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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ A vintage day at Lime Rock

by Gordon Kirby
One of the pleasures of working for Motor Sport is enjoying occasional visits to historic and vintage racing weekends. My travels over the past couple of months have taken me, most agreeably, to Elkhart Lake in July for the 40th Anniversary of US Formula Ford to Laguna Seca last month for the Monterey Historics to Lime Rock on Labor Day Monday for the beautiful little Connecticut track's Vintage Festival. And it's a pleasure to report at a time when professional racing in America is struggling that historic and vintage racing is in good health.

Lime Rock's Vintage Festival went through some changes this year with Steve Earle resigning and Murray Smith taking over as the event chairman and Kent Bain coming in to focus on Sunday's non-racing classic car show called 'The Event in the Park'. The overall entry of cars participating in Saturday's and Monday's races was up substantially over last year and good weather all weekend helped attract strong crowds.

There are four major, money-making events at Lime Rock each year--the Memorial Day road racing classic weekend, the American Le Mans cars in July, a NASCAR Camping World East stock car weekend in August, and the Labor Day weekend Vintage Festival.

"I would say the Vintage weekend and the American Le Mans weekend are our two major events," said track owner and president Skip Barber. "What's unique for Lime Rock is that this is a four-day event. Every day brought in a big crowd. The ALMS is strong but it's fundamentally a one-day Saturday event.

© Gary Gold
"I think vintage and historic racing is a healthy sport," Skip added. "The crowd is up significantly for the Vintage Festival this year because the weather was crummy last year. I think our entry is up because we've changed the nature of the event for the competitor. We've gone back a little to the Charlie Gibson days and encouraged the participation of the locals and the Vintage Sports Car Club of America.

"But at the same time we've kept the classic cars that Steve Earle attracted over the years. Steve really improved the quality of the cars but we lost some of the local participants. So we've got the best of both worlds."

In recent years veteran advertising man and historic racer Murray Smith partnered Steve Earle in organizing Lime Rock's Vintage Festival but Earle decided late last year to concentrate on his west coast plans leaving the way open for Smith to become the chairman of the Labor Day vintage weekend.

"Steve and I were partners the past five years but Steve decided he didn't want to do it anymore," Smith comments. "Steve did a great job improving the quality. He brought some great cars to Lime Rock but he decided he wanted to concentrate on the west coast. So Skip asked me to become the chairman. This is a transition year with Kent Bain and we've changed it a lot. We invited a load of car clubs and made Sunday a car show. We had 720 cars on the track on Sunday and we had a parade that went all the way around the track. We also had a Morgan celebration with about fifty Morgans.

"I've tried to provide more track time for the competitors and more racing for the spectators. Instead of having warm-ups all through the morning we had racing all day this year from nine in the morning. And we've also thrown in a couple of longer races so they're not all ten-lap sprints. I had no idea how people would react but most people seemed to be happy.

"The gate was up fifty percent on Saturday over last year and the car counts were good," Smith adds. "It's good to have quantity but you need quality, too. We had 270 cars this year, up about a hundred over recent years, and people tell me they like the variety from pre-war cars on up."

Smith offered his reasoning why historic racing in the United States is less-affected by the recession than professional racing.

"I think there's more passion in historic racing," he declared. "Guys like Duncan Dayton are passionate about motor racing whether it's modern or historic racing. But by definition a professional race team is a business, so they've been affected. But the old car guys are here to enjoy themselves. Some of them have been affected and are cutting back, but it doesn't cost that much to run an MGTC, for example, and the guys with formula cars and sports cars can afford it. The grids for Group C cars have gone down because those are expensive cars to run."

Smith says the restoration and historic race preparation business is in very good shape in both Europe and the United States.

"I can tell you that the guys I know in Europe who do restoration are in fantastic shape," Smith said. "They're busy as hell and most of the guys here are too, and the guys involved in preparing the cars and getting them to the track."

© Gary Gold
Track owner Barber says he is developing a plan to recreate Lime Rock's Memorial Day weekend that was a big event for the track back in IMSA's Camel GT heydays. In recent years the Memorial Day weekend has included Historic F1, F2000 and Grand-Am's Koni Challenge series.

"We think we're going to be able to bring that weekend back but we're not ready yet to commit to what that event is going to be," Skip remarked.

"This year our stock car event, like many NASCAR events, was really off," he added. "That's the one event that showed the impact of the economy. But the advance sale was up at the other three major events. The gate sale on raceday for Memorial Day weekend and the ALMS was down a little but that was because of bad weather in the environs, not here at the track. But the advance was up for Memorial Day, the ALMS and the Vintage weekend, too."

A feature of this year's Lime Rock Vintage Festival was the appearance of the Collier Collection's rare Mercedes Benz 1939 W154 Grand Prix car. The car was rolled out for a demonstration run on Tuesday before the vintage weekend and was demonstrated again on Labor Day Monday. Mercedes engineer and test driver Gert Staub first drove the W154 which was then driven by event chairman Smith. It was the first time the car had run on a racetrack in seventy years.

This particular W154 is the fifteenth and last of these spectacular cars to have been built. The car made its only Grand Prix start in Belgrade's Yugoslav GP on September 3rd, 1939 driven Manfred von Brauchitsch who qualified on the pole ahead of teammate Hermann Lang. Von Brauchitsch led the race before spinning and recovering to finish second, beaten by seven and a half seconds by Tazio Nuvolari aboard a D-type Auto Union.

TheYugoslav GP was the last major motor race run in Europe for six or seven years as World War II was getting underway at the very moment the cars were fired up for the start. So ended a golden era in Grand Prix racing.

© Gary Gold
Von Brauchitsch's chassis #15 was one of two W154s shipped to Austria for safe keeping during the war. Near the end of WWII the Soviet army tried to freight the pair of W154s by railway to Romania where some starving Soviet soldiers traded the car for a supply of food rations. After the war the Romanian national museum displayed the car but its existence remained a secret on the western side of the 'Iron Curtain'. The W154 was hillclimbed twice and crashed once in Romania before it was sold to a Japanese collector who eventually sold the car to the Collier Collection in Naples, Florida.

The 1939 version of the W154 was the apotheosis of the 'Silver Arrows'. It enjoyed a twin supercharged V-12 engine called the M163 with a roller bearing crankshaft that produced 485 bhp at 8,000 rpm. The engine in chassis #15 is a K-type engine, the two-stage supercharger version. The single-stage H engine from 1938 ran in most of the W154s raced in 1939.

The W154 carried 100 gallons of fuel in two tanks, one behind the driver and the second over the driver's legs. In a masterpiece of fabrication the steering column passes through the scuttle-mounted fuel tank. The screaming V-12 managed to drink its fuel brew at around 1.5 mpg so the car was losing about seven pounds for every mile it travelled. Seventy years ago the much-advanced W154 benefited from driver controlled rear shocks which had hard and soft settings to help cope with the lightening fuel load.

Incredibly, the Collier Collection's W154 is clothed in its original hand-hammered body panels. The Paul Russell Company in Massachusetts restored the bodywork to concours condition and Crosthwaite & Gardiner in the UK attended to the engine. Equally remarkable, the only major work required on the engine was replacing the rusted magnesium casting on which the twin turbochargers are mounted at the front of the V-12's block. The housing between the engine and superchargers contains a water jacket and Crosthwaite & Gardiner made a new stainless steel housing so it won't rust again.

The rest of the engine was in pretty good condition. The crankshaft and connecting rods had to be reground and new roller bearings were installed. The intake and exhaust valves were also in good shape and remain as original. There were signs of corrosion on the outside of some of the engine's castings but all was fine inside. And the fuel pump had to be replaced.

A bunch of us privileged spectators were standing behind the pitlane fence as the Collier Collection's crew prepared to fire-up the M154 for Murray Smith's Labor Day laps. A graying fellow perhaps ten years my senior stood beside me. He told me that as a child the walls of his room were covered with posters of the Silver Arrows.

"This car was what I dreamed about as a kid," he remarked. "The Mercedes Benz and Auto-Union Grand Prix cars and their drivers--von Brauchitsch, Carraciola, Lang, Nuvolari, Rosemeyer--those were my heroes."

© Gary Gold
He related a story from some years after WWII when the federal government commissioned a study into how technological advanced Nazi Germany's military-industrial complex was going into the war. It turned out, my companion said, that the state of metallurgy employed by the Mercedes and Auto-Union Grand Prix teams was woefully inadequate in structural strength compared to modern times.

"Knowing that in hindsight," my momentary companion commented. "It's incredible to think about the bravery and skill those guys had driving those cars, bouncing them across cobblestones and off curbs. Those guys were tremendously skilled, but very brave too."

When it crackles to life, the W154's engine emits a raucous, staccato-charged shriek unlike anything we hear today. We got a taste of the engine's piercing howl at Lime Rock but the fuel mixture didn't permit Murray to get seriously into the power band so we were denied the full earful provided back in the late thirties by von Brauchitsch, Carraciola, Lang and their teammates. Still, it was a rare treat.

Test driver Gert Staub, who first drove the car at Lime Rock, is a fourth generation Daimler-Benz engineer. Staub's father was Wolfgang von Trips's co-driver and navigator on the 1955 Mille Miglia aboard a Mercedes Benz 300SLR. So the only men to have driven this car are von Brauchitsch, the Romanian who owned the cars for so many years, Gert Staub and Murray Smith.

"It was quite something when I realized I was only the fourth person to drive that car since it was built," Smith grinned. "It's really fantastic. What an amazing car. The noise and the smell from inside the cockpit is unbelievable and as Dick Crosthwaite said, 'Imagine five of these on the grid with four Auto-Unions and you're sitting in an ERA ready to try to do battle with them!' This was an experience I'll never forget."

Nor will any of us who watched and heard this remarkable car and engine run at Lime Rock on Labor Day weekend. Many thanks to everyone at the Collier Collection for making our day.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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