Pabst's Blue Ribbon

Long before he was an executive at the brewery that bears his family name, Augie Pabst raced Ferraris.

Pabst's Blue Ribbon 0
January 18, 2013

August Uihlein Pabst, Jr, born on November 25, 1933, is the great-grandson of Pabst Brewing Company founder Captain Frederick Pabst, as well as a former vice president of that brewery. But in the late 1950s, Augie left the company to go racing, and would soon pilot several legendary Ferraris: the Testa Rossa, 250 GT SWB and 250 GTO.

Pabst drove for some of the era’s best-known car owners, such as Luigi Chinetti and Briggs Cunningham, and partnered with some of its best drivers, including Walt Hansgen and Roger Penske. But while he had a famous name and excellent connections, Pabst was no dilettante: He won the USAC Road Racing Championship in 1959 and, in 1960, the SCCA B Modified Championship. In 2011, he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

Today, Pabst remains very enthusiastic about his racing career, and talking with him about it really does take you back to a golden age of sports-car competition. He’s also very candid, talking freely about both his triumphs and embarrassments. FORZA spoke with Pabst on the phone from his office at Pabst Farms.

Where did your interest in sports cars come from?

Back in the ’50s, the first race I went to was in Janesville, Wisconsin. Jim Kimberly had a Ferrari and a man named Fred Wacker had a Cad-Allard. They were racing at the airport there. The two of them were racing very close and their cars made the most wonderful sounds. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to do that someday.’

Well, I wasn’t old enough because, back in those days, you had to be 21 to race. I kept saying to my friends, ‘Someday, I’m going to be driving a race car.’ Then I turned 21 and I thought I’d better put up or shut up, so I bought a Triumph TR3. My first race as a driver was at the Milwaukee State Fair on the Milwaukee Mile. They used three quarters of the oval and then had a road course through the middle, kind of like how Indianapolis is set up today. I’d drive the Triumph to the races, get out, take the muffler off so it sounded like a race car, race the car, put it back together and drive it back home. Things just went from there.

Was your family supportive of you racing?
They didn’t pay for it, no. My father had been killed just before my first birthday. He was in the Air Naval Reserve and was killed in a plane crash. My mother didn’t stop me, but she didn’t encourage me, either.

In 1958, you bought a 500 Testa Rossa (s/n 0612MDTR) that had a special engine.

A guy named Jimmy Johnston in Cincinnati had the car, and I think I paid $5,000 for it. Ferrari, I was told, built four 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines for these cars [which were called 625 LMs when so equipped—Ed.]. The fellow I bought the car from bought it with the [2.5-liter] engine in it. I was told the other three were built for Le Mans. That little car got me going. It could literally beat all the Porsches, regardless of who was driving them. It could beat Lloyd Ruby in a 4.5 Maserati.

It was an amazing engine for only 2.5 liters, and it was also very reliable as long as you didn’t go past the redline, which I think was 5,600 or 5,800 rpm. The only car it could not beat was the Scarab, but the Scarab didn’t always finish.

I had to put a new set of brakes on it and tune the engine. Other than that, we never had to do a thing to it until I started driving for the Peter Hand Brewing Company. We took it to California as a practice car. At Riverside, I neglected to take out the warm-up plugs and burned a hole in a piston. I had to leave it there and Richie Ginther rebuilt the engine for me. What a wonderful man he was; he was a hell of a good driver and mechanic.

The 2.5 Testa Rossa was a sweetheart car. Like a horse’s ass, I sold it for $5,000.

Tell us about the Peter Hand Brewing Company.

I was offered a ride to drive the Scarab for two years for the Peter Hand Brewing Company of Chicago. Their beer was Meister Bräu, so they called us the Meister Bräu-sers. Can you imagine my name, being a beer name in Milwaukee, driving for a beer company in Chicago? My family didn’t mind, though, since we were not in control of the Pabst Brewery at that time. We had lost control of it during Prohibition.

I won two national championships driving for Peter Hand. I drove for them for two years, until close to the end of the second season. Then I won a fairly big local race in Wisconsin, and the local paper ran a headline that said, ‘Pabst Wins Blue Ribbon.’ The next day, I was out of a job.

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That’s pretty harsh.

I don’t blame them. These were wonderful people. They gave me the chance to drive what I think is the greatest sports car of its day for two years. When they let me go, I really had no hard feelings whatsoever.

But I got lucky again. Alfred Momo, who was running the Briggs Cunningham team, asked me if I would kindly join their team. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.

You won the USAC Road Racing Championship in 1959 driving your Testa Rossa and a Scarab Mk. II. How different were the two cars?

I loved the sound of the Ferrari. In fact, I’ve never driven a bad Ferrari. The Ferrari didn’t handle all that badly, but my favorite was the Scarab. The Scarab had tremendous torque compared to the Ferrari. It was the chassis, the engine, the whole combination. Scarab really hit a home run with the Mk. II. If you stop and think, that car was competitive for five years, and that’s when mid-engine cars were coming in.

Your first drive at Le Mans came in 1960, behind the wheel of a 250 GT SWB (s/n 1759GT). What do you remember most about that 24-hour race?

Le Mans was very fast. Unfortunately, it rained a lot and the Ferrari’s defrosters didn’t work, so I was awfully glad when the race was over. I loved racing there, but it was dangerous as hell! That car was a V12. As long as you didn’t abuse it, it would last. My co-driver, Ed Hugus, was also very, very careful. You could count on him to bring the car back in the same condition it was in when he got in it. The car handled very well, but it could have used more power. For what that car was, it was excellent.

Luigi Chinetti entered that SWB at Le Mans. What was he like?

We actually had some little differences. One time he had done some work on my 2.5-liter, and I thought he had screwed me. We were up at Road America and we were in this little filling station called Gus’s, and I made some reference to that. He picked up a wrench and chased me around with it! But by the end of the day, we were friends. We were always good friends. He’s the only man I’ve ever known like that. Luigi was fun.

Can you tell us the story of the Ford rental car and the pool at Monterey in 1961?

I have never been allowed to forget it! I was driving for the Cunningham team. We were in California racing at Riverside and Monterey, and after the Monterey race, Walt [Hansgen] and I went back to the Mark Thomas Hotel. Roger Penske was there with Peter Ryan. Somehow or another Walt got together with him, then Walt came over and said, “Hey, mate, I’ve got $100 that says you can’t get Alfred Momo’s rental car in the pool.”

I was way too smart for that, and said, “That’s ridiculous.” Two minutes later, he came back and said, “Okay, I’ve got $200.” Back then that was a hell of a lot more than it is today. I still don’t know why I did this, but I said, “Well, I guess I can do it for that.”

I go out and get into Alfred’s Hertz Rent-a-Car. I had moved the pool furniture out of the way so I could go in parallel to the diving board, and I crashed the car on the other side of the pool—wouldn’t you know it, I landed right in the center of the pool! But it didn’t sink. I had wisely closed the windows and vents, so the car floated to the side of the pool. I got out without a drop of water on me. Suddenly, everyone came out of the banquet hall, where, unbeknownst to all of us, the awards banquet was being held. About that time, Walt said, “You know, mate, I think we’d better go, Alfred and Briggs are waiting for us at the Italian restaurant.” And away we went.

I’ll never forget walking into the dining room. Alfred looked at me and said, “Son, you’ve been up to no good and you’d better tell me about it!” Can you imagine? I had to tell Alfred where his rental car was. I was sure that was the end of me. But that wasn’t the case at all. I drove the next race and they never fired me. I don’t know why. I’ll never understand that.

It’s the one thing in my life I wish, sure as hell, I’d never done. And that’s one of the first things a lot of people talk about. It’s a hell of a thing to be remembered for.

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What was Cunningham like?

He was a wonderful man. I was fortunate to spend time with both Briggs and Alfred Momo. I called Alfred “Papa” and he called me “Son.” His wife, Mary, was dear, too.

Briggs was an outstanding, high-class sportsman. He was a wonderful sailor. He had a great sense of humor, but he was very serious about racing and he never skimped on anything. He was quite a bit older than me, but he was the kind of driver you could depend on in the long races. He was consistent and very easy on the car. He wasn’t fast when I knew him, but he had been racing for quite a few years before I met him.

You suffered major injuries in a crash at Daytona in ’62 when driving Cunningham’s Maserati Tipo 61.

The crankshaft broke and locked the rear wheels, and the dummy behind the steering wheel didn’t push the clutch in. I was on the banking and the car came off the banking. I don’t remember this, but I was told the car then went straight up the banking, hit the retaining wall and started going end over end. It turns out I was fortunate to be thrown from the car; my safety harness tore out and away I went. They tell me what almost killed me were the friction burns. I had third-degree friction burns all over my body because I was only wearing a thin, cotton driving suit. I had lots of broken bones: my shoulders, knees, legs, one of my teeth fell out. I spent somewhere between three and four weeks in the hospital at Daytona and another three weeks in Milwaukee. I had a very bad concussion.

Still, I went back to racing a short while after I got out of the hospital. I was driving a 3.0-liter Testa Rossa that belonged to a man in Chicago. My first race back, I think I finished second or third. I passed an Elva-Porsche three times, I kept lapping him. He came up to me after the race and said, “Jesus Christ, you hit me every time you passed me!” I had no depth perception.

They weren’t going to let me drive after that. I was up at Road America and I said, “If I can find my doctor, and he says it is okay, will you let me drive?” They said, “Alright,” so I called up a friend and said, “Your name is Dr. Greaves. Would you please talk to the racing director and tell him it is okay that I race?” And that is how I got to continue racing. Of course, frankly, I never should have.

In 1963, you and Roger Penske won your class at Sebring in a 250 GTO (s/n 3987GT) owned by John Mecom. How did that drive come about?

When Roger heard rumors that Cunningham was going to fold his team, he asked me if I’d like to join the Mecom team. John had a number of cars; I drove a Lotus 19 and probably four or five other cars for him. He entered the GTO at Sebring, which Roger and I co-drove. That was such a sweet car. There wasn’t a flaw in that car. Sometimes everything clicks. The engine, the chassis, the styling, it was perfection.

After a later race at a little track in Wisconsin called Lynndale Farms, Mecom said he wanted to sell it. I asked, “How much do you want for it?” He wanted $14,000 and I didn’t have it, so he sold it to a man named Otto Zipper out in California. Today, that car is owned by Ralph Lauren.

What was Penske like as a teammate?

Roger was an excellent driver. You could always count on him to bring the car in after a stint in the same condition he took it out in. We drove hard, but we never over-revved it. He was a very, very good driver, and he was one hell of a businessman, too. He stopped racing because he started a Chevrolet dealership. He is the outstanding man in the industry today, and will probably go down in the history books as the all-time great.

And what was Mecom like?

He was always a gentleman, he was never cheap and he always went first-class. If there was a car we needed, he would get it. He was fun to be with.

I look back on my career, which was only really 10 years, and I was just so fortunate to be around the greatest people in the industry.

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On that note, did you ever meet Enzo Ferrari?

Yes, but I couldn’t understand him! He only spoke Italian. I was with John Mecom and A.J. Foyt in Mr. Ferrari’s kind of dingy office. He seemed to be a very nice, friendly man. He took us out to lunch and then took us on a tour of the factory. Walt Hansgen was also with us.

I remember that Mr. Ferrari and John were talking through an interpreter, and they called Walt and me over. They said, ‘Mr. Ferrari would like to know if you could win the Road America 500 driving that brand-new LM.’ Walt said, “What do you think, mate?” I said, “I think we can win it; sure we can.” So John bought the car and had it shipped over to Milwaukee, and Walt and I won the Road America 500 in it.

How did the 250 LM compare to the 250 GTO?

The GTO was a bigger car and a little heavier. I think the LM was an easier car to drive. That doesn’t mean in any way that the GTO was difficult to drive, but the LM was just that little bit better. You could really hustle the LM. If you look at the cars today, I wish I would have bought that GTO. If I had half a brain, I would have gone down to the bank and conned them out of some money. Both of them were fabulous cars, and they didn’t build many LMs, which I’ll never understand.

What ultimately led you to quit racing?

A combination of the Daytona accident and being offered a job at the Pabst brewery. I used to work at the brewery in the summertime in the packaging department. My grandfather loved the company and my dad loved it, too, and I’d always thought someday it would be wonderful to work at the brewery.

Prior to working for Pabst, I had a foreign-car agency selling Fiat, Triumph, Jaguar and Mercedes. Part of the deal to work for Pabst Brewing was that I had to quit racing and sell the dealership. I took 30 days to think the offer over. I’d put a lot of effort into the dealership, but I thought this was a wonderful opportunity.

I started out with a $10,000-a-year salary working in the brew house, and I loved every minute of it. Then, I worked my way up in marketing, and in the very end, I was Executive Vice-President, where I was second in command. Then, the brewery was sold.

What did you do after that?

I left and came out to run Pabst Farms, which is about 30 miles west of Milwaukee, on 2,600 acres. It’s a dairy and what we call a drying operation. We dry products for other people, like soy sauce for Kikkoman. We also have a trust company. Now, I’m all but retired. I’ll be 79 next month.

You are presently on the Board of Directors at Road America.

Having raced, I’m knowledgeable of the track and what makes it tick. I enjoy it because I know the industry, as well as a lot of people. Sometimes you are put on the board of a company where you have to learn the industry and company, but I’ve been around Road America for so many years—probably more than 50, which is kind of scary. I hope to serve on the board for a couple more years, although I think it’s time to bring in some younger people.

Your son, Augie III, was also a racer. What advice did you give him when he started?

He’s a better driver than I ever dreamed of being. I never really gave him many instructions. I just said, ‘You start out slower and you slowly build up until you are comfortable.’ He was never the type of person you see spinning and crashing and things like that. He had a good feel for the cars, and he’s so much fun to watch because he’s so smooth. He doesn’t stress the car. He’s built cars, so he knows the consequences if you beat the hell out of them.

Besides the Testa Rossa, have you owned any other Ferraris?

When I was in the car business, I had a number of Ferraris, but I didn’t keep them very long because I was selling them. Those weren’t my drivers. Today, I have a 1973 Dino with about 17,000 miles on it. I like it very much. I guess I haven’t bought any of the bigger cars because I’m too cheap. I kept thinking those cars were so expensive and high maintenance. Well, the Dino hasn’t been high maintenance at all.

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