When AMC Gremlins Defeated BMWs on Track: Why IMSA RS Was Legendary

This series was the epitome of low-cost, high-action racing during its day.

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When AMC Gremlins Defeated BMWs on Track: Why IMSA RS Was Legendary ©When AMC Gremlins Defeated BMWs on Track: Why IMSA RS Was Legendary

Decades ago, AMC Gremlins were used to out-drive BMW 2002s on track in professional motorsports. That’s kind of unbelievable, right? This and many other entertaining tales of wheel-to-wheel competition went down in the International Motor Sports Association’s (IMSA) RS Series, which ran from 1969 to 1984. Despite this, IMSA RS is an often overlooked low-pro-level series and it deserves more recognition in our modern era.

Think of IMSA RS as today’s SRO TC America. It features cars that are based on their road-going counterparts more than most other racing classes. Though, unlike TC America, it primarily ran on street radial tires. RS stood for “radial sedan,”  but the series went by so many freaking names throughout its history. It was called the Baby Grands, Goodrich Radial Challenge, Goodyear Radial Challenge, Champion Spark Plug Challenge, just Radial Challenge, and so on. The concept actually sustained well past 1984, too, but it seems like the glory days were from ’69-’84.

In the early years of IMSA RS, this rag-tag group of cars exclusively ran on spec tires that were made by BFGoodrich (BFG). BFG produced a series of videos to document and promote the series in 1974, which was a season that saw healthy car counts. The crucial vibe of the entire series was that these were racecars on street tires.

These videos are very entertaining and show some impressive camera work for the era, such as narration by Brock Yates from behind the wheel. BFG even had its own theme music written, which is immensely cheesy, yet strangely catchy. I can’t quite get it out of my head as I type this.

This series ran at eight stops on the IMSA 1974 calendar: Road Atlanta, Laguna Seca, Riverside (RIP), Mid-Ohio, Talladega, Charlotte, Lime Rock, and Daytona. The cars were a mix of everything we consider to be Extra Friggin’ Cool nowadays: BMW 2002, Dodge (Mitsubishi) Colt, Mazda RX-2/3, Datsun 510, Volvo 122, Ford Pinto, E21 BMW 3 Series, VW, Scirocco, Mercury Capri, Honda Civic, the Opel Manta, AMC Hornet, and the glorious AMC Gremlin, among others. Well, the Pinto maybe isn’t as beloved in our modern eyes. 

It’s so cool that early tuner car legends were there, as it surely helped solidify their canon and became part of the reason why enthusiasts dig and appreciate them so much nowadays.

Preparation truly was minor in IMSA RS compared to other professional series, too. There were strict limits to engine prep, tire size, suspension tuning, and even brakes (of which there wasn’t a whole lot of). Combined with frighteningly simple (yet period-correct) roll cages, too… yikes. Here’s a neat and more recent vintage race of RS cars at Summit Point in 2017:

But it all made for wild, up-close, door-to-door action. Cars would heave and roll in corners, experience a bunch of oversteer, and often resemble off-tarmac rally more than circuit racing. In fact, there’s a great quote in the video above from Carson Baird, driver of the No. 8 Dodge Colt, about what it was like having to slide the car around to get tires up to temperature and provide adequate grip.

Interviewer: I noticed that you were doing quite a bit of sliding, a lot of sideways motoring at Laguna Seca. Is that your general style of driving, or do you adjust your style to the type of race track?

Baird: Well it’s a little bit of both I think. I like to drift a car through a corner, as opposed to just normally tracking it through. And with these street tires, you have to slide the car a lot in order to generate enough heat to make the tire really work well.

So imagine a field of 20-50 cars where strategic hijinks like this are happening — it sounds like an absolute riot to watch.

These old records of IMSA RS racing perfectly show how small cars fared in racing back in the day, how racing helped solidify cult followings, and what motorsports generally were like in the ’70s and ’80s. A lot of this seems overlooked by anyone who digs historic racing, or at least not as prominent and talked about as it ought to be. I dug up a lot of my info from a comprehensive Facebook Group, as well as a whole website, IMSARS.Net. I highly recommend poking around on both and cross-referencing your inclinations with YouTube. Also, because of all this old footage, I’ve added an IMSA RS-tribute Mazda RX-3 and E21 BMW to my ever-expanding daydream garage.

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