Think of your dream, no-holds-barred, greatest racing series idea. It might involve drivers like Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, and Paul Newman for a little star power. Maybe a fleet of Jaguar XJ220s, which all get destroyed in huge crashes. Then you put it on TV. It was absurd and great and bad, and you’ll love the story of it.
Fast Masters had pretty much all the ingredients for greatness—wild cars, legendary stars, and a contract to run on ESPN. Except it didn’t last, and hardly anyone born after 1985 remembers it. But a whole bunch of people who were involved DO remember it, and Marshall Pruett has collected their stories for Racer.com about how it got started, what it was like, and its untimely demise.
The premise was simple, really. Get a whole bunch of famous race car drivers over the age of 45, stick them into 12 Jaguar XJ220s, and have them run on oval courses. Why oval courses? Here’s series creator Terry Ligner:
The real beauty for Thunder across the board and why I think it was successful was that we left all of our [TV camera] cable at the time in two spots: at [Indianapolis] Raceway Park and in Ventura. So we could plug and play. We could show up at 3:00 in the afternoon. Everybody [on the TV crew] gets a single day pay. We would get in and out. It was a perfect venue, a perfect way for television, actually, with heat races and the last chance race. Everything fit so nicely, so even going to the road course wasn’t even an option.
Basically, it was cheap to do. And why Jaguar XJ220s, beyond that they were awesome? Well, they weren’t really considered to be all that and a bag of chips back in the early 1990s, in the midst of a global recession that even impacted the Wealths and getting cars that weren’t legal for driving in America under-the-radar was a bit harder than it is now, as Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) boss Tony Dowe explains:
We finished up having an agreement and it met all the criteria for Jaguar. So they had to stay in the deal. So then, Tom shipped across 12 XJ220s, which weren’t going to sell. First of all, they were illegal to import into the country. You couldn’t use them on the road, for sure. They have to come in as race cars, and they’re the V6 turbo, which was prone to getting air pockets in the water system and blowing itself up and so on like that.
Oh, and then there was the problem of getting the XJ220—set up for a road course, at best—to run safely at high speeds around ovals, which is a lot trickier than it sounds, and which inevitably ended up leading to a lot of crashing, as Dowe explains:
We had no budget to change springs or roll bars. They had a viscous differential which around off banking, when they lifted off, would uncouple, which is why they quite often backed into the wall. Oh, yeah. And we had to use the standard Bridgestone tires that came on, which actually weren’t that bad, although we had to pump the pressures up a bit, and we never put roll cages in the bloody things, but decent seat belts and so on, and it really was a dog’s dinner, to say the least. After the first week, I had every guy on the team hand their notice in.
And because they crashed a lot, there was the whole messy issue of repairing them after crashes like this one. Again, from Dowe:
Don’t forget all the panels were aluminum. There was no [carbon fiber] composites anywhere. There was some large areas of aluminum panels. We had zero spares, so we were beating them out. The ones that finished up were 50-percent Bondo in them… They were aluminum-Bondo composite…
Marshall’s story really is worth the read over at Racer, and there’s even more details on his podcast. Go check it out here.