The beginnings are probably among the least-charted in the history of the sport. It's some what understandable. This is an incredibly lean organization, always fixated on how to make the event better year after year. They are always moving forward, always analyzing their results. They are always completely reliant upon the dedication and motivation of the volunteer army. Approaching a quarter-century, however, the tale needs to be told on how they have become such a major vintage racing event and the longest continually running event of its kind in the country.
1983 is often cited as the first year. In actuality, the genesis was one year prior. In 1982, Art McGovern and Mary Beth Gmitter envisioned the city streets winding through Schenley Park in Pittsburgh's East End as a perfect venue for vintage auto racing. Told that City of Pittsburgh approval hinged on assurance that any money raised would go to charity, they first approached Dan Torisky of the Autism Society of Pittsburgh, then Myron Cope of WTAE-TV Sports fame - also an autism awareness advocate. Meetings with the city's parks people followed and then-Mayor Richard Caliguiri gave his enthusiastic approval. All parties agreed to create the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix Association, consisting of volunteers - separate from local government bodies - and that net proceeds would be donated to two charities, the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny Valley School. In April, 1983, during a meeting in vintage racing guru Alan Patterson's Shadyside garage, the planning began for the first Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, scheduled for Labor Day of the same year.
An incredible amount of work ensued thanks to the volunteers from the Sports Car Club of America and the Vintage Sports Car Club of America, as well as others from all walks of life. Some 75 entrants raced on what would become known as one of the most challenging vintage courses in the country. Five races, along with a parade of patrons, were scheduled, and the plan was put in motion at 8 AM.
It would be a lie to say that the first year went off without a hitch. The complications of a temporary track in the middle of one of Pittsburgh's most popular public parks reared their heads almost immediately. Huge gaps in the snow fence and the labyrith of infield trails left the course open to penetration from above and below. Recreational joggers were running with the cars zooming around the track. The volunteer security struggled mightily to overcome these logistical challenges. Nonetheless, they managed to complete the five racing groups, and Vintage Motorsport Magazine wrote, 'if race organizers can get the bugs out of the system, the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix could become a staple on the vintage racing calendar.' A profit of $25,000.00 was raised for charities that year.
The experience only served to fuel the imaginations and motivations of the original volunteers, and in 1984 the expansion being. Invitational car shows were added, as well as the Sunday gala known as Patron Parking. By 1985, people started paying attention as the spectator count grew to 40,000 and drew participants and fans from all over North America as well as Europe. The genesis of Race Week, in 1986, was ushered in with the first Kickoff Rally the preceding Sunday. The volunteer army began growing by leaps and bounds. By 1989, they had reached 1,100 volunteers for Race Week - many of whom still volunteer to this day. Car shows in Shadyside, Downtown, Squirrel Hill, and elsewhere began filling in the Race Week gaps as demand grew. A black tie gala was added in 1998, as well as a motorcycle ride known as Thunder Run in 2001, where all entry fees went to the charities. Race Week spectator draw has consistently grown throughout the years and is now estimated at close to a quarter-million.
With the added size came added attention - from Pittsburgh and beyond. In 1996, Buick signed on as their first Presenting Sponsor. In addition to their donation, Buick supplied support vehicles for race control and show logistics. It also brought new models and concept cars to the event, and helped legitimize the stature within the auto industry. Modern race cars from the Indy 500, LeMans, and elsewhere have blasted down the Boulevard of the Allies and snaked between Serpentine's stone walls. Ferrari, Marque of the Year in 1993, showed up with museum-piece cars and actually put them on the track - in the rain. They have surpassed Watkins Glen as the longest-continually-running vintage road race in the nation. In 1994, Marque of the Year one-upmanship began as each attempted to better the proceeding's donations and spectacle. The gauntlet, first thrown down by Porsche, has been eagerly picked up by BMW, Mercedes, Audi, MINI, and others since then. Shop 'n Save's stewardship of Presenting Sponsor - after Buick's tenure expired in 2000 - brought still more charity donations, an added marketing channel through its stores and a true partnership between benefactor and beneficiary.
All the while, they have held true to their two pledges - give all money to the two charities (over $1.75 million so far) and keep the event free to the public. It has been nearly a quarter century since a cadre of car nuts met in Shadyside garage, and each year brings its challenges. But, with the undying dedication of the volunteers and enthusiasm of the racers, car show participants, sponsors, and spectators, and encouragement from the charities, they continue to grow and be the premiere vintage racing event on the East Coast.