by Larry Roberts
July 17, 1998
Vintage sports car racing is the perfect venue for "mature" enthusiasts who enter the sport on a low-key but not necessarily low cost basis. For the most part the drivers are more interested in having fun that in giving that last ounce of devotion required to take the checkered flag in first place. They're also very keen on keeping their aging mounts in one piece since finding a spare suspension part for a '54 Lester/Climax involves more than a quick trip to the local auto parts store. Unfortunately, hay bales and concrete abutments are just as hard on old racers when they stray off-course as they are on new ones.
For the past two years, I've been involved in a minor way with the vintage sports car races held at in my home town, having driven in the same race back in 1956. Like a reoccurring case of malaria, I found that I was once again bitten by the bug. The event was sanctioned by a California vintage racing group made up of enthusiasts dedicated to perpetuating the racing of "old crocks," as the British call them, in the friendly and not-too serious style that prevailed in the '50s. Having not been behind the wheel of a race car of any kind for more than 30 years, I was amazed at how quickly one gets caught up with the fervor again.
Three decades ago I was hired on our local Sunbeam dealer to maintain his Sunbeam Alpine racer and in short order I became proficient at keeping the somewhat fragile sports car in one piece for a local hot-shoe driver. Being of limited means at the time, I had to scrounge and borrow enough bits and pieces to build a car for myself and to this day, friends of those days refer to it as a "floor-sweep" racer.
After resisting its siren call as long as possible, I recently pulled my old Sunbeam out of the back yard where it had been molding away more than three decades and begin a restoration. On closer examination, it appeared that it might better be called a resurrection.
After talking to club members over a period of a couple of weeks, it became apparent that things have changed in the world of amateur sports car racing since I first strapped on a helmet. It's no longer possible to simply show up on race day with a relatively safe car equipped with an aftermarket lap belt, borrow a helmet and go racing. Today the sport is much more insurance-conscious and all the accouterments necessary in the fielding of more modern cars applies to the old-timers as well. Fire-resistant uniforms, underwear, sox, shoes, etc. are usually required and vintage cars have to be carefully inspected and have their up-to-date safety equipment approved. It's often necessary to authenticate their "pedigrees" if they are to be allowed to participate in events for cars of certain eras. Counterfeit vintage Ferrari race cars have been known to show up.
In my own case, it's simply a matter of restoring what I have but many newcomers have to either start from scratch with a derelict '54 Triumph TR2 or a recently uncovered rare Stranguellini Formula car, or buy something that's already been converted or renovated for competition. The latter is probably less expensive since a race car of any kind has often been likened to a hole in the pavement which the owner/builder fills with money and when mastered is sold off to make way for something faster or more exotic. Most vintage motorsports magazines like Victory Lane have classified sections listing cars for sale as well as schedules of events all over the country. And as a potential competitor "networks" with club members, word of vintage race cars that are up for sale becomes common knowledge. Driving schools for beginners and "reentry" drivers are also listed.
In my own case, only time will tell how long it will take before my ancient Sunbeam reaches its first starting grid after restoration but when it does, it becomes another matter of whether or not it will be run "just for fun."