What a difference a year makes. Were many drivers finally feeling the three–dollars–a–gallon pinch, or perhaps, still recovering from the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association’s (SVRA) mega gathering at the Glen a few weeks prior, or have some participants simply decided to sit this one out in lieu of the “new” season finale and 25th Anniversary venue at Road Atlanta late October? Any or all of the above would present plausible arguments, as well as probably hundreds of other individual reasons, but the bottom line was that this year’s SVRA Formula Car Festival presented by the Gulick Group at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) this past September 29–October 2, now with the “Season Finale” part dropped from the marquee, didn’t come close to attracting the nearly 350 entrants it did last year.
Despite the “Formula Car Festival” namesake presenting the obvious host of “open–wheel only” races (including the final race for HSR’s Big Open Single Seater (B.O.S.S) series), the racing weekend moreover included its normal menu of Michael Stott | USB Financial group sprint races and a pair of Motor Check On–Site Analyzer enduros, too.
Additionally, the final round of the North America Chapter-Sports 2000 Racing Car Club (NAC–SRCC) was contested, as were two Blue–Gray Challenge races planned to rekindle the friendly North–South asphalt battles absent since the SVRA eliminated the Blue–Gray Challenge event at Summit Point in 2003. Unfortunately, the latter duce of skirmishes didn’t materialize and were cancelled.
With the weather gods blanketing VIR with delightful racing weather, the paddock’s atmosphere strangely permeated with an uncanny quietness. No, I’m not talking about muting of race motors either, but the slight damper of the “good” noisy clatter and energy we generally expect at any event. The weak spectator crowd, noticeably down, most likely added to the mellow conditions, but by all means, the Formula Car Festival was no sleep–fest either as Friday’s qualifying, and first formal race, the “Vicksburg” endurance battles, filled the uncharacteristic stillness with plenty of Rock and Roll volume to keep the earplugs in place.
In the hour–long race, Jeff Bernatovich/Ken Mennella were cruising up front in Bernatovich’s ’90 Vette, only to have an alternator, and subsequent battery failure, result in an all too early exit. Ron Zitza and Ron Brannon took the checker for the win, followed by father and son, Bob and Art Hebert in their “Special Edition” ’62 XKE and George Grote in his GT1 Camaro. The traditional welcome party at SASCO Sports, hosted by Erica and Dave Handy, put another day to bed.
Saturday was basically a repeat of Friday’s agenda, with the second one–hour race, the “Shiloh” enduro putting a period to the day’s blacktop racing action, and the SVRA social carrying us into the dark. Saturday’s race also mirrored Friday’s pattern, but this time is was Dave Handy out front for more than half the race when gearbox problems sidelined his McLaren M6B, handing Travis Engen the opportunity to do what he does best, take the checker and collect another victory.
Showtime, as Sunday’s AM action blasted from the green flag with a couple of formal contests, followed by an hour quiet time and then it resumed with a full gala of great racing. Interestingly, Group 1 showcased another father and son entry, Leigh and Quinn Derby. This time though, they battled each other with patriarch, Leigh’s Spitfire coming out on top, and Quinn’s Triumph second. The subsequent race, the advertised B.O.S.S. series finale, produced an exciting win by Engen (his second) skillfully wheeling his Lola T97/20 Indy lights and holding off the hounding ’99 Lola Indy of Sergei Szortyka. Unfortunately, missing from the fray was Larry Connor’s “spark flying” 1994 Benetton B194 F1 machine that had the misfortune of being a victim of a damaging grassy off–road excursion.
A win by David Sugg cemented his S2000 top honors for the newer (laugh) machines (1986–1990), while one of vintage racing’s more colorful personalities, Peter Krause repeated as champion wheeling older S2000 machinery (1983–1985). And as the day began growing long in the tooth, the balance of the schedule concluded with a final battle, a Group 4/5/7 combo producing an exhilarating “Me and My Shadow” start–to–finish win by Peter Gulick’s Chevron B23 (his second win as well) over the hard pressing shadow of Lee Brahin (Lola T296) to end the event in vintage auto racing. The event’s planned closer, “All Formula Open Wheel” race, was cancelled.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot win every battle, but must focus on winning the war. So, before we draw any conclusions based on just the raw entry numbers defining an event’s success (or failure), SVRA doesn’t need to panic with a knee–jerk reaction either. Still, SVRA may consider reinventing, or at least, boosting the hype to encourage greater participation in future Formula Car Festivals, especially with the new late October gig at Atlanta poised to steal some of the venue’s thunder. Bottom–line though, the success of any event is judged simply by the excitement on the blacktop. It takes two to tango, and just two vintage racers as we witnessed in the aforementioned Gulick–Brahin show, dueling in the late day sun to eradicate all other concerns.....Walter Pietrowicz