Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix

Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix August 2007
Twenty-five years ago, in 1983, the city of Pittsburgh staged a one-day automobile race through city streets. Fast-forward two-and-a-half decades later and the event has evolved into a 10-day celebration packed with parades, car shows, a Rallye, Black-tie Gala's, and two race weekends. Over 1,000 dedicated volunteers make this event happen every year, with over a quarter-million spectators coming to enjoy one of the nation's largest vintage race events and the only one staged on city streets. Over 170 racers partook in this year's event and battled it out on the 22-turn serpentine Schenley Park route. The inaugural event had 75 entrants with 14 coming from Canada; much has changed in 25 years.

This year's Marque of the Year was Mercedes-Benz with the 50th anniversary of the 1957 300 SL Roadster coinciding with the event. Mercedes-Benz has been honored on several occasions at the Grand Prix, the first time of which was in the late 1980s. Parade laps featuring Mercedes-Benz automobiles along with many other activities throughout the week helped in honoring a marque that has a long and proud history both in racing and in automobile production.

In celebration of its 25th year, the organizers of the event chose to honor and celebrate the Volunteers, making this 'The Year of the Volunteer.' It took only a short time for this event to become the nation's largest volunteer managed and operated event of its kind, an honor it has retained to modern times. One of the spotlights was the honoring of Mike Connolly, the President & Race Director of the Grand Prix. Since the inception of the race, Mike has been a pillar and backbone for the event, devoting over 400 hours a year to its success. Much to his surprise, he was named Grand Marshall and was driven around the course during the opening ceremonies for all to see. During the opening ceremonies, the cars that raced in the 1983 race did a parade lap, along with corner workers, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and racing legend Bobby Rahal. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl donated and dedicated a permanent plaque to honor the event and the 1,200 volunteers who make this possible.

The winner of the 1986 Indy 500, Bobby Rahal, served as honorary Race Director. 'I think events like this are part of what made racing so popular in its beginning, but today is a different day,' Rahal said. 'I'd certainly like to take a ride around this course,' Rahal said. 'But I'd like to do it in my own car. So next year there is a good chance I'll bring my car and race.' NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, who had visited one of the events a few days prior, had made a similar statement. It would be great to see this come to fruition and see both of these experienced and seasoned drivers trade paint along the course.

About the Race
There are six racing groups, all sanctioned by the VSCCA and VRG, which exists 'to encourage the acquisition, preservation, restoration, and operation of vintage sports cars'. Much effort is made to preserve the vintage sports car, the pleasure of their use, and promote their appeal. The union between the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix (PVGP) and the VSCCA is appropriate, as the VSCCA continues to bring interesting and competitive machines to the event every year, and the twisty course with multiple elevation changes of the PVGP is hard to beat.

The first group to circle the track was the Pre-World War II Class. Top honors went to Ian Landy of Great Falls, VA in his 1933 Riley Special. Racing 'Specials' seemed to be popular this year, originally built by legendary constructors such as Riley, Hudson, Culbert, and Reuter, to name a few. Many cars that competed in America were built in Europe, but there was an underground movement consisting of 'specialty builders' who built their racers in home garages or small shops. Many were unsuccessful but there were others that could run circles around anything else on the track. The oldest car on the course was the 1919 Ford Model T Speedster, which is a faithful entrant to this event, and finished in 17th place. In comparison to last year, the car had a 'Fast Lap Time' nearly 30 seconds faster. The Alfa Romeo Volpi Monoposto was constructed in Argentina in the late 1930s by renowned chassis constructor Conrado Volpi using original Alfa components. It was raced by individuals such as Juan Manuel Fangio in the late 1940s and by his friend Alberto Crespo. At the PVGP, the Alfa was driven to 13th place. There were two three-wheeled cycle cars this year. The Morgan Aero Super Sport is another faithful contender and one of the more memorable entrants as its three-wheeled nimble body seems to glide through the corners and attacks the straight stretches. A Sandford S Grand Sport joined in on the action this year. The Sandford was built by a Morgan salesman who created this vehicle in response to customers' demands for a larger, more powerful version of the Morgan. The four-cylinder Ruby engine that powered these machines were available in normally-aspirated or supercharged form. Top speed was achieved at about 120 mph, which was very dangerous considering its three wheels. Coming in second place was the 1939 MG TB Special driven by Frank Mount. His fastest laps of the day was just a second off of the leader and his car proved more than capable to rival for top honors.

The second group was the Under One Liter cars, mostly consisting of Formula 3 and H-Production competition cars. Twenty one cars began the race with 16 crossing the finish line. Nigel Ashman drove his Cooper MkXI to a victory, once again proving the agility of the mid-engined F3 car with a design similar to the cars that helped Cooper capture the Constructors' Title in Grand Prix competition in 1959. In second place was a Turner MKI driven by local resident James Southwood. Third place was the Miller-Crosley H-Mod driven by Kip Fjeld from California. Fourth place went to another faithful visitor to this event, Jeremy Freeman in a Quantum Saab. 'Under One Liter' means the engine is pretty small and as a result the cars are usually very creative. Lightweight materials, aerodynamic construction, proper weight distribution, excellent mechanical components, and a finely tuned engine are about the only ways to keep pace.

The third group was the Sports Racers and Formula Cars, which are specially-prepared race cars based upon production sports cars. This group included both open wheel monoposto racers and the low, lightweight, aerodynamically created sports racers that sit just inches off of the ground. The word 'elle Va' means 'She goes', and there were six Elva's that joined in on the group three action, with the Elva MK4 driven by Tom Grudovich taking top honors. Second place went to a Lotus 18 Formula Junior car driven by Pittsburgh resident John Bechtol. If you have never seen a Lotus automobile race, this was a prime opportunity, as twenty were entered, and accounted for six of the top eight positions. Third place went to the Peyote MKII driven by Bill Babock of Oregon. The Peyote has a very interesting story that began in the late 1950s. It was the work of a dedicated homegrown mechanic working in his garage. Using a wrecked Triumph TR3, the car was prepared for E-Production racing. The first attempt at creating a body was 'hideous'; a few outings at the track and the body was removed and replaced with its current configuration. It has been racing nearly every year since then.

The first three groups had many unique vehicles, with many being unfamiliar to most spectators. As the racing day progressed, some of the vehicles became more familiar, with names such as MG, Triumph, Austin Healey, Porsche, Lotus, Saab, Mercedes-Benz, and Datsun circling the course. The Grand Prix is a great blend of over fifty years of racing and improvements, and it is easy to cultivate an appreciation for the competitive environment that has percolated into a major spectator sport over the years.

The group 4, pre-1960 under 2-Litre and Preservation, included cars built from 1944 to 1960. The top three positions went to MG TD's with first place going to Manley Ford. Second place went to George Shafer and third to Paul Fitzgerald. The MG's were followed by three Elva Couriers. Three MGA's and an Alfa rounded off the top ten positions. MG's were the popular marque in this race with over 20 being entered. Automobile production was halted for the Second World War; when production resumed, many marque's used technology and designs from the pre-War era. MG was one of those marques, gradually introducing refinements, amenities, improvements, and enhancements throughout the years. Securing the top three positions at this year's Grand Prix, against competition that had ten additional years of improvements, speaks highly to the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the MG automobile.

As the day progressed, the engine sizes became larger. Group five featured Over 2 Liter cars, pre-1960, with names such as Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and Jaguar. When Tivvy Shenton lined his Jaguar XK140 along the starting grid, it was a safe bet to pick him as the victor. It has been stated that there are only two guarantees in life - 'death and taxes'. Well, Shenton seems set on modifying that statement, as he has won on numerous occasions - consecutively at least seven times. His 'fast lap time' was even a couple of seconds faster than the previous years. Shenton has the experience of racing at the Grand Prix, knowing the course, and having a very capable car. The XK legacy continued with outright victories at the grueling 24 Hours of LeMans in 1953, 1955, 1956 and 1957. The Porsche 356A driven by Bob Klingenburg finished in second with third going to an Austin Healey 100/4 driven by Richard Maloumian. Fourth place went to Thomas Mittler and his gorgeous Jaguar D-Type. It was perhaps the most attractive car of the day, with its curvy and voluptuous body, compounded by its proven racing heritage.

The final race of the day was the group 6, small bore through 1965, Modified and H-Production cars. Most of these cars went through the corners on three wheels. Mini Coopers, Turner's, Elva's, Fiats, Austin Healeys, MGB's, Datsuns, Triumphs, Saab, and Ginettas were most of the cars that made up this group. Bill Rutan entered his car as 'VW Bathtub.' Research before the race reinforced the belief that Volkswagen never made 'a bathtub.' It became instantly clear what was meant by 'bathtub' when the car was let loose on the course. It is basically a chassis, roll-cage, seat, doors, and a front hood of a Volkswagen Beetle. Creative, to say the least, it probably would not win in a beauty contest but it was able to secure a 12th place finish in a field of about 30 entrants. Tom Grudovich, the winner of the group 3 race in an Elva MK4, won the group 6 race in an Elva MK7. Both cars wore the number 308 and were painted in similar fashion. The two cars are very similar in appearance, and when the group 6 cars were let loose, there was a moment of 'deja vu'. The Elva MK4 had a 'fast lap time' of 2:17 while the MK7 produced a slightly better time of 2:14. The total race took about 17 seconds longer in the MK4 than in the MK7. In the group 3 race, Grudovich was chased by a Lotus while in the group 6 he was followed by an MGB driven by Donald Dickey. Fourth place went to John Weinberger in a Ginetta G4R. The Ginetta G4 models took three of the top seven positions and three Elva's could be found in the top nine.

Conclusion
There were very few incidents throughout the race, if any. One official stated that the races had ended earlier than expected since no - or at least very few - accidents had to be cleared or cleaned up. All six races went very smoothly which cannot be said for practice/qualifying. On more than one occasion, practice was cut short and the cars had to stop along the road to wait for the clean-up crew to clear an accident. Considering the damage a road course could inflict on car or driver, it was another impressive year of very few incidents.

What had been a trend for many years has seemed to have subsided; the weather was great! It was sunny, hot and completely devoid of rain. Drivers could race and spectators could spectate.

PVGP Executive Director Dan DelBianco stated 'I wish I could personally thank everyone involved in the event. Whether you are a sponsor, a racer, a car show participant or a spectator. This is the only event of this kind in the country and we should all be proud to be a part of it. To see our volunteers throughout the Park all weekend working on the racecourse, delivering ice, picking up garbage, greeting spectators and knowing that they all had to be at their 'other jobs' on Monday morning is heartwarming and humbling.'

For the last 25 years, this race has been about raising funds and awareness for the charities they support and sponsor, the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and Allegheny Valley School. The Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix's mission is to produce a world-class vintage racing event in order to raise funds that help provide residential care, treatment and support for developmentally disabled individuals in the Pittsburgh region. To date, over $2 million has been raised with a record $160,000 being donated just last year.

It is mind-boggling that this ten-day festival continues to sprout new wings every year. It keeps getting bigger and better with no signs of slowing down. Without the countless dedicated hours of the thousands of volunteers over the years, this event would not be what it has become. The 'Year of the Volunteer' was truly spectacular and memorable.

According to PVGP's President, Mike Connolly, 'it was the best Grand Prix yet; everybody was there for right reason, all the volunteers made us proud.'

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