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The New Face of Vintage Racing

Jack Baruth
Photo credit: DW BURNETT

From Road & Track

When the organization that would eventually be known as the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) held the Kendall Vintage Grand Prix at Sebring in 1978, the definition of “vintage racer” was simple: any competition automobile with at least six birthdays under its belt. The Sebring event focused on cars that competed during the 1960–1972 period, and its success gave a solid kick start to the American vintage-racing hobby.

This story originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Road & Track.

As L. P. Hartley wrote, the past is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. The notion of a six-year-old car being “vintage” seems absurd in an era where the most common duration for a new-car loan is, in fact, six years. It is tempting to see our ancestors and predecessors as living fruit-fly lives between wars and social upheavals, trapped at the same time in the pre-internet amber of communications by post and news delivery via paperboy. Many people bought a new car every year without fail even as they waited a month or longer for deliveries from the Sears Roebuck catalog.

They expected the future to surpass the present. Old cars, old clothes, old books-worthless. Who would want a 1957 Chevrolet after the 1958 became available? And their definition of “old” could verge on pitiless; when Eric Clapton played a Les Paul on the Blues Breakers record and inadvertently started the vintage-guitar craze, the instrument in question had been built just six years prior. In that context, the idea of a 1972 Corvette competing in a 1978 “vintage grand prix” seems less heretical.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

As is usually the case in these situations, there’s more to the story. The Kendall group, which incorporated formally as SVRA in 1980, set that 1960 to 1972 time frame because the preeminent historic-racing group of the time, the Vintage Sports Car Club of America, would not permit any vehicle built past 1959 to enter its events. The VSCCA, in turn, had been founded in 1958 as a reaction against what it called the “confusion of more modern vehicles” among the SCCA proper. In its early years, the VSCCA limited participation to pre-WWII cars, but by 1978, it had daringly turned the clock forward to 1959.

In doing so, the club set an expectation that would end up curling around the heart of the vintage-racing hobby: namely, that the definition of vintage car would periodically advance with the times, that the brand-new MG parked in the lot of a ’50s-era VSCCA meeting could, in time, become a vintage car itself. Sometimes, of course, this expectation is fulfilled. A quick review of archival footage from the 1973 Watkins Glen Grand Prix shows a 20-year-old Jaguar D-type leading the pack; a quarter century later, the 1999 Zippo U.S. Vintage Grand Prix at the same venue featured a Porsche 935 built in 1977.

For the bulk of vintage-racing organizations both here and overseas, however, the calendar pages have simply stopped falling. Eight of the SVRA’s 12 current race groups are essentially limited to cars that are at least 40 years old. The VSCCA long ago decided to halt the march of time at December 31, 1965. If you want to compete in the lovely and evocative Put-in-Bay Sports Car Races this year, you’ll need to a find a pre-1973 car, which means you’ll be working with the same eligibility requirements faced by a would-be Kendall Vintage entrant during the Carter Administration, plus four decades’ worth of rust, corrosion, chassis degradation, and spare-parts discontinuation. This is “vintage” as defined by the baby-boomer crowd, a deliberate clock-stopping very similar to the manner in which many classic-rock radio stations have steadfastly refused to admit Johnny-come-lately efforts such as Guns N’ Roses (1986) or Jane’s Addiction (1985) to their canon.

Which is not to say that there’s no way to drive a newer car at your favorite historic event-at least if you’re wealthy. You won’t see it mentioned on the promotional posters or the front page of the websites, but in the past decade, there’s been a sotto voce explosion of astoundingly upscale modern-era competition in the vintage-racing world. Peter Krause, a vintage-racing champion and data-analysis guru who provides private instruction to the track-day jet set, offers some perspective on the matter.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

“There is a bewildering array of eligibility on the sharp end . . . the International GT series with current 991 GT3 R Porsches, Audi R8 LMS, and Ferrari 458 Challenge, as well as stock cars and V-8 Production cars regularly driven by stars such as Bill Elliott and Ray Evernham.”

You’d struggle to consider many of these cars vintage, even by the Kendall six-year guideline, but they are starting to make up a substantial portion of the grids-and the profits-on both coasts.

“And,” Krause continues, “you have [Historic Sports-car Racing’s] wonderful Classic 24 at Daytona and Classic 12 at Sebring, showing off sleek Daytona Prototypes, near-current LMP1 cars and a pit lane full of professionals preparing and looking after these rocket ships. . . . Oh yes, this is not your father’s vintage racing!”

This is the state of historic competition in 2019: On the left hand, you have the people who would prefer to keep their eligibility time frame static, in the same way that the Society for Creative Anachronism has not expanded its focus to include the 17th century in the 53 years since its founding. On the right hand, you have “vintage” racing as the preferred outlet for the hyperwealthy to exercise recently decommissioned front-line factory race cars at staggering cost.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

“Frankly, historic racing is now, and has been for many years, as competitive as any form of road racing,” Krause notes. “The transition of professional teams and mechanics in professional series looking after wealthy aficionados, the consumption of many sets of tires, employing top-of-the-line engine builders, coaches, and technology to find every advantage. . . . It’s just part of the way vintage and historic racing has changed.”

Clearly, this is a big tent. But it’s really only big enough to cover two of the three cars assembled at NCM Motorsports Park this morning. All eyes and ears are on the bloodthirsty, flared-fender monster rumbling out of the first pit garage. This ’73 Corvette appears ready to murder anything that might wander in front of it. It did, in fact, kill the Runoffs dreams of one P. L. Newman in the 1982 SCCA GT1 National Championship. Driven
and campaigned by Doug Bethke, the Corvette took the SCCA crown in both 1981 and 1982, twisting out 390 hp and effortlessly whipping the Datsuns and Triumphs lined up against it.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

After retiring from club racing, the Corvette was sold to Leon Hurd, who ran it with the SVRA through the ’90s before donating it to the National Corvette Museum in 2005. You can stop by and see it there; even at rest, the big roadster radiates menace. Every so often, the museum chooses to exercise it a bit-and that’s why it is vibrating the pavement on a 29-degree Kentucky morning, effortlessly vaporizing its old Hoosier slicks the minute the clutch comes out.

This ’73 Corvette is, if you will pardon the awkwardness of the phrasing, the very definition of a modern vintage car. There’s a bit of irony in the fact that it would have been eligible for SVRA events a few years before it won the Runoffs, but a truly cultivated historic racer would consider that just the icing on the cake. One can easily imagine the big yellow Chevy ripping up the hill at Goodwood or falling down the Corkscrew at the Monterey Historics-yet it’s unlikely to ever leave the museum again for more than the spot of occasional exercise.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

The Lane Motor Museum in Nashville might fairly be said to incorporate both garage and museum, having begun life as Jeff Lane’s personal collection before opening to the public. His contribution to our little get-together is the 1963 H-Mod BMW Shirdlu. Fabricated from bare stock by Howard Bliss for designer/racer Frazier Sibbald, the little sports racer uses a bored-out 750 boxer twin from a contemporaneous BMW 700 Sports Coupe. It finished fifth in the 1966 Runoffs and now travels to vintage events on both coasts.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

With 80 hp to rapidly motivate a dry weight of 635 pounds, the “Shirdlu” (taken from the nonsense words used by typesetters to limber up at the beginning of a shift) is infamous for being underbraked. It seems to shiver in the Corvette’s shadow, a ballet dancer accompanied by a gorilla. It’s also famously fussy, so much so that Lane has sent along a driver who knows its foibles. Despite this, and even after considerable fettling, the Shirdlu still manages to eat its clutch just half an hour after the day starts. We push it into life from then on.

As national-level competitors with impeccable pedigrees, the Corvette and Shirdlu would be welcome almost anywhere; the Shirdlu could even make the current cut for VSCCA. Yet neither of them can claim three SCCA National Championships in a row, nor were they ever part of a pro series that opened for IndyCar across the country. Those distinctions are reserved for the third car in our test, sitting tall and awkward outside the pit garage on nonadjustable Arvin struts, vibrating faintly with the indifferently balanced oscillations of its 2.0-liter, single-cam, 16-valve engine.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

The Dodge Neon ACR is a most unlikely overdog-or perhaps it only seems that way if you can’t put it in the proper, ahem, historic context. With 132 hp and a wickedly aerodynamic shape, it made mincemeat of the Showroom Stock competition-and that was before a skunkworks full of racing-crazed Chrysler engineers started to enhance the car’s performance on track. A single-make pro series, the Neon Challenge, attracted everyone from Bob Lutz to ZZ Top’s Frank Beard. An entire generation of young Mopar fanatics grew up learning the subtle cheats and tricks possible with the car; putting the pistons from the 1995 twin-cam model into a single-cam 1994 car, for example, raised the compression just over half a point and made the most out of high-octane fuel.

Thirteen years after its introduction, the Neon was still winning Improved Touring races in the SCCA despite being penalized with a 200-pound weight disadvantage over the higher-power, shorter-wheelbase Sentra SE-R. In 2007, when Ford put a significant amount of money and effort into creating the Spec Focus class in NASA, a group of reprobates from Detroit brought their Neons down to Mid-Ohio for the national championships and put the poor Focus drivers back on the trailer despite a 300-cc disadvantage and the lack of functional ABS. You can still find Neons competing all over America, from the “crazy compact” class at your local circle track to SCCA Super Tour events.

Here’s where you won’t find them: at a local vintage race. In preparation for this article, I contacted a few historic organizations regarding the possibility of entering my SCCA 1995 Plymouth Neon into their events. The most accommodating response? “Get a fuel cell into it and we’ll discuss if there’s room for it somewhere at some point.” The most common response? “We don’t anticipate having a place for your car now or in the future.” I could see their point. My Neon’s lap time around Mid-Ohio would put it at the head of about half the current SVRA race groups; only in the Winged Formula Cars and the modern GT classes would it be any farther than halfway down the field.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

Imagine this: You’re running your 1965 small-block Corvette through Mid-Ohio’s Thunder Valley, the engine burbling mightily, the crowd admiring your period-correct livery and 95-point restoration, when you look in the mirror and see . . . a Plymouth Neon? And you have to move over for this ancient economy car? Absolutely ridiculous-but that’s precisely what the data indicates.

My Neon is a bit of a ringer, making 165 horses at the front wheels and featuring long stack-of-dime welds along every body seam. The same advances in tire, suspension and computerized engine-management technology that let customer-owned F1 cars from the ’90s break lap records also permit my Neon to run five seconds a lap faster than it did in 1994. For the purposes of this test, I had to find a proper vintage-spec Neon.

Enter SCCA veteran Phil Alspach, now enjoying his 82nd spin around the sun. He bought the Dodge Neon ACR you see on these pages a full 25 years ago, just a few months after it was built, in February of 1994. At the time, you couldn’t buy an ACR without an active SCCA race license, which Alspach had. He raced it in Showroom Stock and Improved Touring for the better part of two decades before retiring it to commuter duty. The cage is an old Kirk bolt-in, sufficient for the SVRA but absolutely illegal even for the 24 Hours of Lemons. The engine is a 72,000-mile original, as is the transmission.

“It’ll be fine for track work,” he told me, “until something goes wrong.”

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

Sure enough, the Dodge fires right up and is ready to go immediately. I’ve brought a crew of Mopar experts to help me, just like the NCM and Lane Museum folks, but by the time the Vette and BMW are ready to run, I’ve already driven two dozen laps with nothing other than a quick torquing of the wheels. The Corvette is stalling at all speeds below 50 mph, the bespoke Bimmer has sprung at least two leaks, but the Neon requires no help. It feels like cheating.

And while the other drivers suffer the twin extremes of heat from uninsulated drivetrains and cold from open cockpits, I’m zipping around with the functional heater cranked. After 25 years, it’s still easy to tell that the Mopar engineers got it right the first time. This car is a delight to drive, diving for the apex on fingertip-light steering, then flinging the back end out with a gentle lift of the throttle. It’s so much fun that I wind up trashing the rear wheel bearings, always a weak link in Neons, in the course of doing two-dozen consecutive drift shots for photographer Dave Burnett.

If you had unlimited money and resources, you wouldn’t bother to run a 1994 Neon in any vintage class. You’d go straight for something like the Corvette or the Shirdlu. Something that looks special, makes the right noises, and offers the right amount of credibility in the paddock and in the post-race dinners. Yet this old sedan is just as much of a joy to run hard as any other tin-top racer-enough so that I wound up buying it from Alspach after the test for the considerable sum of $1500, including two spare-wheel sets, a box of parts, and some antiquated Hoosier R6 tires.

There won’t be any place to run it, not as it sits. The same SVRA that accepted six-year-old Corvettes isn’t all that interested in my 25-year-old Dodge. When they come to Mid-Ohio this June, I’ll be on the sidelines. One driver who won’t be sitting next to me in the grass: fellow midwesterner Malcolm Ross, who will be entering his 1989 ex-Mansell Ferrari 640 F1 car in the Winged Formula category.

“I’m not bringing my ego,” he tells me, as we examine his pristine V-12 Ferrari and its first-in-the-sport electronic paddle shifters. “SVRA has good drivers, particularly in the high-horsepower class. You don’t see the 250TRs and GTOs anymore, unfortunately. They’re just worth too much money now. I’ll still bring my Ferrari, though. It’s about having a good time and letting people enjoy the car on the move, the way it was meant to be seen, instead of as a static display somewhere.”

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

“I, uh, was thinking about bringing a 1994 Neon and letting people enjoy that,” I offer, by way of response. Malcolm’s eyes crinkle, and I think about a statement on the VSCCA website. “We choose to stay firmly rooted in those earlier days when driving sports cars was still a romantic adventure,” it says. “We . . . have come for the romance.”

Which makes the definition of vintage car even simpler, albeit more difficult to precisely define, than the six-year rule at the 1978 Kendall Vintage Grand Prix. A proper vintage car has to offer a bit of romance. Yet I continue to hold out hope that my 1994 Neon ACR will someday find a place among the Corvettes and Ferraris and sports racers. Shouldn’t that be worth something to the men and women who guard the gates of historic racing? After all, what could be more romantic than blind devotion to a lost cause?

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