavailable for testing their tweaks, Schoolfield and Caviglieri had the bright idea to trailer the car to the nearest stretch of interstate highway and see how it ran on the open road.
“We beat every car on the freeway except the one that belonged to the highway patrol,” recalled Schoolfield with a laugh.
Making matters worse, neither Schoolfield nor Caviglieri had driver’s licenses with them. The race car was promptly impounded and the two men found themselves in the local jail, wondering how they were going to get out of this fix in time for Sunday’s race and, more daunting, how they were going to explain their predicament to Boss Brock.
“I don’t think Peter spoke to us at all for the next two days,” said Schoolfield.
Just as Shelby American had been fertile soil for the talent that went into BRE, so too was BRE such a unique collection of talent that it could not help but produce its own gifted offspring. When Brock decided to get out of racing in 1973 (in order to design hang-gliders), BRE’s crew dispersed across the racing world. Morton tasted success with the Jaguar, Porsche and Nissan factory teams, including a class win at Le Mans in 1994; crew chief and engineer Mac Tilton formed Tilton Engineering, a major supplier of racing components; engine chief John Caldwell went on to build championship engines for Paul Newman and Bob Sharpe as well as for a number of factory teams; and transmission and electrics guru John Knepp formed the Electramotive racing team, which had success running Nissan cars in Group C and IMSA.
This unique collection of talent was not lost on anyone in the BRE shop, even in its heyday of success. During the Petersen panel discussion, Mac Tilton recalled a conversation he had with Herb Wetanson in the early 1970s, when Wetanson’s Alfa Romeos were running against the BRE Datsuns in the Trans-Am series. Wetanson was convinced that if he was running Datsuns, he would be winning every week instead of BRE.
“Herb, you just don’t get it,” Tilton recalls saying. “We could swap cars with you today and it wouldn’t make a difference – we’d still beat you guys. It’s not about the car, it’s about the people.”