We spent a full day of vintage racing at Road America recently. In short, it was a ball. The long version is below and be warned, it is long.
If you’ve been a regular reader of the Bandit, then you know of our affinity for classic cars. Whether they’re German, Italian, British or Japanese, there’s something about these analog machines that endears them to numerous car enthusiasts across the world.
Car enthusiasts also enjoy motorsport. There is something indescribable about watching cars hurtling at breakneck speed, a few inches apart from each other on challenging racetracks, the noise of their engines providing a more than worthy auditory accompaniment to stunning visuals. Our last motorsport outing was at the Dubai 24 hour race at the Autodrome in January, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
So, what happens when you throw classic cars and motorsport together? You get vintage racing.
For classic car fans, there are numerous events to attend. The Goodwood Revival, the Spa Classic and the Silverstone Classic are notable events on the European vintage racing calendar, while all the notable American racetracks have got at least one classic event during the season.
With spring in full swing across the Midwest and no signs of the dreaded industrial salt on the roads, the motoring season is on. That usually means car meets, shows and people driving their pride and joy every chance they get. It also means that racing circuits are open for action.
Sometime in late May last year, I came across a Facebook ad for the SVRA racing weekend at Road America. On a whim, I attended the first day, had a great time and promised myself that I’d be back.
One year later, I was on the road to Lake Elkhart, WI, situated about an hour and half northeast of Madison.
The Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) is one of the largest national vintage racing bodies in the United States. A true authority on classic cars, their mission is to promote vintage racing around the country.
The day was divided into a number of races, by class. The first one was for Spec Miatas and as the drivers warmed their engines in the pitlane, I found a good vantage point and got ready. Soon, the cars came around for the first lap, with the Road America safety car (a C7 Corvette, in case you were wondering) leading the pack. Soon after, the race was on!
Road America is not an easy track, by any standards. Elevation changes, tight corners and long but misleading straights make it a challenge for both veterans and novices. Specced with roll cages and other motorsport accoutrements, the cars met all safety regulations but a crash at these speeds would translate to serious injury for the driver, if not worse.
I began clicking away, trying to keep pace with the cars zipping by, to the amusement of other spectators.
Soon enough, the race was over and after a few minutes another race began. The noise of the approaching cars was very different to Miatas, and I quickly found out why. This was the ‘big bore’ class, which included Mustangs, Corvettes, Camaros, a 911, a 924 and assorted others, mostly from the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Once the safety car moved off, the V8s belted out their raw power note, which seemed to flow through the trees and saturate every square inch of the track.
Again and again they went around, battling in a whirl of colors. One car stood out from the rest, a Ferrari 458 GT3 (yes I don’t understand that either), which lapped the other cars within a few minutes.
On one of the laps, I spotted a beautiful silver machine tear past me at full chat. Like a silver bullet out of a gun, it was a lone Jaguar E-type, flying the Union Jack for this race while mixing it up with the Americans.
Before I knew it, the race was done. I grabbed my gear and walked up the track, only slightly envious of the numerous spectators who had brought their own mopeds to commute between sections.
Reaching the spot took time, which meant that I missed the beginning of the next race. Still wondering which cars were coming out on track,I heard a distant wail, which eventually became the shrill scream a car emits when close to 10,000 rpm. A second later, an ex-Formula One car flew past me, making my eardrums rattle.
Stuffing my earplugs firmly in, I quickly made adjustments to my shutter speed, or the whole thing would be an exercise in futility. The rest of the pack followed close behind, sporting their various liveries and quickly turning into a blur. From a sound perspective, there was nothing like this.
Watching two cars come flying down the straight, there was a sudden plume of white smoke as the FedEx car blew its rear left tyre. I believe the driver can file this one under ‘occupational hazards.’
A one-hour lunch break was announced after that, an opportunity I took to walk around the garages and the rest of the paddock. Weaving my way through the trees, I came to the parking lot, which showed me the type of people who attend this event and the cars they drive. If I must be honest, the cars parked there were as much of a show as the cars on track!
A Porsche 2.7 RS, 930s, a modified Carrera, a Ford Capri R/S, a Jaguar XK140, Alfa Romeos and hot rods were all present. People were talking animatedly about the day’s races and how their favourite cars were faring, while grabbing a quick lunch.
Walking on to the garages, numerous cars were being prepped for the upcoming races, or being put back into their trailers. A 190SL racecar was hiding between a few trailers, while an Alfa Romeo GT Junior (more on this later) sat waiting patiently for the post lunch bout of racing.
Further on, a warehouse-type structure housed a number of other cars, being given the pre-race once over. A lovely yellow 1965 911 was being wiped down, next to a deep orange classic Formula One recreation. A modern Benson and Hedges Formula One car was getting a lot of attention from the crowd, while its Cooper Avon slicks were being stacked in a corner.
With fifteen minutes left for the race to begin, I rushed to the concessions stand, wolfed down a sandwich and headed back to a spot up the hill, just past the notorious Turn 5.
The first race was for the GT3 cars. A 458 GT3, an F430 GT3 and a number of 911 GT3s competed in this, with my favourite being a 996 GT3 Cup car, running the green and purple color scheme.
Next up, there were the ‘small bore’ four cylinder cars with notable contenders including a Volvo P1800, an Austin Healey 3000 MkIII, an orange Alfa Romeo GT, 190SL and a Porsche 356 Speedster. A couple of mishaps on track brought out the safety truck and slowed things down for a few minutes, but things quickly returned to normal and wheel to wheel action continued.
The following race was for the classic Formula cars. As they came down the track like a swarm of bees, it reminded me of the photos I’ve seen of the classic Grand Prix. Light, fast and agile, they stuck to the road like glue, which brings me to another point – the difference in the way the cars handle.
The big bore cars like the Mustangs, Corvettes and Camaros still exhibit a significant amount of body roll. Sitting at the beginning of a turn, one can actually watch the weight transfer from the rear to the front wheels under hard braking. The Formula cars – both modern and vintage – just power through without breaking a sweat. Newer cars like the Mustangs and the 911 GT3s are in the middle, body roll wise.
Regardless, it was a thrill to watch these sharp-nosed machines engage in open wheel battle across the track.
The last race of the day began on a slightly damp note. The clouds had gathered in the late afternoon and had begun looking rather ominous and grey, without releasing a drop, till the beginning of the last race. Luckily it was just a passing drizzle and the race got underway.
The cars included 1960s 911s, a Datsun 510, a 914 and the afore mentioned Alfa Romeo GT Junior. While I had been in the paddock, a lady had called out to me, introducing herself as the owner of the Alfa, before calling attention to the gear shifter, which happened to be a screwdriver. Her transmission had broken a few days previously and the replacement came with a screwdriver, she told me with a laugh. That may have had something to do why she stayed in last place during the last race, but she was out to have fun and it sure looked like she did.
During the last race, the lead was very quickly taken by one of the Ecurie 911s, which looked like it was on a race against its own clock, its throttle blips and upshifts echoing across the track as it climbed the hill. Just like that, it was over and I walked back to the parking lot, to begin the journey home.
As I usually end up doing after events like this, I did a mental rundown of all that I had seen during the day, with the sounds of flat sixes and V8s still ringing in my ears. Apart from being a fantastic all round experience, one thing stood out to me.
Racing, like anything else worthwhile, consumes a fair amount of money. However, these days, sponsors and commercials have taken over. Even the teams have become a lot more professional, resembling a firm or a corporate outfit.
Yet, at Road America, I saw traces of the racing culture that I had only heard of from older enthusiasts. Like they did in the 60s and 70s, people showed up, raced, had a few beers and good conversation, before driving home. While I certainly don’t condone the beers and driving together, there was a certain simplicity about the time, which is missing today. Speak to any racing driver from the classic era, and I can assure you that once they turn nostalgic, this is what they truly miss. Somewhere along the line, racing ceased to be the simple affair it was and ‘grew up’, while losing what made it so special in the first place. Looking at a racecar for more than a minute was enough for the respective owner to engage me in conversation, creating an informal atmosphere that seemed to permeate throughout the garages.
So, the next time you have a chance to attend a classic racing event, I highly recommend it. Sure, you won’t find James Hunt behind the wheel, but if you get lucky, you may find his son Freddie and if you squint enough…you get the idea.
All in all, it was a fantastic day out.