By David Ferguson
In 2012 I had the good fortune of covering several vintage car racing events for Sports Car Digest, with assignments taking me to racetracks in Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin. They are all in their own way great tracks, and each has a distinct personality. Here are some observations of my year at the races.
The racing year started at Daytona. Vintage racing aficionados who went to the Rolex 24 Hours of Endurance were rewarded with the presence of about 30 former Daytona endurance race winners, including the Dan Gurney driven Lotus 19 that won the original race in 1962. My personal highlight was seeing the Roger Penske-entered Lola T70 Mk IIIB that was driven by the late Mark Donohue and Chuck Parsons to victory in the 1969 race. That was the first race I saw in this country.
Daytona International Speedway has changed quite a bit since my last visit 10 years ago. I can’t say I like the changes. It felt like there were more barriers keeping the spectators from freely moving about and getting closer to the drivers, crews and race cars. There is less room in the infield for us. Sports car racing has always been treated as a minor league event by Daytona. We aren’t treated badly, mind you, but there is always a sense that the 24 Hours of Daytona is a warm-up for the big time. And it is this big time success of the track that has forced the need for more barriers. Yet the combination of oval and road racing still offers spectators a lot of the track to see at one time, and night racing there is a truly awesome spectacle. There is nothing in the world like a 24-hour race. The quality of cars was pretty good in 2012, and all those positives will keep me going back.
The next event was the 12 Hours of Sebring. A friend asked me to go and help him with his vintage race car. I was last there in 1977, and though the changes to the track are considerable, I found the track almost unchanged in character. The green zone is still a giant party. Creature comforts, though much improved since the ’70s are still rudimentary. Sebring was part of the WEC this year which to me meant I’d see the Audi R18s which were the fastest cars in the road racing world. Weather is always an attraction there, especially for the more northern fans. The lighting was great for photography on the morning of the race, but I don’t know if it’s always like that. This year the track celebrated its 60th anniversary with a fine selection of cars in static display and a parade on the track before the start of the 12-hour event. The 12 Hours of Sebring is still as much a happening as it is a race.
Road Atlanta is one of America’s great road courses. Nestled in the North Georgia hills, it offers great viewing for the spectators and great challenges (and rewards) for racers. It has changed a bit over its 42 year existence, most notably the addition of turns 10a and 10b, and the infield paddock area, but it retains its rustic outdoorsy character. Every spring this 2.54 mile, 12-turn track hosts The Mitty, one of the largest and oldest vintage racing fests in this country. First run in 1978, this year saw over 300 entrants plus hundreds of wonderful cars of all sorts brought by the spectators. It is truly a celebration of the automobile weekend.
HSR runs the Atlanta Historic Races in September. This year the turnout was weak, perhaps because of the economy and/or because it is so close to the US Vintage Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. I enjoy this event because it is easy to move about and photograph to my heart is content. In October the world’s best racing cars and drivers come for the Petit Le Mans. This year, politics and money worked against the Atlanta venue, and some of the best teams (Audi and Toyota) were not entered. Still, over 100,000 spectators came and were treated to a solid field, the unique Nissan DeltaWing and lovely ladies, all shrouded by picture perfect weather. The contrast from the previous month’s HSR event is jarring.
In July I took a road trip to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Located in the beautiful Kettle Moraine region, about one hour North of Milwaukee, the 4.05-mile track is one of the best and oldest in the country. Founded in 1955 after the United States banned racing on public roads, Road America is a high-speed track with long straights and a variety of interesting curves, the most notable being the high-speed kink. The track is essentially unchanged from its original design.
I went there to cover The Hawk with Brian Redman, previously known as the Kohler International Challenge. This event drew over 400 entries and featured the Lola T70. There were over thirty Can-Am cars entered, providing a sensory experience that was as much felt as it was seen and heard. I also saw many interesting cars that seldom make it to races in the Southeast such as a Scarab, two Cheetahs and a ’49 Cadillac in Carrera Panamericana colors.
The track is owned and supported by the local community. Elkhart Lake values what Road America brings to the town. The concession stands are operated by the local civic groups. Perhaps because of this, there is a friendliness and willingness to help that makes visiting there such a pleasant experience.
We all have bucket lists; things to do and places to see in our lifetime. And then there are great experiences that come as a complete surprise. Covering the Savannah Speed Classic was one of these surprises.
Hutchinson Island sits on the Savannah River, across the city’s famous Riverfront district. On it is a 1.96 mile, 10-turn track officially called the Grand Prize of America Track. Built in 1996, it hosted one Indy Lights race and, uh, nothing else. There are no permanent structures on the track. There are no lights, no bathrooms. The track is lined by a single row of barriers or no barriers. There are no catch fences. Part of the track is on a golf course, and the rest seems to be surrounded by a mangrove forest. In short, it’s the kind of track that one would have seen in the ’50s and ’60s. And that is the attraction of this place. It is a throwback to times long gone. A vintage track for a vintage race. Add the enthusiastic volunteers that organize the races as part of the Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival and Concours d’Elegance, and we end up with a surprising gem of an event.
I enjoyed photographing these events. I hope you enjoy the pictures.
May 2013 be a vintage year.