Tribute to Walt Bohren
Friday, February 18, 2011
Mazda pioneer Walt Bohren, 1980 IMSA GTU champion and 1981 12 hours of Sebring class winner, dies at the age of 63 in the British Virgin Islands.
Former IMSA racer Walt Bohren was found dead on Tuesday after an apparent accidental drowning near Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. Bohren, 63, who had retired to Tortola on his catamaran, was last seen alive by his girlfriend when he left their boat and took a small dinghy to go ashore. He was found floating in the water Tuesday evening and an autopsy will be performed by the BVI medical examiner to determine his cause of death. Bohren was a staple in IMSA’s early years, competing during its formative stages in the Baby Grand division. Known for his association with Mazda, Bohren drove Mazda RX-2s and RX-3s before graduating to RX-7s, which dominated the GTU category for nearly a decade. Driving for the Racing Beat team, Bohren won five GTU races en route to the 1980 championship. Another notable win came in the GTU class at the 1981 12 Hours of Sebring at the wheel of an RX-7.
Bohren moved to bigger cars for the 1984 IMSA season, driving V8-powered American machinery in the GTO class for the Dingman Bros. He would win his second race for the team that year in Miami, and would also make his one and only start at Le Mans, sharing a Rondeau M482 with American Jim Mullen and French ace Alain Ferte where they finished 13th.
He would later race for Buz McCall’s Skoal Bandit Racing GTO team, driving a Chevrolet Camaro through 1987, his last season in IMSA. By the end of his IMSA career, Bohren had earned eight victories in GTU and GTO competition.
His final race would come in a Porsche at the 1996 12 Hours of Sebring, although he would later test a Daytona Prototype prior to the 2005 Rolex 24 At Daytona before hanging up his helmet.
As a frequent competitor and occasional co-driver, Mazda legend Jim Downing told SPEED.com that Bohren’s talent surpassed most of those he raced against.
“I started with Mazda in 1974, and Walt was there shortly thereafter. I always thought Walt was the best of the group. He was just a tough, fast driver. I always thought he could go on to become a paid, full-time driver in Indy cars or whatever he wanted. He had that killer instinct—that thing we all wanted to have and some drivers lacked. When Racing Beat hired him to drive their Mazdas, he was always the fastest, as far as I remember, and didn’t break the cars. He was just an outstanding driver.”
Racing Beat boss Jim Mederer has fond memories of Bohren, and paints a picture of a star driver who knew just how good he was.
“We got to know Walt after first building an engine for him, and he had some modest success with that. We knew Walt had extraordinary capability as a driver. Walt had, what could be most generously termed, a ‘difficult personality.’ To be honest, he was that good that you had to take it. He was a good guy, but he had a lot of confidence in himself… He drove one of two cars for us in the 1980 [IMSA] season. He and Jeff Kline drove for us, and he ended up winning the GTU championship in our car, which was a first for Mazda. Walt had an uncanny ability to feel the car and give feedback to what the car was doing, which allowed me to adjust the car and go even faster. He really was a joy to work with that way. That season went incredibly well and we won a bunch of races together on the way to the championship.”
After his days in IMSA, as Downing shares, Bohren’s appearances in major races became less frequent.
“He just kind of faded off into the distance after a while,” he said. “He became a driving instructor at the Skip Barber racing school, and for some reason, he didn’t pursue the pro driving career I thought he had the make-up for. It’s sort of unfortunate. We always scratched our heads a bit as to why it didn’t work out for him. Regardless, he was always a winner. Things were only easy for me when I co-drove with him at Racing Beat, because you knew if you were in a race against him, well, that was going to be a pretty tough race. He’ll be missed.”