RETURN TO THE ROOTS
Impervious to the passage of years Chuck Dietrich was just 0.5 of a second off the track record in his white Rondell Brabham BT-38 FB with a time of 2:07.1. Dietrich took flrst place in Formula B and first overall in the fifth race. Photo: Rick Bailey/Group 35 Photography
The 3.23 winding miles of Virginia International Raceway's asphalt follow the rolling terrain that lies in a bend of the Dan River on the state line near Milton, N.C., a National Historic District because this small town survives as a way of life discarded by Twentieth century society. Indeed, among old timers at VIR, who pay a constant, curious attention to the condition of the trees, grasses and wildlife - the permanent inhabitants of the land - there also remains a strong sense of place. The circuit came to life during that incredible period from 1955 to 1957 when sports car racing, having been legislated off the public roads onto mostly airport circuits, returned with a vengeance on the new closed circuits. During that period, in addition to VIR, Bridgehampton, Laguna Seca, Lime Rock, Marlboro, Road America, and the third Glen circuit opened, all fitting Sylvia Wilkinson's description as "your favorite country road in captivity."
Race courses have come and gone and changed. But VIR remains the same track that was beloved as the most challenging course in the East at end of the Fifties. What changed was racing. The big sports cars and their drivers, such as Carroll Shelby, who won the inaugural at VIR in a 4.5 Maserati, and Walt Hansgen, who ruled with D-type Lister-Jags, moved on to Europe or to the USRRC. And the National races became the domain of the amateur driver with the majority of the field made up production cars.
It became apparent that VIR was too far south for majority of the drivers from the Northeast, and too far north for the majority of those in the Southeast. With classes getting thin, exotic machinery and spectators became equally scarce, and National races at VIR became a luxury. The big course safety drive nearly killed SCCA racing at VIR. But the promoter managed the required changes, and the Spring Nationals were run again in 1973, after a two-year hiatus, only to be greeted by rain and ankle-deep mud. The decent size of the field and the spectator turn-out gave heart to the North Carolina Region and planning was initiated to improve the racing program.
The Region established a Task Force on Racing Facilities to do short- and long-range planning and to serve as a sounding board for ideas. An eight-page questionnaire was distributed to drivers, crew and workers at the October Regional, soliciting suggestions for improving the racing program. Using this valuable data, priorities were assigned various tasks. Starting the first weekend in February and continuing every weekend to the April race, groups of people showed up at the track to fix, repair, and paint. Communications poles were moved farther from the track. A new, dual-circuit overhead system was installed. Observation towers were erected at critical points. Ditches were filled. A new tech-impound area was set up, the old pagoda reburbished and an enclosed medical facility begun.
Materials and equipment were begged, borrowed, or scrounged. Eighty people donated their time and services, including 65 on the open work weekend. The final stroke was postponing the race date to late April in hopes of escaping traditional heavy spring rains. On the weekend of April 20-2 1, it all came together.
The pre-entry showed a good field, enchanced by some old-timers from the North. The weather stayed clear and sufficiently warm, and spectators were out in decent force to be rewarded by some great racing. The North Carolina Region held its breath until the last practice session Saturday in hopes of a sign that this event would be a success. And behold, the first car to take the checker and beer flag was the Budweiser Camaro- Yes, it was going to be that kind of a weekend.
In Sunday's eleven-lap opener, C Sports/Racing was grouped with the rest of the little fellows, G and H Production, D Sports/Racing, and C Sedan. Although they had the front of the grid nailed down, it was the end of the race that eluded the C S/R group. Southeast Division champ Brian Little never got much past the pace lap, and when a chunking tire knocked Gene Woodruff's Royale out of a commanding lead on lap five, the race settled down to a production car bash of first rate quality. It took a new GP lap record by National Champ Rick Cline to fend off Joe Hauser's Sprite for first overall. Al Beasley lowered the D S/R standard 2.2 seconds in finishing third, while quick Randy Canfield booted his bugeye home fourth, slicing 3.2 seconds off the HP lap record. Jerry Wannarka's Alfa GTA Jr. got the nine-point prize in C Sedan.
Right after lunch, 28 Formula Vees took the green, five of which sailed off into the front as an age-before-beauty parade began. Harvey Templeton calmly surveyed the dice for the lead from the lead, as the madding crowd dropped back one at a time. Bob DeMarco first, then Curt Newport, then simultaneously Charles Atherly and Jeff Carlin. The latter two provided closing lap heroics with Carlin nipping by for second. The new FV lap record belongs to Curt Newport by a second, but the nine points belong to the old grey fox from Winchester, Tenn.
|Brian Fuerstenau in his Group 44 MGB leads Pete Vander Vate, 31, and teammate John Kelly, 4, as well as the rest of the pack throughturn three at the start of the D, E, and F Production race. Fuerstenau led the entire race to win. Photo: Rick Bailey/Group 35 Photography|
The D, E, F Production race was looked to with much anticipation especially since FP driver Number One-John Kelly-and FP driver Number Two-Rick Cline-from the 1973 CSPRRC were going after the VIR master, Pete Vander Vate in a little old Spitfire from Falls Church. Anyway, what Group 44 did to the chassis and what Pete did after that produced perhaps the most startling performance of the weekend. Not only did Vander Vate drive right away from Kelly and Cline, he also stayed close enough to Brian Fuerstenau's Group 44 MGB and Jim Fitzgerald's Datsun 2000 to raise more than one eyebrow. Lap records were destroyed: Fitzgerald (DP, 2:19.5 by 5.1 seconds); Fuerstenau (EP, 2:20.0 by 7.1 seconds); and Vander Vate (FP, 2:21.3 by 7.2 seconds). Fuerstenau took the lead on the eighth lap, when Fitzgerald lost fifth gear, and was overall winner. But the race was Pete Vander Vate's.
Fourth race of the day brought the Showroom Stockers to the line, all six of them. Now, six quiet cars can get lost very easily on 3.2 miles of track unless there is close competition. Dave Roethel came from the rear of the grid to provide just that with his Opel GT, but could never quite make it past Robert Jones' Porsche, despite much arm waving and horn blowing. The race for all the other formula classes had Chuck Dietrich circulating his FB Brabham BT-38 some 0.8 seconds off the absolute course record set in 1969 by John Gunn in a FA Lola-Chevy at 2:06.3. Dietrich put on an impressive demonstration despite a lack of competition and gave the spectators a good look at what European Formula Two is about. Even more exciting was the charge through the field by Harry Ingle in his FSV Zink. Ingle, George Batchelor, and the Marrs'Team made the tow to VIR after the Gold Cup Series event at Road Atlanta on Saturday. Since they were unable to qualify, they were gridded at the back of their class, positions 22 through 25 in a field of 33. When the green fell, Ingle flashed through to tenth on the first lap, sixth on the second, and was second overall by lap three. Once clear of traffic, though too far back to catch the flying Dietrich, Ingle cracked off the third-fastest lap ever run at VIR, only 0.7 seconds slower than Dietrich's new Formula B lap record and a new FSV record by seven seconds. F.W. Marrs made his way to third overall, while Buzz Marcus' fourth place carried off FF honors.
The big iron feature race was, for a change, the real feature race. Jim Fitzgerald in the Bob Sharp Racing 260-Z set out in practice Saturday to give his first driving lesson as part-owner of the newly-formed Fitzgerald-White School of Motor Racing located at VIR. The lesson turned out to be "what- to- do- while- porpoising- through- a- rutty -field- with- your- throttle- stuck- open- and- your- steering- broke- all- to- hell." These shenanigans caused the Fitzgerald Team to do an all-nighter back at the Clemmons, N.C., garage putting the front of the Z-car back where it was designed to be. Since Fitzgerald had not completed any qualifying laps, the next problem was where to grid him. In a decision that seemed infinitely fair, he was placed in the middle of the eighteen car pack, behind all but one of his C Production competitors. Fitzgerald complained that the spectators were being robbed of a good race by sticking him so far back. As it turned out, gridding Fitz dead last would have been best for the spectators. When the flag dropped, the 260-Z shot from the fifth row through several holes seemingly narrower than the car into fourth place going into the first turn. On lap three, he came by just in front of John McComb's Group 44 TR-6 and just behind Doug Mills' leading Camaro. Nipping past Mills at the hairpin, Fitz set sail. McComb's only chance was to get around the Camaro quickly, and he wasted no time in doing so, although some body work on both cars was wasted in the process. But Fitzgerald was not to be caught this day, especially by a VIR newcomer, even one as skilled as John McComb. It takes more than a couple of practice sessions to learn this 3.2 miles. Fitzgerald's drive earned him a new CP lap standard at 2:16.4. Mills lowered the A Sedan record by a second in taking third. Doc Blatchley's BP Corvette was fourth with yet another lap record. Jim Glanton's Porsche took B S/R, while Roger Cook's Triumph Vitesse copped B Sedan.
|Alfred Matthews, 25, and Bill Alsup are head-to-head going into the shade of "Oak Tree" - turn twelve. Alsup finished seventh in Formula F and Matthews finished third in Formula C. Photo: Rick Bailey/Group 35 Photography|
The North Carolina Region conducts its events in a casual, relaxed manner with a spirit of fellowship and fun. The Region has no illusions about running the biggest, best or fanciest racing program in the country but it does claim one of the most challenging and beautiful road courses in the country as its home track, as well as a desire to do everything possible to make a weekend enjoyable for everyone involved. If the 1974 Spring National was any yardstick, both the racers and the spectators enjoyed themselves.