The term "Vintage Racing" has been applied to a wide spectrum of automobile events ranging from "social gatherings where an occasional race breaks out" (actual quote from a local race Chief Steward) to events that feature some of the most competitive road racing in the country with professional racecar preparation and both former and current professional drivers competing in front of thousands of racing fans.
Here is a look at the current world of vintage racing in the USA from our point of view.
In major national vintage racing, the motivation and dedication of the participants is not unlike that found at any major SCCA or NASA amateur road racing event. The joy and thrill of racing and competing is pretty much the same, but the fields in major national vintage racing are typically much larger and the social aspects are on a bit of a higher plane. The demographics are a bit different in vintage racing as well, as the average vintage driver is in his or her 50's.
In a typical 50-car field there will usually be 3-5 competitors prepared to win; 10 who hope to have a shot at a podium finish (top three), and 35 guys who are satisfied participating in and competing in a spectacularly exciting racing event. Those who come to win are typically well funded and experienced. In vintage racing that experience is often measured in decades. In every form of racing, vintage or otherwise, there is at least some conflict between those who have professionally prepared cars and those who don't. That's just racing, and it is no different when the cars and competitors are both vintage!
Why Vintage Racing?
In every venue of professional racing, from NASCAR to Formula 1 to Trans-Am; each group's cars look pretty much alike. They all run in the same air, so they all end up looking about the same when they get out of the wind tunnel. Engine technology is such that each sanctioning body's engines sound about the same. About the only time you see different cars on the track at the same time is in the endurance races where GT2 cars are being lapped by Prototype cars; not exactly exciting stuff.
Aerodynamic advances in modern racecars create downforce, which along with modern tire technology have made road racing a bit less exciting to watch than it used to be back in the day when racecars gracefully slid around every corner.
Vintage racing takes us back to the days when Porches, Jaguars, Corvettes, Cobras, Camaros and Mustangs ran against each other. Rear engine prototype cars raced against front engine prototype cars, and everyone competed on treaded bias-ply tires. Brakes and tires had to be nursed to the end of a race, and power had to be applied judiciously. The cars drifted around every corner, running on a fraction of the tire patch of a modern race car. Vintage cars had aero lift that at high speed reduced their already small tire patches. Today's modern cars have downforce that plant new, sticky compound tires firmly on the track.
Road America, considered one of the greatest road racing track in the USA, hosts a summer vintage race that is their biggest event of the year. Every year they host other vintage events along with the SCCA June Sprints, a Trans-Am race, a NASCAR Nationwide race etc. The July Brian Redman International vintage race at Road America draws bigger crowds and more participants than any other race on their schedule. That's generally the case with all the major tracks we run. The high end of vintage racing is at the high end of all road racing, both here in the US and around the world.
First ask yourself what you would expect in return for a considerable investment of both time and money in vintage racing. Racing on any level is expensive, and at the highest level operating a vintage race car can be about as expensive as operating a modern racecar in a professional series. The only operational savings are tires; vintage tires are as much as 50% less expensive than modern race tires. Also, vintage cars tend to appreciate, rather than depreciate. Modern race cars can lose half their value as soon as something better comes along, or the sanctioning body changes the rules.
Expenses of a vintage racing effort are dependent on travel costs, type of car, the sanctioning organization you chose to race with, and your goals and expectations.
Generally speaking costs are lower if you race with a local sanctioning body in a small-bore car and your goals are to just enjoy the experience regardless of where you finish. At the opposite end of the spectrum, costs are dramatically higher if you race at the greatest racetracks in the country in a big-bore car, and you want to be able to compete for the win.
If you've never held a racing license, your first step would be to schedule a road racing course at a professional racing school. The Bob Bondurant School in Phoenix has a three-day curriculum that will wear you out. With a Bondurant certificate, most racing organizations will allow you to run an event, and if that works out you will get a license from that organization. Generally that license will be recognized by the other vintage racing organizations. Be advised that Bondurant's cars are nothing like what you will experience in vintage racing. The experience of driving one of his Vipers with ABS and sticky tires is completely different to what you will be exposed to in vintage racing.
SVRA, the largest national vintage racing organization, has hosted vintage racing schools in conjunction with some of their largest national events. These schools feature individual tutelage by professional instructors in either your car or a car provided by the local track school. By successfully completing this program, it will be possible to go to Watkins Glen (for example) on a Monday with no license or experience, and race there that following weekend. In so doing, you will have earned a vintage racing license recognized by the other affiliated vintage racing organizations.
Most competitors at the national level of vintage racing operate on an 'arrive and drive' basis. Companies like ours take your car along with others to the racetrack in large transporters and provide trackside service. We assign one mechanic per car, and perform all the maintenance functions necessary including tire changes, fueling, damage repair, etc. For major repairs we can put everyone on one car to get it back on track. Our trackside service includes driver aids like GPS tracking software, in-car video comparisons, etc.
Other competitors bring their own racecars to the races and perform these functions themselves or with their buddies.
As the 2016 season approaches, it is clear that a major sea change has taken place on the national level of vintage racing. Last year SVRA bought General Racing and added their prestigious West Coast races to what was already the largest and best schedule of major vintage racing events. Below SVRA is HSR with a limited national program and then there are about 50 regional outfits.
SVRA will run 16 races in 2016, operating from San Diego to Portland and from New York to Miami. In the center of the country we will join them at Road America, Indianapolis, Mid Ohio, and at the Formula One track at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Clearly SVRA has emerged as the dominant force in vintage racing, much as NASCAR dominates stock car racing.
One rule common to every vintage racing organization is 'No aggressive driving!' but even that is interpreted differently by different organizations. It is safe to say that all vintage racing organizers condemn fender to fender or wheel to wheel contact among competitors. Violators face penalties ranging from stern warnings to being banished from vintage racing for 13 months or more. Reciprocal agreements between the major national organizations honor these sentences, so if expelled from one organization you will likely be prevented from racing elsewhere for the duration.
I think it is fair to say that all vintage racing organizations are run by well intentioned people who have a passion for racing. All are continually trying to refine their format and deliver a satisfactory product to their paying customer (which almost always means you, the competitor). Only the biggest national events are significantly funded by spectators. SVRA is well on their way in shifting the costs of putting on a race from the competitors (entry fees), to the income from spectators and major corporate sponsors.
Enlightened vintage racing organizations attempt to maintain parity and keep expenses within reasonable parameters by allowing competitors to use durable race-tested parts that are widely available. These parts reduce costs dramatically and improve the show by reducing mechanical failures. Organizations that require over restoring these cars to the point of having to use old discontinued parts at what can be 100 times their original price are doing no favors to vintage racers. Modern parts that are built for racing are not only way cheaper in the long run, they are safer and just make more sense. One of the reasons SVRA and to some extent HSR have grown over the regional organizations is their recognition of the costs incurred by the entrants and a dedication to their reduction.
How long will it take and how much will it cost?
If you approach vintage racing as a hobby and start at a driving school like Bondurant, race locally and tow your small bore car to a local track, you could probably plan to race 4 times a year and spend as little as $1,000 a race, excluding of course the cost of the car, your personal safety equipment, etc.
At the upper end of the scale, vintage racing is best approached as a passion, rather than as a hobby. After taking the first step at a formal national racing school, figure it will takea couple of full seasons of racing the best equipment in the highly competitive big-bore classes to get on the podium of a major national vintage racing event. Costs are highly dependent on the type of car, but total costs in big-bore production racing with professional preparation will be in the neighborhood of $8,000 a race, excluding the cost of the car. Costs include race prep, transportation, crew expense, lodging, entry fees, air fares, rent cars, race tires, race gas, brake pads, repairs, engine overhauls, etc.
Consider the analogy of learning to fly. If your goal is to get a private license and go up occasionally in a Cessna 172, you have got yourself a hobby not totally unlike that of the small-bore part-time vintage racer.
At the other extreme, if your goal is to win at the highest level of vintage racing in the highest performance car categories, you will not just have to learn to fly a 172 from point A to point B; your flight lessons would have to take you to all the way to flying jets in combat. If this is going to be a late life second career, at the very minimum success will require a boat load of time, passion and commitment.