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Kohler international Challenge vintage car race

by Tim Wohlford
Monday, July 21, 2008

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Vintage classic race cars speed off past the S/F line at Road America
Edmund Lewis
If the New York Time's description of Alain de Cadenet's "Victory By Design," as "car porn" is true, then the Kohler International Challenge at Road America is the porn star convention -- hot bodies with alluring bumps and lumps in all the right places, inciting youthful lust and passion, raw poetry in motion and beauty, all at a price that few of us can afford.  At least here one can fondle a beautiful body, admire wonderful curves, without risking their mortal soul.

If you've never been to a vintage car event, think of it as a racing museum in motion.  De Cadenet could show you the pretty pictures and let you hear the sounds, but at a vintage car race you can smell the fuel, feel your eyes burn with the exhaust, and talk with old-timers who have more racing stories than can fit in a weekend.  You can have your guts rattled with vintage Can-Am cars, your butt squeezed with a Lotus seat, and your fingers burned on TR3's hot exhaust.  You pass by aging F1 and CART cars (Emmo's 1986 Patrick Racing March-Cosworth) on your way to the 1950's Porsche exhibit, and pass by tents where VW Beetles sit side by side with Lola Can-Am cars, all waiting for a hard drive through the countryside. 

What is in mortal danger is your wallet.  Everything from bratwurst to laps around the track to vintage Ferraris are for sale.  The Porsche 356 Speedster was suspiciously cheap at $40,000, while the '79 Caterham was a bargain at half that amount.  The Testarossa was going for $66,000, the '52 MG TD for $18,900, and the replica Scarab (taken on order) for something around $70,000.  Burt "BS" Levy was there, selling his autographed books for $25, which of course included his "The last open road" bumper sticker. 

This year's International Challenge featured F5000s, Scarabs, Lola and Historic Grand Prix cars.  The F5000 series ran from 1969 to 1976, and the American branch was sanctioned by the SCCA.  In the US, these were basically F1 cars running American V-8 motors.  Drivers such as Mario Andretti, Jody Scheckter, David Hobbs and Brian Redman (the latter the organizer of the vintage car event at Road America) saw success in the series.  The void left by the demise of that series no doubt left a hole later filled by CART, with David Hobbs, Roger Penske, Carl Haas, Lola and others making the jump.  Many of the cars were later re-bodied for the revival of the Can-Am single-seat series, with a few then re-re-bodied in a restoration. 

The Scarab sports car was a late 1950's brainchild of Lance Reventlow.  Eight of these Chevy V-8 sports cars were built, one of which was driven by Carol Shelby who then transplanted a few American V-8 motors into a few sports cars of his own.  If you own a Scarab — and three ran in competition at Road America — you've probably got a $3 million vehicle.  Scarab also tried their hand at F1 in 1960, but their front-engine design was DOA as it arrived just as the rear-engine revolution was underway.  The car's body designer, Chuck Pelly, was on hand to sign Scarab books with a quick drawing.  Augie Pabst drove his 1962 Scarab when it was new, then bought it later, kept it all these years, and ran it at this event. Former endurance driver (and the guy who did the high-speed driving in "Cannonball Run") John Morton drove a 1958 Scarab.

The F1 entries were from the 3-litre era which ran from 1966 until 1983.  By far the class of the field is a 1997 Benetton B 197, which lapped the track in 1:57 and change.  By comparison, the Champ Car World Series cars were running about 1:48 last year, but the Benetton was doing this on Avon tires in a class where little spirited driving is allowed.  Running in the same class, in the same race as retired Indy Lights and G-Force IRL cars, the Benetton was lapping slower cars on the second lap, creating more than a little excitement. 

Always good for stopping the heart are vintage Can-Am cars.  While no Porsche 917 showed up, there were 32 vintage Lolas, McLarens, McKees, along with a lone GT40 (running in this class due to its speed).  Perhaps the last great "race what you built" series, the "build a better mousetrap and we'll bring a better mouse" legacy lives in these old cars.  On hand was Peter Bryant, author of "Can-Am Challenger", who was on Mickey Thompson’s tragic 1964 Indy team, then worked for Carroll Shelby’s Shelby American team, and later joined Carl Haas's Lola Can-Am teams.  Standing in the starter's stand over the front stretch while the Can-Am cars were running was good for hearing loss, internal organ vibration and complete automotive bliss. 

Finally, Road America itself is a perfect showcase for a vintage sports car event.  From 1950 until 1952, sports car races were held on the local roads around Elkhart Lake -- the course is marked by historical markers -- but were outlawed in the wake of a crowd fatality in Watkins Glen.  The Road America course was built as a safer alternative, with the first race held in September of 1955.  Something akin to country roads running through a state park campground, Road America is a perfect place for fans who are able to walk up and down the hills, who enjoy bratwurst, and can appreciate history.

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