Have you ever wondered what it was like to drive a production-based sportscar in the golden era of American road racing? Me too. And now I know.
"I don't want to retire and sit around a golf course," Rick Baldick said to me, leaning over the balcony and looking down at his team's car screaming toward Turn 1 at 110 mph. "I'd rather be here. This is what I love."
The Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois is just that… a figurative golf course for motorsports addicts. It was here that Team 45 was testing their vintage 1969 Corvette last Friday in preparation to race this season with the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association.
Although Rick jokingly refers to the team as "a bunch of old guys burning up 100-dollar bills," in reality their sport is much, much more. The goal of vintage racing is to re-live the glory days of American road racing as accurately as possible. The 1969 Corvette that the team had generously invited me to drive was an original, production chassis machine. Other than safety modifications, it was very similar to what race fans saw on road courses across America in the 1960's and early 70's.
The car was built by team members Jim Mattison, Doug Wesch, Dave Tiura and Baldick. It is well constructed and is obviously a labor of love for the delightful, easy-going people who comprise this team. Jim's son, J. B., is an outstanding driver who pilots the car at most events.
The team's headquarters is an amazing facility built by Mike Origer and his partners on the Autobahn grounds. It was more like a hotel than most of the racing garages I've seen. It features showers, sleeping quarters, balcony, outdoor gas grill and a bar stocked with sufficient fluids to make Snake Pit fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway green with envy.
It occurs to me that these gentlemen know auto racing. I make a mental note to hang out with them more often.
The car's equipment list was simple enough. Small block Chevy. 580 realistic horsepower, not far beyond what was commonly achieved in the late 60's. Bias ply tires. Original suspension points with a few aftermarket parts. Okay, so they use modern synthetic motor oil. Can't blame them for that. What else are these guys doing that wasn't being done in the summer of 1970? Not much.
Mike Origer – who is a fine driver in his own right and had to leave early for a race the following day – warned me in advance that 1960's era racecars were a handful.
"Have you ever been on a snomobile?" Mike asked.
"That's what this car handles like."
Yes, Mike was serious. My short stint in the car was at a modest pace (Racing Etiquette 101: Do not attempt to set a land speed record in a car you've never sat in at a track you've never seen before, thereby returning the car in one piece). However, I did use enough pedal to put the car sideways in the corners and hit 116 mph on the backstretch. And it did, in fact, handle like a snomobile wallowing through 3-foot drifts in January. It was truly awesome.
You just can't keep the car under you. It washes, wallows, slips and slides all over the track and it's a barrel of fun. These old 1960's and 70's cars had to be driven every minute. If you're driving the car properly (J. B. was – I wasn't) you'll never really come out of a drift except for a few moments on the longest straights, and even then the car is tracking like a 1980's front wheel drive machine.
The tires are the main culprits. Bias-ply tires have a mind of their own. I'd driven plenty of bias-ply tires on ovals for many years, but all of my road racing experience has been on radials. So this was a real learning experience.
The tires have fairly soft, tall sidewalls that lean in the corners. Unlike today's low profile, "point-and-shoot" radials that respond as quickly as your mind can absorb the data, bias-ply tires take their sweet time. They're squishy. And they really don't grip that well.
Too much grip is actually more of a problem in auto racing than it is a solution. When cars slide easily, the racing groove becomes wider and the driver's talent becomes a greater factor in the outcome of the race. So a universal move back to bias-ply tires in auto racing wouldn't be a bad thing. It'll never happen, but it sure wouldn't hurt my feelings if it did.
The engine in Team 45's Corvette sings beautifully. I didn't think anything was louder than my stock car. I was wrong. The Corvette's sidepipes registered 9.3 on the Richter Scale. The small block pulls like a freight train at 6500 rpm's in 4th gear even well into triple digit speeds.
The steering wheel is a little too far forward and places a bit more fatigue on the shoulders, especially combined with wide tires that naturally resist turning. The Corvette's brakes were a bit spongy since the team was experimenting with new pads and brake bias settings.
The car is physical to drive and responds well to being pushed hard. Some modern racecars can't be overdriven, but these vintage-era cars certainly can. They have their own pulse. You can feel everything. As my father says, you could drive this car over a dime and tell if it was heads or tails.
I learned a lot about auto racing in the 1960's and early 70's last weekend. The cars are just as slippery and fun to drive as they look in those old films. The good ol' days really were good. I honestly believe the combination of high horsepower engines, bias-ply tires and bare-bones suspension makes for better racing than most of what we see today.
My thanks to everyone at Team 45 for their hospitality and enthusiasm. These guys know how to enjoy their sport. Their hospitality, enthusiasm and love of auto racing is infectious.
Who needs golf? I'm retiring to the Autobahn.