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In Praise of Older Race Cars

In Praise of Older Race Cars

When fine wine begets burnt oil

Last issue I described my impressions of the Goodwood Festival of Speed after having attended for the very first time. The crux of the matter was this: Old race cars should not be put out to pasture. They should be driven until every last drop of gasoline, diesel or whatever else may be powering said vehicles is used up in full.

That experience was full to the brim with classic racecars being flung around the hillclimb course with genuine gusto. One of the cars in competition was a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT Spider California SWB—one of my all-time favourites—which also happens to be among the most valuable cars in the world today.

Some four years ago, an example once owned by actor James Coburn sold at auction for £5.5 million. That particular car was black, so there’s no telling what a classic red version, such as the one on display at the Festival of Speed, might be worth. But the owner of the car seemed unconcerned about the dollars and cents involved—or, rather, the pounds and pence.

I had the opportunity to attend another classic car event more recently, the fabled Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and all the related activities in the Monterey Peninsula. As noted in the last issue, this is also a top event. But, there’s a completely different vibe to the proceedings. At the Festival of Speed, there is a classic car show with judging, but it comprises a very small proportion of the proceedings.

The main attraction in Pebble Beach is the concours itself, a parade of meticulously restored vehicles that drive up to the 18th green of the golf course to receive their accolades and awards.

I was ensconced in the Rolls-Royce suite—no tough assignment, to be sure—and watched in amusement as some of the most perfect cars in existence struggled to fire to life and make it up the slightest of inclines. For the record, a car that doesn’t run will definitely not win anything at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, but these garage queens were certainly more show than go.

Meanwhile, about 20 minutes inland, a collection of decidedly less-restored classics were ripping around Laguna Seca, one of the most demanding circuits in America. (The elevation changes are a bit more extreme than the manicured surfaces of Pebble Beach, too.)

I’m not sure whether I’d ever have the huevos to go wheel-to-wheel with an unknown quantity while behind the wheel of a Ferrari 250 GT Spider California—a little bit too much on the line. But, a race experience earlier this year taught me that classic cars could be a huge amount of fun.

Unbeknownst to many, the racing scene on the west coast of North America is (or should be) the envy of pretty much any other region in the Americas. The racing residents of Oregon and Washington in the U.S., as well as Vancouver here at home, have the choice of no fewer than six or seven decent racetracks (depending on your own personal opinion of what constitutes “decent”).

Due to the fact there are so many different venues within a roughly six-hour drive, the racing scene is very strong, particularly in the amateur and semi-professional classes. It makes sense that these classes ultimately determine the health of motorsport overall, so it was incredibly encouraging to see the turnout at Portland International Raceway earlier this season.

In fact, judging by the number of multi-car teams and transporters in the paddock, the well-publicized global economic meltdown of 2008 either didn’t make it to the northeast or the bounce-back has been profound.

Yours truly was in attendance to participate in the Intercontinental Sports Car Challenge (ICSCC) BMW Pro3 Series. This series, the brainchild of racing brothers Ken and Wes Hill, came into being in 2003; the rationale was to take a beloved but decidedly out-of-date car—the BMW E30 that was built between 1987-91—and keep race them in a spec class.

Now, make no mistake, these cars aren’t wildly fast, but they are light and they are rear-wheel drive. They are also surprisingly challenging to drive. And, the competition in the Pro3 Series races is at a very high level. In fact, a number of the drivers compete in various Grand-Am categories and use the Pro3 races to stay sharp when their racing schedule permits.

I can laugh about it now, but I can only imagine what Wes must have thought when I first expressed reservations about coming to Portland to drive his relatively ancient racecars. The conversation went a little something like this: “I’m a bit concerned about showing up and embarrassing the regulars.” Wes: “Oh, I don’t think that will happen.”

For the record, he was right.

The Friday session was a near washout due to the weather, but this served to highlight another aspect of the northwest racing scene; it gives drivers plenty of changes to perfect the rain lines. The following day, I participated in a “practice” race and finished with the second-quickest lap among the novice Pro3 drivers. A decent result, I figured.

But this first race may have made my helmet feel a bit tight because the following day’s activities qualified as a wake-up call. In the qualifying session for the entire Pro3 field—novices and experienced racers alike—I improved my lap times, but was only quick enough to qualify just outside the top-10 in the 26-car BMW. As the green flag fell, I lost a few places down the track’s very long front straight and never managed to get them back. After a half-hour of some of the most physically demanding racing I’ve ever done, I ended up in 14th position.

In case this still requires translation, I did not come close to embarrassing the regulars, but observers reckoned I did better than expected. A win of sorts, then—but, the bigger win was in realizing how fun and challenging it could be to race a 25-year-old car. The BMW Pro3 field was easily the biggest of any class at Portland and the racing was clean and professional.

The lesson here: Let’s not resign our great old cars to the scrap heap! Let’s keep on racing them until they can race no more. For the reasons why, check out any YouTube videos showing in-car coverage of a recent Pro3 race—it’s the kind of racing that all racing should aspire to.

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