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MG Vintage Racers’ “Focus Event” 2004
at Watkins Glen International Raceway

It’s a rare occasion when reality exceeds expectations. Such was the case at Watkins Glen where MGs gathered in impressive numbers gathered to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Collier Cup. The tribute was hosted by the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association which has seen its annual Zippo United States Grand Prix grow to epic proportions in recent years. This Collier Cup celebration took more than a year of dedicated effort by the rabid members of MG Vintage Racers inner circle. When the dust finally settled Sunday evening, MGVR had not only did itself proud, but had also provided a spiritual recalibration of vintage racing’s original primary focus.

Later shortened to Collier Cup, the Collier Vintage Cup race for MGs was established in 1985 by vintage racer Miles Collier for SVRA’s second but first stand–alone event at Watkins Glen–SVRA conducted a support race during an IMSA event in 1984. The inaugural running of the Collier Vintage Cup drew a modest entry of eight MGs (five T–series and three MGAs) with Bob Colaizzi (1950 MG TD) receiving the historically significant and coveted trophy.

SVRA’s Collier Cup race is vintage racing’s iteration of the original Collier Brothers Memorial Trophy Race first held at Watkins Glen in September, 1954. Although SVRA’s Collier Cup was established nearly 20 years ago, SCCA has run this memorial race annually since its inception.

The Collier Cup is named in memory of brothers Sam and C. Miles Collier, enthusiastic racers and promoters of MG and road racing during the 1930s. A third brother, Barron, Jr., is credited with bringing the first racing MG to America in 1932, a J2 Midget. In 1934 Sam founded the MG Sales Company, the first MG agent in the U.S in which Miles soon became involved.

Inspired by travels abroad, the Collier brothers began feeding their passion for racing by carving out a makeshift circuit at Overlook, the family’s New York estate. As more friends joined the fun, this informal and rudimentary beginning spawned the Automobile Racing Club of America that held several events throughout New England before the outbreak of World War II. After the conclusion of the unpleasantness, the Collier brothers and their friends rekindled their racing interests by creating the Sports Car Club of America.

One of the primary focal points of the post–war rebirth of American road racing was Watkins Glen. In 1948 both Sam and Miles raced MG TCs at Watkins Glen, finishing fourth and fifth respectively. The following year Miles won the Watkins Glen Grand Prix with the Ardent Alligator, a Brooklands Riley powered by a flathead Mercury V8. Then, in September 1950, tragedy struck. Just after taking the lead in Briggs Cunningham’s Ferrari 166, Sam lost control and was thrown from the car as it somersaulted into a field. At age 38, Sam was gone.

Previously, Sam and Miles had made preliminary plans with Alex Ulmann to hold a European-style endurance race at a former B-17 bomber training facility near Sebring, Florida. It was Sam who first proposed this idea and after his death Miles suggested going forward with the plan. Sebring’s first race took place on December 31, 1950, a six–hour race appropriately named “The Sam Collier Memorial Grand Prix of Endurance.”

Unsurprisingly, following his bother’s death, Miles’ mother strictly forbid him to ever race again. He did of course, clandestinely. In April 1954, at the age of 40, Miles fell victim to polio. In September of that year, the two brothers who had been primary exponents in the growth of American road racing, often behind the wheel of an MG, were honored with the inaugural Collier Brothers Memorial Trophy Race for MGs at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix. Additionally, a large granite marker with a memorial plaque was placed at the point Sam left the road during that fateful race in 1950. Fifty years on, the memory of Sam and Miles still burns brightly thanks to the SCCA, SVRA, MGVR and Watkins Glen.

Nowhere does the spirit of the Collier brothers and MG burn more brightly than within the membership of MG Vintage Racers. Founded in 1981 by TD racer Greg Prehodka, MGVR began as a modest newsletter whose sole purpose was to establish and maintain an informative connection between those people who raced MGs for the fun of it. The original membership numbered 40. As vintage racing grew in popularity, so did the role call of MGVR members though the appearance of 10 MGs at any given vintage race was considered to be a good turnout. In 1995 Greg turned over the duties of MGVR’s newsletter to Mark Palmer, an equally enthusiastic MGA racer. MGVR continues to grow and its membership is currently in the region of the 250. Meanwhile, the indefatigable Prehodka continues to spread the gospel of MGVR as its publicity man.

Beginning with the 1996 Meadow Brook Historics at Waterford Hills, MGVR has selected a specific vintage race as its annual Focus Event and encouraged members to turn out in force. A few Focus Events have been modest affairs, a few impressive, but there has never been anything like the 50th Anniversary of the Collier Cup at Watkins Glen. Early estimates optimistically forecasted a record–breaking 100 cars, but as the project gained momentum, the entry list ballooned to an amazing 143 cars! It was the largest MG race car gathering in American motorsport history. And, given the historical premise of the occasion and venue, it is most likely the world’s most significant MG racing event ever staged. It was indeed a Magnificent Gathering!

The weekend’s activities began at noon on Thursday with a ceremony at the Collier brothers granite memorial on the original road course. Despite the damp presence of the remnants of hurricane Frances, several people showed up including a very special guest, Leonidis. Named by its owner Miles Collier, Leonidis began its life as one of three MG PAs prepared by the factory for Captain George Eyston’s all–female 1935 Le Mans team that scored a class win. Upon returning to the factory, the MG’s engine was increased to PB spec (939cc) for high–speed trials at Brooklands. Miles became the first private owner of PA–1667 in November 1935 after instructing the factory’s competition department to fit a Marshall supercharger. Leonidis was immediately put to work in ARCA events.

Early in 1937, Miles and Leonidis were involved in a traffic accident in New York City that led to the car acquiring a new body utilizing contemporary aircraft construction techniques. Miles took Leonidis back to Le Mans in 1939 and were comfortably leading in class when the fuel tank split during the eighth hour. Leonidis was sold to defray the trip’s expenses and has since been resurrected twice, vintage raced with the VSCCA during the 1960s, spent years in a Long Island automobile museum and finally found its rightful home in son Miles C. Collier’s world–class collection in Naples, Florida.

Although Leonidis was the most historically contextual car at the Collier Cup anniversary, it certainly was not the only significant MG to grace the Watkins Glen paddock. E. Dean Butler shipped over three prewar MGs from his impressive collection in England. The star of the trio was a 1934 K3 Magnette, one of nine factory cars and raced by Dick Seaman who went on to fame as a works driver for Mercedes–Benz during the era of Germany’s incredible Silver Arrows. For MG enthusiasts the K3 is no less than the Holy Grail, so it was a double treat to see a second K3, another genuine article courtesy of Collier Historic Motorcars.

Several cars came from California including Don Martine’s 1929 18–80 Mk II, the oldest MG at the gathering. Two highlights among the multitude of T–series were Syd Silverman’s 1949 TC in which Carroll Shelby won his first race and Denver Cornett and his 1947 TC, a pairing still intact from Watkins Glen’s first race in 1948. On a slightly more modern note, Kent Prather brought his nearly invincible G–Production MGA that has carried him to no less than five SCCA National Championships. But in the broad view, most of the MGs that took part in the anniversary celebration lack a famous pedigree, were not owned by a movie star or a person who went on to become a motorsport legend and never won a major race. MGs are what they are, basic sports cars that, more than any other marque, were responsible for the post–war rebirth of road racing in America. They were bought and raced by real people. Thankfully, they still are.

In support of the record–breaking field of racing cars, several groups and individuals made the 50th Anniversary of the Collier Cup a compulsory pilgrimage. Much like MGVR’s annual Focus Event, the New England MG “T” Register and the North Amercian MGA Register’s members turned out en masse, filling the village’s streets and coffers of Watkins Glen International. Appropriately, MG was the featured marque at the Concours d’Elegance, an integral element of Friday’s downtown Grand Prix Festival of Watkins Glen that features an impressive and immensely popular parade of race cars around the original 6.6–mile road course. For many MG racers, it was their first trip around the old course and they were no doubt moved by the experience of driving down an unbroken, six–deep corridor of spectators on Franklin Street and trying to imagine the nearly unbelievable feat of actually racing on this incredibly dangerous circuit.

Confronted by the huge entry and wide spectrum of performance, SVRA and MGVR wisely decided to split the Collier Cup into two separate races. The first group, CC1, included all the prewar and T–series cars with the slower MGAs filling out the grid. The second group, CC2, contained the faster MGAs, MG Midgets, MGBs, MGCs and MGB GT V8s. For the record, the CC1 race was won by Steve Konsin in his 1950 Lester with Les Gonda’s 1972 MGB GT V8 scoring the CC2 victory. Perhaps the biggest winner was MGVR Chief Mark Palmer who, despite being completely flabbergasted, instantly accepted Butler’s gracious invitation to drive his K3 in the CC1 race. Mere words fail to describe what must have been a religious experience for the fanatical MG enthusiast. Despite the number of cars and the speed differential, both races were incident free, a convincing demonstration of the mindset of those who race under the MGVR banner. Although seeing two races full of MGs was a rare sight, the weekend’s ultimate defining moment happened during the pace lap for the CC2 race. This group was led by all the MGs from the previous CC1 race that, in effect, became pace cars for their younger and faster brethren.

Breaking tradition, there were two Collier Cups awarded, one for each race group. You receive a trophy for winning a race, but being a Collier Cup winner is something very special. The qualifications are having a car that is faithful to its period and well prepared, exhibit good sportsmanship on and off the track, have genuine enthusiasm for the marque and fully understand vintage racing is a sport with camaraderie as its primary goal. The finishing position in the race is totally irrelevant. To make the award even more meaningful, the winner is decided by ballot, cast by fellow Collier Cup racers. Recipients of the 2004 Collier Cup(s) were Bill Hollingsworth (CC1 MG TC) and Dick Powers (CC2 MGA). You only needed to look into the eyes of Powers to understand the significance of this honor.

With a gathering of this magnitude and historical importance, several awards were presented, some for the first time. One of the major awards is the MGVR Spirit Award, otherwise affectionately known as “The Big Copper Bucket.” Presented annually at the Focus Event, the qualification criterion is similar to the Collier Cup. Because many of weekend awards would be given to MG racers, MGVR decided to again part from tradition by presenting this coveted award to a very surprised Walter and Louiseann Pietrowicz. Talented and dedicated providers of photojournalism for vintage racing magazines and Web sites, Walter and “Lu” also enthusiastically support several club publications including MGVR’s newsletter. They truly have the spirit, and now they have The Big Copper Bucket to prove it.

The New England T Register’s trophy for the highest finish by a prewar car went to visiting Brit Martin Walford who drove Butler’s 1934 MG–KN Special. The North American MGA Register sponsored a new award, the Bob Bucher–Sherm Decker Memorial Cup that was presented to Henry Moore for the highest finish by an MGA. On hand for the presentation were Joan Decker and Kay Bucher whose late husbands had won the Collier Brothers Memorial Trophy race four consecutive years (1956–1959) in MGAs, each winning twice.

Ford Heacock, this publication’s founder, created another first–time award in the memory of the late Bill Parish, an early TC vintage racer whose enthusiasm for the sport and fun–loving nature could easily have been a template for MGVR. Presented under the auspices of Parish Heacock Insurance, the inaugural recipient of the Bill Parish Memorial Award was MGA racer Carl George. A close friend of Bill’s, Carl began vintage racing in a bone–stock TD at Mid–Ohio in 1982. Together wilth TD racer Bob Coleman, Bill and Carl founded the Nashville–based Zapata Racing Team that featured, among other things, their own chef. A better choice for this award is impossible to imagine.

In the aftermath of this momentous occasion, MGVR was flooded with accolades from practically every participant. All glowed with praise, many were emotional, but perhaps Carl George’s response best revealed the heartfelt significance of the 50th Anniversary of the Collier Cup, “When life is over, I think we cherish our special memories and I believe this weekend will be one of mine.”......Art Eastman