Surprising no one more than myself, I signed up to get a Vintage Sports Car Club of America (VSCCA) racing license the other week. I should mention I do not have a race car, never did, and have no plans to acquire one. But that could change.
Credit goes to peer pressure. These proselyti-zing vintage-racer types who continue to pop up when you spend time in the old car world? They can make things much worse by seeming to have so much fun. Blame, too, a growing sense of time slipping away. Somehow, after all these years, the obvious question, “Why?” was replaced in my mind with, “If not now, when?”
The first step toward doing something I never thought I would do was attending a two-day VSCCA school at the Lime Rock Park racetrack in rural northern Connecticut for a provisional license. Part classroom, part on-track trial and observation, it was 100 percent fun despite the heavy rain that soaked the first day. The driving instructors were first-rate and delivered practical instruction, and driving in the wet was a ball rather than a terror. Lime Rock, to this novice at least, seems like a bucolic dreamscape, a circa 1957 old-school racetrack, with not too much in the way of hills or bends to remember but plenty to engage the mind.
You bring your own car to the school. After careful consideration of the many I own that I would prefer not to thrash or especially crash, I settled on my relatively modern 1979 Saab 99 GL. Although it would not meet the pre-1963 vintage cutoff for actual VSCCA racing, the Saab was stouter than most of my fleet and would suffice for the licensing class. As it turned out, the car would not allow water into the cockpit in the deluge, and its front-wheel drive might even help. It was also sufficiently eccentric for a VSCCA crowd.
Even with a 1963 year-of-manufacture cutoff, the VSCCA’s fields are among motorsports’ most eclectic. To name a few on this weekend of its Spring Sprints, competitors included a very fast aluminum-bodied Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato replica, a Ford Model B, a V-8-powered 1931 Bugatti Type 37, assorted vintage Lotuses, and a late ’50s Team Rootes composed of a barely sporting Sunbeam Rapier coupe and an oh-so-slow Hillman Minx sedan. The club spirit was also well served, I thought, by driver-school attendees who brought along everything from a Riley (no relation to the English maker) V-8 Special, its seat belts on back order, to a fully flared and prepared SCCA F-Production MG Midget race car, from a wispy 1968 Porsche 911T in street trim to a bruising 21st century Mercedes SL mit airbags.
Rules for VSCCA racing are stricter than the school’s but as relaxed as they get in modern competition. That’s because the racing is intended to be as relaxed as it gets. So while helmets and fire suits are a must, rollbars are recommended but still only optional. Same goes for racing safety harnesses and fuel cells. These plain and simple rules reflect not just tradition and vintage Yankee thrift but also the VSCCA’s world view, which is more about having fun keeping old race cars running than any desire to operate a highly competitive corner of motorsports. In fact, the activities of aggressive risk-taking and dipping into racing’s grab bag of dirty tricks are frowned upon.
While I am still and always will be a rank amateur, I’m not a complete moron behind the wheel of a car. Which is strangely satisfying knowledge.
The institutional goal here is to see the old cars get used but not used up. And though there are some participants who want to press harder and some who do, I learned that the club’s comparative paucity of maximum testosterone has led some to defect from the VSCCA to competing sanctioning bodies such as the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association or the Vintage Racing League or even the more well-known Sports Car Club of America. One of those places is undoubtedly where you belong if you want to race harder or spend more time and money doing so.
Fortunately, I had a helmet—a gift I received from the 24 Hours of Lemons organizers. Racing shoes, acquired on a long-ago car launch, were also dug up. So the only big-ticket items were a fire suit and gloves, which I collected from Victor Gagliano, “the racer’s tailor” at VAS of Roslyn, New York (VASRacingSuits.com). Victor has custom-clad many a winner and many a loser, but all are treated to a fine, personal service. My suit—with three layers of fireproof material, finished in classic Chevron blue with orange—had been a rack demonstrator. Miraculously, it needed only the slightest alteration to become the single best-fitting garment I have owned since the blue astronaut’s jumpsuit with the letters “A.O.K.” embroidered on its breast pocket that I used to wear proudly to kindergarten.
Younger than me but no spring chicken at 38 years, my Saab enjoyed another advantage over other old cars I might have brought: a brand new set of Pirelli CN36 Cinturatos. Modern re-creations of one of the coolest tires of the 1970s, they are produced today using old molds but with better materials. The 185/70R-15 radials are an exact fit for the Saab dealer-option mag wheels, though in truth we 99 owners must be thankful for the fact these new Pirellis also fit Porsches of the day. Unlike our own cars, the values of old 911s are so lofty today that a healthy demand for an original fitment tire is assured. Fortuitously for all, Pirelli has listened.
Most fun were the practice sessions in which I got to dice for dozens of laps with a 1972 BMW 2002 tii, a period competitor for the Saab. It was like real racing, with the more powerful BMW pulling away on the straights and the Saab reeling it back in through the bends. If nothing else, the day proved to me that while I am still and always will be a rank amateur, I’m not a complete moron behind the wheel of a car. Which is strangley satisfying knowledge, even if the Cinturatos shared in the credit.
The VSCCA is a kinder and gentler way to race old cars, but a growing youth contingent suggests it is not just for old guys. It’s for hobbyists.
The vibe reminds me of when I was a ringer for the Harper’s Magazine softball team in the New York Central Park Publisher’s League in the late ’80s. The fact that I could actually help the team is all you need to know about this league’s laid-back credentials.
One day the pitcher for the Village Voice squad, already suspect for her rocking bod (on a team of pasty, unfit journalists) and for throwing too hard in a soft-pitch game, slid into second base with her spikes up. Spikes? Up? Sliding? Eyebrows were raised, epithets muttered and even hurled. How uncouth. We loved the game, but it’s not worth getting killed or maimed over.
That’s exactly what they teach in this school, in preparation for a different kind of racing real world.