3 November 2016

Vintage racing for first-timers: My weekend at the Coronado Speed Fest

I grew up dreaming of racing. Now that I work for Hagerty, I'm often close to vintage racing action. But at the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) Coronado Speed Festival in September, I got my first chance to turn a few laps in anger. 

San Diego’s Coronado Speed Festival – or “The Race at the Base” as some refer to it – follows in the 60-plus years of tradition of closed-course road racing all across the country’s air force bases. Automotive racing runs deep in San Diego’s history and dates all the way back to the early 1900s.

The temporary course set up during the Speed Fest is thrilling, with 1.7 miles of twists and turns built on the runways and taxiways of the North Island Coronado Naval Air Station. The course makes discovering these cars’ full potential, engines unleashed, easy. The competitors’ diversity is astounding, with some operating on a shoestring budget while others are seemingly unlimited. No matter, all are racing for the enjoyment of the sport.

This year I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in some of the events with my own car – a 1935 Austin 7 Nippy. Many 7s were modified for racing after WWII, including the first racecars built by Bruce McLaren and Lotus, so mine carries some ancient pedigree.

It was purchased new as a privateer racecar in 1935. Driving the car around, running errands or out on a Sunday drive is always a good time, but getting that little Nippy out on the open track felt so right. The notes playing from the exhaust were like nothing I’ve ever heard from it before.

Because I’m not yet fully licensed, I was only able to participate in practice and hot laps. Tony Parella, president of the SVRA is a huge advocate for getting those interested in racing involved in the sport, and he was kind enough to let me do so. But just that little taste of racing was enough to inspire me to finish my licensing.

Trust me, if you’ve never driven a pre-war car to its full potential, it is the most liberating feeling. On the track I felt as though I’d just gotten my driver’s license, and my dad had tossed me the keys for the first time. Beyond focusing on each next section of the track, all I could think about was how I could possibly pull enough side work to support my new obsession.

Not only is it fulfilling to race here, but the camaraderie among fellow racers is fantastic. Unlike contemporary competitive racing, the drivers often pit together and help others work on their cars between race heats and practice. Nights are spent out dining as friends or sharing in a BBQ together.

Being among so many talented racers was a bit intimidating, but I was reassured quickly. I assumed my racecar would sit under the Hagerty tent used more for ambiance and decoration than for racing. However, I was soon invited to pit with the other racers. It was a huge honor for me to have the opportunity to talk to and learn from such experienced and talented drivers.

In addition to the other entrants, part of Speed Fest’s appeal is the crowd. The races are so audience-friendly that spectators have the opportunity to both talk with racers and sit inside some of the cars. With any luck, the excitement and energy will hook future racers. I know it’s captivated me. I look forward to many more events like the Coronado Speed Fest and cannot wait to take my place on the grid. Hopefully, the podium won’t be far behind.

Learn more about the event and the SVRA at svra.com.

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