DEL MAR — Chris Cord, a 47-year-old investment broker from Beverly Hills who never drove a race car until he was 35, won his first national championship this year--in the GTO class of the International Motor Sports Assn.'s Camel GT series.
As far as Dennis Aase is concerned, he won his first championship this year, too.
Aase, 44, is another late starter who didn't race until he was 30. And he actually missed almost the entire IMSA season after a career-threatening accident last January. So when he starts today's one-hour race, it will be only his third ride as Cord's teammate in one of the Toyota Celicas from Dan Gurney's All-American Racers shop in Santa Ana.
"In the back of my mind, from the day I started out with my own Porsche in the Can-Am in 1973, I always wanted to win a championship," Aase said. "Now I've got it. I feel like I won, just as much as Chris."
Cord agrees, pointing out that Aase's name has remained on the car all year even though he spent most of it in the hospital or in a wheelchair.
"Dennis' misfortune forced me to do the driving all season," Cord said. "That was not the original plan. I was only going to drive certain long-distance races as Dennis' partner. When he got hurt, Dan asked me to drive in all 17 races."
This was the first year Cord had ever driven a full season and he responded with 3 wins and 12 of 16 finishes in the top five.
Cord and Aase, along with Willy T. Ribbs, will be on a mission today--to beat Chevrolet for the manufacturer's championship.
"Chris won the individual, but the season won't be complete unless we can win the manufacturer's for Toyota," Aase said. "It's so close that whichever finishes first, a Toyota or a Chevy, will win the championship."
Chevrolet leads, 238-236, and will have four drivers in today's GTO over Del Mar's 1.6-mile temporary circuit. Jack Baldwin and Darin Brassfield will be in Camaros, and Greg Pickett and Wally Dallenbach Jr. will be in Corvettes.
Ribbs, who has won four races this season but missed two when he was suspended for fighting in the pits at Portland, calls it the "hour of power."
The Chevy team got the jump in qualifying Friday as Baldwin took the pole for today's race with a lap at 82.603 m.p.h. Scott Pruett, in a Ford, was next at 82.231. Cord and Ribbs will start right behind them in the second row.
"I'm just happy to be where I am," Cord said. "This track is so tight and so short that it favors the Chevies. All we can do is hope we can finesse our way around and catch them in traffic."
Cord, grandson of E. L. Cord, a founder of American Airlines as well as the manufacturer of Cord and Auburn classic cars, is a most unlikely champion.
"As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated with cars and racing," Cord said. "When my father began racing in Cal Club events, I was 15 and was part of his crew.
"Ernie McAfee was driving my father's car at the time, and I was going to be his protege. I was going to learn the ropes, and as soon as I was old enough, I was going to drive.
"When McAfee was killed at Pebble Beach in 1956, it ended everything. My family was devastated by his death, and it would have been too painful for them if I drove a race car. I was still obsessed by the excitement of racing, though, so I turned to motocross and desert racing on a motorcycle."
Cord also got a business degree from USC, went into the securities business with E. F. Hutton, got married and had four children.
"When I got to be 35, I still couldn't shake the desire to go racing," he said. "So, when I had a chance to drive a Ferrari Daytona with Jeff Kline in a six-hour race at Riverside in 1975, I took it. My mother was still horrified at the thought of my possibly getting hurt, but I told her I was a grown man of 35 with four children and I should be able to do what I wanted."
Through the 12 years that Cord has raced, his mother has never seen him drive.
"She's coming Saturday for the first time," Cord said.
Racing had always been something Cord sandwiched between business calls until he joined Gurney's team in 1984.
"I like the dichotomy of business and racing because the demands are so different," he said. "On the other hand, there is a common thread to success in both. You must know how to manage people, be it All-American Racers or the investment business.
"The ability to manage, motivate and lead is the same in both arenas, and Gurney has a remarkable talent in that direction. My success, any driver's success, is due to teamwork, not an individual. Dan has brought together an outstanding group of people in the last couple of years, and the result is the championship."
Cord's win in the turbocharged Celica is Gurney's first as a team leader since he retired as a driver in 1970.
"We (the drivers) are out there fighting the war, in hand-to-hand combat on the road," Cord said. "But we must have support from the rear echelon. There must be a bond between members of the team to create a winning atmosphere.