U.S. Vintage Grand Prix @ Watkins Glen (article)

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Ken Epsman, #2, 1971 AMC Javelin.

Victory Lane Magazine, December 2016, Vol.31, No.12

Story and photos by Terry Johnsen

Watkins Glen International, September 7-11, 2016

The 2016 U.S. Vintage Grand Prix presented by Jaguar was an amazing celebration of American road racing, held at the most iconic road racing venue in North America. The vision of Tony Parella (SVRA President and CEO) was to create a festival atmosphere for the fans, celebrating sports cars, vintage racing, and the Watkins Glen racing legacy. The weekend brought crystal clarity to that vision. The program schedule was carefully designed to include something for everyone.

Over 450 cars were on hand for the event. The paddock was spread far and wide, and seemed to be endless. A person could literally spend a whole day enjoying the vast array of beautifully presented vintage machinery without ever seeing action on the track. A multitude of vendors were also on hand offering souvenirs, memorabilia, and fine artwork. It had to be one of the best collections of vendors I’ve seen at any event in a very long time. My wallet can attest to that!

American racing veteran and winner of the 1996 24 Hours of Le Mans, Davy Jones, was the Grand Marshal for the USVGP. Jones was also on hand as the Head Driving Instructor for the Jaguar Driving Experience. This extremely popular activity included the Jaguar Driving Experience autocross in the North Paddock, and the Land Rover motorcross in the “boot” section of the track. The annual downtown Watkins Glen Festival re-enactment took place on Friday, capped off by a fireworks display in the State Park gorge. Roberto Guerrero served as the celebration’s Grand Marshal. He and fellow Jaguar Driving Experience ambassador, Davy Jones, were honored for their driving achievements and given their own markers on the downtown Walk of Fame.

Motostalgia Auctions D’Elegance continued their successful partnership with SVRA and held their auction Saturday evening. There was an impressive array of road cars, racecars, motorcycles, and automobilia sculpture available to the highest bidders. Representatives from the International Motor Racing Research Center (IMRRC) were also on hand to provide information about their splendid research facility located in the town of Watkins Glen. Sitting next to their display booth was a brand-sparkling new 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata that is being offered up for their annual fund-raising raffle. Only 2,500 tickets will be sold, so act now. The drawing for the winning ticket will be held on December 10, 2016. For more information go to their website, www.racingarchives.org.

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Tony Parella and Lyn St. James.

Fan favorite and racing veteran Lyn St. James was at the track, and was honored by Tony Parella and SVRA for her achievement at Watkins Glen in 1985. During the IMSA GT Championship event that year, she became the first female driver to win a North American professional endurance road race driving solo. James competed in the GTO class for Roush Racing. Throughout the USVGP weekend she was available at The Pyramid, the Watkins Glen gift shop, and signed copies of her book “An Incredible Journey”. I asked her what the draw of vintage and historic racing was for her. She really likes the relaxed atmosphere, which is similar she said to her earlier SCCA days. She also enjoys the unique experience of getting to drive various cars from past generations. Lyn also spoke about her role as Ambassador for the RPM Foundation. Their stated mission is to preserve and promote America’s automotive treasures, and to educate a new generation of restoration craftsmen. You can find more information by visiting the RPM website: www.rpm.foundation.

Providing race commentary throughout the weekend were track announcers, Frank Delvecchio and Mike Pazdyk. Their unique blend of witty conversation and automotive know-how was an added bonus for the spectators. Saturday’s racing activity featured the two Hawk Performance Endurance Series races. Each endurance event fielded healthy grids of over 30 cars. The morning Classic/Vintage Endurance Race was won by Greg Frey/Ron Zitza in a 1970 Porsche 914/6. The afternoon running of the Hawk Performance Historic Endurance Race was won by David Porter in his 2007 Pescarolo 01 Judd.

Sunday brought with it another beautiful sunny day at The Glen. The fans were back in force and were ready for the main program of events. The Collier Cup race embodies the history and heritage of American sports car racing. No U.S. Vintage Grand Prix would be complete without it. 24 cars took the green flag. Fierce racing ensued with former SCCA G Production Runoff National Champion, Kent Prather, ultimately taking top honors with the overall win in his 1962 MG/A. The prestigious Collier Cup, as voted by the competitors themselves, was awarded to Steve Konsin, who drove his 1953 MG/TD to a 13th place finish.

The Historic Trans-Am Series were the rock stars of the weekend. The 50th anniversary celebration of the Trans-Am series served as the perfect headliner for the USVGP in 2016. Their special paddock was flooded with fans all weekend long. It was such a special treat to get up close and personal with these iconic and legendary American racecars. Anytime you have a grid lineup with former driver names on the cars such as: George Follmer, Peter Gregg, Mark Donohue, Dan Gurney, and Sam Posey (just to name a few) you know you are witnessing something special. NASCAR announcer/broadcaster Mike Joy was on-hand to give the pre-race commentary, then jumped in a 1966 Ford Mustang and drove in the race, finishing 19th. The pre-race ceremonies included an overflowing fan grid walk and a stirring rendition of the National Anthem, made all the more memorable being that it was the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy in 2001. The race served as a showcase of the memorable Pony War years. The engines roared and the ground shook. Jim Hague set a blistering pace and led the field to the checkered flag in his ex-Peter Gregg, Ford Mustang Boss 302.

Following the Historic Trans-Am race out on the track was the Governor’s Cup All-Corvette Race. This event proved to be equally thunderous and just as competitive. The fans loved it. Jeffrey Bernatovich led from start to finish in his 1990 Chevrolet GT1 Corvette, taking the top spot on the podium. Rounding out the special feature races on Sunday was the Dick Mooney Memorial Race for Group 6 won by Peter Klutt, the Joel Finn Cup Race for Group5/7b won by Justin Frick, and the S2 Feature Race for Group 7a taken by Ben Sinnott.

The track action and intensity of competition never abated. From top to bottom the group winners displayed wonderful driving skill and sportsmanship. Harry Gentry led the way in Group 1 with his 1962 MG Midget, while Peter Giddings graced the track with his lovely 1954 Lancia D50 A/R Formula One car in the Pre-War race. It was a sight to behold, an amazing piece of automotive fine art. Dave Handy set the pace in Group 2 in his 1968 Brabham BT29, edging out Bobby Brown for the win. Bob Bramlage, driving a 1964 Ginetta G4, also won a tight battle by beating out Vic Skirmants in Group 3, while Randy Williams secured the Group 4 win in his 1966 Jaguar ERA XKE-R.

Rounding out the group race competition on Sunday was an impressive win by Jim Hamblin in Group 8 behind the wheel of his 1968 Porsche 911. Mark Brannon took the fastest lap and the win in Group 9. Jeffrey Bernatovich not only won the All-Corvette race in the afternoon, but also began his day by taking the Group 10 race win. Group 11 was a free-for-all, no-holds-barred battle, ultimately won by Randy Johnson in his 2007 Pescarolo 01. Finally, Jonathan Pfeffer won the Group 12 race in his 1990 Chevrolet Corvette. He topped off a great race by taking the fastest lap.

A special feature to the weekend racing program was the inclusion of the International GT Series. This contemporary series features Porsche Caymans and GT3 Cup cars, along with an assortment of Ferrari 430’s, 458’s, and 355’s. Their sprint and endurance races were ultra competitive and a joy to watch. International GT served as the perfect bookend for the vast racing heritage on display at The Glen.

The SVRA U.S. Vintage Grand Prix presented by Jaguar was indeed a festival celebration. Congratulations to SVRA, Watkins Glen International, and the downtown festival organizers. It was a huge success. The attendance throughout the weekend spoke volumes for the enthusiasm fans have for vintage and historic racing. History came alive and everyone enjoyed the festive ride. Once again, The Glen laid claim as being the spiritual home of American road racing.

TJ 2016

About terryjohnsen

Writer/photographer of vintage/historic sports car racing. See you at the track! Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terry Johnsen and terryjohnsen.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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