Mid-Life Crisis Racing
I'm a sucker for old race cars, especially old Porsche race cars. Unlike today's automotive designs, where aerodynamics dictates the look of a racer, thirty years ago a car's shape was more a reflection of the builder's instincts than anything else. Back then, fast cars had swoopy metal fenders, ignitions with points, Italian carburetors and treaded tires that were closer in footprint to a space-saver spare than the rubber on your family's grocery getter. Yes, those were simpler, and some would say better, times. The joke people my age can tell is, "Do you remember when the drivers were fat and the tires were skinny?" Well, if you go to a vintage race, you will see that time has stood still. The great old cars are back! The tires are still skinny, the drivers are still fat and seeing them race is more fun than watching ten Indy Racing League events.
So, if your club's Driver's Education events are too tame and single marque club racing too much like a NASCAR Sunday afternoon fender-banger to suit you, you might be ready to get started in the civilized sport of Vintage Racing. But how do I get started, I hear you say? Glad you asked, because, here's the middle-aged guy (or gal's) guide to Mid-Life Crisis Racing.
The Car: As a Porsche guy, I have my prejudices. If you're like me, you probably wouldn't want to go vintage racing with anything less than a Porsche. There are very sound reasons to go with the boys from Zuffenhausen. Since the beginning, Porsches have been quick, great-handling and brutally reliable. Happily, over the decades, not much has changed. But which Porsche? The answer, I'm afraid, comes down to money. If you have an unlimited budget, you will be able to race classic machinery like a 550, a 4 Cam Speedster, my favorite, the RSK or more modern cars like the 904, 906, 910 and even the relatively recent 917 and 935. It is important to note here that every Vintage Race sanctioning body has a list of cars that it will allow to run its events. A car's age and rarity usually dictates in which club and at what events it will be allowed to compete. The VSCCA (Vintage Sports Car Club Of America), for example, has very strict rules (some say too restrictive) that only allow selected sports cars with a proven race heritage (i.e., log book) that were built before 1960, to compete in its events. Besides the age and history, the cars also have to be presented for competition equipped as they were originally raced. Except for mandatory safety updates, this means 1950's brakes, engines, carbs and wheels. And while some creative interpretation of the rules does occur, the VSCCA tries very hard to keep the cars true to the spirit of the group.
Another popular Club that welcomes Porsches is the SVRA (Sportscar Vintage Racing Association) and their rules allow "younger," and therefore cheaper, cars to compete in their events. This is where you will find the 356 B and C and early 911s. In fact, for many experts, the best car to go vintage racing in is a pre-1970, 2.0 liter 911. While these cars aren't considered exotic and won't get you into some "invitation only" events, the 2.0 Liter motor when done right is bulletproof, revs freely, makes great noises and pumps out enough horsepower to surprise and entertain you. The engine and suspension research & development done by SCCA racers since the 911 first turned a wheel in anger is readily available and so are all of the "go fast" parts. So if the body is rust free, you will only have to worry about the mechanical bits, the safety items like a roll cage, fuel cell and safety belts, plus expendable items like gas, oil and tires. Unfortunately, if the body has been attacked by "iron worms", the cure can add many dead presidents to the price of cooling your vintage racing passion. How much will you have to spend? Unless you're doing the work yourself, figure about $10,000 to $15,000 for a very solid early 911 chassis (note, these prices can vary wildly with concours cars reaching the stratosphere); add another up to $15,000 for a quality rebuild on the motor and $5,000 for a rebuilt transaxle. The needed extras are a safety cage for about $800, $500 for a good racer's seat, $250 for cam-lock 6-point belts, $500 for a double-action fire suppression system (double action means you can activate it from inside the car or a course marshal can do so from outside), $500 for a fuel cell, $250 for a racing steering wheel and $100 for a safety net. Total cost for a race-ready early 911 should be in the $35,000 - $50,000 range. Not cheap, but you're worth it, right? And while this “low-budget” car won't get you in to the most prestigious events, there are dozens of tracks which hold several Vintage events every year. Also, there are rallies, hill climbs, and even purely social events where your 911 would be welcomed by all. That's why I'm certain that you won't feel deprived if you aren't invited to a few exclusive racing venues.
Tow Vehicle: But how do you get your car to the track? The easy answer is you tow it, and this is where it can get expensive. If you want to run the occasional race, say, two or three local events, you can probably skip buying a tow vehicle. Unless you trash your car during a race, you can almost always drive your Porsche to the track and change to your race tires in the paddock. However, if you really get bitten by the vintage race bug, eventually you will want to run events at the far flung corners of the country - Sebring, Road Atlanta and Moroso in the South , Lime Rock, Pocono and Watkins Glen in the Northeast, Road America and Brainerd in the Midwest and Laguna Seca and Infineon in the West. To do that, you will have to tow your car. In the past, that usually meant buying a truck or SUV with a big motor and a trailer. The price for this option is rather steep. Almost any new SUV will run at least $30,000 and simple trailers can run from a few thousand to many times that for a fully enclosed model. Then you have to find a place to keep the rig, pay for insurance, and feed a thirsty SUV with expensive gasoline. However, don't despair; there are less expensive options for getting your car from here to there. Vintage racing is so hot today that there are companies which will provide full racing services like car prep, safety inspections, engine / transmission maintenance, car transportation and even between-race storage. In doing research for this article, I watched the people from Klub Sport in Lake Park, Florida field nearly a dozen Porsches for a Vintage Fall Festival event at Lime Rock in Connecticut. They furnished mechanics who checked each Porsche before and after every race. They provided secure paddock space for their customers and even fed the drivers (and one hungry journalist) over the course of the race weekend. Sure there is a price for this service, but ever one of the customers I interviewed felt that this was the "only way to fly."
The Driver: Even though you may have been driving in your local club's track events for years, that ain't racing! Only racing is racing. To run vintage events safely and competitively, you will need a medical checkup, some schooling and a license from one of the vintage sanctioning groups. The schools run by the clubs are less expensive, but you'll need your own car, completely sorted out with all of the required safety gear before starting. That's why, for most of us, taking an accredited drivers school like Skip Barber or Bob Bondurant (and there are MANY other great ones) may be a better option. These schools all have professional instructors and (no pun intended) an excellent track record for safety and for turning out qualified vintage race drivers. The costs can run as high as $5,000 for a full week's instruction, but in the end you will have learned everything you need to know to be safe on a race track in real wheel-to-wheel competition.
Maintenance: One thing to consider when you select a vintage race car is what it will cost to keep it running. The people at Klub Sport told me that to be competitive in the 356 group, you had to have a very hot motor that may not make it through a full season of racing. Anyone can tell you that the more horses you coax out of a motor the shorter its life will be (read Hand Grenade). That could mean a mid-season rebuild if you want to stay with the front runners. Other maintenance items are fuel, oil, brakes, tires, entry fees and body and paint work. That's because even if you don't hit anyone or anything, stone chips and scratches happen during races and will have to be fixed.
Speed Reading: If your interest is aroused, you will probably want to learn more about this fast growing form of racing. The best sources of information about vintage racing are web sites like this one and the growing number of magazines dedicated to the sport. There are two I read regularly: Vintage Motorsport and Victory Lane. Each has a different editorial approach but both celebrate vintage racing and are well worth the subscription price. Books on wheel-to-wheel racing can be ordered from the nice folks at Classic Motorbooks - my favorite is "Driving in Competition" by Alan Johnson. They have just about every facet of the automotive spectrum covered in their thick catalog and you will want one if you aren't already on their mailing list. And you can check the Vintage Race Web on the Internet at:
Next Steps: The best way to get started is to attend a vintage race and get caught up in the excitement. Search one of the vintage magazines for a race near your home and then go buy a ticket. Once there, go right to the paddock and talk to the racers about what it's like out there. Find out what Vintage Club they run with and ask how to join. Even if you don't have a vintage car, the club will find a way for you to participate and share in the fun. Remember, it's never too late to have a happy childhood.