The Legend of Ludwig Heimrath

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Part 1: A New Canadian Road Racing Star is Born

Heimrath pilots a Porsche RS60 around Mosport.

In the history of motorsports there are many great drivers but only a few who take on mythic proportions. Drivers like Nuvolari, Fangio, Moss, Foyt, Petty and Earnhardt – these mythic figures are known by a single name. Canada has such a mythic figure in Ludwig Heimrath, the German-Canadian who wowed race fans with his achievements over a career of dominance that spanned five decades – and in keeping with his legendary status, he has been known to generations of race fans simply as ‘Heimrath’.

Yes, there are several other Canadians who have had remarkable careers and some who may have actually had more success than Heimrath. For sure, if you examine Heimrath’s five decade racing history you might find that he sometimes raced cars that were outclassed and he struggled to be competitive with other drivers with better sponsorship and better equipment. But mythology is about more than dry facts and Heimrath’s bigger-than-life personality and some key legend-making runs made him an undeniable mythological figure in Canada’s racing history – a true bigger-than-life racing hero.

Heimrath in the Porsche RS60 at Watkins Glen.For me, the legend of Heimrath is built on five parts of his long racing career:

1. The way he won a ride in the Eglinton Caledonia Porsche RS-60 for the 1960 Sundown Grand Prix and then how he overshadowed the other Porsche drivers in that race. Afterwards he displaced Francis Bradley from the seat and went on to win the drivers’ championship the next year.

2. That championship led to a guest ride in a factory Porsche in a non-championship Formula One race in France in 1962.

3. In 1964, he landed a seat one of the Comstock racing team’s King Cobras and, after teammate Eppie Wietzes was forced to sit out the season after an accident in the first race weekend, Heimrath went on to win a second Canadian championship in dominant fashion.

4. In the 1970s, he raced a series of Porsche 911s. In 1977 he challenged Peter Gregg, who was driving a similar but more modified Porsche 934, on the track and in the appeal courts. The dispute went all the way to the FIA in Paris, but Heimrath emerged the victor – the 1977 Trans-Am championship winner – even though it took the SCCA nearly five months to begrudgingly acknowledge his championship. To this day, some people remain confused by this controversy.

5. Heimrath continued to race – mostly in a series of cars based on the Porsche 924 and its successors – for the next two decades. The final version was the three-litre Porsche 968. In 1997, he won the class championship. At the age of 66 he retired for good in 2000, having run the full season and raced every year since his start back in 1958 (If I weren’t so pedantic, I might go along with the popular misconception and say that the 2000 season marked the start of his sixth decade in racing).

Heimrath slides behind the wheel, circa 1961.
But there’s more to the Heimrath legend – like Foyt and Earnhardt he had a strong persona. He had that same no-nonsense, tough-guy approach on and off the track. He had an air of self-confidence and bravado that approached arrogance. He was an aggressive driver who cut no slack for anyone else and, even when he sometimes found himself driving against superior equipment, he had a dominant style that made him the driver you noticed. Indeed, Heimrath had a deliberately intimidating style on and off the track. Ross de St. Croix, who raced against him in the early 1960s, says that the drivers used to call Heimrath ‘the intimidator’ long before anyone had ever heard of the other Intimidator.

I never had any dealings with the Heimrath Porsche sales operation but the legend has it that Heimrath’s my-way-or-the-highway approach carried over into his business affairs. The story goes that you could indeed count yourself among the fortunate if Heimrath deemed you worthy enough to buy a Porsche from his unpretentious-looking dealership. Despite this unusual approach to selling a prestige car, his little sales operation had sales to rival the biggest of the slick Porsche dealers in Canada.

Of course, now that Heimrath has retired from the car business and from racing and has settled down into a normal life senior citizen in his mid-70s, that rough exterior is now pretty much gone. Perhaps the guys who shared the Mosport circuit with him in his Porsche GT2 on a couple of recent track days may not be quite so sure that he has turned into a pussycat yet.

In the 1950s, and even into the 1960s, the road racing culture in North America was dominated by the English sports cars. Many racing fans – especially in Canada -- were actually expats who had emigrated from Britain in the post-war years. Even those of us who were native Canadians were automotive Anglophiles who tended to sport tweed and pipes in what we thought was the English style. Germans made up a significant part of the post-war exodus from continental Europe and a sizeable German community had settled in Toronto by the mid-1950s. VW Canada was established in Toronto and, in the early days, it employed a German-speaking work force in the shops.

Heimrath races a Cooper Ford at Mosport.Out of this German cultural community, a German-based car culture come together, perhaps best know in the form of the Deutscher Automobil Club, which was founded in 1958 – and the large contingent of German-Canadian race drivers that made up a significant part of the race entries from that time forward.

Heimrath arrived in Toronto in 1956. (I must note that both he and I are now ‘seniors’ and some of our specific recollections from the old days may not be totally precise). He was born in August 1934, and was about ten years-old when the war ended. In Germany he had raced motorcycles but gave that up because it was too dangerous, tried his hand at boxing (in character with his pugnacious persona) and worked in the auto industry – Opel and Porsche – before emigrating to Canada. As soon as he arrived in Canada, he was taken in by the German community and he quickly found work at VW Canada – fluency in English came later.

Encouraged by VW Canada, he went racing in a Volkswagen in 1958. Soon he was summoned to New York (accompanied by a scion of the Piëch side of the Porsche family who was interning in Toronto at the time) where he was given a Porsche engine which fitted straight into the VW and made it a much faster racer. Heimrath’s memory is that he won every race in that car.

He moved up to Porsche Speedster Super 90 in 1959 and 1960 and, in his soon-to-be-familiar style, ran competitively with the more powerful Porsche Carrera of Klaus Bartels (another VW Canada protege). As a racer, Heimrath was immediately embraced by the German community here – VW Canada, DAC and beyond – as one of their heros. But he was soon to be recognized as a star by the broader racing community.

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In 1959, Roger Penske and Harry Blanchard, driving a Porsche RSK, had won the Sundown Grand Prix, a six-hour endurance race run at Harewood Acres. The 1960 event was set to run in October. Both Francis Bradley and Peter Ryan had new Porsche RS60s that year and needed co-drivers for the enduro. The LASC August event at Green Acres was the venue for the auditions. Ralph Luciw drove the Bradley car. Heimrath got his tryout in Ryan’s similar car.

Luciw had a clutch failure which caused over-revving and then a broken cam. The car was done for the day. Meanwhile, Heimrath drove the Ryan RS60 flawlessly, never exceeded the rev limit and broke the track record by a tenth of a second. This was the start of the Heimrath legend.

At the Sundown Grand Prix, Ryan paired up with Penske while Heimrath, not Luciw, was Bradley’s co-driver. The race began with a Le Mans-type start and Ryan roared off into the lead. Heimrath was slow off the line losing several positions but by lap eight he had caught Ryan and passed him. Thirty minutes into the race Heimrath had a 30-second lead. Just before the two-hour mark, Heimrath spun in the esses – with an assist from a lapped car – and damaged the rear end, which allowed Ryan to regain the lead.
Heimrath as a young racer, circa 1961.Heimrath pitted to have the rear bodywork pulled off his tire, dropping him further behind Ryan. An hour later as darkness was settling in, Heimrath came in for a driver change. Bradley got into the car but minutes were lost while the crew struggled to fix the broken tail lights. By the time he regained the race he was more than three laps off the lead.

However, Heimrath’s primary competition was experiencing problems of their own. Penske was feeling sick and only ran a short stint before he pitted again, forcing Ryan back out. These two stops ate up most of their lead, but Ryan held off Bradley to take the win.

His strong showing overshadowed Bradley’s effort and, going into the 1961, Heimrath was chosen to drive the Eglinton-Caledonia car – helping to establish more of the Heimrath legend.

Mosport opened in 1961 and Heimrath showed up with the RS60 for the first race and dominated the day. The next race was the Players 200 with an international field. Stirling Moss won in the new Lotus 19 – a sports car version of the F1 Lotus 18 with the same 2.5-litre engine. Jo Bonnier and Olivier Gendebien were second and third in a pair of Porsche RS61s while Heimrath came home a respectable fourth in the year-old RS60. Grant Clark was fifth in the new Comstock-Sadler Mk IV, a revolutionary new rear-engined sports car with a (then) monster Chevy V-8. Unfortunately this new Sadler, which was the first race car of its type, was seriously hampered by teething problems.

Despite having a year-old 1600 cc car running up against potentially stronger cars in 1961 – the Comstock-Sadler and Peter Ryan’s new Lotus 19 – Heimrath won the championship that year. These faster cars only showed up a few times and the Sadler continued to have trouble finishing races. Heimrath’s strongest competition came from Bradley who was driving ‘Miss Whiz’, a fast 1100 cc Lola, but no match for the Porsche.

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