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Originally organized to provide an opportunity to enjoy obsolete race cars in their natural habitat, vintage racing now occupies a formidable position in the world of motorsport. During the latter decades of the 20th Century, the ever–increasing popularity of vintage racing has fostered rapid growth and, in several cases, drawn the attention of Corporate America that fueled a transition from club to business.

In the process, vintage racing has created its own history with several pioneering clubs near or beyond their silver anniversaries. For the edification of younger enthusiasts and in the interest of clarification, it is an opportune time to review the history of one of the sport’s most important organizations.

Although the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association is not the most senior vintage racing organization in America–New England’s Vintage Sports Car Club of America was founded in 1958 and, to put matters in the proper perspective, England’s Vintage Sports Car Club recently marked its 70th anniversary–it nevertheless exemplifies the mainstream growth of the sport and the transitions and problems encountered along the way. Once the country’s largest and most influential vintage racing organization, SVRA’s history is a story of surviving changing times.

The Foundation Years

Inspired by a conversation with Sebring’s 12–Hour Race Coordinator Reggie Smith in January 1976, Porsche enthusiast Gerry Sutterfield organized a group of historic sports and racing cars as a supporting activity to that year’s race. Approximately 40 cars paraded through downtown Sebring on Friday and were driven in demonstration laps around the circuit prior to the 12–Hour race on Saturday.

Despite a certain degree of chaos during these laps – a Porsche 904 spinning into a Maserati 3500 GT, people crowding onto the front straight and the proceedings abruptly stopped to allow a motorhome to cross the track – the historic sideshow proved immensely popular for both the spectators and participants. A reappearance was enthusiastically requested for the following year’s 12–hour race.

The number of entries was slightly smaller in 1977, but in the interest of safety they were divided into two groups. Cars built or raced through 1959 were assigned to the Classic group and cars from 1960 through 1970 were designated Historic. Practice sessions allotted for each group culminated in six–lap races, Classic on Friday and Historic preceding the start of the 12–Hour on Saturday.

Gerry Sutterfield was again responsible for fielding a group and John Gordon Benett was enlisted as Race Chairman with Monte Thomas assuming the role of Tech Inspector. To nobody’s surprise, the more energized demonstration of historic race cars captivated all and essentially secured a future for vintage racing at Sebring.

Officially named the “Kendall Vintage Grand Prix” in 1978, the third appearance of vintage and historic cars at Sebring was a pivotal point in the eventual formation of SVRA. Although Sutterfield remained instrumental in organizing the Sebring show – he also staged a seven–lap race for historic cars during an SCCA National race at Palm Beach International Raceway (later renamed Moroso Motorsports Park) a month earlier – he was joined by several people who had the ability and were prepared to take the growing interest in vintage racing to the next level.

Chief among this influx of enthusiasts was Ford Heacock III, a young businessman and resident of Sebring whose father and grandfather had been officially involved in Sebring’s 12–hour race. A much darker memory of the Heacock family’s Sebring experiences involved Ford’s mother, one of four spectators killed by an errant race car in 1966. Despite this somber baggage, the lure of revisiting race cars from his youth proved irresistible and the seeds of SVRA fell on fertile ground.

In 1978 VSCCA member and Lime Rock Park owner Jim Haynes was dispatched to Sebring by IMSA’s John Bishop to become the event organizer for the 12–Hour race. The changing of the guard also saw Charles Mendez and David Cowart replace John Greenwood in Sebring’s front office as the 12–hour race regained full FIA status.

Due to his affiliation with VSCCA, Haynes applied his enthusiasm and used his contacts to produce a field of vintage cars to compliment and balance Sutterfield’s effort with the historic group. During the course of the event Haynes, Mendez, Cowart and Bob Akin had several conversations with Heacock attempting to persuade him to formally organize a vintage racing club, Haynes even suggesting the formation of a southern branch of the VSCCA.

Although meager by today’s standards, the vintage and historic entry for Sebring’s 1979 event drew nearly 60 cars, nearly a 50–percent increase from previous years. Heacock, now the Historic Race Chairman, raised the entry fee to $75 to cover the show’s escalating costs. Florida native Bruce Clarke arrived on the scene, bringing his mechanical expertise to the proceedings as the new Tech Inspector, and a five–member race committee was established to deal with car eligibility and driver behavior.

In the races, Bob Akin repeated his 1977 Sebring Vintage (or Classic as it was then called) win, but this one was much sweeter as his Cooper Monaco beat legend Stirling Moss in Jim Rogers’ Maserati Birdcage. Akin’s winning streak continued; the next day, teamed with Rob McFarlin and Roy Woods in Dick Barbour’s Porsche 935, he won the 12–Hours. The Historic race was won by Gerry Sutterfield’s Porsche 917K, narrowly edging out Henry Payne’s Porsche 910 in a crowd–pleasing contest.

For 1980 the Sebring Vintage and Historic entry rose to 70 cars and aggressive driving became an issue. Several experienced drivers besieged Race Chairman Heacock with boisterous complaints of bad driving during the practice sessions. Payne was called upon to conduct a stern drivers’ meeting and given authority to eject those competitors responsible for incidents resulting in damage. Certain drivers were shown the gate thereby alleviating the tension–filled atmosphere. This was the genesis of SVRA’s Drivers Committee and its application of the “13/13” rule (13 months probation for causing an incident and 13 months on the trailer for a similar impropriety during the probation period).....Art Eastman

Next week, Part 2: “Birth & Growth”-The Southeastern Vintage Racing Association is founded.