Hit the Road

Do the math. A typical SCCA or vintage race covers around 30 miles. The standard length of a four-day vintage rally or tour is 1000 miles. As well-known vintage racer Richard Sirota puts it, “I spent more time above 140 mph on one Texas 1000 rally than in 20 years of vintage racing.”
He’s not exaggerating. There are stretches on the Texas 1000, Copperstate 1000 and Colorado Grand where fast cars can cruise at elevated speeds for hours at a time. In other words, a vintage rally isn’t just a race—it can be much more demanding than that. Want in on the action? These tips will help you get there.

On the Market

Step one: Select the right rally car. One important factor in your decision should be your navigator. You and your car-crazy buddy may be perfectly happy banging around in a prewar race car with no fenders, mufflers, windshield or top, but a less adventurous partner may think a Corvette or Porsche from the ’50s is plenty sporty enough.
Assuming you’re not a billionaire collector like Craig McCaw or Rob Walton, what car should you buy to enter the vintage rally world? Based on decades of experience, we have a few favorites:
1957-’67 Corvette
1967-’74 Ferrari Dino 246
1948-’61 Jaguar XK-120/140/150
1957-’64 Maserati 3500 GT
1963-’71 Mercedes 230/250/280SL
1950-’68 Morgan Plus 4
1956-’65 Porsche 356
1969-’89 Porsche 911
1965-’68 Shelby Mustang
These cars have proved to be more reliable than average, and parts and knowledge are widely available—locally and online. For rallying purposes, most cars built before World War II are frankly too valuable, too slow, too difficult to maintain, too uncomfortable or all of the above.
Cars built since 1990 are either not accepted by all rally organizations or are so fast and sophisticated that they’re honestly not much fun to drive at anything approaching legal speeds. The sweet spot: sports cars from the ’50s and ’60s. They’re fun to drive, beautiful to look at, easy to fix and eligible for just about every event on the planet. The fact that most of them are nicely escalating in value is a bonus.

Essential Equipment

Just like vintage races, vintage rallies are won in the garage. You should prepare your car thoroughly, paying special attention to often-neglected areas—the cooling system, electrical system, brakes, tires, shock absorbers, wheel bearings and U-joints—plus any special weaknesses particular to your model of car.
Unless you do all your own work, selecting the right mechanic is crucial. Many classic car “restorers” are only concerned with making a car shiny enough to win a concours. Race shops, on the other hand, are focused on making it go as fast as possible for a short period of time.
It’s all too easy to ruin a classic sports car with “improvements” that may work fine on a race track, but are counterproductive for safely covering 1000 miles without trouble. Your aim should be reliable performance with no surprises, not ultimate horsepower you’ll never use. You really need to find a mechanic who understands what you’re planning to do.
The basic rule of thumb is to keep your car looking vintage while updating hidden safety and reliability parts. If your upgrades don’t require any cutting of the original structure, you can always switch everything back to stock. Modern four-point racing seat belts are not only safer, they’re more comfortable. A pair of Recaro-style bucket seats can take the sting out of a 1000-mile rally and can always be swapped back for the stock seats before the next car show. Particularly in a roadster, a classic four-point roll bar is a good idea, too.
No rally organizer is going to care if you fit modern radial tires, Porterfield brake pads, Bilstein shocks and a Tremec five-speed to your old Corvette. On the other hand, outlandish graphics, aftermarket fender flares and 22-inch wheels will just get you laughed at.
For most American rally events, you won’t need a suite of high-tech gadgets. Rally computers are typically overkill; instead, teams use stopwatches, atomic watches or iPhones. In addition to appropriate timing equipment, your navigator should have at least two pens and a set of different-colored highlighters. If you have a particularly noisy sports car, invest in a pair of those head-mount intercoms that touring motorcyclists use.
Some enthusiasts think it’s fun to invest in vintage rally equipment, like a Curta “coffee grinder” calculator or Halda Speedpilot. Some teams even try to replicate similar cars that competed in the Rallye Monte Carlo in the old days, fitting auxiliary driving lights, leather hood straps, a map light for the navigator and lots of mysterious extra switches on the dash.
At the very least, you should equip your rally car with a fire extinguisher, spare tire, small jack, tool kit, oil, brake fluid, coolant, spark plugs, wire ties and first-aid kit. A cell phone could save your life, or someone else’s. Also bring lots of clothing layers, from a polo shirt and tennis shorts to a ski jacket and gloves. Old sports cars—even closed cars—can be cold and drafty or hot and stuffy. The navigator’s feet are especially vulnerable, and there’s no misery quite like having cold, wet feet. Make sure your navigator invests in warm boots.

In the Hot Seat

Most American old-car “rallies” are tours: Organizers plan meals, book hotel rooms and prepare rudimentary maps, while participants basically travel around in a group. Other events are competitive time-speed-distance rallies, which feature elaborate route books full of instructions, checkpoints to be zeroed and prizes to be won. This competition element adds more twists to the trip: more gear and more detailed planning.
Experienced vintage rally teams have learned a few helpful tricks for participating in the event. If you can, be one of the first cars out in the morning. Early cars avoid rush-hour traffic and miss the afternoon school buses, too. You’ll also gain time to enjoy the various stops along the way, something that’s hard to do if you’re always running late.
Always verify all route directions as soon as you can. For example, if you’re supposed to cross a bridge half a mile after a turn, make sure you cross that bridge when you come to it. If there’s no bridge, stop before you get even farther off the route. The chance of your 40-year-old Ferrari odometer agreeing with the odometer of the rallymeister’s new Porsche is virtually nil.
Figure out the standard deviation as quickly as possible. The navigator should use a highlighter to mark important route instructions ahead of time, then check them off as they’re performed.

That's the Spirit

Most importantly, don’t take it all so seriously that you spoil what should be a wonderful and memorable vacation. Enjoy your time driving your special car on special roads with your navigator. Remember, if you win a vintage rally, it’s possible that Roger Penske will offer you a drive in the Indy 500—but he probably won’t.

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