So you bought a vintage race car—now what?
The big day is finally here—you’ve set aside the necessary cash, made the proper arrangements, and secured a space in the garage. After all the wanting and waiting, that special vintage race car is finally yours. So… now what?
Unless you’re part of the vintage race car world, it can be hard to understand the appeal of owning an expensive, hardcore vehicle that you’re in many cases not even allowed to drive on the street. On top of that, many collectible and high-end vintage race cars require specialized attention and expertise to keep in running condition. Unlike owning a ’60s muscle car, you can’t exactly pop over to the auto parts corner store and expect to easily get what you need when something goes wrong. To get a better handle on the sort of lives vintage race cars live, we talked to several experts, racers, and collectors who live the lifestyle in different fashions.
Vintage racing gives cars a new lease on life
Sitting around and collecting dust is never good for a car, whether it’s a purpose-built racer or a garden-variety Honda. Regular participation in vintage racing is not only a great way to exercise a car as it was originally intended, but it keeps things like seals and bushings from simply rotting away. Lee Giannone, a seasoned amateur vintage racer with several Porsche race cars in his stable, stresses the importance of investing time, money, and connections into your car.
“You need people who are really paying attention, who are experienced working with your kind of car. In the Porsche world, those are capable shops like Canepa in California and Gunnar Racing in Florida,” Giannone says. “I love the cars, but for me the joy is as much in the world that the car opens.”
For Giannone, the community of vintage racing is what makes the entire prospect possible. The only reason he first bought a vintage race car—a 1968 Porsche 911L factory rally car—was so he could get on the track; it’s the support of his peers and experiences from this world which has made him still totally in love with it after more than 23 years. These days Giannone has a serious roster of Porsche racing history, including a Coca-Cola-liveried 1984 962 and two 1975 RSRs.
“From the get-go it was the right formula. There were serious drivers with real racing credentials, but in the end everyone wanted to go home on Sunday with the car still shiny and running,” Giannone says. As for how he got himself ready to handle himself and his car on such a stage, he said he put his faith in the hurdles and processes he went through along the way, such as specific racing licenses. “People also teach you and help you get comfortable, partly because they want to be comfortable with you out there, too,” Giannone says. And if something breaks on your car, there is a good chance that somebody in your racing circle will point in the right direction of how to get it properly fixed. “There are so many internal mechanisms of support in the vintage racing community that people from the outside don’t realize how it really is designed to set people up for success. Now I race a car I’ve driven at 200 mph that’s worth more than my house, racing for $10 ribbons. And it’s with legitimate competitors, some of whom like Hurley Haywood who have driven at Le Mans. The first time, he passed me like I was tied to a stump.”
Sharing the passion out and about
For those who don’t want to get into the racing world, there are still other ways to become part of the enthusiast community with a vintage race car. Collector John Campion, who recently brought his treasure trove of Martini-liveried Lancias to Amelia Island, is a great example of how that can be done. “I don’t have time for racing, so for me it’s all about private track days to enjoy the cars and showing them at special events.” Campion’s 1985 Lancia Delta S4 Group B was, in fact, the winner of Hagerty’s Amelia Island Concours Youth Judging this year, and no doubt the kids enjoyed sitting in the car, feeling the vibrations of the engine, and seeing flames shoot out the rowdy exhaust.
Like Giannone, Campion relies on specialists to keep his extensive collection in top shape. Andy Green of Sports and Vintage Race Cars in Savannah, Georgia, takes care of all the cars’ mechanical needs, which Campion wants to preserve. “The cars are serious parts of history—it’s not world peace or anything, but it’s really cool within the car world.”
Thanks to a surge in the popularity of local cars and coffee meetups, more and more people are getting to enjoy seeing some vehicles that ordinarily only live at race tracks or private motorsports clubs where owners store them. Accomplished rally racer Jeff Zwart, for example, owns a street-legal Porsche 906 that he’s both driven in vintage racing events and shared with the public.
Factory support can be a big boost
Both Zwart and Giannone agree that in the Porsche community, support from Porsche Motorsport and the factory is uniquely able to repair and restore vehicles like the Porsche 956 and 962, which have specialized electronics.
Porsche’s help, along with shops like Gunnar and Canepa (who had experience with the cars in period) is invaluable; when Giannone needed to reprogram the aged ECU in his 962, he first needed to borrow one from another car to do initial engine testing, before Porsche Motorsport was able to make a new one using the original system software. Think that was easy? It involved dragging out an old Compaq laptop to program a chip that would work with the 25-year-old system.
In some cases, vintage race cars end up selling to parties purely interested in keeping them alive so people can enjoy and appreciate their history. Dr. Fred Simeone began doing just this more than 50 years ago, when nobody was collecting and the cars were cheap enough to hoard. Now he runs the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia.
“I saved them and started to preserve them as a cultural fabric of the country. Race cars have the most interesting designs and technological advancements,” says Simeone, a retired neurosurgeon. “In the beginning there was a two-story public parking garage near the hospital. I quickly filled it.”
Today, the preservation of Simeone’s exhaustive and jaw-dropping collection is the duty of curator Kevin Kelly. “The best preservation is keeping the cars running and operable—that’s the best way to stay on top of maintenance,” Kelly says. As he points out, fluids like coolant, oil, and brake fluid can become acidic and break down critical components if the car is not regularly run, and things like wheel bearings and suspension also don’t like to sit still.
There’s a three-acre lot behind the museum where Kelly makes sure each car gets regularly worked out, and these demonstration days are even open to the public so onlookers can see and hear their favorite cars running and driving.
“We run the cars gently, but it’s enough to alert us if there’s anything that needs attention,” Kelly says.
You don’t have to go high-end
While the high-dollar stuff tends to get all the attention following big auctions and at fancy concours, the vintage race car world is also accessible to people who aren’t immensely wealthy. Take Hagerty editor-in-chief Larry Webster and his Formula Ford, which he recently raced through the SVRA (Sportscar Vintage Racing Association) at Indianapolis Motor Speedway—if you have the desire, the resources, and the time, you can feel the joys of a vintage race car too.
Then there are those of us that are reliving the days in the past when we raced the common cars like Corvette or Alpha or Shelby. In 1979 I got sucked back into the vintage race car world, when I took my 1957 Corvette that I raced in 1964 to 1966 to run with Steve Earl at Portland. Then in 1989 I was fortunate enough to acquire the Alan Green Chevrolet, Bill Thomas Cheetah. The best part is both of these cars are easy to maintain (all Chevy mechanical s). I can’t tell you about all the friendships I have made over the years.