How vintage racing has evolved–and where it's heading

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Ford Heacock III and his family are from Sebring, Florida, and helped get Sebring International Raceway up and growing. So it’s no surprise that Heacock, chairman of Heacock Insurance, a division of which insures vintage cars, wondered if there was much interest in Central Florida for a vintage racing organization.

He sent out some queries and was shocked to immediately get back more than 300 responses. This was in the 1970s. And that planted the seed for what became the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association, now usually just shortened to SVRA. Today it’s the largest group of its type in the country.

The club was having a lot of success in fielding vintage races at Sebring, including the Kendall Vintage Grand Prix, so Heacock took the next logical step: He went to visit “Big” Bill France, who founded NASCAR and built Daytona International Speedway. 

It was intimidating. Big Bill stood nearly 61/2 feet tall. He even sat on high, at a raised desk in front of lowered chairs for visitors. Even so, with success on his side, Heacock was confident. He spelled it all out, expecting France to respond, “Yes, of course we want your vintage racing here at Daytona.”

That did not happen. “He pounded his fist on his desk and jumped to his feet,” Heacock recalls. No way will there ever be vintage racing at Daytona, because, France said, “I don’t want blood on my hands!”

That particular blood, France explained, might belong to prominent doctors or dentists or lawyers, the sort of people he envisioned racing, and crashing, in vintage series. That would be bad for business. Presumably he was okay with the blood of conventional racers.

Big Bill died in 1992, and that philosophy has changed, of course. Vintage racing does happen at Daytona nowadays.

And vintage racing is still changing–that, no one can argue.

The Pros Know

New rules in professional racing have served to separate racers from the creation of their cars. For example, it’s now impossible to build your own IMSA race car from a street car. If you want to run at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, you need to purchase a homologated race car from the manufacturer or an authorized agent. 

The same has been true in the Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup for a couple of seasons: You buy a completed car through Mazda, or you don’t race. 

So what are racers who like to work on their own vehicles to do? And what’s to become of those cars that no longer have a place in pro racing? 

Plenty of the hands-on racers among us are gravitating toward historic racing–and we are, by the way, using the terms historic and vintage interchangeably. As a result, the sport is becoming less and less courteous lead-and-follow, no-please-you-go-first and more full-on competitive. We’re seeing a little less wine and cheese, a little more beer and Velveeta. And there appears to be room for both ends of the spectrum. That includes not only amateurs, but (very) experienced professionals.

Butch Leitzinger, 49, has won 49 IMSA races, tying him for fifth with Al Holbert on the all-time victories list. But that isn’t enough for Leitzinger–he’s still logging wins with Historic Sportscar Racing. “The thing that I like the most about vintage racing is that I’m able to get back to enjoying the driving itself,” he says. 

“In professional racing,” he continues, “there is so much that’s riding on the lap time and the results. Everyone on the team gets a paycheck that their family depends on, and if you have a bad weekend, perhaps you’ve put the team at risk of losing sponsorship, and also put their paycheck in jeopardy. So as a driver, all of your focus has to be on extracting every last tenth out of every lap. And that doesn’t leave much room to look around and enjoy what you’re doing–although there are times when everything just flows so naturally that it’s very fun.

Pro driver Butch Leitzinger competes in historic events as well, driving a Le Mans-spec 2007 Pescarolo 01.

“But the idea behind vintage racing is just to take pleasure in seeing older cars doing what they were meant to do, and there isn’t much emphasis on who wins the race or who sets the fastest lap. And that allows for more time to be in the moment, to enjoy the thing that made you want to do this in the first place. And afterwards everyone is happy to have a beer together.”

Vintage racing, Leitzinger says, “offers sporting women and men a chance to drive interesting and powerful cars on some of the best circuits of the world. And for those who wish to rise to a professional series, it gives good experience in a lower-pressure and less expensive environment.”

Andy Pilgrim, 62, made his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in 1996, and the former Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac factory driver continues to race in IMSA and World Challenge. He also competed in the HSR race at Daytona in December. 

“I very much enjoyed running our 2011 Ferrari 458 GT3 there,” Pilgrim says. “This car was a championship- and race-winning Blancpain GT car out of Europe, 2011 through 2014. Amazingly, I was able to run consistent 1-minute, 39-second laps during my three night stints, which was faster than we could run in our Black Swan Porsche GT3 back in 2016!

Andy Pilgrim, another pro, also enjoys vintage racing. At HSR’s Daytona event, he drove a GT3-spec Ferrari 458. 

“I found the side-by-side racing clean and challenging, with some excellent drivers in our GT and Prototype class. We had by far the largest field in our race, which just added to the fun. The organization was excellent. The whole 24-hour race was executed like clockwork. I didn’t need my alarm clock; on the hour of every hour, a new race would start.”

And yes, there was some serious racing, but it was all done professionally. “Although there were a number of pro drivers,” Pilgrim adds, “the aggression level was tempered just enough to allow some excellent battles.”

Is It Growing or Not?

By all accounts, vintage racing in the U.S. is, at worst, “holding its own,” says Jeanette Bourke, general manager for the Vintage Auto Racing Association, the largest West Coast vintage racing group. And at best, it’s growing steadily. 

Historic racing overseas seems to be a bellwether for U.S. competition, and the news is good. On weekdays, Mark Gillies runs Volkswagen’s American public relations office, but on many weekends, the native Brit is racing in vintage meets around the world, typically in 1930s-era open-wheel cars.

“I would say that in Europe, it’s growing even more than here,” he says. “In the U.S., the cars are generally more recent, but you don’t see the massive grids of sedans, Formula Juniors, and even Jaguars and Healeys you see in Europe and particularly in the U.K. In places like South Africa and Australia, the growth has been constrained because so many cars have gone elsewhere in the past 30 years.”

Hired gun Mark Gillies often drives the prewar era. 

Everywhere, the older the car–which generally means the more valuable and irreplaceable it is–the lower the aggression level. But that can vary, too. “In the U.S., racing in pre-1960 cars is pretty tame compared to Europe, but in later cars there isn’t much to compare between the two places,” Gillies explains. “I was in South Africa recently and was pretty impressed by the driving all around there.”

In the U.S., racers and series backers report seeing more younger participants. Gillies says that with exceptions, that isn’t the case overseas: “The cars have become pretty pricey. Generally, younger drivers are the offspring of existing owners or are hired guns, brought in to win races. At Goodwood last year, the front three in the Goodwood Trophy, the Glover Trophy and the Fordwater Trophy were all non-owners. As for spectators, I think they’re getting older unless you’re at a meeting that is more of an event, like Goodwood.” 

One last peek at the barometer: Aside from the older SVRA, the Historic Sportscar Racing group is responsible for the largest events. HSR’s chairman is David Hinton, a competitor who can usually be found working in the shop for his restoration business.

“Historic racing is very strong right now,” Hinton says, “and we are convinced the future is bright for all of us in the sport.”



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More like this
Tom1200 Dork
5/23/19 9:48 p.m.

Totally my opinion of course but I think vintage racing is in a good place. I run with VARA and I think they have good philosophy as probably do most clubs. What I like about vintage is there is a bit of extra respect that one doesn't always get at modern races.

The big name events should be the cream of the crop but at club level I like the rolling dates. I also think it was wise that they started including things like early Miatas.

The increase in Japanese cars resonates with me and  not just because I race a Datsun. Nissan was building cars before Porsche & Ferarri and excluding Nissan/Datsun seems snobbish to me. Many iconic Japanese cars are 40-50 years old and so how do you not include them.

jonk67 New Reader
5/23/19 10:02 p.m.

The link for Historic Sportscar Racing is not - That leads to Health Services Research website. 

Once i get my '67 Mustang Coupe back on the road i hope i can find one of these organizations close to me in order to run some track days and maybe get my license to run in groups. I think it's great that this is available to the weekend racer and as mentioned spaced out vs. one venue every weekend across the country. 

dougie Reader
5/29/19 9:11 p.m.

I race with SOVREN here in the PNW and they've take note from other clubs and have change the rules to allow a wider range of "vintage" cars. I don't they excluded anyone with a safe car, ex-NASCAR's included, there's a "catch-all" grid for the exotic odd-balls. Fifteen new members were at the Spring Sprints last month which saw plenty of track time and that's keeps everyone happy. The repaving of over half the track at Pacific Raceways in Seattle helps too. A good time was had by all.

Tom1200 Dork
5/31/19 8:29 p.m.

What a great track, sort of mini Nurburgring. The motor in your car so sweet, to bad you had that pesky C-sedan in your group.........can't trust those guys (Note I race C-sedan).

dougie Reader
5/31/19 10:30 p.m.

In reply to Tom1200 :

Yup, those C-sedan guys are all outlaws, can't trust any of them....hah.

LanEvo Dork
6/16/19 6:41 p.m.

Now that most vintage racing geoups are allowing cars form the '70s-'80s (and even the '90s) the fields are starting to swell. I've raced my '87 Mercedes 190E 2.3-16 with VARAC at Mosport and SVRA at Pitt Race:

Huge fields in the "modern vintage" classes. Tons of E30 M3s, air-cooled Porsches, Fox bodies, Hondas, Mazdas, etc.

Tom1200 Dork
6/16/19 7:59 p.m.

I for one think it's great as well as wise that 90s cars are on the grids at vintage races. These cars are 20-30 years old, with the advent of track days and the likes of Lemons, clubs have to be flexible if they want to remain healthy. Plus the cars are really cool.

Dougie see the link below this is my most recent race. When the video starts I'm two cars ahead of the camera car (Alfa GTV), the Volvo 544 just ahead is my friend who passes me at the 1 minute mark after that I'm the meat in the sandwich. I'm in the Red 1200 #27. Note this was the glorious battle for 16th-18th, I started on the last row due to a problem in the qualifying race and started 23rd and finished 17th.

dougie Reader
6/16/19 11:37 p.m.

Tom -

Nice run, I haven't made it to Buttonwillow yet. It looks at lot like my home track of PIR, except we're a lot greener up north. Both tracks flat with a technical corners and no banking. When I make it down to Cali, it's been Laguna Seca, Sears Point, or Thunderhill. Willow Springs and Buttonwillow are still on the hit list. That Volvo looks like the one that ran with us in 2014 at the Portland Historics. Here's one of the races from my pals TR4, I'm about 4 cars up.



pizzaman1 New Reader
6/17/19 4:27 a.m.

I’m working on restoring a tube frame Ford Pinto bodied ex GT3 car , it’ll have a proper 2 LT Pinto motor , can any one tell where I would be able to race and have some fun ? I have contact a few vintage sanctioning body and i wasn’t given much encouragement, I appreciate any help , thanks 

LanEvo Dork
6/17/19 6:46 a.m.
pizzaman1 said:

I’m working on restoring a tube frame Ford Pinto bodied ex GT3 car , it’ll have a proper 2 LT Pinto motor , can any one tell where I would be able to race and have some fun ?

Some vintage race groups might specifically disallow tube-framed cars. Can't remember which ones off the top of my head, but I've seen that kind of language used in some of the rulebooks. Other groups (like VARAC in Canada) don't seem to care much at all: if it's old and cool, you can run it.

pizzaman1 said:

I have contact a few vintage sanctioning body and i wasn’t given much encouragement, I appreciate any help , thanks 

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