Eye Candy: SVRA Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational

Donald Davidson was stunned. As the resident historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, Davidson had been invited to moderate a news conference with the “Indy Legends” slated to participate in the Pro/Am Feature race at the second SVRA (Sportscar Vintage Racing Association) Brickyard Invitational.

“I expected there to be six or so,” Davidson said, still awe-struck a day later.

In fact, SVRA had contrived to put 33 Indy 500 veterans into Corvettes, Camaros and Mustangs with amateur partners. They’d all drive in a 40-minute race on the IMS road course, the Saturday centerpiece of the four-day event, with a mandatory, standard-length pit stop to change drivers.

“I believe at the moment that the number of drivers living who drove at the Indianapolis 500 is 288. I think I just counted 31 here in the room,” said Davidson, gathering his wits. “So that’s better than 10 percent of the living who drove at the Indianapolis 500 here in front of you. How the hell are we going to do this? They’ve all got good stories.”

Indeed, they had great stories. And there were more than 33 involved. Bobby Unser was in the pace car, the stewards were Tom Sneva and Janet Guthrie, and the grand marshal Al Unser Sr. Three more Unsers — Al Jr., Robby, and Johnny — were on hand to drive in the Pro/Am, and the next day in a four-lap exhibition, putting all five on the oval track in cars that had carried various Unsers to victory.

The field for the Pro/Am also included Geoff Brabham, Dennis Firestone, Lyn St. James, Willy T. Ribbs, Davey Jones, Dick Simon… and so many more recognizable names that we regret not naming them all. You can find more info here: http://www.svra.com/events/2015-brickyard-vintage-racing-invitational/.

For the record, Bob Lazier won the Pro/Am with Jim Caudle in a 1969 Corvette, followed by the ’67 Mustang of Mark Dismore/Scott Hackenson and the ’70 Boss 302 of Max Papis/Curt Vogt. Papis had put on an impressive display, pulling away from the field in the early going, only to be caught out when the team’s driver-change pit-stop coincided with a yellow flag on-track.

It wasn’t about the racing so much as the camaraderie, most of the drivers said. And while 500-veterans comprise an exclusive club, the spirit of the event meant much the same could be said among the entrants — more than 500 cars in 11 race groups, plus a special class for pre-war cars and exhibition runs on the oval for nearly two-dozen Indycars on Sunday. All the classes got to run oval exhibitions, too.

In this second year, the event drew more spectators, but there’s room for a lot more to enjoy it. Only three weeks after the 500, there was no shortage of “real” racing to watch on the weekend of June 13-14: NASCAR Sprint Cup a couple hours north at Michigan, Indycars in Toronto, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. At none of those, however, does the price of admission include the freedom to wander in and out of the garages, stroll the paddock and interact with the drivers and car owners.

Throw in a bunch of genuine celebrity pros (albeit ones mostly retired from active racing, and therefore much more relaxed and personable) and the wide variety of cars — from humble Sprites and Minis through original Can-Am and even quite recent F1 and LMP machines — and it’s nirvana for racing fans.

Although there are several others, SVRA has become the dominant sanctioning body/promoter on the U.S. vintage racing scene with 16 “big” events from coast to coast. From its experience starting in the 1970s (older than many of the cars in its race fields today), but especially in its most recent era under president and CEO Tony Parella, SVRA knows how to put on a show. It holds to high standards for driver skill and on-track behavior, and is raising its game on the issues of vehicular provenance and safety.

Not even heavy rain on Friday and a briefer weather intervention on Saturday just when the Pro/Am was due to start, could put it off the rails. We’ve seen F1 races with less efficient operations. There were times when maintaining the schedule meant throwing the green on one 10-lap race even while the winners of the previous one were gathering for a victory celebration.

Yes, they got to drink milk in the winner’s circle. This is Indy, after all, and though the event is young, that makes the Brickyard Invitational a huge thing.

For decades, every vintage race played second fiddle to Monterey in August. Like that event, this one, at the nation’s most historic venue and with access to both oval and road course, stands apart.

Photos by Kevin A. Wilson

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