COTA by Dave Burton
COTA Dave Burton
(aka SVRA Vintage Racing National Championships at Circuit of the Americas)
I’m on a flight back to Detroit from Austin after taking part in the first annual Vintage National Championships held at the new F1 track constructed in the heart of Texas. My participation was made possible by Vic & Barbara Skirmants who not only hauled Ol’#20 down but arranged that my application be accepted for this long sold out event. They had a full trailer too with five tubs aboard: Vic’s #70 Roadster, their ’58 A Coupe #71 rented to their Australian friend Ron Goodman, their ’60 B Coupe #32 rented to Roger Meiners of Milford, the ’64 C Coupe #88 of Dr. Rob Hieb of Milwaukee and my silver & blue ’64 SC.
This event had been well hyped over the past few months and the new owner and management of SVRA did very well to secure a spot at this new track that will host Formula One next month. The facility is impressive, especially from the air. A sprawling layout well suited to hosting huge international extravaganzas, there was room for about 550 vintage racecars of a dozen groups and a multitude of classes. The schedule was sprawling as well with load-in starting on Monday and Test Day set for Wednesday, practice on Thursday and qualifying on Friday so that Saturday and Sunday was nothing but racing, racing and more racing.
Vic & Barb arrived Sunday meeting up with Tom & Jan Downey and arranging to get in that afternoon to get set up. As they made camp, John Schrecker arrived from Hopkinsville, Tennessee with his #777 Roadster and Paul Swanson came up from Florida with his black #8 Speedster. Mark and Mary Eskuche dropped down from Milwaukee with their rig hauling the tubs of the Georges Balbach, Senior’s ivory #34 and Junior’s green #01, and the Coupe of Jamie Jackson. With a few others scattered about, there was a baker’s dozen of 356’s present and chomping at the bit to strut their stuff. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?)
Wednesday morning found us on the grid for the first test session starting at 8:00 am and we found that the sun pops over the horizon around here at 7:45 this time of year. Holy smokes! It sure is fun learning a new track with the sun directly in your eyes on at least a half dozen turns–wow! And learning is a top priority as the track is 3.4 miles long with twenty (20!) turns, five of which are tight first gear hairpins. Well, nobody was injured. By the end of our fourth session, we had a pretty good handle on where the track turned left and right, and were getting familiar with the speed potentials. Thursday morning practice was a whole new level of confusion as those entrants that didn’t participate in the test day were out on track for the first time tiptoeing around and those who had participated were slicing and dicing like a Cuisinart. The SVRA officials were terrified of the speed differentials but all played nicely and well, nobody got hurt.
About those twenty turns and five hairpins, it turns out that the powers-that-be at F1 decree a number of slow corners to maximize the exposure of sponsor logos on the racecars. It might work for them but it was not our favorite part. The track is dramatic with the Start-Finish straight heading steeply uphill at the far end and culminating in an off-camber hairpin and also containing the Pit-Out with its slower moving traffic. We went through there four wide on occasions and it was exciting. That first hairpin feeds a downhill sweeper that leads into a complex of linked esses but unlike the climbing esses at VIR that allow you to build speed (if you get it right), these get progressively slower and then spit you out onto a downhill straight with a kink that ends at another hairpin before opening onto the main straight. You get to use the whole gearbox here and then all of your brakes (downhill) into what else? Another hairpin. A short chute leads to another hairpin with a technical little bit before (wait for it) the last hairpin. The payoff for all this is a beautiful carousel that winds around and around, letting you drift the car endlessly, flat in third gear. Beautiful! Now a quicker than it looks left-hander onto the short straight that leads to Pit-In and the last turn, tighter than it looks, and back up the front straight.
The racing in our group was fabulous. From Qualifying through the Enduro to the Feature Race, the wheel-to-wheel action was nonstop. Lead changes, often multiple times per lap, heroic passes, valiant assaults–some successful, others repulsed, well executed sneak plays–our races had them all and we put on a heckuva show. Vintage racing at its finest.
There were a few teething pains as well. Some differences between the folks at COTA and the folks at SVRA resulted in rules changes on the fly. Some were annoying but of no real consequence while others changed the outcome of races and were not well received. Oh well, we still had a ball.
Except Ol’#20 that is. Well, she did enjoy keeping up with the Roadsters seeing as she had to carry an additional 67 pounds of ballast over the open cars, but at least one Roadster resented her presence. George Balbach’s #34 nerfed her in the rear in one slow turn–Ouch! Afterwards, Ron Goodman showed why he is the premiere body man in Australia with an impressive display of skill with a hammer and dolly. No wonder that his enterprise is the only factory-certified shop for Porsche, McLaren, Rolls Royce and Aston Martin; he has real talent.
One evening, after the day’s racing was done, Ben Cissell and his cameraman stopped by our encampment and proceeded to interview Vic and Ron about vintage racing in the US & Australia, their individual experiences and how they came to meet and race together. Throughout the weekend, their crew would show up on the grid and attach GoPro cameras on Vic’s and other cars, gathering footage for a feature they’re producing on vintage racing featuring Vic.
Our merry band of miscreants had a pretty good outing overall. Vic made the podium in the Feature Race, Ol’#20 in the Enduro. Dr. Rob ran the strongest I’ve ever seen, Ron mixed it up with Vic, Rob and me, pouncing on every opening while Roger enjoyed learning how a 356 responds in anger. They say that SVRA is going to Indianapolis next year, I think we’ll have fun at the Brickyard.