Vintage Racing Is Not for the Faint of Heart (or Wallet)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 22, 2016

AMELIA ISLAND, FLORIDA—The Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) competition got underway, for the first time at the airport in this northern Florida beach community, with a lunchtime drive-and-park in downtown Fernandina Beach.
 This is no Lemon Rally; RSK Porsche Spyders like this one in downtown Fernandina Beach go for $3 million. (Jim Motavalli photo)There sat not one but two early Riley-powered Ford specials, a 1929 and a 1930, extensively raced in more recent days at tracks like Elkhart Lake, Watkins Glen, Lime Rock, Indianapolis and more. These cars looked like they’d just left the track, but further down the road was a car built for racing, but one you’d think too rarefied for that purpose now—a single-seater 1959 Porsche RSK Spyder of the type that recently made more than $3 million at a Scottsdale Gooding auction.
 A Preston Tucker Ford special. Yes, it's the Preston Tucker made memorable by Jeff Bridges in the movie. He built Ford racers for Indy in the 1930s. (Jim Motavalli photo)There were seldom-seen treats galore—Ford Escort and Anglia racers straight out of the 1960s, several Alfa track cars, MGs, a Triumph TR4, a pair of competition Corvettes, and more. Passersby didn’t know quite what to make of them, reverting to that all-purpose question, “What year is it?”
 
Florida resident Skip Bryan was standing next to his round-taillighted 1972 BMW 2002, a car I remember well from my impetuous youth (I owned five). This one had a full-race treatment at a cost of about $100,000, and with a hot cam and dual carburetors the original 100 horsepower was now up to 165. Bryan quoted me the SVRA motto, “Some people collect art; we race it.”
 Corvette, Alfa and MG racers in Fernandina Beach. (Jim Motavalli photo)Indeed they did. The race weekend dawned cloudy, but the rain held off Saturday and the competition began as soon as there was enough light on the 2.1-mile track. Airport races were common in the 1950s, and the recreation here was accurate down to the hay bales—which I later saw decorating the pranged prow of a luckless Shelby GT350.
 I think that's an Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite at speed on the airport track. (Jim Motavalli photo)The racers spanned nearly a century, with attendant horsepower and handling variations, so there were appropriate classes even within individual races. You could come in fifth and still be first in class. The competition was fast, but gentlemanly rather than cutthroat—nobody wanted to write off their racer. We did see that crunched Mustang, and two cars (a Lotus and a Porsche) retire trailing smoke. My guess is that a quick head gasket swap would see them back in the hunt.
 This Shelby GT350 got into an argument with a hay bale. (Jim Motavalli photo)Perhaps because the venue is new, there were few spectators—most of the attendees had a reason to be there. Word-of-mouth should turn up the heat next year. The few in the wet grandstand were treated to some action supported by excellent, well-informed commentary over the monitors.
 
I wandered around the pits. There I ran into Roger Allard with a pristine and brand-new Allard JX2 MKII. All was not as it seems; it’s a stunning coincidence that the factory-sanctioned manufacturer of JX2s is “not directly related to” company patriarch Sydney Allard, who built these American-engined racers between 1951 and 1954. An Allard J2 came third at Le Mans in 1950. Steve McQueen drove one.
 Roger Allard and his recreated, American-made JX2 MKII with creature comforts, including a trunk. Got a spare $149,500? (Jim Motavalli photo)Roger Allard, whose latest American-made vehicle was a pace car for the vintage races, has made some drivability improvements on the rough-and-ready original, including lowering the seating position. The JX2 is almost civilized now; Allard says customers paying $149,500 are using them mainly for cruising, touring and golf on Sundays. Cadillac power is still available (now from the CTS-V), as are GM Ram Jets and hemis.

Porsches abounded on the track; no Ferraris in evidence, though. Too valuable to track? (Jim Motavalli photo) As the prices quoted here make clear, vintage racing is not for the faint of heart—or wallet. It’s expensive to buy these cars, expensive to race-prepare them, and expensive to truck them around the country and pay the entry fees for races. There’s no prize money to speak of. But its thrills and spills you won’t find anywhere else.
 You could buy this 165-horsepower Porsche 912 for $37k; it's probably worth more as a restored street car. (Jim Motavalli photo)A 1967 Porsche 912 was for sale in the paddock—fully race prepared to make 165 horsepower—for $37,000. These days a restored 912 is probably worth more. Race cars are a specialized taste, but well worth it for retired guys with nest eggs and time on their hands. Scott Ebert has raced his 1939 Pop Dreyer Ford Special in the pre-war class 127 times, at the Monterey Historics, Ekhart Lake, Watkins Glen, Pocono, Lime Rock and many more.
 Scott Ebert and his 1939 Pop Dreyer Ford Special. "I sure don't get any money out of it. All you do is pay." But he's happy after 127 races. (Jim Motavalli photo)At Amelia Island, an electrical problem caused the Dreyer Special to retire while it was running second, and Ebert’s crew chief, Dean, was trying to trace the fault. It looked like they’d have to pull the coil; how big a problem could a car with bulletproof Ford running gear have?
 
Ebert said his special has probably doubled in value since he bought it in 1990, but he’s hardly in it for the money. “I sure don't get any money out of it,” he said. "All you do is pay."
 
Ebert, of Crystal River, Florida, seemed to be having a whale of a time, despite his difficulties, but for him it’s a retirement hobby. Are there young people around to pick up his mantle? Fortunately, yes. I talked to 24-year-old Theo Bean, who took the family’s 1959 Aston-Martin DB4 to a hard-won second (dicing with a pair of Porsche 914/6s) in a race I watched.
 Theo Bean and the family Aston-Martin DB4. He's looking for a sponsored ride. (Jim Motavalli photo)Theo told me his goal (a/k/a dream) is to get a sponsored ride, backed by a deep-pocketed automaker like Toyota or Porsche. “I’ve been racing since I was 16,” Theo told me. “It’s awesome. When I’m out there I can’t afford to think of anything else—all my problems go away.”
 
The Aston is far from the cushy leather-and-wood cruiser it was originally, but Theo told me there’s still a big difference between it and modern race rides. “There’s a lot more roll in the older cars,” he said. “It’s like a boat compared to a fighter jet.”
 
The Aston’s mechanic, Mike Vassik, told me the sport is “not for the faint of wallet. These cars are quite pricey to race and maintain.” Still, you don’t have to be Bill Gates, just comfortable and dedicated.
 Skip Bryan and his 1972 BMW 2002 back from a good Fernandina Beach race. Some folks collect art; he races it. (Jim Motavalli photo)I connected back to Skip Bryan, who’d just won his class in a spirited drive. He seemed happy. “It was great,” he said. “I had a good start and pulled away from a couple of guys.” I asked him what made the Aston so competitive. “He’s half our age!” Bryan said.
 
The SVRA races continue all over the country for the rest of the 2016 season, including Indianapolis (June 15-19), Mid-Ohio (June 23-26), Sonoma (June 2-5), Portland (July 7-10) and Virginia International Raceway (September 23-25).

Here's Theo Beon on video talking about vintage racing for the next generation:

 
And here's the starting grid on video:
 

Get the Car Talk Newsletter