Cars, Characters And Memories -
At The Dodge Vintage Festival, Memories Are As Alive
As Is The Spirit Of John Fitch
© Andrew S. Hartwell
My memory has always been faulty. As a
youngster I learned to appreciate the soothing
benefits of a good cup of tea from my mother
and grandmother. They could be found each
morning enjoying a cup of Salada or Lipton
while seated at the breakfast table. It was
just what you did at my house back then.
You put on the kettle and boiled the water.
And if your memory was a hell of a lot better than mine was, you remembered to go back into the kitchen and turn off the boiling pot! Suffice it to say this memory-deficient youth had a lot of very hot cups of tea!
I still take it hot as an adult. Not by preference, but by effect of a still faltering memory. Today, I can drink a cup of tea and think back to a time of wonderful memories. And so it is with the people who actively participate in the 'sport' of Vintage Racing. That is not to say they all drink tea. Instead, I refer to their ability to go back to a time of wonderful memories by partaking of an elixir more potent and possibly even more beneficial than a cup of tea. They own and drive vintage automobiles, at speed, on a racecourse.
The 17th Annual Dodge Vintage Festival at Lime Rock Park provided a weekend home to some of the most exciting - and the most mundane - road racing equipment ever to turn a wheel in heated action. Variety, like the word Vintage, starts with a 'V' and some of the many different kinds of cars at the festival, ranging from Austin-Healeys to Ferraris, to Morgans to Corvettes, to Alfa's, to Bugattis, have also earned their own 'V'. It is the one that comes with Victory.
But for these carefully preserved machines of bygone eras, those victories came long ago.
When in their prime, the whole point in driving these beautiful, exotic, and sometimes downright strange, automobiles was to win a 'V' by coming in first. The point of a Vintage Festival however, is to enjoy the camaraderie of champions both real and imagined. It is to be with the wonderful cars and characters of road racings past. It is to spend time in remembrance of races won and lost and simply be with other good people who love and remember these cars as they were. People who want to see them preserved as they were, and people who drive them as they should be driven these so many years since their last 'V'.
The race events that make up the Dodge Vintage Festival (known as the BMW Vintage Festival until a few years ago) are run by the Vintage Sports Car Club of America (VSCCA). That organization places an emphasis on the preservation and spirited enjoyment of vintage racecars and specifically forbids the kind of intensely competitive driving that would bring both damage and injury to the participants.
What follows is a portion of a letter presented to new and prospective members of the VSCCA. The organizations first president, William F. B. O'Donnell, originally wrote it 15 years ago and it is still the code of conduct by which all VSCCA events are operated. No Jackie Stewart wannabes need apply for membership. (The entire message appears on the VSCCA web site.)
"In the VSCCA, the cars are of paramount importance. This means that the races and drivers are secondary. We are institutionally indifferent to who wins our races; for this reason we give no trophies. The VSCCA is not primarily a racing organization. We exist "to encourage the acquisition, preservation, restoration, and operation of vintage sports cars". Our races should be seen in this context. Of course, they are fun for drivers and spectators but, first and foremost, they are settings in which the cars can be used appropriately, not all-out contests to prove which is the fastest car or who is the fastest driver. Those seeking exercises of the latter sort should look elsewhere for their gratifications."
For the spectators, it is really enough just to see the cars on the track together at speed. With some of the much older machines looking so fragile in construction - when compared to a modern day World Sports Car or GT class machine - it amazes the eyes that they don't simply come apart at mid-corner and scatter themselves across the surface of the road. Just how do they keep those skinny tires from slipping off the wire wheel rims? And the big steering wheels with wood inlays! Amazing tributes to the craftsmen of the past, every last one of them.
Getting a quick count of the registered entries, I came up with close to 300 cars (and drivers) participating. There were Aston Martins, a number of MG TC's and TD's, and so many, many more. While strolling the A or B paddock areas you might find yourself standing face to face with a Porsche 356 Speedster or a Maserati 3500GT. Walk a little further along and find a Lola T-160 parked near a Datsun 240Z. All those cars, all those fond memories! And all that beautifully waxed paint!
Here is a very short list of some of the cars on hand:
1935 Aston Martin Ulster1959 Porsche 356 1952 MG TD1959 Cooper Monaco 1927 Bugatti Type 35B1971 Chevron B-19 1967 Fiat Abarth 850TC1973 Lola T-292 1958 Lotus 7S11973 Shadow DN1/3A 1959 Elva Courier1952 Allard J2X
The good people who care for these legendary and not so legendary machines are themselves in search of a 'V'. They seek the vicarious pleasure of driving what may have once been a champions mount. And they drive in friendly, yet spirited, competition with others who share their joy. Perhaps, the experience even validates their very existence. Who is to say?
Or maybe it's just a lot of fun to chase and pass another car!
Mike Taradash certainly thinks it is fun to drive a vintage racecar. He was spotted sliding gracefully downwards into the cockpit of a sleek yellow racer. With passion in his voice, Mike told me, "This is a Lotus 18. It is the one Jim Haynes won the first Junior Formula Championship in America with!" A prized possession for sure and one this full-time money manager at Shearson-Lehman, and part time 'competitor' perhaps forever on the verge of writing his own name into the annals of competitive motor sports history can drive in earnest in the shadow of it's own glory.
Mike, like so many other members of the VSCCA, was at the festival to have a good time driving an old soldier with a splendid war record.
But some soldiers didn't have wheels. They had to find a way to get them.
A Quick Chat With John Fitch
One old soldier, by the name of John Fitch, started his search
for wheels in the skies over New York and Europe. "I joined
the Army Air Corp in the spring of '41, and I was commissioned
December the 12th, '41, 5 days after Pearl Harbor. I was put
in a twin engine fighter bomber - I had never flown a twin engine
plane before - assigned to defend New York City (laughing)
with a 30 caliber machine gun and a 500 pound bomb. Shortly
after, the squadron I was in went to England and we ran the
first combat missions, of any US forces, in the European
From planes, to Jaguars, to the pages of the history books,
that is the life path taken by legendary sports car driver and
inventor, John Fitch. A charming, personable and patient man, John often is seen in the 'A' Paddock at Lime Rock Park, holding court with all that would ask of his time. Seeing John Fitch and Brian Redman and other great and near-greats from racing's past is another reason why the Vintage Festival is worth an investment of your time. In the cars there is history. In the people who drove them, there is passion.
John Fitch drove his share of historic cars. And he did it with passion. He knew how to build cars and he knew how to drive them to victory. A few of his exploits include winning on the streets of Elkhart Lake in 1951; victory at Palm Beach Shores and elsewhere, and many, many races run in Jaguars, Allards and Cunninghams.
As a military pilot, John would experience both the height of thrilling high-speed action in combat and the depths of frustration and despair in captivity. "When the Africa invasion came, we went from England to Africa and we were there for a year and a half, fighting Rommel. We had a terrible time it was dismal. When I finished in Africa, I came back to the states and got into P-51's and went back over (to Europe). I flew until February 20th of '45, when I stuck my neck out a little too far and got shot down. I spent the last 2 ½ months (of the war) as a guest of the Nazis!
But a war can not last forever. And a soldier must, at sometime, leave the fight. But the fight may not ever leave the soldier. So it was for John Fitch, an American original who was (and still is) a vibrant and important part of the very history being celebrated and remembered this weekend. And, like the cars who are still around for all to enjoy, John Fitch is still around and enjoying himself.
Tall John Fitch got his start in road racing with the help of a midget. "When I came home (from the war), I got into sports car racing. I got an MG-TC, on a GI loan, and went racing. It wasn't very fast so I built a car made out of a Ford midget engine, converted to a race engine. It was a little tiny 2-½ liter English Ford engine, a little V-8. The midget racers had developed this engine for racing. It developed 100 horsepower and was quite small and light. I used a lot of Italian car components, suspension and so on, and built a body and went racing with that. With some good results with that, I was asked to join the Cunningham team, and Jaguar had me drive at Watkins Glen, and that gave me a good launch to my career.
John continued: One of the main reasons (I became known to the Cunningham and Jaguar teams) was because I borrowed a wrecked Allard, with the understanding that I could race it if I fixed it. So I fixed it. (Then) General Peron, from Argentina, invited a group of sports car drivers to Argentina. I won that race in the Allard. That was in 1951.
Briggs Cunningham wasn't at that race, but his drivers were, and they reported back to Briggs about the tall, talented former aviator who had beaten them on the racetrack. "Briggs race cars were not built then. Largely because of that win, I got offers to drive for him and for Jaguar and the rest. I ran a race in Florida, the Hoffman Trophy, and I won that. Jaguar felt I should run the D-Type at Watkins Glen, the first D-Type, and I won the race there. The introduction of the D-type was a big event.
John isn't quite finished with the racing game yet, even at his advanced age. On Saturday, he took to the track in a 1962 Mercedes 300 SL going a few laps around before bringing the car back to rest alongside the Cunningham Historic Motor Cars trailer. Parked next to the 300 was a replica Cunningham C4R, which had also taken a few laps alongside John. The original C4R was first raced in 1951 and it is, perhaps, the most remembered and revered American racecar born in the earliest days of road racing in this country.
Today, almost anyone can own a C4R. You can have an original - if you have a few million dollars just sitting under the mattress - or you can drive a 'reborn' C4R, by placing an order with Briggs S. Cunningham III at Cunningham Historic Motor Cars. The cars are "painstakingly hand built from aluminum", and are "exact in every detail", (per company sales literature). Interested persons can call (888) 733-3687 for complete details. Call today and get a free just kidding.
If you are just a wee bit short on funding for a C4R or an Allard, you can still enjoy a wonderful first-hand experience by simply coming out to a vintage event. Today, the Monterey Historics event, held each year at Laguna Seca, is probably the best known of it's kind, celebrating 25 years of continuos presentation in 1999. But there are other, smaller events, like the Lime Rock Park event, that offer just as many good memories and soul-stirring moments. I would like to suggest that you pour yourself a cup of tea (not too hot), sit back, and peruse the pages of an issue of Vintage Motorsports or Victory Lane magazines. Future vintage events are listed in both publications. You can then make your plans to load up the family wagon, SUV or weekends-only Miata, and head off into an historic sunset.
And if you happen to pass John Fitch on the road along the way, be assured you only passed this vintage gentleman because he let you by!
Want to know more about Vintage Racing? Try these information sources:
And Another Thing Very Much Worth Mentioning:
If you enjoy reading about the history of road racing, I have to recommend you turn to a real BS source. That's BS as in B.S. Levy, the author of the novel, "The Last Open Road". His first novel, Open Road is a fictional tale of what it was really like at the start of the road-racing scene in America. The book came out in 1994, funded through a second mortgage on his home. It was worth the trouble of dealing with bankers as the original printings sold out. Eventually, he was able to secure an arrangement through a publishing house, rather than his own house.
Open Road is absolutely the most enjoyable book I have read in years. Levy has followed up this success story with a sequel entitled "Montezuma's Ferrari". I just picked up a copy at Lime Rock (and got it autographed too!) and I can't wait to get into it!
If you love the history of road racing, the characters who started it all, and the foils and foibles of young love (and maintaining a Jaguar XK120), pick up a copy. You can find all the information you need at www.lastopenroad.com. Enjoy!