by Mike Parris

 

01porsche917k

Porsche 917K at Riverside

 

In March of 1980 I was assigned, as a staff photographer at Argus Publishers, to meet L.A. Times owner/publisher Otis Chandler at his private warehouse to photograph a couple of cars from his collection. There were no exterior signs or indications of what lay inside the building, but it held Duesenbergs, Porsches, motorcycles, an Olds woody like one Chandler had as a teenager, and an assortment of other beautiful collector pieces. After taking photos of a Porsche 904 and a Speedster, Chandler asked me if I would like to come out to Riverside Raceway the following month to photograph his 917-K, the one Steve McQueen drove in LeMans. How fast could I say, “Yes.”

When arriving at the classic road course a couple of weeks later, I found that Chandler had rented the track for the day, brought his 917-K, his Mark Donohue 917-30 Sunoco CanAm car, and his then-current 935 twin turbo IMSA spec Porsche. He was licensed for IMSA competition and had his co-driver John Thomas with him.

After photographing all three cars, Thomas said that Chandler was thinking of selling the two 917s and he wanted to get an audio recording inside the “K” before it went to a new owner. So I donned my helmet, strapped myself in the “passenger seat” of the 917-K and grabbed the tape recorder. Once John was situated in the pilots slot the crew closed the swing-up door panels and he proceeded to fire up the big flat twelve. It fired up with a loud “rip” that sent a sharp chill up my spine and god, did it sound great. Slipping the clutch he brought it out of the pits and got up to a reasonable speed, still letting the transmission oil and tires warm up first. He went through a series of accelerate-and-brake motions to get the brakes up to temp also. After one cruising lap he began to pick up the pace significantly, double clutching in to every corner with the crash box and smiling as the flat twelve powered us out of each apex. Coming out of turn eight and on to the long back straight, Thomas was now in full throttle mode with that glorious sound ripping from dual open headers—right behind our helmets. Touching 180 mph before the dog-leg at the end, Thomas hit the brakes for turn nine, fighting the 917’s steering and man handling it through the corner. It might not have been the best mannered of vehicles but my goodness, those twelve singing cylinders.

By lap four, Thomas was bringing it hard through the esses, down to first in turn six and on the throttle to the off-camber turn seven. He was laughing out of seven and kept both of us grinning from ear to ear, just hearing the big twelve rev. What g-force, what acceleration and what a scary chassis and brake combination. What a car. What a great day.

Listen to the recording Mike made from inside of the 917K of his laps around Riverside!

Photography by Mike Parris

11 Comments
  1. Steve Leupold

    Love the 917k soundtrack. When the movie LeMans came out in the 70s,
    I must have seen it 10 times. Listening to the engines is music. I wish you had a soundtrack of the 917/30. I saw it once in person, and it was scary to see and hear it. I saw Mark Donahue drive it.

  2. RL Tomlinson

    Thank you for posting the outstanding soundtrack of the 917. I had the good fortune of being there that day, standing above the esses watching and hearing JT double clutch that monster going into turn six. We spoke of it later in life and we still get goosebumps. I just closed my eyes and relived that magical day. Great photos/great sounds, thanks again.

  3. In response to Steve’s comment on the 917/30, I rode with JT in that one also — very fast, but not nearly as exciting as the K and the recording would not have done the 30 justice as the turbos kept the sound way down, unlike the monster 12 in the K. As RL mentioned, JT really had a talent, one that could have easily been a profession, and I too loved his double clutching the 917/K 4-speed down through its gears entering “six.” And powering out of eight with full throttle oversteer was spine chilling! Braking for the dog leg was like trying to wrestle a bull to the ground, darting left then right at about 160mph. Exciting…

  4. Chad harrison

    My family was very close friends with Ottis Chandler and John Thomas, still keep in touch with him, went to Ottis car museum many times, and i too, also got 14 laps around Riverside before it closed…unfortunately all the pictures I have of the car and me in it where permanently lost…any pictures you may have and would like to share would be great, I have a few from John Thomas..
    I was on U-Tube and saw yournlink, small world..
    Thanks, anything you have I would love, and am a photographer as well..
    Chad

  5. Andrea Trueman

    In 1980, Otis and JT brought his cars out to Riverside for a Porsche Owners Club (POC) event. I was a volunteer for the club at the time. There was a drawing for a ride in the 917/30. As an appreciation for my hard work, the president of POC Ken Becker said if he won the ticket I could have the ride. He won. My family looked on as they strapped me into the historic and classic 917/30. It’s a good thing I was small. Otis had a large stature. Words could not adequately describe the thrill of the ride. How does a 17 year girl find herself strapped into a Porsche 917/30 being driven by Otis Chandler and JT chasing us when any driver would give up their #*%@! to have that opportunity? To this day, I would rather talk about Porsche’s, racing and vintage cars then talk about the latest in fashion. I always say I am my dad’s third son.

  6. Lynn Palmer

    I had the pleasure of working with John Thomas at Bozzani Porsche during the late 1970’s. I was priviledged to spend a day at Riverside for a POC event with JT. We had brought the 917/30 and 917K on Otis Chandler’s custom built trailer and large cargo van with the huge Porsche hood ornament insignia’s on both sides. I still think, just watching that cargo van/trailer/917/30/917K ensemble drive down the 10 freeway to Riverside was the wildest vision I have ever experienced.
    Thanks for bringing back the memories. I had my young son with me and he still recalls John placing him briefly in the 917/30 driver seat. A memory of a lifetime.
    I would love to wish John all the best if there is some way to communicate without violating his privacy.

  7. David Barry

    I rode with John Thomas as a passenger in the 917-30 on one of those days at Riverside. The 917K was there, too. The standing start from the pit in Riverside onto the back straight down to 5 was the most thrilling acceleration I’ve ever experienced in a race car. Coming out of 8 at full throttle was extraordinary, too. John was a heck of a driver. So was Otis. I rode a few laps with Otis around Willow Springs in his 935 for a story I was doing for Sports Car International, and that car was a thrill, too. Perhaps best of all was the day at Riverside with just the 917K, which Otis brought out to be photographed for a story I was doing on it for the same magazine. Riverside wasn’t still all there; part of it had been torn up but it still photographed well. The 917K had to be moved for the photo, and I happened to be sitting in the drivers’ seat, marveling at the wonderful patched-together nature of the interior. Rather than get out to help push the car, I stayed behind the wheel and steered. It wasn’t a long drive. Maybe 12 feet. The engine wasn’t turned on, but so what? I drove the Steve McQueen 917K at Riverside, and how many people can say that?

    I still admire John Thomas’ bravery with the 917K. A previous writer/rider mentioned the car’s tendency to snap under braking at speed. John told me the car was like that. You had to tame it. It tried to go into the wall at 180 or 190 an he found that exhilarating. Woulda scared the hell out of me. The 917-30, by contrast, was well mannered, but so hard under acceleration that it sort of took me off the scale.

  8. Andrea Trueman

    Thanks Lynn and Mark for sharing! I’m off to the RennSport reunion next week with my dad and brother. Mark Donohue’s son David will be there. I hope I get to shake his hand and tell him how much his father’s car inspired and thrilled so many people.

  9. Janice Reese

    JT is my big brother and I’m so very proud of him. He is the best, sharpest multi-tasker I know. I learn pearls of wisdom from him just about everyday. On driving: smoothness, consistency and concentration. Thank you to Mr. Parris for putting it all into words. In the fast lane in the 917k.

  10. Bob Wade

    JT, I felt like I was riding with you as I listened to the revving engine, the down shifting and the laughter coming from the Porsche 917k. Reading the story by Mike Parris, seeing the pics of the 917k and hearing the power of the engine made me feel like I was riding with you. What a thrill that would have been! Bless you my friend!!

  11. Vic Smith

    I was hired by JT at Bozzani Porsche Audi and helped out at one of these events in 1986. I was an apprentice mechanic taken under everyone’s wing there. I did things like push around the 935 and 917k Porsches, check and fill tire pressures and assist guests into the cars for rides around riverside. At this event I met both Mr. Chandler and Dan Gurney who was there to test with his indy team! Chatted with both briefly and both were very nice gentlemen. I to received a ride from my boss around the famed track in the 935. Hearing my old bosses voice really took me back to that ride! I am truly blessed and thankful that JT took a chance on me! I pray all are well.

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