Vintage race cars swarm Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park
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.
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.
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.