By Peter Viccary
2023 saw the 43rd running of Canada’s biggest Vintage Racing Event and by all accounts it didn’t disappoint!
Since 2007 my son Shane and/or I have been a part of the Vintage Automobile Racing Association of Canada’s Vintage Grand Prix (formerly known as The Vintage Festival). In 2017 we adopted the moniker Gladiator Road Racing. Due to circumstances (largely) beyond our control, we decided to take a hiatus from racing for 2023. We are contemplating a change of direction for next year. The Lucky Dog Racing series is receiving some serious consideration.
For some fifty years before I was a competitor, I was a spectator, and it is through that lens that I tell my VGP story.
Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP) is quite simply the best spectator track I have ever been to. Almost every corner provides an excellent view of the track and if you have a decent camera and like to take a few photos, your view does not need to be blemished by the dreaded fencing. Turn 5 is the best, albeit some effort is required to get there. The cars come into view through the left hand turn 4, go downhill, almost at full power, maybe even full power for the brave. It’s a very fast, short, fairly steep down hill straight which transitions into an equally steep up hill into turn 5A. The cars experience a lot of compression at the bottom of the hill, some may even throw up a few sparks. They quickly brake, downshift and make a hard right into 5a. There’s a very short straight which is a passing opportunity for the very brave, then a quick drop into the ninety-degree right-hand turn 5b. They go quickly up hill to the left-hand sweeper that’s curiously numbered turn 5c, then flat out on a long up hill Mario Andretti straightaway and out of sight. Brilliant.
My other favourite corners for spectating/photography in order of preference are: turn 3 on the outside, turn 2 on the outside (infield of the track), and turn 1 on the outside. CTMP is wonderfully old-school, while still modern enough to attract some top professional series like the American Le Mans Series. Professional drivers love it. Take a lawn chair and a cooler. At the VGP there is plenty of room to move around during the day.
The VGP is a sensory overload. There is more to do than time to do it. Racing, car shows, track tours, paddock roaming. We chose race watching, which is hard to do when you’re competing. Makes for a nice change. We also blended in some lunchtime paddock visits. Turns 3 and 5 on Friday, turns 1 and 5 on Saturday and turn 1 on Sunday. Turn 1 is within easy walking distance of the paddock and we can see the winner cross the finish line.
A word of advice. If you only attend one day of any Vintage weekend, consider Saturday. You get real racing all day, and most of the cars are still at the track. Attrition tends to take its toll by Sunday. Cars break, drivers get tired, suddenly the trip home seems very long, so some will forfeit their last race to get a head start.
VARAC loosely divides its race cars into three categories: Vintage and Historic (V/H) for cars manufactured before 1973, Classic and (new for 2023) Modern Classic, cars built before 2006 and Formula Classic (FC). Each category is subdivided, sports cars are classified by time brackets. The combination of car and driver are classified according to their projected lap time. If a driver is quicker than his bracket time, he is moved into the next backet. This form of racing gives more drivers an opportunity to win and encourages participation. Formula cars don’t race in time brackets. Their classes are: Formula Junior, Historic Formula Vee, Historic Formula Ford, Club Formula Ford and Formula 1200. Any other formula cars are categorized by age: Formula Historic, Formula 70 or Formula 90.
The V/H classes were divided into two groups at the VGP; those with lap times under 1 minute, 45 seconds and those above 1:45. Classics were divided too; under and over 1 minute and 40 seconds. There are many rule exceptions, for example V/H cars over 2500 pounds, Camaros, Mustangs, Corvettes, are required, for safety reasons, to race with the Classic cars. All the Formula cars race on the same grid.
In addition to these VARAC classes, there were two excellent additional race groups; the modern Toyo Tires Formula 1600 and the North American Vintage Sports 2000’s. Seven practice sessions, seven qualifying sessions, twenty-five races and four special races were scheduled for the weekend. This was very ambitious schedule, leaving no room for error. It all unraveled on Sunday with repeated full course cautions and red flags throughout most of the day. The lunch break had to be rescheduled, one race was cancelled altogether, and several races were shortened. Still the day went very long, and we had to leave, sadly, before it was finished. Nobody’s fault, stuff happens. And as Steve McQueen said in the movie Le Mans, it can happen again.
Takeaways from the Vintage GP:
The weather is generally excellent for the weekend, sunny and warm but not too hot. There were two races on Friday afternoon, the second was the Triumph/MG Challenge. Stefan Wiesen started shot gun on a twenty-seven-car grid in his Elva Courier Coupe. A Courier is classed as an MG because it came with an 1800cc MGB motor. As the cars lined up on the grid, a quite sudden but fairly heavy rain shower hit the track. The field of 27 suddenly became thirteen as guys (understandably) bailed out. Stefan found himself half a lap behind at the start as some cars couldn’t keep up with the pace car. Stefan tracked down the leaders, and looked set to challenge the lead when his enthusiasm got the better of him in turn 3 (where I was conveniently watching) and he spun. He recovered to finish 3rd, behind Henry Frye in a Triumph TR250 and Mark Wheatley’s Triumph TR4, who were 1/10 of a second apart at the line.
The twenty-two car North American Vintage Sports 2000 cars were the highlight of the weekend. These cars are fast, attractive, and race like the dickens all through the field. Ben Sinnott, Brent Gernert and John Thompson, all in Lolas, dominated the top three spots. Interestingly, Sinnott had the fastest S2000, and second fastest time overall of the weekend at 1:23.121. Novice driver Stephen Sutherland, in a ’95 Van Diemen Formula 2000 car had the 3rd fastest time at 1:23.667 while winning all four Formula Classic races. Blaise Csida had the fastest time of the weekend in his GT1 2002 Pontiac Grand Prix, with a time of 1:22.289. Blaise dominated the Classics winning all four races and had at least five seconds per lap over everyone.
Mazda was the featured marque of the event. A Mazda only race was run at end of day Saturday, with a small field of eleven cars. Russ Bond, in his rather ugly 1975 Mazda RX3 Fahren won out over Steve Gidman in a 1990 Miata. Now that the early Miatas are Vintage eligible, I’m kinda surprised that we aren’t being overrun with them, given how popular they are on the racetrack, particularly in the US.
My vote for race of the weekend came on Saturday afternoon, in the Formula Ford division of the Formula Classic race. First a little background. The favourites were Stephen Adams in an 1980 Lola T540 and Doug Beatty in an 1981 Crosslé 45F, both Club Fords. Both are good, really good. Daniel Burkett, a recent Road-to-Indy competitor was entered in a new to the Burketts but not really ready for prime time 1979 Van Diemen RF78. Daniel is also very good. Joe Griffin trailered from Florida with two well-prepared 1969 Lotus 59’s in his rig. He thought it might be nice to see Daniel drive his spare. The Lotus is a Historic Ford, but anyone who knows Formula Fords knows that a good Historic Ford with a good motor and a good driver is a match for any equally prepared and driven Club Ford. Game on. Stephen, Doug and Daniel got locked into a battle with each other and the Formula 2000 Van Diemen of Michael Cross. Michael couldn’t get far away and the Fords were swapping positions behind him. Stephen made a big effort to get by Michael and use him as a shield between him and, now, Daniel and Doug, but he couldn’t make it stick. Michael gradually got away from Stephen and Daniel, who continued to disagree over the FF lead, and Doug fell back just a little. On the last lap Stephen led past our spot in turn 5, but between there and the end of the race, Daniel was able to get by and win by 2/10’s of a second. Two cars in different classes battling for 3rd place and loving every second of it. If anyone tries to tell me Vintage racing isn’t real, examples like this abound at events like the VGP.
Meanwhile, a similar, Historic three car battle raged behind. The 1973 Brabham BT40 Formula Atlantic of Robert Burnside and the 1988 Citation F2000 of Robert Wager led the afore mentioned Joe Griffin, Kevin Young in a 1971 Crosslé 20F and Murray Burkett’s 1969 Chinook MK IX. Murray gradually lost touch as Kevin and Joe battled just in front, regularly exchanging positions. Kevin finally had the upper hand, winning the place by 4/10’s of a second.
The car I was happiest to see on the weekend Ed Luce’s 1968 Lotus 41C Formula B car. Ed had been working on this project for years and it was wonderful to see on the track. Beautiful, and pretty handy speed wise. Congratulations, Ed.
Another car I was thrilled to see was Al Fergusson’s 1962 Jaguar E Type. The last time I saw this car it was in a very sorry state, the result of a big time on track collision. It now looks absolutely immaculate, resplendent in light blue with silver stripes.
Cameo appearance of the weekend goes to John Noble. We were watching the Sunday morning races from turn 1, when at the back of the slower Classic group appeared the prettiest silver 1967 Chevy Corvette. It did four or five very circumspect laps then retired quietly to the paddock. There it was, gone.
When it came down to our choice of favourite race car of the weekend, I was partial to Jeff Bateman’s 1984 Citation, which runs in the B class of the Toyo Series. I also really liked Robert Burnside’s 1973 Brabham BT40 Formula Atlantic. Takes me back to the era of Gilles Villeneuve, Bill Brack, Craig Hill and the awesome, Canadian, Player’s Formula Atlantic Series. In the end, though, I have to agree with Shane, Ayden and Wyatt that the neatest car of the weekend was Brian MacEachern’s 1956 Lotus XI. Polished silver aluminum, wire wheels, and it predates all of us.
Finally, we’d like to give a big shout out to the Toyo Tires F1600 Series winners. The winner of all three races was novice driver Logan Pacza in a Britain West Motorsports run 2013 Mygale SJ13 Honda. Logan is dominating the series to date, taking two firsts and a second at event one at Shannonville and all three races at CTMP. Not to be outdone, Andrew Mason took all three victories in a 1990 Van Diemen RF90 Ford in the very competitive class B of the Series.
That’s it. Spectating isn’t as much fun as racing, but it’s pretty OK. If I haven’t convinced you to mark your calendar and attend next year’s VARAC VGP, I give up. Go play golf.