The Magic of Vintage Racing at Mid-Ohio

Car Culture 11 September 8, 2019 by

As I rolled through the front gates at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a legendary racetrack just outside the small town of Lexington, I could already hear bellowing exhaust notes, whining superchargers and a dash of cheering from the crowd.

With much excitement I reached into the glovebox for my pass. As I dragged my head up from within my Challenger to present my credentials, I noticed a troupe of Shelby Cobra replicas had surrounded me. At that moment I knew that this was going to be quite the special weekend.

With every fiber of my being I resisted the temptation to floor it past the gates and get to the action! Despite my lead foot I acted with decorum and was justly rewarded. Driving on the various roads traversing the course is best done very slowly during the spectacle that is an SVRA (Sportscar Vintage Racing Association) event.

As my bright blue muscle car lumbered through the crowd I was taken aback by all of the cars surrounding me. Even as far as the grass — about a mile away from the official garages — I caught glimpses of teams wrenching on unique vehicles I only ever dreamed of being able to see. Out there in the grass were men working on a slew of old open-wheel cars: a ’72 Crossle 20F, March 719 more Formula Ford cars were there.

Before running the risk of crashing into a fellow spectator or one of the many vintage cars, I yanked my eyes back to the road and looked for the man who was to tell me where I could park. I was already blown away, experiencing a full-on “we’re not worthy” moment, but unbeknownst to me, my Petty blue Dodge would send me into a whole new world. I had unintentionally fooled the first of many parking directors I encountered. Between the laminate around my neck and my boisterous choice of daily driver, the man waved me straight into the pits.

Having never before had the chance to visit this famous racetrack I thought I was on my way to an infield parking area. It wasn’t until I had rolled by a Gulf liveried GT40, a Ferrari Dino 308, a Group 4 spec Ford Capri and a handful of Lolas that I realized I just might be in the wrong place. Wrong place, right time I suppose — and let’s all be honest here, actually the right place. Perhaps testing the limits of the courses’ staff, I parked the car and wandered around the pits.

I observed the men and women of the various participating teams working hard to prepare for qualifying. Even after I had parked my car in its proper location, I couldn’t help but return to the garages and pits to see these cars up close and in the flesh. It was at this point that I realized racing, especially vintage racing, is unlike any spectator sport in the world.

Day One

Imagine buying tickets to a basketball, football or baseball game that included time to hang out in the locker room with the players, talk to the coaches and an invitation to get on the field during half time just to mess around a bit? I know this sounds like a far-fetched fantasy but at an SVRA event that’s the reality. Many drivers and owners are more than happy to talk to any spectator that shows interest in their vehicle.

As I walked past a garage occupied by a Ford Escort Mk.1, outfitted with Group 4 flares and a history of participation in the Camel GT, I gawked. Without a moment’s notice the owner and driver had signaled me to come on in and take a look at their gorgeous machine. In the midst of taking all the pictures my phone could muster, the owner of the car took notice of my Camel GT t-shirt, an old Ebay find. At that moment he lit up, and we had an in-depth talk on the series’ history.

Eventually I made my way to the Mid-Ohio deck, a large, shaded tower that overlooks an aptly named section of the course, “The Esses.” At that point it was finally time to rest my legs, grab some food and a complimentary beer (or two) and watch the races. The great thing about these SVRA events is the eclectic group of cars. Cars such as Nigel Mansell’s Ferrari 640 F1 car whizzed around the corners, replica BRE Datsuns took smooth and calculated lines and all the while the big-bore Trans-Am cars slid their way through the undulating chicanes.

Of course there were also such cars as a ’93 Pontiac Grand Prix NASCAR that was once driven by Rusty Wallace. Cars like the Grand Prix would feather their way through the turns below before disappearing into the “Thunder Valley” section of the track. Although from my perch I was unable to see much of Thunder Valley, that No. 2 Miller Pontiac could be heard loud and clear from my vantage point as the track opened up, and so did the cars throttle.

I got the privilege of meeting the loud Pontiac’s owner later that weekend. He invited me to get up close and personal with not only the Pontiac, but the Trans-Am spec Camaro and Boss Mustang he also owned and were raced during the event. I cannot emphasize enough the communal feeling these events have. This man treated me almost like an extension of the team. By the end of my trip I had bought a turtle-shaped garden decoration from the Pontiac owner. I can’t go on one of these trips without bringing something back for mom!

Another sterling example of the friendliness at these events occurred while I was cruising the pits after a Big Bore Trans-Am race. A particular ’69 Firebird grabbed my attention, not just for those classic looks, but the skill of the man behind the wheel. As this car dove through The Esses the back end was sliding out, the tires squealing and the engine roaring at every corner exit. It was the ‘Bird was being pushed to its limits. Despite only having a 302ci engine, in accordance to the original rules of the Trans-Am series, he managed to take 3rd place in his race, beating out similar cars with much larger displacement. From the Mid-Ohio deck I watched him fight tooth and nail to secure his position. It seemed as if I had taken a time machine to the ‘70s. So it was only natural that I felt obliged to thank him for putting on such an amazing show.

When I went over to thank this man for his performance, he was shocked that a Gen Z’er appreciated the spectacle of vintage racing. Not only that, but he then went on to thank me for watching, cheering and enjoying his car. I was amazed, then got to examining not only the heroic Firebird but also a wide-arched C2 Corvette racer. Eventually I pulled myself away from the pits once again and returned to the deck to close out the first full day of racing for the weekend.

Day Two

Upon returning to the course the next day I avoided the mistake of driving through the pits. Unfortunately there was a car show going on in the paddock where I had parked my car the day prior, and I wouldn’t be able to park there again. As I rolled by the car show in search of another place to park I figured hey, better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission — and boy was I right! After I parked up, I received a slip to fill out and place in the window of my car and was promptly informed of a drivers meeting at 11:30 to prepare all the car show participants for a parade lap. I was elated driving the course as it had been the first and (so far) only time my car has been on a racetrack. After the car show director lead us off the track and back to the car show corral, I parked up again. As I left my car behind and headed back up to the deck I joked to myself that it would be hilarious if my car won an award.

On the deck I watched as the Group 11 cars took to the track. Group 11 is an SVRA grouping and not necessarily representative of entirely period-correct matchups. This was quite the eclectic and amazing field itself, replete with Lolas, Swifts and even a 2015 Dallara F2. The holy grail of this grouping however, at least for a die-hard Porsche 962 fan like myself, was a Fabcar-constructed Camel Lights competitor.

Fabcar started with a 962 front end, but fabricated nearly every other part by hand. This one-off was absolutely screaming around the track. Its blindingly white paint job and wild, low wedge shape shone bright against the asphalt raceway. The car cut through the field and was on the gas through nearly the entirety of The Esses. Simply put, this was something else to behold. I had decided that it was a must that I go and seek out that garage on my next stroll through the pits. That decision would wind up being one of the best I made all weekend.

Upon arriving at the garage that housed this Fabcar beauty I was once again waved inside by yet another very friendly team member. Over the course of the weekend this man and I spent probably the better part of a couple hours chatting about racing history, as I soaked up his treasure trove of amazing and often hilarious stories. Eventually, on the last day of racing he presented me with a stack of old copies of Automobile Year and Automobile Quarterly, gifts for which I can’t thank him enough. Since the event I’ve often found myself immersed in these volumes of automotive history.

I decided to take one last trip through the pits, even if my arms might go numb from the stack of books. On this final trip I saw even more spectacular cars. Le Mans-spec ’05 era Ford GTs, Ferrari 458s and Porsche Cup cars galore. There was a man in a cowboy hat and overalls tuning his SCCA-spec ’64 Ford Falcon right by the recent Pirelli World Challenge-winning, Pratt & Miller built CTS-V. This in my mind provided a perfect example of just how eclectic and diverse the cars at these SVRA events are.

The Final Race

I trudging my weary legs and my heavy stack of newly acquired books back to the Mid-Ohio deck. It was time to relax with one more beer and watch the last of the races the weekend had to offer. The final feature race was a 90-minute enduro for the Historic GT/GTP class. It was quite the thrilling experience to see these old IMSA cars being pushed to their limits over the course of the race. The period-correct slicks that most of these cars sported squealed and shrieked, straining to keep the cars planted as they exited “The Esses” and hard braking into “The Keyhole” gave way to the sounds of blow of valves and backfiring exhausts. All too fast it was over however, and I took one last swig of my drink before heading to my car to wave goodbye to Mid-Ohio.

It was at that moment, as I was walking up to my car, that I began laughing.

Every true car person always enjoys looking at their car, but I noticed something unusual on my Petty blue Dodge. There, tucked neatly under the windshield wiper, was a bright red ribbon. The icing on the cake that was this amazing weekend had come: my Challenger was the runner up for the 1980-and-newer class in the car show.

I gently lifted the windshield wiper and slid the ribbon onto the dashboard. Unfortunately the witching hour had come, the racing was over, the course was quiet and it was time for me to go. Although the prospect of doing the eight hour drive home in one sitting was nothing I was looking forward to, I was happy to know I would be leaving the track in a prize-winning car with a mind full of memories, a backseat full of amazing books and a whole new understanding of the magic of modern vintage racing events.

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