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Life In The Fast Lane: Vintage Auto Racing

In Vintage Auto Racing, It Isn't Whether You Win or Lose--It's How You Run the Race
Bob Knotts
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 1)

But even with all these precautions, there have been deaths in vintage racing--a sobering reminder that metal and flesh are never a safe mix at high speeds. "In the last five or six years, it's certainly under 10 fatalities in this country. And it's probably under five," estimates vintage racer Terry Jackson, an automotive columnist for The Miami Herald. "I think it's less dangerous than other forms of racing. We're not racing for points or a championship. And the cars are important to us."

Ah, those cars. Maybe they are works of art after all.

The long, graceful, arcing sweep of the hood; the sinuous curve of the rear fenders; the compact and functional doors; the narrow windshield that allows the fresh air to twist your shirt collar into knots and whistle through the spaces between your teeth; the low, wide, squat stance, poised like a cheetah prepared to sprint across the veld; the thundering engine that rattles your ankle joints and re-parts your hair. There is a charm and nobility about these automobiles that surpasses mere nostalgia. They are remembrances of a time when the road seemed new and clean and inviting, when driving was something more to be enjoyed than endured, when Route 66 was the main highway west and the world appeared open to any young man with a fast car and a fresh dream. A time before the onslaught of the bulky, despicable minivans and utility vehicles and yuppie pickup trucks. A time when style mattered as much as substance and substance as much as style, when automotive designers recognized that form follows function and understood that the function is speed.

Every vintage driver shares a genuine respect and love for the old cars. Even the most prosaic among them tends to wax a bit poetic when he describes these glistening pieces of the past. For ordinary racers, an automobile is simply his tool, the chisel to carve into the marble of competition. But for vintage owners, the car is at least as important as any race.

And an integral part of the car is its history. Bill Mazzoni has searched through old books and old magazines and old memories for the details about his intimidating Chevron. By pasting together fragments of information, he has constructed a somewhat sketchy record that stretches back 30 years: The Chevron was a car developed in England by Derek Bennett around 1966, with the B16 model first built in 1969 to compete in the European two-liter championships. Just 23 Chevron B16s were made--and Mazzoni's is one of perhaps 17 still in existence. His B16 probably appeared in the 1971 Steve McQueen film Le Mans, then as now marked with the number 44, Mazzoni says. The car went to Italy in 1972 and was stripped for hill climbing, then returned to England around 1983 or 1984, when it was restored to B16 specifications. Somewhere along the way, this Chevron raced and crashed at the famous Hockenheim track in Germany--a precious nugget of background Mazzoni stumbled upon at a vintage event.

"A German guy at Watkins Glen started talking to us about working on these cars. He had been a mechanic, an older gentleman," recalls Mazzoni, who bought the Chevron in 1986. "He said a driver at Hockenheim slid up on one of the curbs and put a bow on the frame of a Chevron B16. It was never fixed but wasn't visible from the outside with the body on. Our car has that bow in it exactly where the gentleman said it would be."

At the millionaire's end of vintage racing, an automobile's pedigree isn't simply academic. "A car is worth literally hundreds of thousands of dollars more, depending on its history--what it's done and who did it," notes Paul Rowan, a seasoned mechanic from England who services Mazzoni's Chevron and races his own 1970 Mustang Boss 302.

But at any end of vintage racing--whether Ferrari-in-the-truck or MG-on-the-U-Haul--a spirit of friendliness and fair play and cooperation exists among competitors. There's nothing quite like it in any other type of motor sports.

Rowan and Mazzoni are talking about this now, the mechanic rumpled casually across the lobby floor of his Foreign Toys garage in south Florida, the flower grower twisted uncomfortably into a stiff, vinyl office chair. They are smiling, speaking about their sport with enthusiasm.

"You go to a vintage meeting and it's a family atmosphere. Everyone looks forward to the next race and being together," Mazzoni says.

"It's a more social event," Rowan adds in a British accent diluted by 15 years in the United States. "If your car breaks down and you don't race, you say, 'Oh well. I'll go and party.' It's very enjoyable and very relaxing."

Is it true that competing vintage owners often share equipment at races? Both acknowledge this with what seems like genuine pride.

"One time at Watkins Glen we were in an endurance race with Bill driving. And another guy came into the pits with a flat tire," Rowan remembers. "He had only one set of treaded tires, the tires he needed for the endurance race. So after 20 minutes, he was out of the event. I went out to our trailer and grabbed a wheel and tire and his guys mounted it and away he went. He was one of our competitors. And we're not the only ones who do this."

"Everybody does it," Mazzoni says. "If somebody's got something that someone else needs, he'll give it to the other guy if he doesn't need it himself."

You find this attitude everywhere around the track at vintage events. Racers admiring their rivals' cars, offering driving tips, talking over mechanical problems. Smiling and laughing and shaking hands, putting aside the pettiness that competition often encourages.

"Think we're going to fire this car up pretty soon and drive it over to your paddock area so we'll be in the right place," Mazzoni says to Mike Jackson shortly before the Homestead race. The soft-spoken comment sounds more like a question.

"That'll be fine," Jackson replies. "Plenty of room."

Vintage racers even seem generous to virtual strangers. As a graduate of several Skip Barber Racing School courses and a sometime-competitor in the Skip Barber Race Series, I wangle permission to ride in one of the historic cars between events at Homestead. Then, just hours before race time, I also receive clearance to drive a vintage car around the track--if I can find someone willing to turn me loose with his expensive machine. But a two-seater is required for both activities, the chief race steward says, and the only one available is Paul Rowan's Mustang. Without hesitation, Rowan agrees to the ride and the drive, first taking his passenger on a cautious but still exhilarating few laps. He tells me I can drive his $45,000 car, alone, after the vintage race. I wonder if I would be as trusting in his place.

Perhaps it's their combined love of rare cars and high speeds. Perhaps it's the ease with which many of the racers switch from white collars and calculators during the workweek to T-shirts and crescent wrenches on weekends. Perhaps it's partly the age of these drivers--most are between 40 and 60. But vintage owners seem to be a special breed. Successful without falling victim to pretensions. Intelligent without lapsing into condescension. Competitive without taking themselves too seriously.

"None of us have any illusions that we are overlooked Al Unser Juniors," says vintage driver Terry Jackson. "On the other hand, I'm glad my races are only eight to 10 laps long, because I can't hold my breath any longer than that."

There is no Walter Mitty in these men. They do not merely daydream about triumph. Whether or not they drive their cars on the outer limits of adhesion, they still crank out 100 mph speeds at an age when most of us tee up Titleists. For a few moments on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, they recover their lost youth, become throwbacks to a time when rugged racers in something like batting helmets piloted powerful, beautiful machines through the forests of Europe. For a brief time they actually transform themselves into Juan Manuel Fangio conquering the Nurburgring in a 1954 Mercedes-Benz or Phil Hill winning the Italian Grand Prix in his 1961 Ferrari, goggles in place, chin strap flapping wildly, cheeks smudged with oil. During those fleeting instants, life looks a bit more innocent, and almost anything seems possible again.

"I started racing about 1959 and quit about '65, racing on a shoestring. Eventually I just couldn't afford to keep doing it. But I really pined for those days. Those were good times," says 63-year-old Walter Hotchkiss, who now competes in a 1964 Griffith 200 and recently bought a magnificent 1962 Ferrari. "And so I started vintage racing in 1992. I saw some of those guys out there and thought, 'I can get back into a race car, too!' It was just like being taken back to my youth. And that's pretty good when you can do that."

Lap 1 of the vintage race in Homestead is almost complete. As they approach the start-finish line at maybe 120 mph, Rollins' Porsche has a narrow lead over Rowan's Boss Mustang. Rowan is trying to pick up the draft, to pass his opponent with a tow from the slipstream of air carved by a car at high speeds. They disappear around Turn 1. Now the second group of competitors slides on to the front straight, followed closely by Mazzoni's fiery machine. The Chevron B16 catapults past this row of trailing cars. "Theeeeeere goes Bill," Mazzoni's pit worker says matter-of-factly, still standing with one leg on the concrete wall, stopwatch in hand.

Mazzoni could easily overtake both front-runners during this second sweep through the winding, tight course--but doesn't. He refuses to use all of the B16's impressive power, instead trailing closely behind the Porsche and Mustang through laps three, four and five. Only three circuits of the track remain before the checkered flag. Everyone is getting plenty of seat time during the race; even Andre Garnier's 1958 Panhard is racking up complete laps.

Finally, the B16 takes the lead, passing Rollins and Rowan 10 minutes into the 14-minute event. Still, the Chevron clearly is far from running flat out. Only during the last two laps does Mazzoni pick up any real steam, giving a freer rein to all that pent-up horsepower. But he avoids overtaking any car that the Porsche and Mustang would not lap--avoids cutting anyone's day shorter than it would be without his B16 in this field.

Just as the race approaches an uneventful end, though, some drivers have serious problems. Rowan's car drops a differential on Lap 7, belching a plume of acrid smoke, and the Mustang is gone. With the mechanical failure, my opportunity to drive a vintage car at Homestead is over.

On the same lap, Mike Jackson is dicing it out with Rich Ernst, who's driving a Zink C4 Formula Vee, when there's a crash. The two already had passed each other at least six times, all clean and careful vintage racing. But as his heart rate rises, Ernst makes the kind of mistake that can happen to any racer under pressure--he slides two wheels off the track. Instantly, his small open-cockpit car spins wildly through the grass and into a concrete wall. He walks away without injuries, though the Zink C4 is damaged.

Mazzoni wins the 18-mile event and sets a fast lap of one minute and 41 seconds. Still, he beats Rollins by only about six seconds. Garnier finishes last this day, his best lap time recorded as two minutes and 33 seconds. But he completes six of the eight laps and apparently has a wonderful time.

After the race, Mazzoni is brief and modest about his unorthodox win. "I ran until I found whoever was in the lead, then just stayed with him," he says. "If I didn't screw up, this was going to be the result." Besides, he's in a hurry to pack his Chevron into the trailer and leave for home, about 100 miles to the north. "Going fishing tomorrow," he says. "I've got a date with a bass."

Back in the pit lane garages, Ernst is inspecting the results of his frightening run-in with the wall. A fellow racer who once owned this same Zink C4 is with him, suggesting the best way to make repairs. This was Ernst's first crash and he is evidently a bit rattled. "I screwed up today. That's all," he admits with an uncomfortable smile. "I screwed up."

There is a saying that there are just two kinds of race drivers: those who have hit the wall--and those who will hit the wall. That may not hold true for vintage racers. But today, Rich Ernst found his patch of concrete nonetheless. The accident is a kind of message for him and his 11 opponents, a warning that vintage competition may be somewhat less demanding and dangerous than other forms of auto racing, but is demanding and dangerous all the same. When your car meets something solid at significant speeds, it hardly matters if you felt desperate to win or not before the crash.

If Rich Ernst serves as an example of vintage racing's similar-ities to other kinds of motor sports, he also is a reflection of its differences, a reminder of the victory-isn't-everything, fight-the-good-fight attitude common among these drivers of classic cars.

Perhaps half an hour after talking with a dispirited Ernst about his accident, I run into him bounding down the stairs from the timing and scoring tower. He is beaming with a broad, satisfied smile and punches the air with his fist victoriously. I am confused.

"Did you get any results?" I ask, wondering what scoring information could so elevate the mood of a man who just crashed his vintage race car.

"Yeah!" he enthuses. Ernst contains his excitement just long enough to give me his news before hurrying back toward the pit lane. "I may have hit the wall. But I got a better lap time than Mike Jackson did!"


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