John Buffum is a great friend to Vermont SportsCar and the sport of rally and we are honored to call him a friend and colleague.
Born on Oct 4, 1943 in Wallingford, Connecticut, John was raised by his mother and grandmother after his father was killed during WW2, and attended Choate Prep School. In 1964, a Middlebury College fraternity brother (Dave Talbott) convinced John Buffum to navigate a time-speed-distance rally with him in a borrowed MGA. It was at this point that the most famous rally career in U.S. motorsports was born.
Buffum married Vicki Gauntlett in 1966, and she became his co-driver in numerous TSD events; some slow precise affairs and some with more driver challenge, including the Press on Regardless event in a Mini-Cooper. It was during this period that John realized that ‘going fast’ was a necessary component in rallies; to drive ‘real cars, real fast, on real roads.”
After graduating from Middlebury, Buffum was sent to Germany as a second lieutenant in a bridge-building company of the Corps of Engineers. It was there that he saw all-out World Rallying for the first time, and subsequently bought a Porsche 911T to compete in both regional and international rallies. In 1969, he drove to a stunning and surprising 12th place O/A finish at the famed Monte Carlo Rally, sharing the driving duties with American roadracer Steve “Yogi” Behr.
The sport of PRO (or performance) Rally did not exist in the U.S. when Buffum returned from Europe in 1970, and since the speed sensation he had experienced in Europe did not exist in TSD events, Buffum tried his hand at IMSA and SCCA road racing. Buffum then formed his own racing company – Libra Racing – and competed in cars ranging from a Porsche 914/6 to a Chevron B21 and with drivers such as Pete ‘Apollo 12’ Conrad and Paul Newman. In 1973, he was rewarded with the 2.5 liter section of the SCCA Trans Am Championship. In 1974 he shared the driving cockpit with the likes of George Follmer and Brett Lunger – and had some top 10 finishes in a BMW CSL but didn’t have the budget (or the right car, which was a Porsche Carrera RSR at the time) to crack the winner’s circle.
By the mid-70’s, performance rallying was taking roots in the U.S. and, despite the fact that John and Vicki divorced in 1974, they continued together as a rally team. They started in an Escort in 1975, but it was in 1976, with a Porsche, that proved to be the pivotal year. The pair won U.S. and Canadian events, sweeping to the NARRA US national title. It was during this period that Buffum’s driving style started to mature, as he went from a reckless mode (which had earned him the nickname “Stuff’em Buffum”) to his championship mode.
For four years starting in 1977, Buffum drove factory Triumph TR-7s and TR-8s, teaming with Doug Shepherd as his co-driver. The pair dominated both the SCCA PRO Rally series and the North America Rally Championship until British Leyland dropped out of racing in the U.S. In 1981, they tried running Audi 80 and Peugeot 504 racers, but could not keep up with Rod Millen’s factory Mazda RX-7 rally entries.
In 1982, however, when Audi supplied Buffum and Shepherd with its new Audi Quattro racer, they were unstoppable. Millen would get a faster RX-7, and Buffum would counter with Quattro A2, then a Sport Quattro to up the ante even further. He would also rally multiple times in Europe, helped by his long-time sponsor BFGoodrich. In 1983, he became the first and only American to win a European Championship event – the 1983 Sachs Rally in Germany. He followed that up in 1984 by winning a top coefficient event in Cyprus, against the then reigning European Champion. He also placed 5th overall at the Greek round of the World Rally Championship – the Acropolis Rally. The Pikes Peak Hillclimb was also fancied by Audi and twice John took honors for the fastest car up the famous mountain.
John retired from active competition at the end of his undefeated 1987 U.S. year; he also laid claim to the most national championship rally victories in the world (104 wins, although he later increased that to 117). After his competition career was over, he managed the SCCA Pro Rally Series for 5 years, while at the same time building his Libra Racing team to include his step-son Paul Choiniere. Choiniere (who became part of Buffum’s family when John married his mother, Mary, in 1980) won the SCCA PRO Rally series in an Audi Quattro S-2, four of the five years between 1990 and 1994.
For the next 8 years Hyundai was Libra’s main sponsor and the Elantra and Tiburon coupe provided Paul and Hyundai the basis for 5 championship titles between 1995 and 2002. The mid 2000’s saw John help Vermont SportsCar get the rally careers of Ken Block and Travis Pastrana started, and then refined, to include several World Rally Championship events in a Group N Subaru, in addition to a string of US rally titles.
Never far from some competitive rally driving himself, John entered numerous historic rallies in Europe, ranging from Spain and Morocco to Denmark and Norway. But his affection for the French roads never died out, perhaps dating back to the 1969 Monte result, and he returned to the Monte Carlo Historic Rally on 5 different occasions, three times being rewarded with second place overall finishes.
In late 2008 Antoine L’Estage from St-Jean, Quebec, offered John the chance to build and maintain a new Mitsubishi EVO X rally car for him. Thus started a great relationship between Antoine, John and Libra; results included 5 Canadian National Championships, 1 Rally America Championship and 6 consecutive North American Rally Championships in the years 2009-2014.
Finally in mid-2014, John returned to Vermont SportsCar to become Rally Event Team Manager and guide their US rally effort for Subaru USA. With David Higgins being the primary driver and Pastrana providing a second car (when his Nitro Circus duties didn’t interfere) victories came on most events, as the sophistication of the cars and expertise of the drivers propelled them to the top of the podiums.
With a remarkable rally career already under his belt, including inductions to the Road Racing Driver’s Club, Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame, Off Road HOF, New England Auto Racing HoF and Vermont Sports HOF, and a never-ending involvement in the sport he is so passionate about, this is surely not yet the end of John Buffum’s rally biography.