A primer on the growing spectacle of vintage road racing.
Whether it’s admiring the sublime curves of a Lola T70 coupe or hearing the war cry of a Cooper Climax at redline, the cars that fired our passions then do so even more now as vintage racers.
Virtually everything that is missing in modern-day motorsport – including driver chivalry, romance and the heady aroma of Castrol R – comes alive at a vintage race, where the car is the star. Vintage racing is a wonderful balance of cars preserved as they were designed to race in that other time, friendly competition and camaraderie second to none.
Its history in the United States can be traced to the late 1950s, although vintage racing remained a little-known hobby of a few stalwarts until car collector Steve Earle founded the now world-famous Rolex Monterey Historic Automobile Races (montereyhistoric. com) in 1974. Not only were there old cars, such as Elvas, Porsches, Ferraris and Allards, but famous retired drivers came, too.
Unlike the cookie-cutter, look-alike spec racers that permeate most forms of motorsport today, sports and racing cars of the past were created by a designer’s or builder’s eye rather than the dictums of a wind tunnel. The results were some of the most beautiful automobiles ever created.
David George, vintage race car restorer and race chairman for the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix Association, traces his love of vintage racing to the history of the car and the pressure-free environment of this type of racing.
“I get to sit in the same seat and hold the same steering wheel that a famous, talented driver of the past did – and that’s a blessing,” George says. “Every race weekend is also a great social event because you make special friends – the people you race with. The camaraderie in vintage racing is amazing.”
If vintage racing sounds enticing, the best way to begin is to pick up a magazine, like Vintage Motorsport, and read up on the sport’s latest happenings. Consult the event calendar or groups page, look for a convenient event to attend, and follow up by going to different races. Talk to the organizers, racers and mechanics, who will be more than eager to answer all your questions about getting involved.
The next step is to go to school, as attaining a vintage racing license is required. There are numerous racing schools across the country, including the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving (bondurant.com) in Phoenix and Skip Barber Driving School (skipbarber. com), held at more than 20 of the most prestigious racetracks in North America. The schools provide the gear, such as a helmet and driving suit, so you don’t have a big investment before knowing if racing is for you.
Let’s assume racing school fired your passions and you’ve decided to actually go vintage racing, now you just have to find one to run in. Luckily, sanctioning bodies across much of the country, particularly along the East and West Coasts, offer full vintage race schedules.
The Northeast’s Vintage Sports Car Club of America (vscca.org), for example, allows only cars of their choosing up to ones built by December 31, 1959. The sanctioning body also helps organize the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix (pittsburghvintagegrandprix.com) – the best-attended vintage race in the United States – which is run on the streets of Schenley Park. An estimated 211,000 spectators watched the 25th running of the race in 2007.
Historic Sportscar Racing (hsrrace. com), based in Georgia and producing races in several states, has a place for racers who own newer Champ Cars, along with a wide variety of older cars. The Mitty, held at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia, is the group’s most important event. Another popular group is the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (svra.com), which organizes two of vintage racing’s largest events – the Kohler International Challenge at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and the U.S. Vintage Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, New York.
In total, there are more than 30 U.S. groups to choose from, with 26 being member clubs of the Vintage Motorsports Council (v-m-c.org), which offers a race organizer insurance program, a national licensing procedure, an education program for driving instructors and a mechanical failures bulletin, along with other safety initiatives.
CLASSES AND CARS
Vintage race organizations vary in philosophies, goals and criteria for car eligibility. As such, cars in vintage races can span from the early 1900s to race cars only a few years old, including GP cars, Champ/Indy cars, Formula cars, GT cars, stock cars, sedans, sports cars and sports racing cars.
Fancy an early Porsche? Perhaps an open-wheeled Formula car? Whether you have $10,000 or $4 million to spend, there will be a car right for you. Initial purchase price can range from $5,000 for a basic ’70s-era Formula Ford to $5 million for a prewar Alfa Romeo with provenance.
But before settling on a car, set a budget – how much money to spend on what is essentially a very expensive hobby. On top of the car purchase, you’ll have to invest at least $2,000 in a helmet, a driving suit, Nomex underwear and socks, a balaclava and driving shoes. Plus, entry fees typically run from $300 to $500 – and you haven’t even climbed into the car yet.
A race car is a bottomless pit as far as money is concerned, but the increasing values of old race cars often offset these costs. Buying the car is the big leap, but maintaining a car that is highly stressed every time it goes on the racetrack, hauling it to the races and replacing parts broken or used up is a never-ending part of racing.
Yet, no matter what car you purchase and decide to race, if your competition aspirations are to earn the next open seat at the racetrack, then you best look to other forms of motorsport because overaggressive driving is not tolerated.
Most vintage racing sanctioning bodies operate under a 13/13 rule, meaning that, should you have an on-track incident that does damage to your car, another car, yourself or another driver, and it is determined to be an “at-fault” accident, there is a 13-month suspension followed by a 13-month probation period. Repeat offenders are not invited back.
Yes, many vintage racing drivers run hard and fast, but always with the thought that there is nothing to be won, that you might want to go to dinner later with the driver you are currently fender to fender with heading for a corner, and that the car you are racing might not be replaceable. Not to mention that old race cars are not as safe as new ones, even if you’ve installed rolls bars, fuel cells and a few other safety devices to up your chances should the worst occur. You aren’t replaceable either, are you?
So get out there, get the revs up and have a ball. Be the most passionate amateur you can be. Bring it all across the finish line in one piece and that cool one you’ll share with a racing pal after the engines are quiet will be the best one you’ve ever tasted.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2008 issue of Hagerty magazine.