Pikes Peak Legend Jeff Zwart On Rallying, Racing And Everything In Between
Photography by Ted Gushue & Rupert Berrington
You know that smile someone has when they’re humbly living life to its absolute fullest? That confident, comfortable grin that says everything in their life is dialed in, and every day is sweeter than the last. When you first meet Jeff Zwart, that’s the smile he’s wearing on his face.
After you shake his hand and get through a bit of small talk catching up and you flick a recorder on, the next thing you notice about Jeff Zwart is that you have absolutely no idea where to start asking him questions about his larger than life story. He graduated from Art Center, has photographed nearly every major motorsport event in history, for nearly every major motorsport outlet in history. He’s won Pikes Peak 8 times. His first car was a Porsche 901. He owns a freaking 959. His book about the history of the 917 is sold out.
So I had no choice but to start at the beginning.
Ted Gushue: Jeff, what was the first car that you ever remember driving?
Jeff Zwart: The first car that I ever drove was on my grandparents farm, which was a 1955 International Harvester pickup truck. I remember that because my grandparents were farmers, and there was a constant end of the summer event where you cut the hay and move the hay to the barn and you work back and forth between the barn and the fields. I remember one day my grandfather said I needed to go back to the house and get something. The only thing there that wasn’t being used was the old pickup truck. He let me drive the pickup truck back there. I was probably 11 or 12 years old.
TG: What do you remember about that feeling?
JZ: I just remember I was a long ways away from the pedals. Having ridden in that car a lot, it was…I just remember it was an entirely different experience to actually drive it. It was pretty special. It was a one time deal, and it didn’t really equate to suddenly driving consistently. The real notable first time I drove a car was, you know, you’re 15 years old. You’re getting geared up to get your learner’s permit at 15 and a half out here in California. I remember clearly. It was a Sunday morning. My parents had two cars. They had a Volkswagen Beetle and a 911.
My father said to me that we were going to go learn to drive on early Sunday morning. We were going to the Los Alamitos Race Track parking lot, which was a horse racing track, which still exists today. We went few blocks from our house in Cypress and showed up at this big old empty parking lot. The most surprising part of it was I figured when we went downstairs that we would get in the Volkswagen to get there. My father, instead, got the 911 out for me to drive.
First off, my dad said, “We’re going to take the 911, because it has more power and you won’t stall it so much.” I’m like, “Yee-haw. This is the best news I’ve had!” The interesting thing and the part that is kind of irreplaceable in considering my life as it is today, that was chassis number 35. That was a 901. It was built in September of ’64. Basically, my father had bought it as a second hand 911. We just knew it was a very early car.
We didn’t really understand, obviously, the significance of it, because it was all my dad could afford at the time. It was basically an old 911. Well, it was truly an old 911. It was truly a 901. It was in the 35th-ever 911 built. That’s the car I learned to drive in. That’s the car I drove in and out of high school at times. It was in our family till well out of high school for me.
TG: How did that car end up in California?
JZ: There were some early cars out here. I remember, in the day, of going to a Porsche Owner’s Club track day at Riverside. I just remember that there was a guy there who said he had chassis number 19 or 14 or something like that. At that point, we were aware of chassis numbers, and it was really interesting that somebody had an earlier car than us. The other funny thing that happened with that car is that, as you would in those days, it felt old. It had chrome trim. It had skinny tires, steel wheels, it had all this stuff. Along the way my dad kind of…we went to Vasek Polak to get it serviced. If there was something for sale in the showroom or the parts department for it, he’d buy it. So he got a set of alloy wheels. They weren’t just alloy wheels. They were 911R 7-inch wheels. My dad had 911R wheels on it, and because he had such big wheels and tires on it, he put mud flaps on it. He changed the engine when it had a problem. He couldn’t afford to fix the old one, so he just bought another used one with more power.
I mean, I always jokingly say he was the first R Gruppe member. Here he had an early short wheelbase 911 and everything that he got for it was sport purpose, which Vasek helped him out on and things like that. That car evolved, and basically I went in a slightly different direction. I got out of high school and I bought my 914-6. That was my first car. That 911 was behind the scenes then.
TG: You were destined to be a Porsche guy.
JZ: Yeah. You’re talking about the memories. There was that sitting kind of low in a car, your feet are offset. You reach out to this wooden steering wheel. I just remember all the tactical experiences and my father saying you don’t grab ahold of the shift knob. You push it like it was an egg and be really careful with it. It was those kind of things where we really being gentle on this sports car. Ultimately, in the world we live in today, that 901 would be very, very valuable, but my father sold it though.
TG: I’ve only seen one, and it’s at the Peterson.
JZ: Yep, at the Peterson.
TG: So you go through high school, graduate, use your paper route money that you had saved up and your father forced you to invest in the stock market to buy a 914-6. Why the 914-6, not 914 then?
JZ: You can imagine, if you learn to drive in a car that had a flat 6-cylinder motor… that was such a unique sound at the time. There was nothing quite like it. Yeah, there were Corvairs and things like that, but there was this sharp crackle, and pop. I remember somebody described being at the Monte Carlo Rally and the 911s go by. It was like dried peas in a can kind of sound. I remember that so clearly. That was the distinctive sound to it. My recollections of, obviously, learning to drive in my dad’s car, going to races early on, were so influential to me wanting a 6-cylinder.
The 914-6, in that day, they were still sitting at the port trying to sell them. What had come in at a price point, they were only like $600 less than a 911T, at the time, and everybody wanted a 911T. They didn’t want a 914 with a 6-cylinder motor. It was a little bit of a black sheep, and I think I liked that part of it. At the time, Alan Johnson and Richie Ginther and Milt Minter, they were all running these 914-6s and doing very well in C production and SSC racing. All those things were very influential to me.
TG: So you’d been keeping an eye on racing at this point.
JZ: Yeah. You asked about my first drives, but the pivotal moment that links everything to me today is that in 1964, my father came home with the only new 356 Porsche that he ever bought. That new Porsche, I lived in Delaware, and you can imagine, you’re a little kid, like 9 years old … I was 8 years old. He drives up in this car, slate gray, red interior, it’s brand new. I don’t think we’d even had a brand new car at that point.
TG: What did your father do for a living?
JZ: He was a mechanical engineer. He specialized in plastics at that time. It was a very growing business. That’s part of the reason why I lived in so many different places growing up. He changed his jobs a lot to move forward in this much in demand field, because of plastics. So he drove home in this 1964 356C. It’s in the driveway. It’s so cool to have a brand new car, let alone a Porsche 356. I think this was in April when he got it. Then a few weeks later, he said, “You know, for your birthday we’re going to go on a little trip.” For my birthday in 1964, they took me to the Indy 500. You can imagine a little kid, 8 years old getting ready to have his 9th birthday, in the back of a 356 going halfway across the country, or a quarter of the way across the country, to go to the Indy 500, which was the largest race in the world. It was the greatest spectacle in racing. There were 400,000 people there.
TG: Especially back then. It was an international event, not just an American event.
JZ: It was truly the biggest spectator event in the world, at the time. Going to that and I remember climbing the stairs and coming up into the top of the grandstand in turn 3 and looking out over the sea of people and cars and everything, and going there in a 356.
TG: You were thinking, “I can get behind this.”
JZ: I was completely sold on Porsches. I was completely sold on racing. I had a great moment.
TG: You were like a jelly doughnut without the jelly in it. Porsche and the Indy 500 came along and just squeezed the jelly in there.
JZ: That brought everything together. Obviously, you didn’t have to go far in that time to see that Porsche had a great connection with racing, too. This was my first race. I hadn’t been to a race at that point. Later in my growing up, we went to different races and stuff. When you went to the races, you saw Porsches racing and all that, and then obviously the 917 era came along. Then a movie like Le Mans hits the big screen and movie like Grand Prix by John Frankenheimer, it was playing at the Cinedome in LA. You drive up there to see it.
All these great moments not only from a racing standpoint, from a film standpoint, from combining the brand of Porsche into these things. It really came together for me. However, I had no interest in having anything to do with it from a professional side, or studying side. I was studying to be a veterinarian. That came along later. That’s my introduction to racing and how the brand and everything worked together.
TG: When did you first get behind the wheel of a race car?
JZ: My career decision happened living in Germany. I was waiting to get in the veterinary school in Germany, working for a large animal veterinarian. As you can, which is really nice, in Europe, on Friday evening, I could go to the train station in Munich, get on a train and wake up at Zandvoort, Holland for the Dutch Grand Prix, or go to Le Mans.
Every weekend, I could go to a race somewhere in Europe. I started doing that quite a bit while I lived there. As I was there, I just thought, “I just love racing.” Here I am, Monday through Friday, working for a large animal veterinarian, planning on being a veterinarian. It still was a little distant. As I looked around the scene and I was at the Dutch Grand Prix, when I looked around the scene I thought, I’m not mechanically inclined. I’d love to be a driver but I know nothing about being a driver. There’s these people on the other side of the fence from where I am that are really close to all the action. Those were the photographers. I decided I better find out about this thing, about photography. That was the life changer. It was my means of being close to racing, was to be a photographer.
TG: What was the first camera you picked up?
JZ: That’s my dad’s camera there, which is an old Zeiss Icon Contessa, I think it is also made in Stuttgart. My parents, when I went on my first field trip in 4th grade, gave me a Kodak Instamatic 100. Then when I started into my professional world I was shooting with Canon cameras. I think my first Canon was probably the Canon FT. It wasn’t any professional level. Basically, that’s where that came from. When you ask about what the first race car was, in the beginnings of my career I did a lot of editorial work. I worked for all sorts of different magazines, Road & Track, Sports Car magazine, On Track magazine, different publications and covered different things, obviously, but a lot of times racing was the focus. Well, along came this assignment to shoot the different racing schools in the United States, which meant I went to the Bondurant School and the Jim Russell School and the British School of Motor Racing.
Along the way in these stories with the writer, we enrolled ourselves in the classes. We went to the classes, and I photographed them and he wrote about them. Every class that I went through, I would get the same story at the end of going, “You really should go about racing. You’re the fastest guy in the class and fastest guy we’ve seen in awhile,” and all that stuff. I don’t know whether it’s a bunch of hype, but whatever it was, I came away always enthused about racing.
As part of this time in the world, they also had this thing called Media Challenge, which each magazine sent a driver to go run Formula Fords together at Laguna Seca one year and at Riverside one year. I drove for different magazines in the Media Challenge and did very, very well. I was hooked to it, but I didn’t have the means or the connections to do anything else. I did the PR things, but ultimately I got the chance to run more than I had…the magazine connections helped me to run more. I ran the Pro Formula Ford Series here early on, which was Sears Point, Riverside and Laguna Seca, I think, were the three that I did. Actually, Ontario Motor Speedway, too. Formula Fords were the beginning. That was first cars I drove.
TG: When did Porsche start to re-enter the conversation in your life?
JZ: Being in the business I was in, which was at the time directing television commercials and shooting print and doing all that, you always were hiring drivers to do this for you.
TG: You were getting commissioned by major manufacturers at this time.
JZ: Yeah. What I did is I started gravitating towards a number of the drivers I was hiring. One of those drivers was Rod Millen, who was under contract with Mazda, so he drove on all the Mazda things I shot. We got to be really good friends. As you do on jobs in far away places, you go screw around in rental cars. We’d take our lunch times and find some gravel road and hammer our rental car. Him being my passenger, me being his passenger, we’d try to scare each other all day long. Out of that came Rod saying, “You know, you’re really good. I should build you a rally car.” I said, “Well…” At that point, Rod had been a multiple US ProRally Champion. He had his good connections with Mazda. Finally, I had enough money that I could do that. I entered into the US ProRally Championships with a car that Rod built.
TG: What was the car?
JZ: A Mazda 323 GTX. I ran in production GT the first year. We won our class in a couple places. Then in 1990, I ran a full season at open class. I ended up tying for the overall National Championship that year and lost the championship based on the other car, the other driver, had won one more win than I did.
I actually ended up tying for the overall National Championship that year and lost the championship based on the other car, the other driver, had one more win than I did. I actually ended up winning the Open Class Championship because it was a weird scoring thing. Basically, for the overall National Championship they scored 9 out of the 12 races. In that, we ended up tying for the championship. For the class, they counted all the races, and I actually won open class that year.
It was a big moment. After doing this for a few years, I just thought, “Oh, it would be so cool if I could do this in something really worthwhile,” which to me, was doing it in a Porsche.
TG: Had you already been shooting for Porsche, commercials and ads?
TG: So you had a relationship with them.
JZ: My relationship in shooting Porsche’s advertising starts probably in 1983. It goes back a long time. 1990, Carrera 4 came along. It was all of a sudden an all-wheel-drive 911. I thought, well, I should try to rally that. In ’91, I sold my Mazda rally car. It took me essentially 2 years to put together a program with Porsche. All of a sudden, it had gotten very expensive to run a Porsche.
I needed all the good bits from the Paris Dakar program for the Carrera 4. I needed to be allocated that by them. There were a lot of things to put together. In late ’92, we started building a Carrera 4 with all the Paris Dakar parts from Porsche. The Carrera 4 had the Paris Dakar transmission, the differentials, adjustable torque, split front and rear. You can make it more a front wheel drive, a more rear wheel drive because it adjusts the torque split side to side. Short gearbox, 125 mile an hour top speed gearbox. All the trick stuff that literally came out of the Paris Dakar program. We ran that car in 1993. Like I said earlier, in ’93 we had a couple wins, but we really struggled with the car. The car was not handling very well. The suspension really needed to be looked after. In ’93, we finished 4th in the championship.
TG: This is the Valvoline Livery car?
JZ: Yeah. The Carrera 4. In the winter of ’93, we took all the suspension off the car, had somebody else kind of redesign it for us who had a great off-road background.
TG: Who was doing the suspension design on the car?
JZ: Before, it was Koni. It was just shocks and springs. It was lifted out of the road racing programs because nobody was really off-roading a 911 at the time. We would literally bend a couple sets of struts every race. It was very expensive just on that. We just needed to get the rear end of the car under control, which was the big problem in the handling, is that the shocks would overheat and basically boil themselves and be of no use at all by halfway through the rally. In winter of ’93, we redid the entire suspension, came back to more of an off-roading style suspension with reservoirs and all the cool stuff.
This is standard material now, but it was in its infancy, especially for a Porsche in those days. In ’94, I came back. I started winning rallies. We had a great season in ’94. I ended up finishing 2nd in the national championships. I think we had 4 overall wins that year. Everything was very good, but like I said, the writing was on the wall. Subarus were coming along, Mitsubishis were coming along. We weren’t going to win a championship with that car.
The interesting thing that happened in ’94 is Porsche suggested to me that Pikes Peak would be very interesting to run. Rod Millen was also running Pikes Peak, so I knew a little bit about it. What I had said is, “I have a normally aspirated motor in this. It’s not going to do very well at Pikes Peak.” Porsche said, “We’re thinking we’ll run the single turbo motor we run in the IMSA series.” Between Andial and the help of Porsche Motorsport, which Andial ultimately became Porsche Motorsport, those two worked together from Germany and Andial being here, to build this Pikes Peak car, which I showed up in a car I’d been driving all season that only had 300 horsepower.
I show up, get in exactly the same car, sit down in that, go up Shannon Street, which is the street Andial’s on, in this car that suddenly had 550 horsepower. I don’t even think I’d driven a turbocharged car at that….well, the Mazda was turbocharged. I hadn’t driven a turbocharged Porsche, I don’t think, at that point. It was just amazing to jump into that car.
TG: Feeling that turbo kick come in.
JZ: Yeah. It almost doubled the horsepower that I experienced in that particular car. I loved it and everything. The funny thing is, that motor wasn’t legal for the ProRally Championship. A week after we won Pikes Peak in the open class with that car, Porsche took that motor out, put the old 3.8 RSR motor in it, and went and ran a rally the very next weekend.
TG: When you did Pikes Peak for the first time, was there any trepidation around the dangerous history of the hill climb?
JZ: No. I’d rallied heavily at that point, and been through a lot rallying. I was very comfortable at Pikes Peak. I also had filmed it a couple times for different commercials. I was very familiar with the surface of the road. It’s funny because of the commercials I did, which one of them was very heavy in the helicopter work, I still visualize Pikes Peak from the air and see the way corners are linked and everything.
TG: Does that give you some sort of edge that most others don’t have?
JZ: I think the biggest edge is that I’ve run it 16 times now, so there’s no question where the road goes or anything about it.
TG: You know every pebble.
JZ: Yeah. I do really know the place very well. At the time, to jump in that first time for my first year in a Porsche there, it helped to have had that experience.
TG: What’s the career path from there? You just keep going back every year and that becomes your signature move and then you are also rallying in between?
JZ: Interesting thing happened at the end of ’94. I’d finished 2nd in the US ProRally Championship, I raced on Pikes Peak. Valvoline, who I was working with at the time, said, “You know, we got more press out of you running Pikes Peak than we did out of the whole season of rallying.” As you can imagine, I was having trouble balancing a dozen races a year with filming all over the world as I was doing television commercials and making it all work schedule-wise and do the best I could.
TG: Were you married at this point?
JZ: Yeah. I was married, everything. Trying to balance doing a good job at racing and doing a good job at filming and also the fact that the US ProRally Championship wasn’t like you went to New York City. You were going to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania or something. It was always not easy to get to or anything. It was a lot of effort. I thought, I’ve run the rallying as much as I could in the Porsche. It wasn’t going to be competitive with the Mitsubishis and the Subarus from here on. Valvoline just wants to do Pikes Peak. We said, “Okay. What could be the new plan?”
The new plan worked out well because it was essentially, I got in a pattern with Porsche, where we ran the latest, greatest car they had to offer. I had sponsorship to do that. It was a very simple way to go racing. I really enjoyed it. Suddenly, I didn’t have a pressure of doing so many races. We just did the best with Porsche. Along that way, the 993 Twin Turbo came along in 1995. Coming off the ’94 season in a turbo-powered Carrera 4, which didn’t really exist in stock form, I ran a showroom stock car, basically. It was the New York Auto Show car, the red turbo that had been in the New York Auto Show. Ran it at Pikes Peak. We won our class. That became a consistent situation to run the latest and greatest from Porsche.
I think it was probably ’97, ’96 or ’97, Porsche said to me, “We have a hard time marketing your success at Pikes Peak, because you’re sponsored by Valvoline. It would be great if you could get on board with one of our original equipment sponsorships. It’d be a better partnership from a marketing sense.” I said to Porsche at the time, “Well, that’s great, but I have a great relationship with Valvoline. If you can open the doors at Mobil One, that would be great.” They made the call to Mobil One. From that point on, I had Mobil One. That started a series of sponsorship until 2002, where I ran the latest, greatest from Porsche, whatever that might be. We ran the first turbo 996 the next year. We ran the GT2.
We were running things, in some cases, almost before the public had the car. Certainly the 996 turbo was very early on in our hands, to build for that.
TG: Along the way, what was going on in your personal car collection? What was changing there?
JZ: Not really much. I had the 906. I bought the 906 early on. I think I got it in 1995 or ’96.
TG: What was the story around that car?
JZ: I had built a model as a kid of a 906. I always thought it was super cool. The thing that I really liked about it was it had the ability to be street-licensed even though it was a race car. For me and my schedule, and I’ve owned a lot of really great cars, I’ve had a 962, I’ve had different things along the way, road racing based cars, the problem is if you own a 962, you need to keep it prepped. When you go to the track, you have to prep it sincerely for that and then you have to choose a date and you have to trailer it. You go up to the track and then you hope it runs right.
TG: It’s a whole production.
JZ: You do a shakedown and they do all that stuff. I just needed things that for my lifestyle of traveling all over the world doing what I did in my film world, I needed something that I could on a Saturday, go down in my own garage and start it up and go down PCH and have a little bit of a Le Mans Mulsanne Straight experience at night or something. That’s where the 906 worked really well. Like I said, I built a model of it as a kid. It was just very, very cool.
TG: How many people get to say they own a 906?
JZ: 56. There’s some other versions and all that push it up to the 60s, but there’s about 56.
TG: How many commercials are you doing a year at that point?
JZ: Oh, a lot. In those days, I would do 30 or 40 commercials a year sometimes. We’re talking about a 5 spot package and things like that. I was doing a lot of commercials. You’d have fairly regularly 18 to 20 jobs a year.
TG: This is in the heyday of the big ad budgets as well, right?
JZ: Yeah. It was in a time where I was the high performance director and we were growing up in a turbocharged era. Companies were wanting to show performance and performance all over the world. I was somebody who was comfortable of shooting anywhere in the world, literally tomorrow. That’s what I did. I worked all over the world. Fortunately, Radical Media had offices in London, Berlin, Sydney, all over the world. I worked out of all those offices and still do, but I was very…one of those people that was as comfortable shooting in the outback in Australia one weekend and in Japan the next weekend.
TG: Explain the structure of Radical Media.
JZ: It’s a long story of getting to the point, but I basically was a still photographer. The single person who created Radical Media was producer for a very well-known director in New York. They did a lot of work on the West Coast, as a lot of the New York people did. They needed to have an office out here to service Henry Sandbank’s work when he came to the West Coast. That was purely what they were looking to do. They asked me to come on and be the director in the West Coast office of Sandbank.
Ultimately, that created something that was a big world of directing and production so that it spun off and became Radical Media eventually. I’m essentially the first director in Radical Media. Radical Media grew on to being…there’s 30 directors, at least, in it. There’s offices. The current situation of offices are LA, New York, Berlin, Shanghai, London. We’re still a global company. In the days where you were referring to, I was really working out of all the offices all over the world. Did a lot of work out of Sydney too, which we don’t have an office in right now.
TG: How many commercials are you doing a year now?
JZ: Oh, I do…That’s where things have really changed in terms of…We do so much content. I do TV shows. I do commercials. It really varies. The projects are changing. You do a TV show and you’re 6 weeks on it, or you do a television commercial, you’re 2 weeks on there, you do a contest project and 3 weeks on it. It really varies. I’m fortunate to be plenty busy in a constantly changing advertising world.
TG: When are you going to start slowing down?
JZ: The nature of what I do is basically a high speed form of location scouting and rallying. It’s really like rallying to me because I fly into a city, like I just was in Vancouver shooting. You get in a car and you start blasting down all these roads looking for locations, and you’ve never been there before. Do that. Then the job comes along, and I’m sitting in a Porsche Cayenne articulated arm camera car, so the Porsche’s my office. I’m chasing cars as fast as I go.
Chevy commercial with Jimmy Johnson and I’m on Atlanta Motor Speedway in a Panamera camera car going as fast as the Panamera will go, with Jimmy Johnson chasing me. It’s those kind of moments. My life is very much on the move, very high performance oriented. Therefore, it’s not boring and it’s certainly never redundant. The nice nature of what I do is every project’s different. You become a little bit of a quasi-expert on each subject, or each theme, of each commercial every time. I was just shooting with bees on bee farms, and I learned all about bee keeping. Yet, I was hauling ass between the beekeeper farm and the house filming.
It’s that kind of life that doesn’t really mean I have to slow down…I’m fit enough and I still race. There’s no interest in slowing down. I don’t know why I would.
The nice thing about my particular job is that when I go shoot at 14,000 feet, I’m living at 14,000 feet. When I’m needing to do something from a helicopter, I’m in the helicopter and I’m chasing things all over the place. It’s a very physical job, so it’s nice from the physical nature that you’re always out in the elements and weather and going against time and the clock and all that to beat the sunset and do those things.
That part of it, because of the nature of what I shoot, I mean, I would not be interested in this business if I was locked in a studio. Nothing wrong with that and there’s plenty of people that make a great career and living out of shooting in the studio, but my life is truly on the road, chasing high action. I have been extraordinarily fortunate to be surrounded by great people in work and life that have allowed me to live that way.