George Follmer is an American former racing driver who was active for more than thirty years in different racing disciplines all over the world, becoming one of America's most versatile racing drivers.
He recorded twelve starts in the Formula 1 World Championship in 1973, driving for Shadow and scoring one podium. In the North American open-wheel racing, he was active between 1967 and 1975, scoring one victory.
Follmer was successful in sports car racing, including championship title in the 1965 US Road Racing Championship and two participations at 24 Hours of Le Mans where he was on a podium in 1986, driving a Porsche 956 for Joest Racing. He was a two-time Trans-Am champion (1972, 1976) and Can-Am Challenge champion in 1972. Follmer also tried his luck in stock car racing, recording twenty starts in NASCAR between 1972 and 1988.
Starting a career in a Porsche 356 Super Speedster
Follmer was born in Phoenix in January 1934 but he stayed briefly in Arizona because his father, an engineer for a company that made flour mills, moved the family to suburban Los Angeles. He served in the US Army in the mid-1950s. He earned a business degree from Pasadena City College and then worked for an insurance company.
In 1957, the Riverside International Raceway had been opened and became a central place of motorsport in California. Follmer wanted to race and bought his first race car in 1959. It was a Porsche 356 Super Speedster 1600. Follmer’s first Porsche carried the number 116 or 16, in honor of his son Jim’s birthday. The number 16 would be his identifier for the rest of his career, whenever that was an option.
Conquering the 1965 US Road Racing Championship
Follmer raced all over California with Porsche 356 during 1960 and 1961. In summer 1961, he switched to Porsche 550 RS, continuing to race in SCCA and other competitions. He also made a debut in the USAC Road Racing Championship. He was sponsored by Tom Nuckles and his company Trans-Ocean Motors, a Pasadena Porsche dealership.
In 1964, they decided to buy a Lotus 23 for the US Road Racing Championship. The chassis was good but an engine from a Chevrolet Corvair was a wrong choice. At the end of 1964, they replaced Corvair engine with a 2.0-litre engine from Porsche 904. In the 1965 USRRC season, Follmer scored six victories in the U2L (under 2 liters) class and captured the overall championship title in the #16 Lotus 23-Porsche.
1966 - class victory at Sebring, DNFs at Daytona and Le Mans
In 1966, Follmer made a debut in two greatest North American endurance races, at Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours. At Daytona, he retired in a Ferrari 250 LM he was driving for North American Racing Team (NART).
At Sebring, he had an opportunity to drive a Le Mans-winning Porsche 904 as a reward for his USRRC title with Porsche. He partnered Peter Gregg and they were winners in the S2.0 class, finishing seventh overall.
In June 1966, Follmer also made a debut at 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing NART's Ferrari Dino 206S with Charlie Kolb. They retired after just nine laps with a broken engine.
Entering Can-Am Challenge with Lola T70 in 1966
After participating in few USRRC races with Lotus 23 early in 1966, Follmer joined Mecom Racing Team to drive a Lola T70 Mk2 in the inaugural season of the Canadian-American Challenge Cup (Can-Am).
Using cars with Ford or Chevrolet engines, he made five starts and finished 12th in final standings. An inaugural Can-Am champion was John Surtees.
Combining Can-Am, Trans-Am, USRRC and USAC Championship in 1967
In 1967, Follmer began the 1967 US Road Racing Championship season with his Lola-Chevrolet, but in June he received a phone which would change his career. Roger Penske asked if he would drive Mark Donohue’s Camaro in Mid-Ohio’s Trans-Am race because Donohue had to be at Le Mans. Follmer finished third and didn’t hurt the car, exactly what Penske wanted out of him.
For that fall’s Can-Am Challenge season, Penske called again and hired Follmer to drive Lola-Chevrolet as a support to Mark Donohue. Follmer finished seventh in the points, Donohue was fourth.
In 1967, Follmer also made three starts in the USAC Championship, driving a Vollstedt-Ford in three races.
1968 – unsuccessful debut at Indianapolis 500
In 1968, Follmer was again between several championships. In the Trans-Am Series, he mostly drove AMC Javelin for American Motors. In the Can-Am Challenge, he made few starts with Agapiou Brothers' Lola-Ford.
In the USAC National Championship, Follmer made five starts with George Bryant's Cheetah-Ford. In May 1968, he tried to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 but he was too slow in his rookie first attempt.
1969 - victory in the USAC Championship Car race at Phoenix
In 1969, Follmer scored his first and only victory in the USAC National Championship. Driving a Cheetah-Ford, he won at Phoenix International Raceway. In May, he managed to qualify for Indianapolis 500, retiring after 26 laps with a broken engine.
Later in the season, he scored one more podium with a third-place finish at Indianapolis Raceway Park, finishing 16th in USAC Championship standings.
In other competitions, he was driving Bud Moore's Ford Mustang Boss in Trans-Am Series, winning a race at Bridgehampton.
Winning Trans-Am races in a Ford Mustang Boss
In 1970, Follmer made just three starts in the USAC National Championship, including Indianapolis 500 where he retired after just 18 laps. He was more successful in the US F5000 Championship, scoring two wins.
He continued to race with Bud Moore's Ford Mustang Boss 302 in the Trans-Am Series, winning one race at Bryar Motorsports Park. In Can-Am Challenge, Follmer made just two starts in a Shadow-Chevrolet. In the 1971 Trans-Am season, Follmer recorded two wins in a Ford Mustang Boss and one victory with AMC Javelin.
In 1971, Folmer also made one start in Can-Am Challenge and one start in the USAC Championship. It was at Indianapolis 500, where he finished 15th in #41 Kingfish-Offy.
Can-Am and Trans-Am championship titles in 1972
The season 1972 turned to be the most successful in Follmer's career. He became a champion in the Can-Am Challenge, scoring five wins in the #6 Penske Racing Porsche 917/10. He collected twice as many points than second-placed Denny Hulme.
It was the first Trans-Am Series season in which drivers' championship title had been awarded and Follmer took it. He won four races in the #1 AMC Javelin AMX which he was driving for Roy Woods Racing. He also competed with Roy Woods in the F5000 Championship, not scoring wins in 13 races.
1973 - Formula One season with Shadow Racing Team
In 1973, the most important was Follmer's debut in Formula One. He entered the F1 World Championship with Don Nichols' Shadow Racing Team, making a debut in a Shadow DN1-Cosworth in the third championship round at South African Kyalami Circuit. He scored a point in his first F1 attempt, finishing in the sixth place, two laps behind race winner Jackie Stewart. Follmer was sixth again in the non-championship BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone.
Follmer was even better in the next race, reaching the podium with a third-place finish at Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuic Circuit, behind Emerson Fittipaldi and Francois Cevert. It was the highlight of Follmer's F1 career. Later in the season, his best result was a tenth place and he finished 13th in the final championship standings.
Can-Am Challenge vice-champion for two years in a row
While driving for Shadow in Formula One, Follmer continued with his sports car career, both in North America and Europe. In February, he and Mark Donohue retired at Daytona 24h in a Porsche 911 Carrera RSR. Follmer was also driving Porsche 911 for Martini Racing in some races of the World Championship for Makes.
He also competed with Porsche 917 in the 1973 Can-Am Challenge Cup, driving for Rinzler Motoracing. Scoring one victory and three more podiums, he finished second in the points behind Mark Donohue.
Follmer was a vice-champion again in the 1974 Can-Am Challenge Cup, driving a Shadow DN4-Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing Organisations. The champion was his teammate Jackie Oliver.
Thirteen starts in the 1974 NASCAR Winston Cup
In 1974, Follmer significantly expanded his stock car commitments, recording 13 starts in the NASCAR Winston Cup with three different teams. In eleven races, he was driving the #15 Ford Gran Torino for Bud Moore, scoring five top 10 results. He was also driving the #16 Matador for Penske Racing and the #90 Ford for Donlavey Racing in one race each.
Later in a career, Follmer made two more NASCAR starts in 1975 and then returned to stock car racing in 1986, participating in five more events between 1986 and 1988.
Trans-Am champion again in 1976
Follmer slowed down his racing activities in 1975. In May, he recorded his last attempt at Indianapolis 500, failing to qualify with two teams.
In 1976, Follmer added one more championship title to his account. He was driving a Porsche 934 for Vasek Polak Racing in the Trans-Am Series, scoring two wins and taking the championship title in TA2 class. He continued to race with Porsche 934 in 1977 Trans-Am season, scoring one victory.
Three seasons in revived Can-Am Challenge
In 1977, Follmer also entered revived Can-Am Challenge, driving a Lola T332-Chevrolet for US Racing. He finished sixth in the points with two podiums.
In 1978 Can-Am season, he was a race winner in one race with US Racing's Prophet-Chevrolet, finishing fifth in the points. In the 1979 Can-Am season, Follmer participated in just three races.
Third place at 1986 Le Mans 24 Hours
He was out of racing in 1980 and then returned to Trans-Am Series in 1981. He was driving a Chevrolet Camaro for Cooke-Wood Racing, scoring a victory at Laguna Seca. He was also driving Toyota Celica in the IMSA GTU Championship but without notable results. In the following years, Follmer raced occasionally in Trans-Am or IMSA races.
The final highlight of his career came in June 1986. At the age of 52, he joined Joest Racing to drive the #8 Porsche 956 at 24 Hours of Le Mans. Sharing a car with John Morton and Kenper Miller. They finished in the third place, behind two Porsche 962C cars.