Against the pale blue sky, sunlight filters through the veil-thin fog. The crimson red aluminum awnings over the infield garages glimmer with dew, reflecting the morning light. Over the front straight, the towering bleachers stand empty, their broad swaths of yellow and red bench seats cast blue by shadowy sunlight. Aside from the reedy blat of a motor scooter buzzing past and the lazy gurgle of a tow truck headed out towards Turn Eight, the sounds of racing have yet to arrive.
For years, drivers of all kinds have come to California Speedway. The 568-acre race compound in Fontana is a regular on the NASCAR race calendar, hosting dozens of multi-million dollar race teams, their tube-framed race cars running inches apart at speeds up to 190 miles per hour on the banked two mile oval.
This weekend is different. Under the direction of the Historic Sports Car Racing Association, over 90 historic racecars are here to compete and to celebrate the history of auto racing in all its forms. From megabuck race crews to weekend hobbyists running on a shoestring budget, the field of race cars span more than 50 years of racing history. Some will race for points, others will run for the simple thrill of vintage cars running hard on a track rather than being sheltered in a collector’s garage.
Last year, the infield was a furnace at 115 degrees Fahrenheit, with the track temperature at over 130, according to Ron Harris, a crew mechanic for one of the many vintage Porsche 911 teams. In that kind of heat, explained Harris, race tires will lose their stick and become greasy, making steering more difficult and the limit of grip vague.
Saturday morning is the last timed practice session before qualifying. With less than a half-hour of track time for each of the eight race classes, the pressure to find the right combination of grip and speed is intense. The nearly three mile long infield course is narrow, sinuous and bumpy in comparison.
The “Small Production Car” group is the first to hit the track. Made up of Datsun 510 coupes and Fairlady roadsters, Alfa Romeo GTVs and a lone Mazda RX-3, It’s a class of cars that originally hit the road at least 25 years ago. The limit on tire width and engine size keep the cars on a level playing field,
Despite the fact that it’s only a practice session, the action is intense. Coming down off the high speed banking, drivers brake sharply for the first s-turn, which opens on to the first of a series of straight-aways that lace across the infield. With a burgundy Alfa Romeo nipping at its heels, the red Mazda waits until the last possible moment before braking and squirming through. Puffs of blue and gray tire smoke squirt from the Alfa’s front wheels as the driver locks up the brakes for an instant. The Mazda blazes on, lengthening its lead into the left-hand u-turn.
Coming out onto the second straight the Mazda runs wide by a hair, sending dust and sod flying. The car slows as a result and having recovered from the panic braking a moment earlier, the Alfa closes again, keeping the pressure on the Mazda as they weave through another left – right chicane and a second u-turn, opening on the longest of the three infield straights.
Bumper to bumper at the start, the Mazda and Alfa shoot past under the spectator bridge, their brassy exhaust notes setting the steel structure resonating beneath the crowd’s feet. Gathered at each end of the bridge, they hang over the staircase railings, their heads swiveling to keep eyes on the drag race unfolding only a few feet away. Another braking contest unfolds at the end, with the Mazda hanging on to the lead by the slimmest of margins. “Now that’s racin’. You could barely fit a sheet of paper between ’em.” said one spectator to the other.
The intensity of the morning practice session carried on into the final setups for qualifying later on Saturday afternoon. As the final practice sessions drew to a close and the cars returned to their infield garages, crews in all race classes spent the lunch break hunched under, over and through their cars, meticulously preparing them for qualifying.
In the next row over from the diminutive Mazdas, Datsuns and Alfas, a trio of ivory Shelby Mustangs sat on jack stands. As engine coolant and gear oil drained from each car, two mechanics hurriedly bled the brakes on car number 77, the only Mustang to wear gold stripes rather than the usual blue.
Parked nose-in between two of the Mustangs was a 1965 Ford Falcon Sprint. The car wore the same ivory white paint job, wearing number 21 with dart-like swaths of blue down each side . Over the roof and trunk lid laid a flourish of green and ochre feathers, streaming from a falcon painted off-center on the hood with wings abreast.
“The falcon was kind of a gift,” said Steve Russel, one of the mechanics working on number 77. “Before buying the car, Paul [Wilson] owned and ran a [Sunbeam] Tiger.” Just before a race in Seattle last year, the Sunbeam was painted by a friend with tiger stripes from end to end, Russel explained. When the car was lost in a crash just days after the stripes had dried, the painter felt like he owed Wilson a paint job. “So he came up with the idea of painting [the bird] like Paul ran into him at full speed,” said Russel.
As Russel hurriedly returned to prepping number 77 for the afternoon qualifying session, a black and white blur shot past, it’s hurried symphony of pops and rattles echoing across the paddock. Coasting to a stop inside the garage, a horde of black-shirted crewmen swarm around. In moments the jet-black 1999 IRL Mugen Honda is on stands, wheels off with a small bronze laptop plugged into the dash as the exhaust ticks away, radiating heat into the languid afternoon breeze.
The driver, Patrick Van Schoote, emerges from the swarm of crewmen with a casual ease. He plucks a lemon-lime Gatorade from a cooler tucked away in the corner of the garage and flops into a folding fabric chair while chatting with the crew chief. “So far, the car has been running strong and steady,” Van Schoote, said.
Compared to the tension amongst Wilson’s crewmembers, there is a feeling of clinical precision and calm. Racing in Group 6, Van Schoote will compete on Sunday amongst a field of retired Formula One and Formula 5000 cars spanning roughly 40 years, ranging in price from $60,000 for a well worn example to more than $200,000 for the eight-year old IRL car he pilots this year.
Symbolic Motor Car Group of La Jolla, California purchased the car about a year ago. Weighing less than 1,700 pounds with Van Schoote aboard and powered by a 3-liter Honda V8 producing nearly 900 horsepower at more than 15,000 rpm, the car will hit 150 miles per hour in the time it takes an average road car to hit 60, producing nearly two g of lateral acceleration in the process. As confirmed by the timing sheet on his final qualifying run, Van Schoote’s car is the fastest on site this weekend. “We’re lucky that it’s not so hot out there,” said Van Schoote. “When it gets much hotter than this, traction is a big issue. It can take a few seconds off [the lap time] just because you have to take it easy on the throttle.”
With the qualifying runs complete and the starting grids penned out, the paddock falls quiet once more as the sun sinks westward. Clattering as they are pulled down, the grey steel garage doors shut one by one as the crews retire for the evening. Van Schoote joins his team inside the jet-black transporter parked near the infield gate, awash in the pale red glow of the setting sun.
Sunday dawns with same gauze-thin blanket of fog. By 9 a.m, the paddock is abuzz with cars on their warm-up runs. The races begin at 11. At the spectator bridge a crowd has already gathered, clustered at each end as the groups mingle on the track. Alfas, Porsches, Lola and Lotuses all shoot past in a multicolored fusillade of chrome, fiberglass and steel.
Mixed together at once, each make and model takes on a distinctive sound – the Alfas have a soulful
, melodic blare while the Porsches sing a gargling baritone. The Formula One cars are the crowd favorite, with their ear-splitting banshee howl sending bystanders flocking to the side of the track.
The morning races opened with the Alfas, Mazdas and Datsun, all competing with the same ferocious intensity carried over from the qualifying rounds. Just past the halfway point in the ten lap race, a hard charging Porsche went off-track at the infield U-turn where the Alfa ran wide yesterday. In fourth place before the incident, the silver 356 Speedster plowed through the infield only to rejoin the race at the back of the pack. As the checkered flag flew, the Alfas that dominated yesterday persevered, with the Mazda RX-3 clinging on in third.
The Formula Ford group rounded out the morning, with the father and uncle team of Stewart and Andrew Paterson taking first and second place with a pair of crimson and blue 1967 Croslee-built Formula Fords.
For Van Schoote and the Symbolic Motor Car Group, the early afternoon race was a cakewalk. The nearest competitor, a BMW V-12 powered 1987 March 87, was unable to close the distance once Van Schoote came off the high-speed oval and into the infield. The combination of ideal track temperature, tires and spot-on suspension tuning made the difference, extending his dominant performance seen in qualifying.
For Paul Wilson and his feather-festooned Falcon, fate wasn’t nearly as kind. As the afternoon shadows stretched out over the infield, the last race group took position on pit row. The gold and ivory Mustang fired up with a raucous, sooty snort and Falcon followed suit. Yet as the Mustang cleared the garage and chugged off toward the starting grid, The Falcon’s transmission refused to engage reverse gear. Wilson said nothing, signaling to his mechanics with a solemn glance, scribing a slashing motion across his neck. But after a couple sharp prods of the gas pedal, Wilson coaxed the balky shifter into gear. With the high compression V8 barking in thunderous, guttural notes, he pulled out and engaged first gear. For a while, it seemed all was well.
Yet five laps later, Wilson retired with a broken transmission. Burbling along in second gear, Wilson coaxed the car off the pit lane right up to the trailer parked at the far end of the paddock. Without so much as a glance underneath, Russel and the rest of the crew guided the ailing Falcon up the ramp and into the trailer.
Apparently wings alone aren’t enough to soar.
More photos are available in the Photo Essay section.