If you’ve ever seen the old TV commercial with the white-gloved traffic cop waving hand signals to music in the middle of a busy intersection, you might have a sense of what organizing the grid is like at the first-ever Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) U.S. Vintage Racing National Championship taking place this weekend at Circuit of the Americas in Austin.
On Friday, spectators eager to enjoy rare paddock access and the start of races from inside the track watched as well over 500 historic and vintage race cars in 13 groups were lined up and positioned in particular configurations to prepare to go out on the brand new American Formula 1 track. Unlike the Formula 1 race that will take place here in a few weeks, some of these historic fields number four dozen or more each. As a result, the starting grid for their practices, qualifying sessions, and races is not on the track itself but rather just inside in what, to the layperson, looks almost like a large parking lot at a discount department store, albeit a lot of very valuable racing machines.
However, to call this grid a parking lot would be to make a serious mistake. These cars are not here to park and call it a day; both the cars and their drivers are ready to move -- and move fast -- as soon as officials say the track is clear and safe to do so. And therein, at times, lay the challenge.
Cars slowly arrive at the grid from their own paddock areas, and the drivers look to grid officials to show them where to line up. Hand signals point drivers where to direct their cars and exactly when and where to stop. Rather than grid them in two rows side by side in a long line like race fans may be used to seeing out on the track, here there is a wide array of positions stretching across the asphalt, making the full grid look something like a used car lot several cars wide and several deep, all pointing at an angle.
SVRA grid official Scott Marvicsin of Tampa, Florida plays “traffic cop” and choreographer to this dizzying array. He has to line the cars up in their correct positions, make sure no one leaves ahead of time or goes in the wrong direction, that each car waits for the one before it to go, that any car with sudden engine trouble gets quickly out of the way of eager racers waiting to go, and that the spectators along the sidelines remain safe but with access to all the fun of being this close to the action. A full crew of grid workers helps point and direct drivers and others, leading them where they need to be.
Not only does the grid form in the paddock area and then file out through a gate onto the track, but the cars from the previous race also sometimes come back through that same gate, filing their way deep through the waiting grid of cars.
SVRA manages all this while keeping COTA’s required fire lanes in this space open and remaining attentive to radio calls, signals, other communications, and the stray car going where it’s not supposed to go, or the spectator not sure where he or she should stand to watch. Safety is number one at this location of so much activity, horsepower, and drivers eager to get their race on.
The choreography of it all is impressive, indeed, to the layperson and that corner inside Paddock A makes a terrific spot for spectators to watch the action of lots of cars coming and going in close proximity – it’s a regular dance of motor racing history. For example, late Friday afternoon a smaller field of cars from the PreWar-era headed out on the track for their second practice session. After they were through, they were followed immediately by a large group of open-wheel historic Formula 1s, Formula 5000s, and IndyLights cars in a qualifying race.
The range of history is impressive between those two groups – from cars like a 1903 Morgan Sports BRG; a 1911 National Indy car; a 1925 Bugatti 35A Grand Prix; and a 1939 Maserati 4CL to cars as new as a 2006 Swift ‘016a and a 2001 IndyLights Lola T97/20. This crossroads of time and technology can be dizzying to any motor sports enthusiast.
"This is the place to be!" remarked one delighted spectator on Friday when surrounded by so much motor sport history.
For its part, COTA is contributing more than just its world-famous brand new F1 track to this endeavor. If one is watching the grid action from the Paddock Club overlooking it, for example, one can hear, perhaps appropriately to the ages of many of these racers and owners, classic rock booming from the sound system.
The U.S. Vintage Racing National Championship continues through Saturday and Sunday. Hundreds of historic and vintage cars can be seen up close, and spectators are invited to talk with racers and owners in the paddocks.
The action on the track begins on Saturday at 8:00 a.m. with qualifying races; the last feature race of the day is scheduled for 5:10 p.m. On Sunday, races also go approximately from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Connie Ann Kirk, Ph.D. is the author of several books and is an historic/vintage and Formula 1 racing enthusiast. Currently, Dr. Kirk is working on a new book about racing and racers with a historic racer from upstate New York. Glance at Connie’s musings about the sport at her blog, Motor Sport Muse.