By Dave Burton Photos by Mr. John E. Rees
While racing at Waterford Hills this July, Ol’ # 20 and I were invited to race at Put-In-Bay in August. Seems they used to race sports cars on the island in Lake Erie from ‘52 through ‘59 and then again in ’63. Vic tells me that he attended the 1963 race—as a spectator. Manley Ford, an MG TC racer I met at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix in 2011, put a full-court press on us to join the party. I told him to sell the idea to Diane. He did!
Set to take place on Monday to Wednesday with load-in on Sunday, the Race Reunion takes advantage of the fact that the boaters take over the island on the weekends and we’d be coming in as they were all leaving—cool! Manley gave us a few leads for good B&B’s on the island and we made our reservations and set up a dog sitter for our girls.
As it turned out, the race was scheduled to take place on Diane’s and my 36th anniversary and the schedule was so laid-back that we figured we could enjoy some time together away from our usual routine. The trip down was quick and the ferry out of Port Clinton was easy. It wasn’t long before we were checked-in at the Ashley Island House, had rented a golf cart and had taken care of race registration. Next, I hauled the trailer out to the paddock at the end of the airport and set up race HQ for Ol’ # 20, commuting back into town on the moped.
We received a recommendation from the owner of the B&B and took the golf cart to the Goat (named after a beloved family dog), enjoying a very nice dinner in a re-purposed winery. We toured downtown after dinner and familiarized ourselves with the island a bit, looking out over the harbor and finding our way to the Yacht Club, site of the next morning’s activities. Returning to the Ashley House, we found that the air conditioning was working well, keeping our room nice and cool. Good thing too, as we were set to have about the hottest days of the summer during our stay.
Monday’s schedule wound around “History Day” with the Opening Ceremonies followed by a photo history of the early races and a round-table discussion with original race participants then historic course marker dedications leading to an escorted tour of the original race course. Back in the 50’s and 60’s, the Start-Finish Line was right in the middle of Downtown and followed roads that covered a large portion of the island with long straights, each interrupted by a kink near town and connected to cross-island chutes with four 90º turns. It proved to be a fairly fast course that sounds quite simple but in fact had unique challenges.
After racing on public roads was outlawed at the end of the 50’s, they managed to get the Put-In-Bay race back on the schedule for 1963. During the race, an Elva running back into town on the long straight got light over a hump and then swerved to miss a dog running across the track and hit a tree, cutting the car in half. Spectators ran to the crash site but couldn’t find the driver. One found a fellow in the bushes, smoking a cigarette and asked if he was the driver? The response: “Not any more.”
A welcome party followed the tour, held at The Getaway, one of the Bed & Breakfasts catering to the racers (this is pretty civilized racing, food and lodging are good enough to entice the better half). A nice catered cocktails and hors d’oeuvres party was spread over the rolling back yard of the B&B with clots of participants gathered at tables all around and race cars scattered everywhere. One of the features of this event is that the citizens and constabulary let you drive your racecar anywhere and any time.
Tuesday was race day at the temporary course established at the airport. The Put-In-Bay Airport has one runway and a parallel taxiway with several crossovers. The organizers managed to talk the airport and all of the island pilots into closing the field for a day so they could hold the races there and constructed an interesting, technical, small “road course” (see the track map below). Race activities begin as soon as the mail plane lands in the morning with final course set up on the runway and then orientation laps.
Diane doesn’t normally like spending the day at the races because of the interminable waiting. She seemed to enjoy these races because there was so much going on. There were only three race groups (actually two groups and an exhibition class) so idle time was short. After orientation, we went directly to qualifying and then the races started. Group One and Group Two each had a six lap Race 1 followed by a ten lap Race 2. Then, both groups were combined for the fifteen lap Put-In-Bay Cup. To keep it even more interesting, they changed-up the grid order, reversing it for some races.
Group One was comprised of small displacement cars like the MG TC, TD, A & Midget, Turner, Fiat 850 Spider, Mini, Sprite, with a 356A. Group Two was medium displacement and larger, including Alfa GTV, ’66 911, Lotus 26R, TR4, and a really neat ’54 Davis Special (think Allard with a 4.9 liter 6 cylinder) plus my 356 SC.
The track is relatively long and skinny with a tight hairpin at each end and the long straights are broken up with hay bale kinks and chicanes. There is room to drive two cars side-by-side around the complete circuit but it requires each driver to leave the other “racing room.” This is classic gentleman’s racing, long the standard behavior of sports car and formula racing before NASCAR began to teach that “rubbing is racing” and huge sponsorship dollars made losing unthinkable.
After qualifying, it was obvious that Bob Leitzinger’s Lotus 26R was the class of the field, running and hiding from the rest of us. But qualifying is not racing and about halfway through our first race the yellow flags are waving furiously and we tiptoe through the scattered hay bales. Turns out that Leitzinger and one of the Alfas tangled in one of the chicanes during a pass, leaving the win to Klaus Selbert in the 911. When the Lotus is returned to Leitzinger’s paddock next to ours, it is obvious that Bob’s weekend is over. The Lotus 26R is a fiberglass shell on a backbone chassis and doesn’t fare well in collisions. Especially this collision. The corner workers picked up the passenger door on the track and returned it to the car. The rear half of the shell is destroyed and the chassis and suspension will need to be gone through completely. Such a shame, thankfully no one got hurt.
Our second race finds Ol’ #20 & me chasing the 911 and Klaus. #20 is running her usual transmission ratios with the customary very tall ratio for 1st gear (not well suited to a tight, small circuit) while the 911 is running a street transmission. Our engine is well off the cam on the exit of each hairpin and he wins the drag race out of the hole. We’re all over him by the next corner trying to find a way by but he slams the door each time. At the checker, Klaus wins race two.
Finally, the reason we’re here; the Put-In-Bay Cup. The last race of the day is the longest at fifteen laps and combines both groups into one large grid. And they partially invert the grid, placing the 911 & #20 in the middle on the 5th and 4th rows. The Sprite is on the pole with a TD alongside and Manley Ford in another TD behind in 3rd. Then the two Alfas and the TR4 and a Lotus 20/22 formula car are upfield from me. Behind is Klaus in the 911, a Lotus Cortina and a Mini. Leading it all is a Camaro convertible pace car.
One pace lap and the Camaro pulls off as the Sprite leads us to the Starter. Green flag and we’re off with the Sprite overtaken by the two TD’s and an Alfa before the east hairpin while Ol’ #20 sneaks by the formula and the other Alfa. The TR4 takes the Sprite in the hairpin while Klaus & I are by him before the backstraight chicane. I take the TR4 in the west hairpin and then Klaus gets us both into the kink. Klaus squeezes Manley’s TD into the hay bales at the front chicane and I watch Manley salute Klaus. (Klaus has no patience and does not qualify as a gentleman.)
I pass Manley on the back straight before the chicane whilst Klaus passes the TD of George Shafer. I get by George after the chicane and chase the 911 and the leading Alfa into the west hairpin. Klaus is by the Alfa before start/finish and I pass him into second place before the east hairpin. Now it’s just Klaus and me. I’m closing on him by the west hairpin and although he pulls away on the exit I’m tight on him by the front chicane and then pass the 911 into the east hairpin. He passes me back on the backstraight before the chicane but I return the pass into the west hairpin and make it stick.
While the 911 has the pull out of the hole, it can’t match the 356 on the cam and can’t keep up in the corners. Although we’re slowed once by a yellow flag for the TR4 spun in a turn, the 911 never has a chance again, dropping back in #20’s mirrors until more than a turn behind. Ol’ #20 happily takes the checker and is waved into the pits to pick up the flag for a victory lap. The corner workers give the full LeMans as Ol’ #20 makes her way around, waving all the multi-colored flags in a glorious display. In the pits, I’m interviewed by the local radio station and find out that I’ve been named “King of the Rock,” a title I’ll hold until someone dethrones me next year. Cool!
Diane joins me at the car for photos of the winning car, driver and sponsor with the checkered flag. As the excitement wears off, Diane informs me that I won’t be stopping racing any time soon. Why? She says that watching me today, she never sees me that relaxed and happy anywhere else. I’ve always said that the most peaceful place on earth for me is inside a racecar, engine howling.
We’ve enjoyed beautiful but hot weather for this event and as soon as I get back to the paddock, off comes the driver’s coverall and I walk through the woods to Lake Erie and fall in. Oh boy, does that feel good. I float around and cool off for awhile, then climb out and rejoin Diane, close up the trailer and drive the race car back to Ashley Island House to shower and clean up for dinner at Joe’s Bar, located at Cemetery Corner on the Old Course.
There’s beer and burgers, hot dogs and slaw, and a whole lot of hootin’ & hollerin’ going on. The party goes on ‘till way after dark and now we’ve got to get the racecar back to the inn. Hmm, no headlights. Let’s see, I hitch a ride back to the paddock at the airport and grab the moped, return to Joe’s and pick up Diane, then we head back toward the village to get the golf cart. (Everyone on the island drives golf carts that are licensed for the road with headlights, taillights, turn signals, etc.) Drive the cart back to Joe’s and finally, Diane drives the golf cart back to the inn with me tight behind, displaying tail and brake lights only.
Wednesday morning is the car show with classes for competition cars, sports cars, island cars and motorcycles. The show field fills and the classes form up. Soon there’s quite a crowd working their way through a large variety of cars, voting for people’s choice in each class. The island cars are interesting, everything from an early Land Rover to an even earlier Fire Truck, a model A pickup to a cherry Corvair Monza convertible, an MG TC to a 914, a TR3 to a ’65 Mustang—quite an eclectic collection.
Lunch is at Blue Luna, a popular restaurant with a large outdoor dining area that swallows our crowd easily. The final awards are handed out with the ’54 Davis winning in the competition class and Ol’ #20 coming in second. We find out through the balloting that fans have named the 356 “Braveheart” for the way she kept coming and wouldn’t quit. Quite a testament to her tenacity. As we load up and head for home, Diane and I agree that this was a wonderful way to celebrate our 36th Anniversary and we’re looking to return in 2015 to defend the title.