Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Berkeley at Watkins Glen

The following story was reprinted from MINUTIA Issue 14, Number 3 (2005)

My second racing outing of the season was the Watkins Glen Historic Races.

Watkins Glen is the home to the first road racing in the U.S. after the war. Races were held on roads around the town from 1948-1952, and a permanent track was built in 1953. The track now hosts part of the NEXTEL and NASCAR series, and Indy cars will be racing there in the fall.

So…amid all this history, and racing accomplishments, I dropped in with my Berkeley (originally an SE328 – but upgraded with a 3-cylinder 492cc engine). The racing paddocks were full (over 300 cars were in attendance), and many of the cars around me were what I refer to as the “heavy metal” of vintage racing – stock cars, Trans-Am racers and BOSS (Big Open Single Seaters, including Indy Cars, Formula Atlantic, F1, F2, F3000, and F5000). I used to think my Berkeley with its 2-stroke engine was loud. These cars are so loud that you feel the sound through your feet and in your gut as they pass by.

My 8:30am Saturday track session took me all of two feet. The car started right up – and sounded really nice, but when I put it in gear (or attempted to put it in gear) the car lurched slightly, then revved freely. Assuming it was my fault I started jockeying around for the right gear – but couldn’t find anything. A brief look under the hood revealed the culprit – the chain had parted and was coiled like a snake under the engine. I thought it was the end of my weekend, but the guys from GMT Racing are a resourceful bunch. A visit to a motorcycle repair shop, and a bunch of scraped knuckles got me ready for my next outing in the early afternoon.

The VSCCA (Vintage Sports Car Club of America), the club I run with, is more about the cars than it is about racing – so in events like this, we begin the sessions with an “inverted start” – putting the slowest car in front and the fastest cars in the rear. Well…I was slated for the pole position. But, since I had never taken a circuit of this track before, I negotiated a trade with Jim Warren who’s ’57 MGA was in the number two position. We normally divide up into classes based on our car’s age, engine size, and relative speed – but at this event, all of the VSCCA cars were running in the same heat. The 16 cars lined up on the false grid, preparing for the start, included a couple of late 50’s Porsche 356’s, two Lotus 18’s, a Triumph TR-3, a Stanguilini, a Lotus Elite, an Allard J2, a Daimler SP250, a Speedwell GT Sprite, Jim’s MGA…and me.

We did one parade lap behind a Chevy Corvette pace car, then took the green flag. Jim took off ahead of me, and the remainder of the pack passed me between turn two and the back straights. To be honest, as a newcomer to racing, I was more than happy to find myself alone – able to feel out the track without any traffic. And Watkins Glen is a big track, almost 40 feet wide and 3.4 miles around. Seventeen cars can get lost on a track this size.

I proceeded to run my own race, on my own time. As a relative neophyte to both racing and the Berkeley, I have a really hard time feeling my way through the downshifts on the sequential gearbox. Missing a shift on the road is no real problem – but on a track like Watkins Glen, a missed downshift can almost bring the car to a stop. There is one point on the track (an area called “The Boot”) where a hairpin curve is immediately followed by a hill. Fourth gear won’t do, and second gear is too low – so I kept shooting for third, and I only hit it about 50% of the time.

The two Lotus 18’s lapped me pretty quickly – and actually passed me again during their “cool down” lap. The Porsche’s also lapped me – but it took them much longer to get by. I held everyone else at bay, coming in 15th in the field of 16 cars. (An Austin Healey spun and took himself out of the race.) This was considered the qualifying race for Sunday’s feature session – but since we started with so few entrants, all of us qualified – and I was destined for the pole.

Sunday’s race went off about ten minutes late, due to a delay in the hour-long GT/Historic Enduro that preceded our race. I folded myself into the car and prepared myself for the six-lap event. I followed the pace car out on the track, giving waves or thumbs-up to the corner workers as we passed. (The great thing about driving a Berkeley is that everyone gives you a smile.) I expected the green flag as we approached the start/finish line -- instead I was shown a double-yellow. Now…I had “crammed” the night before, trying to remember what all the flags mean, and I knew that yellow meant caution, slow down, no passing – but I couldn’t remember what a double-yellow meant. (As it turns out, double-yellow means the entire course is under yellow-flag conditions – but I was sitting there wracking my brain trying to remember what it could mean.) We continued on to a second parade lap, and in the middle of the lap I saw the Daimler being towed off, clearly the victim of some mechanical problems. After what seemed an eternity, I got the green flag and tucked myself over to the left to stay away from the stampede.

Once again, the entire pack passed me with little trouble – but this time I decided to test a few limits and see what the car could do (or at least, how far I could take it before chickening out). I tested the corners, took them a little deeper, and found that there were parts of the track that I could handle without lifting – and I continued working on downshifts to third.

About halfway through the race I was shown the yellow flag, and came around a turn to see the Allard with a blown tire off to the side of the track. About the same time, but unbeknownst to me, the Speedwell GT retired to the pits with some mechanical problems. Despite my best efforts, the two Lotus 18’s quickly came up behind me and passed – my consolation was that they only passed me once this time. The Porsche’s also passed me, but again, I was running a better race than the day before, and it took them longer to catch up. I was the last car running to take the checkered flag – but with three cars out, I finished 13th – up two spots from the previous session. (Let’s ignore the fine line between outrunning and outlasting a competitor.) The cool-down lap was particularly pleasing, passing the waves, smiles, and thumbs-ups of the corner workers. You would think I had come in first.

Driving through the pits, back into the paddock, I went by victory lane, where drivers of the two Lotus 18’s and a Porsche 356 Coupe were celebrating their wins. My Berkeley will never challenge them, and, based on their experience as drivers, any one of them could probably jump in my car and turn laps much faster than me – but, I had fun.

I changed, loaded the Berkeley on my trailer, and headed home – hitting highway speeds much higher than any I hit on the track.
Rich Campbell

Photo © Lucie Collins

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