Like all vintage racing organizations, SVRA was founded to provide a safe and controlled environment in which enthusiasts could fully enjoy their outdated racecars. From its humble beings in Sebring, SVRA’s headquarters soon moved 60 miles north to Lakeland, the home of its founder and former Sebring resident Ford Heacock. During the course of history, SVRA would move from Lakeland to Summerville, SC, back to Florida (Tampa) and then return to South Carolina (Charleston), each move a result of a change of ownership and management. Another change of ownership relocated SVRA’s office to Hanover, NH. The move to the present location took place in 2000 when SVRA became a co–tenant in HSR’s Atlanta office.
Along the way race groups were refined, increased in number to accommodate newer cars and, in one case, deleted. Although not a race group in strictest sense, the exhibition group was originally created to provide a more comfortable alternative for drivers who wanted to enjoy their cars at somewhat less than racing intensity. The elimination of the exhibition group seems strange in a sport founded on the casual enjoyment of old racecars, but time marches on and so does the prevailing attitudes in vintage racing.
While some race groups have remained fairly unchanged, others have been expanded to include the ever–increasing number of newer cars. Consider the Porsche 917. When vintage racing in the U.S. gained a firm foothold in the late 1970s, the Porsche 917 was less than 10–years–old but was nevertheless welcomed with open arms. As vintage racing entered the 1990s, SVRA kept their door closed to cars such as the Porsche 962. HSR, on the other hand, fostered the growth of GTP cars in vintage racing. And now, of course, with SVRA under the control of HSR, we have “guest” appearances of HSR race groups at selected SVRA events.
Perhaps the most noteworthy SVRA race group is Group 4. Featuring the front–engine sports racers and specials of the 1950s; Group 4 essentially became a club within a club by hosting their own parties and award ceremonies. On one hand the enthusiasm and camaraderie of Group 4 participants was undeniable and convincing demonstrated the true spirit upon which vintage racing was founded. On the other hand, when viewed from the overall perspective of SVRA, Group 4’s ebullient demonstrations off–track could be construed as a separatist movement by giving the impression of an elite club to which the vast majority of competitors did not belong.
Group 4, however, isn’t what it used to be with the current entry seldom exceeding single figures as compared to earlier times when 25–30 cars was the norm. For longtime Group 4 participants who have grown accustomed to their independence, the situation is further exacerbated when SVRA’s only choice is to combine undersubscribed groups in order to maintain a reasonable schedule. Several years ago, Group 4 regular and former sole owner of SVRA Alex Quattelbaum decided to return to the basics and, with the encouragement of like-minded fellow vintage racers, formed the Vintage Drivers Club of America, a non–profit club for enthusiasts with period–correct cars who also share the desire to recapture the more casual days of vintage racing.
To its credit, there are far more highlights than lowlights in SVRA’s 25-year history. Almost every event during the first five years was a highlight because records were being established and then reset with regularity, new venues explored and taking their place on the annual schedule. It was an exciting campaign, a time of discovery and success, the pride of being involved or witnessing the birth and growth of something special. Like missionaries, SVRA’s staff took their brand of religion to Road Atlanta, Mid–Ohio and Watkins Glen and reveled in its enthusiastic reception. Timing is everything, and the timing of SVRA was perfect. Nurtured by the astute management of Ford Heacock, SVRA’s fledgling years created a solid foundation for the future though nobody could have predicted the true dimensions of what the future eventually revealed.
Over the years there have been numerous reunions, celebrations and gatherings hosted or created by SVRA. Among the highlights is the appearance of Jim Hall and his 1965 Sebring–winning Chaparral at SVRA’s historic races at the Sebring 12–hour in 1985. The car’s first public outing since the 1965 season was made even more special by the attendance of Hall’s co–driver Hap Sharp. Icing on the cake: Robert Williams’ 1953 Sebring–winning Cunningham C–4R was also there.
Later that same year, Joel Finn debuted his freshly restored 1939 Mercedes–Benz W154/M163 at Watkins Glen and ran it on–track at Road Atlanta during SVRA’s 1985 season finale. It is the author’s opinion this is the most significant and historically important car ever to appear and run at an SVRA event.
The first SVRA Collier Cup race for MGs also took place at Watkins Glen in 1985 along with an Allard reunion, one of several sponsored over the years by SVRA stalwart and eventual co–owner Syd Silverman. And sharing top billing with Finn’s W154 at Road Atlanta in 1985 was the reunion of the 1959 Le Mans–winning team of Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby with team manager John Wyer. Sponsored by Aston Martin enthusiast Peter Livanos, this was the first time most of us had the opportunity to meet Wyer, and sadly the last opportunity.
Although 1985 may well be SVRA’s finest year, other significant occasions include the incredible turnout of 53 genuine cars from the original Trans–Am series at Watkins Glen in 1995. And anyone who was there will never forget the 50th Anniversary of the Collier Cup at Watkins Glen in 2004. An amazing 143 MG racecars took to the track in one of two Collier Cup races, supported by hundreds of street MGs attending as an official function of major MG clubs. This showing of racing MGs courtesy of MG Vintage Racers’ immense effort propelled the overall entry to 562, a new record for SVRA.
Of course choosing favorite memories is a subjective matter, a person’s favorites being defined by their age, personal experiences, allegiance to history or any other manner of measurement and judgment. SVRA’s history certainly contains memories of special cars and several outstanding races, but above all it’s about people. While it’s undeniably a pleasure and privilege to meet a motorsports legend in person, the history of SVRA is replete with people who not only gave flesh to the vision but also those people who supported the dream either through sponsorship or as a participant. As you might expect, the list is long and includes everyone who volunteered to help in registration, timing and scoring or any of the countless menial duties that are part of any event. The list also includes everybody who brought cars however rare or commonplace to share and become an integral part in the spectacular show know as vintage racing.
At the top of this list are the people who truly embody the vintage spirit and charismatically influence everyone within their circle. One such example is Brian Redman, an early vintage racer whose impressive professional accomplishments belie his down-to-earth demeanor. Redman has always understood what vintage racing is all about and his several roles with SVRA during the majority of its history have definitely enhanced its enviable reputation.
A bit less famous than Redman, the late Bob Fergus was a leading figure in SVRA’s history. Fergus was the epitome of a gentleman racer, which is not to say he didn’t drive competitively. A gifted driver, you had to earn your way pass Fergus, but he would be the first to congratulate you in the winners’ circle. Nowhere was this more obvious than at Laguna Seca at the 1995 Monterey Historic Automobile Races. After many years of dueling with Brian MacEachern’s Lotus 11 Le Mans with his Lotus 15 in SVRA’s Group 4, it all culminated on America’s most prestigious vintage racing stage. Leading their race, Fergus and MacEachern traded places on practically every lap with the Lotus 11 barely ahead at the checkered flag. In the paddock following the race, a jubilant Fergus embraced his youthful adversary in much the same way a father would proudly embrace his son. This was much more than a display of maintaining grace in defeat, it was a celebration of a battle well fought because the quality of the journey is often more important than the destination. Fergus always drove to win, but win or lose; a good battle was the real pleasure. Robert Fergus received SVRA’s Driver of the Year award in 1985 and in 1997 was named the Driver of the Decade, a unique honor most likely never to be repeated.
Back in late January I wrote the introduction to this series. At the time there was no official mention of SVRA’s Silver Anniversary let alone plans to celebrate this important milestone. Having been there since the beginning, I thought such an oversight was inexcusable and the intro reflected my disappointment and disgust with the current owners. Now 16 weeks have passed since I wrote those harsh incriminations and things have changed. SVRA’s 25th Anniversary will be celebrated at Road Atlanta during the season finale at Road Atlanta on October 20–23. Invitations have been made to SVRA’s founder Ford Heacock and several others who played important roles in its history. Original members with low membership numbers have also received invitations. A special emphasis will be placed on Group 4 with longtime SVRA supporter Syd Silverman sponsoring a celebratory party. It will surely be a time of reminiscing about the past and within Group 4 several of those memories will include Bob Fergus who will certainly be there in spirit, wearing his trademark toothy smile under a large straw hat.....Art Eastman