Should Pristine Original Cars Be Banned from Vintage Racing?

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We’re coming up on Monterey Car Week, and the great vintage car festival known as the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion.

As entertaining as the races will be, we should ask ourselves if some of these vintage cars really belong on the track.

BMW is the featured marque, meaning at the Laguna Seca race track you’ll watch gaggles of M1s and 507s crest the Corkscrew and drop three stories in elevation as they hurtle down the hill towards the start/finish line.

Watch three professional Porsche 991 GT3 Cup drivers explain the best way to get through the turn.

It’s all well and fine to take modern sports cars and expose them to this dangerous track. But is it really such a smart thing to do with vintage racing machinery?

I would maintain that while it’s one thing to race a vintage car that has already suffered damage from competition, it’s another to put one at risk that is largely original.

Race cars that were successful in period are rarely in their as-delivered-from-the-factory condition. The mere fact that they raced means that they were subject to collisions, body panel replacement and drivetrain swaps. Do you think Ferrari mechanics racing at Le Mans in 1965 really cared about keeping the factory-delivered V12 in their 250 LMs after blowing up one — or many — in practice?

As we come to understand and respect the historical importance of vintage race cars, I suggest that if a race car has an important history — and is essentially undamaged — its owners should consider demonstration laps but not putting the cars at risk in competition.

If a car has already been heavily crashed and rebuilt, then crashing it again is no big deal in terms of its authenticity. But if you have body panels that were in place when the car was delivered by the factory, I believe it is a disservice to the historic nature of the car to put it in a position where those pieces of the artifact could be damaged.

I understand that most of the drivers at the Motorsports Reunion are of a very high caliber, and I understand this is not “real racing.” Yet, as we see every year, red mist is red mist, and accidents can happen – watch this video of John Morton rolling end-over-end in a 1958 Scarab at Laguna Seca in 2010

Luckily no one was hurt, and the Scarab already had a replacement frame and many other non-original parts. So the historical importance of this car was not diminished.

However, the same type of accident could happen to any car on the track, no matter how original or modified it might be.

I propose that if a racecar is historically important and largely original, we are doing the history of motorsports a disservice by allowing these cars to compete on the track.

I would love to hear your opinion!

Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

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  1. Well, you asked for an opinion 🙂

    I don’t know if I have a cohesive one that you or your readers could take to the bank, but I will explain my own situation and see if it makes sense to others.

    I have three cars racing at Laguna Seca all relatively important BMWs and all have never turned a wheel in anger since the last day they finished top flight professional racing.

    I am predominantly a BMW collector of mainly street cars, but the last few years, I have added what are considered by some to be important factory Motorsport race cars. I love driving my street cars and sharing them with friends, but I have never had any of my race cars on the track, my excuse has always been “I have enough hobbies, I don’t need to add racing driver to my long list” 🙂

    Anyway, this year arrives, its 100 years of my favorite marque, at 57 years old its the only significant milestone I will see in my particular part of our hobby – unless I changed marques 🙂 To steal from Bill Clinton “ I have more yesterdays behind me, than I have tomorrows in front of me”.

    One the years of collecting I have gained a wealth of knowledge from individuals who were closely connected to the time period of BMW Motorsport I have a particular passion for. As all these individuals race cars, I offered my cars which are in the USA to drive, rather than dragging their own race cars from Europe.

    Therefore, I have three guys I am allowing to race three of my cars, two of the cars have been fully restored over the years, but one is the most original left of that particular Factory team and era and the car is well known as such by all who know the car.

    Why would I let any of my treasures race? I have done so because its an important anniversary and I wish to say a big thank you to people who have been helpful to me in building my collection. Ok, makes sense, but why let the well known and only original version of one particular car?

    I don’t know if my answer will answers your question, but I say it as simply as I can “its the 100 year birthday of this cars manufacturer – I can drool forever in a dark room on my own or I can even share with a limited audience over the time I own it, but to allow it to stretch it legs and live a little again, even with the risks involved, makes me smile and feel as if I am sharing in the best way I can with like minded enthusiasts in our fantastic hobby”.

    I must add -I have taken hundreds of pictures of every component – just in case some fool is checking texts at 120 MPH 🙂

  2. Of course, Keith, that’s what I think for long. And racing an authentic car makes appear another danger, even worse. The pilot is a human being, so, when he races, he wants to win. Then, he’s ready to modify the car, to improve the engine, or the structure, as long as he finishes second. Crashed or improved, an authentic car is always in danger to disappear…

  3. The idea is poorly thought out. What would it do to values if a 10 million dollar could no longer be driven. As a long time pit crew member of George W one of the longest time vintage racers at laguna. It would have totally different if his cars were clones Tributes or as some call them fakes. I have spent the last 3 years building a Tribute car from original parts and a original frame. Would my car be allowed to race? This rule might just be a starting point to stop vintage racing all together. A real race car with racing history that is verifiable would have a more than 90 percent plus chance of having wrecked anyway. If the car led a race in the era it was likely wrecked. This kind of rule would send owners looking for or making damage to there original cars so they could claim that the car was eligible to race. Attendance might drop if people think that the cars had no history.

  4. Keith, I beg to differ. If an historic car can’t be raced then by extension it shouldn’t be driven. Maybe it should be hung on a wall? These cars should be allowed to live and continue to be works of art as originally intended. It’s up to the sanctioning bodies to create the rules that keep them safe, and to the drivers not to be morons. The fact that someone can afford to have a Tipo 61 Maserati in their garage doesn’t make them qualified to drive it. Call me. I’ll handle it.

  5. I couldn’t disagree more! Cars are meant to be driven, especially race cars. It’s really up to the owner as far as putting their rare collectible at risk, not some rules makers. I understand your concern about these cars only being original once, but I seriously doubt any are truly original – if they were, they’d be unsafe to drive at speed on a race track.

  6. I believe there is a middle ground. The Vintage Sports Car Club of America (VSCCA), founded in 1958, universally considered the custodian of prewar racing, encourages the use of prewar sports and racing cars and tries to provide an outlet for all of them, be it wheel-to-wheel racing, “preservation” racing (with limited passing and mandatory braking zones) or exhibition touring laps. They all look beautiful in a garage, but they look a lot better at a track event, whether it is in the paddock or on the track.
    Our Club’s final event, the Fall Finale at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, CT, September 30th and October 1st, will be a celebration of prewar cars and offer these three categories for the prewar group so they don’t just gather dust. It is an open event (non-members welcome) and interested prospective participants should visit our website for details.
    http://www.vscca.org

  7. I was at Goodwood Revival in 2014. The cars there make Monterey look like a regional SCCA race. There were 10 250 GTOs at least 15 Cobras. Light weight E types and various other low production factory vintage race cars. And they raced them in 2 hour enduros. I mean Raced! Door to door contact racing. Did some get damaged, sure. But the owners know that going in and are prepared to deal with whatever happens. There are also vintage motorcycles and aircraft with the same provenance. So my point is Let them Race! The current owners are caretakers for future generations but they are the owners. As such they decide what to do with their possessions.

  8. As a believer in private property rights, and generally being against outsiders/governments/agencies telling the owners of said property what the can or cannot do with what they own, I believe the owner should get to make the decision as to whether or not he races his historically significant car competitively. For those who feel otherwise, make some kind arrangement to purchase the car and do with it as you please.

    1. No one is talking about government regulation. But if a vintage racing association decided to follow Keith’s advice that would be their right, as it would be yours to choose not to race with them.

  9. Should you or someone of your ilk be allowed to decide what I am allowed to do with my personal property? Unequivocally, no. The US is not a fascist state. Yet.

  10. These are RACE cars not art work. Placing the cars back on the track is why they even existed at all. If we tuck these cars away in museums and private collections than no one will understand why they even existed to start with. Just stand next to a Can Am car running at speed you will instantly get it. You will never appreciate vintage race cars as much by just staring at one beyond the ropes. I have been lucky enough to drive these cars and I can tell you they are their own world. If we don’t drive them the heart of the beasts will die. The same as a caged tiger in the zoo….sad.

  11. Keith,

    What has not been mentioned by you or anyone else is the people standing along the fences.

    I race my cars for them; so they can see the 1976 ETCC champion on the track; hear its straight 6 engine winding past 7,000 RPM, and dream of, or remember what it was like back in the glory days of international racing. My car was a winner. It needs to be on track competing, not sitting in a garage someplace out of sight from people.

    Could my car be damaged? Certainly it could. But it can also be repaired. You may remember that 2 years ago one of the 5 factory CSL’s was heavily damaged at the start of the RMMR race at Laguna. It will be in attendance this year.

    Was it sad to see it sitting against the Armco all torn up? Yes it was. But it will be glorious to see and hear it running again this year.

  12. I have seen races classified “exhibition” races. They are for rare and expensive cars whose owners would love to drive on the track, but do not really want head to head competition. Limiting the number of cars, passing on straights only, and short races would keep these cars relatively safe. Otherwise you are saying no one will ever hear the music of a V12 Ferrari in race tune as accelerates out of a turn.

  13. Hello Keith, good question. Maybe before answering this question, we should consider what the definition of original, genuine, authentic and other qualifications for racing cars are and what they mean. Denis Jenkinson wrote a great piece on these definitions in his book ” Directory of historic racing cars”. I like to use his qualifications because they accurately describe the condition of a specific race car. If a racing car is original, it should be in a museum. As, according to Denis, there was only one racing car meeting this qualification, and that car is in a museum, no discussion about that one. Original means the first set of tires, the first battery, etc. Most racing cars have been modified many times and than completely restored (for example like the Sandeman Porsche 917 of AAW) or are in authentic or genuine condition. I wouldn’t make a point of banning them from the tracks. They were made for racing and that is what they do best. It is there natural habitat. A scratch, bent fender or major damage was and is and will be part of life of a racing car. In my opinion, putting those cars in a museum, takes away the opportunity to experience the atmosphere of racing and will deny future generations of drivers, mechanics and the public a chance to look, feel, hear, smell and taste the atmosphere. Let them race and keep on doing what they do best so we can all enjoy it. Sorry for my English, I am Dutch. Love to hear other comments, Olaf Roeten a.k.a. Zagato_Olaf

  14. BMW Pete and Steve Walker, thanks so much for sharing your e9s and M1s with the rest of us. While it is neat to see them on the show field, it is even more special to hear the sound of an M30 or M88 at full song. I am one of those people along the fences who will love seeing them in action this year.

  15. The idea of not allowing a machine to do what it was designed for is rather insulting to the owner and the machine itself. Race cars are made to compete, if they fail, well, that is racing. It is like not allowing someone to drive a Duesenburg on the 5 fwy (see Jay Leno.) I actually hold owners in much higher regard if I know they take their vehicles out and exercise them.

  16. Obviously, the owner of a historic vehicle, unlike the owner of certain historic buildings, can do whatever they wish with it – even take it to the crushers if they’re so inclined. And if they want to drive it self-destructively on private property, with the consent of the owner, that is their right as well.

    Yes, these cars were made to go fast at a competitive level. I write with my vintage collectible fountain pens and take pictures with my pre-war German cameras, even those with irreplaceable original parts.

    However the vintage racing associations have every right, and some responsibility IMHO, to draw certain lines. Sandy Leith sums up a number of reasonable alternatives for the sport, and I think some version of these represents the best solution.

  17. My friend, I love what you know and share, but above all of what you (and I) think, these cars are the private property of their owners, period. It is up to the owner to do with as he wants. We already have too many people with unregulated power telling us what to do and how to live. Leave the man with and his machine to the pursuit the road (and dreams) he chooses. Enjoy the ride my friends!

  18. Race cars are way more appealing doing what they are designed to do. I think the best way to have future enthusiasts appreciate them is to expose people to the cars doing what they were meant to do. Most race cars were torn apart and rebuilt many times anyway. Additionally I don’t think it’s very tasteful to tell someone what they ought to do with something they own.

  19. The cars aren’t the problem, and racing isn’t the problem. The “red mist” you refer to IS the problem. Drivers racing priceless vintage cars need to have some respect for their mounts.

  20. I can tell you how delighted I was to see, hear and even touch the very #12 Ferrari F1 car driven by Gilles Villeneuve in Long Beach. It was 1979 and at 19 it was my first experience I ever had seeing race cars of any type. What at introduction. Those images, sounds and smells are permanently etched in my mind. He went from pole to win and the Ferraris were magical to watch – so radically different from the other cars.

    That first impression was lasting. I got hooked on Porsches and timetrialing which was only a gateway drug to the inevitable purchase of a Formula Continental Van Diemen that I raced for several years with SCCA right here at Laguna Seca.

    These cars were developed for one purpose – to race. None of them were conceived as an eventual invaluable museum piece once they were no longer competitive. They were purpose built well knowing they had an expiration date. But fortunately those of you with the means have brought them back to life and are willing to share them with us. To rekindle an incredible memory in a random stranger 35 years later. I am grateful for the peril they put their cars through. That is precisely what they were built for in the first place.

    I understand those who maybe don’t have the desire to drive their own cars – owning doesn’t always equate to racing. Contact me, I’d be happy to drive for you with the utmost respect for it’s importance. 🙂