Vintage race cars swarm Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park

Cameron Neveu

It was “the greatest romance in Pittsburgh’s early history,” according to the New York Times.

The paper was, of course, referring to the 19th-century marriage between Captain Edward Wyndham Harrington Schenley of the British Army and Mary Schenley. The teenage daughter of a wealthy Pittsburgh family, Schenley eloped with the 40-something officer to England. Hearing the news, her father reportedly fainted, then ordered the federal government to intercept the couple’s ship.

The ship was never caught. Eventually, her father softened; when he passed in 1850, Mary received an incredible inheritance. As a well-heeled landowner would, Mary became a philanthropist. One of her largest donations was a 300-acre plot of land just east of Pittsburgh’s city center.

The plot of land, along with 120 acres purchased from Mary by the city, became Schenley Park.

Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix Race
Pitt’s skyline rises above Schenley Park’s trees. Cameron Neveu

Motorsport fanatics, certainly those with a panache for vintage racing, will likely recognize this park. Every July the ribbons of pavement that cut through the undulating, bucolic grounds serve as a temporary race course for the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix.

The inaugural running of this vintage exhibition race took place on Labor Day Weekend, 1983. About 75 cars showed. According to organizers, the first event had some kinks, specifically large barrier gaps and unmonitored trails that allowed unsuspecting joggers to breach the course. Runner, meet top-speed race car.

Everyone made it out unscathed, and the event blossomed. Car shows were added to the docket. Yearly spectator count quickly surpassed 40,000. Manufacturers caught on to the event’s success and quickly joined the fray, with Buick becoming the first presenting sponsor in 1996.

According to organizers, the present-day running is the nation’s largest vintage street race and its largest vintage race event. Of course, this assertion can be made thanks to the event’s 10-day slate, which includes a race weekend at Pittsburgh International Race Complex north of town and the historic Schenley Park exhibition, the two races bridged by a week of parties, driving tours, and car shows. The event is a non-profit, with proceeds going to residential care, treatment, and support for autistic and intellectually/developmentally disabled individuals in the Pittsburgh region. The suggested donation for admittance is less than a ticket to the movies.

After hearing about the exhibition for years, I finally visited, armed with camera and walking shoes. (The latter is incredibly important, should you choose to forgo the shuttles in operation.) The 41st running of the Schenley Park race celebrated Ferrari and the 100th anniversary of MG.

Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix Race
An MG T-Type races through the course’s Serpentine Drive switchbacks. Cameron Neveu

At just over two miles in length, the 23-turn course utilizes a mix of two-lane city streets and unmarked, paved park roads. The vintage exhibition is incredibly photogenic. Sight lines are plentiful and there is no need for photo holes or camera turrets: There isn’t a catchfence in sight. Rather than the typical FIA-grade barriers that line street courses for IndyCar, Formula 1, and other national touring series, Schenley’s racers rely on Jersey barriers and hay bales to keep them out of spectator’s laps. Squint, and it feels like you’re sitting trackside at a 1950s SCCA race.

Schenley, like New York City’s Central Park, is a dense mass of green. You can easily lose sight of the track if you take the wrong trail or become disoriented on the adjoining golf course. High-pitched wails of race cars serve as an excellent compass.

The vintage run groups feature predominately smaller cars with short wheelbases and small displacement. (Sorry, Trans-Am, you have to sit this one out.) Still, they’re no slouch for speed. The production-car class over two liters and the vintage open-wheel racers are especially quick, though the former turned my head the most: Alfa GTVs, Datsun 510s, and even a few Volvos, all done up with period-correct liveries.

After an afternoon of shooting, I took about 3000 images. For you, dear reader, I boiled it down to 40.

Race cars in Schenley Park—this may be the greatest romance in Pittsburgh’s modern history.




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    Great photos and story! One year I must get to this event.

    The red and silver car you are wanting identified is a 1958 Canada Class V.A.Y. Special

    The Canada Class like the name suggests was for one off hand build / designed cars with similar engine displacements. very popular for racers with skills and not just big wallets!

    Great event been going for many years ,always take one of two cars got my youngest going as well ,great time beautifulmachines!

    Great to see this event covered here. I lived in Pittsburgh for 17 years and attended the car shows every year and have not found a event as diverse as this one. Not to be missed!

    I’ve attended this show for the past few years: great to see coverage of it here! I was surprised and disappointed this year to not find a Hagerty booth/tent at the show (there has been one in past years). Did Hagerty not have a booth this year? Or did I somehow just miss it?

    Clarification: I know for sure there was a Hagerty booth last year and the year before – don’t know about before then.

    I raced the first three Schenley Park races, Lotus 7, Turner Mk.1. Only netted a single fifth along with two DNFs but great memories. On memory not so great was the third race. Starting on the second row, I downshifted for the start and the BMC motor grenaded, punched parts through the sump, and dumped all its oil right on the racing line. Embarrassing.

    My childhood friend and his brother are track guards at the last major serpentine before the long straights to the start/finish line off in the distance. They are the ones who wave the appropriate flags to warn the next cars coming out of the hair pins if there’s a wreck etc ahead. All the different engine music is thrilling when you hear them coming down through the turns before you even see them. Then it continues as they clear that final down hill sweep (where we stand behind the barriers) and accelerate away from us to the home stretch. It’s also a bit of a cruel thrill when you see a rare classic spin out and crash knowing these owners can afford to run them in anger. Which is how it is meant to be!

    Read the story, and decided to book a room for next year….Guess what…TOTAL of 5 rooms left between the Marriott and the Sheraton, starting at $409. per night…everything else within 10 miles of the park is already sold out for next year. Bring a camper.

    The PVGP is an awesome, well-run event and still seems to get bigger and better every year. The article doesn’t mention it, but in addition to the racing and car shows, spectators can also walk the paddock, meet the drivers and crews, and snap pics of your little kids sitting in the race cars. Some drivers even offer ride-along “fast laps” to spectators between racing sessions for an additional charitable donation )particularly fun at the Historics, which run on a purpose-built race track.)

    This year, the Historics at PittRace on the weekend preceding Schenley also hosted the Shelby American Automobile Club’s annual convention, SAAC-48, along with Team Shelby’s East Coast Grand Nationals. Very cool event, especially given that 2023 also marks Carroll Shelby’s 100th birthday.

    As a Pittsburgher, I am surely biased, but this really is a terrific event, and I highly recommend it to any car or racing enthusiast who also wants to experience our wonderful city.

    As another biased Pittsburgher, I also have to plug this event. The racers will tell you of all the tracks they drive for vintage events, this one is their favorite. It is reminiscent of racing from yesteryear. The roads are crowned for drainage. There are stone block walls and curbs. There are multiple race lines. Yes these are gentlemen and lady racers but this is no parade lap – it is spirited competition – they all know each other too. Look at photo 43 – car 110 lost traction going over the crown past Turn 16A where I flag and brushed a wall. He could keep going but we threw the debris flag for the bits that used to be his headlight. As others have commented, this event is very accessible, making it a great way to get up close to the racing, meeting drivers, seeing and talking about cars. You’ll feel like a kid at Christmas (in July)! It’s also great opportunity to volunteer…over 1000 volunteers come together to make this happen.

    been going to the race along with the other support events since ’94.
    i’ve had as much fun here as any of the F1 events i’ve seen in the US.
    the old cars, the smell of castor oil in the breeze, open tappet engines at full note echoing thru tree-covered nolls.
    walking thru the pits shoulder to should with the drivers.
    what’s no to like?
    every year better than the last.
    but what really is amazing are all the 100’s upon 100’s of volunteers who give so totally unselfishly year after year.
    they are the true champions of this ‘one of a kind’ Goodwood in the states.

    Thank you very much for your so inviting coverage of this event, between a walk in the park and a day at the track. It traces memories of friendship among and toward the drivers and the looker-on. This kind of event must continue and by these days of environmental challenge it will stay as a visit to an open air museum.

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