RIVERSIDE — Al Holbert has won races at Daytona, Sebring, Laguna Seca, Charlotte, Pocono and LeMans, among other places. Only the late Peter Gregg won more International Motor Sports Assn. sports car races.
Holbert has even won races at Riverside International Raceway. Three years in a row he won the Sports Car Club of America's Can-Am Challenge Cup race here.
But the 38-year-old second-generation race driver from Warrington, Pa., has not been able to win an IMSA race at Riverside.
Four times he has finished second, each time after leading the race, including the last three in a row.
"Racing is a strange game," Holbert mused. "I should have won three of those four IMSA races and I never should have won two of the Can-Ams I won."
Today, driving his own turbocharged Porsche 962, Holbert will start from the pole in the Times/Nissan Grand Prix of Endurance. He qualified Friday at a record 126.680 m.p.h. for the 600-kilometer race around Riverside International Raceway's 3.25-mile road course.
The race will start at 1:30 p.m. Preliminaries will include a Renault Alliance Cup race of 60 kilometers and a Champion Spark Plug Challenge of 100 kilometers.
"I want to win this year. I really want it," Holbert said. "I like Riverside and it breaks my heart to hear that it is going to close. I want to win an IMSA race here before it does. I've been so close so many times."
Holbert's first runnerup finish was in 1979 with John Paul Sr.
"We were leading when I turned the car over to John and he had problems getting off in the dirt in the chicanes, and the Whittingtons got the lead. When I got back in the car toward the end, I couldn't gain on them. I think they had us covered."
Coincidentally, sitting alongside Holbert in the front row today will be John Paul Jr., his old teammate's son. Paul, whose 125.053-m.p.h. lap also broke the old track record, will be in Phil Conte's Buick-powered March.
Holbert believes that the race should have been his in each of the last three years when he finished second, with Harald Grohs in 1982, with Jim Trueman in 1983 and with Derek Bell last year,
"Grohs was leading when he ran into the back of Lee Mueller's Toyota and broke the nose," he said. "Then Grohs passed a car under the yellow (caution flag) trying to catch up and they brought him into the pits and held him up.
"In '83 I was leading by 18 seconds when I had a flat tire right at the start-finish line and had to make a complete lap before we could change it. Then a wheel nut jammed and (John) Fitzpatrick's car passed us. Last year was the worst. Derek (Bell) was cruising along in front with about 20 minutes left out of the six hours when he suddenly pitted. It wasn't a planned stop, he just got exhausted, and I wasn't ready. The time we lost allowed (Randy) Lanier and (Bill) Whittington to win."
According to Holbert, the disappointment of losing at Riverside spurred his team to greater heights later in the season. In 10 races after Riverside, Holbert won five times.
In the Can-Am, Holbert noted, he inherited one win when Geoff Brabham's engine failed while Brabham was leading by a wide margin, and another time Keke Rosburg slid off the course, allowing Holbert to move into the lead and take the win.
"I don't believe in jinxes," Holbert said. "You have to take what you get, but I say this, we came here to win."
Holbert's turbocharged Porsche 962 was built in Stuttgart, West Germany, and prepared in Holbert's shop in Pennsylvania, but the secret weapon in his car's success may come from Santa Ana.
That is home for Andial Racing, where Alwin Springer, Arnold Wagner and Dieter Inzenohfer put together the turbocharged six-cylinder, air-cooled Porsche powerplant.
"I have my own engine builder back home, but I like having Andial do my engines because they always seem to be one step ahead of the game and they are very dedicated," Holbert said. "At races, when Andial does your engines, it's like having another crewman with you. They come to all the races and take a personal interest in seeing that everything runs properly."
Andial-powered cars finished 1-2-3 at both the Daytona 24-hour and Sebring 12-hour races, and Holbert-Bell won the Miami Grand Prix with an Andial engine.
Other cars in today's race with Andial engines include John Kalagian's March, the former Kreepy Krauly March driven here by Jim Adams and John Hotchkis, and the Goodrich Porsche 962 cars of Jim Busby-Rick Knoop and Pete Halsmer-John Morton.
"I have another secret weapon, though," Holbert said after counting off the other teams using Andial. "It's my co-driver."
Al Unser Jr., 23-year-old son of three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, is filling in for Bell, who is Holbert's regular driving partner. Bell is in Monza, Italy, driving for the Porsche factory team in the World manufacturers' series.