1971 Trans-Am Javelin AMX
When the typical automotive enthusiast thinks of American Motors, usually the images that are conjured are of some of the greatest mistakes in American automotive history—the Gremlin, the Matador and, of course, the Pacer. However, fans of Trans-Am racing history undoubtedly think back to the halcyon days of 1970 and 1971, when Roger Penske and Mark Donohue took an ailing AMC Javelin Trans-Am program by the throat and turned it into a racing legacy.
Strangely enough, the starting point for this remarkable transformation was not a race track or glass-lined boardroom, but a dinghy motel room in Century City, California. The week after Mark Donohue and Roger Penske had clinched the 1969 Trans-Am Championship at Riverside with their Chevrolet Camaro, the duo found themselves sitting in said motel room with Bill McNealy, vice president of marketing for AMC. Though Penske had just convincingly won the championship for Chevrolet, he was having serious trouble getting the financial support from them that he felt he needed to back up that year’s stunning performance. In McNealy’s case, he had just wrapped up a fairly disastrous Trans-Am season running a Javelin program with Ron Kaplan and Jim Jeffords. Thus, the two businessmen had met, in this non-descript motel room, to see if there was common ground from which Penske could take over the factory Javelins for 1970. According to Donohue, “Since we hadn’t broken off with Chevrolet yet, I felt a little out of place—as if we were cheating on our wives or something—although it was really a legitimate business meeting. Roger was being almost too honest with them about our position. He came right out and said we needed exactly ‘so many’ dollars to run the Javelins for a season. McNealy said it was about the range they had expected, and we got into negotiations over terms and bonuses. Roger was so mad at Chevrolet at that point that he said that he wasn’t interested in any bonus dollars in the contract for 2nd in the championship—it was going to be 1st or nothing.”