As I gazed at the vintage racing car, my thoughts immediately turned to Paul Newman—and a conversation I’d had with him about this very car. My trip through Connecticut was to evoke many fond memories of cars and acquaintances, here and gone, as well as generating some new ones.
Once again, however, I’ve started in the middle of my story. I had been vacationing with my wife and several treasured friends in Cape Cod, and I decided to take the interesting way back home. In particular, there was a vintage race at Thompson Speedway in northeast Connecticut, and my friend Nick Polimeni of GMT Racing would be there, supporting several historic racing cars. It sounded like a great opportunity to visit with Nick and to see the brand-new road course at Thompson. Moreover, I could work in a stop at F40 Motorsports, a well-regarded vintage and classic car dealership. Why bother with I-95 traffic when boundless adventure beckoned?
I set off from the Cape in a driving rainstorm, caused, no doubt, by my having washed the faithful 2013 BMW 335i convertible the day before. Thankfully, it was raining hard enough to largely rinse off the dirt as it splashed its way onto the car. Before long, the weather cleared up and I reached the back roads leading to Thompson, CT. Looking at this photo, I realize that it shows either (i) a really large BMW or (ii) a remarkably small building. I was tempted to knock on the door to see who lived inside, but an inveterate fear of Lilliputians made me think better of the idea.
Racing at Thompson is nothing new. In fact, the 1940 5/8-mile oval track was the first paved race track in the country, and the road course there held its first event in 1952.
Over the years, many notable drivers and cars raced at Thompson, including popular actor and amateur racer Jackie Cooper, shown here in 1954 with his Austin Healey 100…
…George Constantine (“the Flying Greek”) in his beautiful Aston Martin DBR1 …
…and a 24-year-old Brown University graduate named Mark Donohue, driving the Elva Courier that he characterized in The Unfair Advantage as one of the finest-handling cars he ever raced.
My favorite vintage photo from Thompson shows Harry Heuer in one of Lance Reventlow’s beautiful Chevy-powered Scarabs, trying to dive underneath a Cooper Monaco driven by my old acquaintance Bruce Jennings. Bruce went on to win this 1961 race; by the time of his retirement in the early 1990s, he had amassed a record of 216 first places and 104 seconds.
The road course at Thompson closed in 1967, although the oval has continued in active use right through the present. A new 1.7-mile road course was completed earlier in June of this year. I found the track without difficulty and managed to obtain a pit pass from the friendly race organizers. I didn’t even have to drop Paul Newman’s name or anyone else’s—uh, in marked contrast to this trip report!
The very first car I saw at the Thompson Speedway was this Datsun 240Z, which was driven by actor/racer Paul Newman in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) competition in the mid-1970s. He had started racing in 1972, with his very first race being at Thompson. He generally drove cars prepared by Bob Sharp Racing of Wilton, CT, located very near Newman’s home in Westport. He began with a Datsun 510 and the ex-Group 44 Triumph TR6, both wearing silver and black liveries. These were excellent cars, but watching Paul race them at Summit Point, WV, back in the mid-1970s, I recognized right away that he had considerable talent as a driver. Before long, Newman graduated to the C Production Datsun 240Z, with the beautiful red, white, and blue graphics used on most of his subsequent Datsuns.
In 1986, I was in my second year of SCCA racing and was running a full series of both national and regional races in my Sports Renault (now “Spec Racer”). Paul and I bumped into each other a number of times—on foot, that is, not while our cars shared the track! He was always “just one of the guys,” and loved talking about cars and racing. At the June National at Summit Point, I saw that Bob Sharp’s 18-year-old son, Scott Sharp, was racing Paul’s old 240Z. It was Scott’s first year of automobile racing, and he later went on to compete very successfully in Indy Cars, Trans Am, and other pro competition. At the June National, I teasingly asked Paul Newman whether “the kid” was faster in his old car than he had been. He immediately replied, “Oh, hell yes! Way faster!” After thinking a moment, however, he added, “Of course, he’s got 30 more horsepower than I had, and his tires are a lot better…” It was one of many laughs we shared that season.
Later that weekend, Paul won the GT-1 class (SCCA’s fastest, equivalent to the Trans Am cars of the time), and he subsequently won the GT-1 National Championship at Road Atlanta that Fall. For comparison, I managed to win the Sports Renault class at the June National at Summit Point, but the best I could manage at the Road Atlanta Runoffs that year was to qualify 31st and finish “a proud 20th place.” I will immodestly add, however, that in that race I beat both Dorsey Schroeder (who later became a multiple Trans Am champion) and Robbie Buhl (subsequent Indy Car driver and team owner, who nearly won the 2001 Indy 500). Those were memorable days. Paul continued racing for many more years, running his last event in 2007 at age 82. He qualified on the GT-1 pole at Watkins Glen and led most of the race before dropping back to fourth. After the race, he said “I wish I was 81 again…”
As my thoughts returned to the present day and the Thompson Speedway, the second car I spotted was this BMW-powered Elva Mk. VIIS sports racer, driven by Bob Tkacik. Although a lot of old road racing cars were crashed into oblivion back in their heyday, many others survived and have been dragged out of garages and barns and restored for vintage racing. This example was a real beauty.
Asking around, I learned that GMT Racing was set up at the far end of the paddock area. I meandered in that general direction, stopping frequently to admire other vintage racing cars along the way. This race-modified MG TC is campaigned by David Holmes. TC’s have always been one of my very favorite British sports cars. Twice I’ve been on the verge of buying one, only to rediscover that I just do not fit in them.
Lotus Elites are another personal favorite. Chris Cogswell’s yellow and green example ran quite well and looked fabulous in the process. Lotus manufacturer Colin Chapman was the first person to build a street automobile with a monocoque body/chassis made entirely of fiberglass. I nearly bought an Elite in the late 1970s for $3,000—and I’ve regretted not doing so ever since!
As I approached this paddock space, I wondered whether these two front-engined formula cars might be Stanguellini’s. I’d never seen one of these rare cars in real life—let alone two of them. Sure enough… Bill Gelles is just pulling out for practice in his blue no. 21, while Larry McKenna’s red example remains parked for the moment. In-between the two Stanguellini’s is a Lotus 18. All three cars run in the Vintage Sports Car Club of America’s Formula Junior class.
This very tidy 1972 BMW 2002tii sat nearby, with John Wood preparing to take it out for practice. John ended up qualifying second in his class, ahead of all the Alfa GTV’s, Ford Cortina’s, and the lone Volvo PV544, but—horrors!—behind a 1971 Ford Pinto. In fairness, the Pinto had been much more heavily modified for racing than the 2002tii. And John exacted revenge by taking first in class with his tii in Sunday’s feature race.
Other notable entries included this 1965 Corvette coupe and an always-popular Lotus Super 7.
Speaking of Lotuses, the older, front-engined Lotus sports racing cars are among the most beautiful automobiles ever designed. This one is Max Phillips’ Lotus 11…
…and this is Dudley Cunningham’s very rare 1959 Lotus 15 Mk. 3, with a 2-litre Coventry Climax engine. In the background is a 1958 Cooper Monaco, much like the one that Bruce Jennings raced in the historic photo shown earlier.
In this instance, the Cooper’s driver was the intrepid Sandy McNeil. She was full of praise for the car’s handling and credited her husband Jim with having chosen and prepared an outstanding vintage racer on her behalf.
Although vintage racing is supposed to be a comparatively sedate exercise of rare and often very valuable old racing cars, most drivers take their racing quite seriously. This lineup of former Trans Am cars is a case in point: no shortcuts were taken in their preparation, and they were all driven just as fast as they could go.
Speaking of Sandy’s Cooper, all you MINI owners out there do realize, I trust, that the “Cooper” in MINI Cooper derives from John Cooper, who manufactured rear-engined British racing cars throughout the 1950s and 1960s? His cars won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1959 and 1960 and were the original driving force behind the Indy Car transition to rear-mounted engines in the early 1960s. John Cooper passed away in 2000. He is shown here with his F1 drivers Bruce McLaren and Jack Brabham on the left, and his father and business partner Charles Cooper on the right.
I finally worked my way up to GMT Racing, one of the largest and most capable vintage racing preparation shops in the U.S. There I learned that my friend Nick was back in the pits, managing a couple of Formula Junior cars that were out on track. While I waited for his return, I admired Peter Greenfield’s pre-war Alfa Romeo Monza. What a sight!
Most Italian racing cars through the early 1960s used a center gas pedal, designed to facilitate heal-and-toe downshifts while braking. This arrangement also facilitated various off-course excursions when non-Italian drivers (including the legendary Stirling Moss) forgot that the brake was on the right, not in the center!
I enjoyed talking with Jack Boxstrom, who turned out to be quite an interesting character. Now 77, he has been racing ever since 1961! Jack told me that he had raced a Lotus 18 Formula Junior in Canada in the early 1960s. When he decided to go vintage racing in the U.S., he tried to find his old Lotus and eventually discovered it—in New Zealand. He ultimately purchased another Lotus 18 and had it painted in exactly his original livery, complete with the blue and yellow colors of his native Sweden on the nose of the bodywork. Did I mention that he has also owned and raced a 1960 Chaparral I, an Aston Martin DB4 GT, several Ferrari’s, and too many other cars to list?
Eventually, Nick returned and had just enough time to pose for this photo with an Elva sports racing car with one-of-a-kind bodywork along the lines of a late 1950s Ferrari Testa Rossa. Nick had installed the engine in this car during the previous week, in addition to his usual duties of handling many of the transmission and differential rebuilds for GMT Racing and providing general mechanical and logistical support at the vintage events. This morning, as a result of events on track, Nick was urgently needed to tackle some repairs.
Dean Hutchinson is GMT Racing’s master fabricator and mechanic, and he serves as Crew Chief at the races. Here, he and Nick are working to replace a failed halfshaft on a beautiful Brabham BT-2 Formula Junior. Dean determined that the failure likely occurred as a result of the Brabham going slightly airborne over a crest on the new circuit, which allowed the suspension to go to “full droop” with maximum halfshaft angularity (which U-joints just hate). In the meantime, the engine would rev up but then be suddenly pulled back down when the car landed, placing a huge load on the driveshafts. Fortunately, GMT Racing had the necessary spares on hand, and Nick and Dean repaired the Brabham in short order for its owner Bob Goeldner.
I bid a hasty farewell to Nick and ventured out to get a couple of racing action photos before continuing my trip. In this photo, Mark Palmer’s red MGA is about to get swallowed up by a Porsche 911.
And here, a different MGA is about to suffer the same fate from Max Phillips’ Lotus 11, which we saw earlier.
Meanwhile, Sandy McNeil was turning in consistent, speedy laps in her Cooper. I’m pretty sure that she had a bright smile beneath her full-face helmet.
As I walked the half mile back to my 335i, I spotted this car being wheeled into its paddock space—and I wondered just what in the world it was! With a fair amount of research back home, I was able to identify it as the one-of-a-kind Rutherford Special, complete with Chevy V-8 engine. It’s currently being raced by Malcom Rutherford, who, I strongly suspect, is the son or perhaps grandson of Stu Rutherford, who built and raced the car at Thompson in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A period description of the car characterized it as “having incredible acceleration and being louder than all the other cars combined.”
The first few cars for the next practice group were lining up on the false grid for their next session. The relatively modern Lola S2000 sports racer was easily the fastest car on track all weekend, but the gorgeous Shelby Mustang GT350 was much more fun to watch as it hung its tail out around almost every corner, small-block V-8 bellowing through straight pipes. The little Lotus Elan 26R, driven by my old acquaintance Bob Leitzinger, had maybe two-fifths of the GT350’s horsepower, but it was only 2 seconds a lap slower. Bob used to race against Paul Newman and Bob Sharp in his own Datsun Z, and he won the prestigious IMSA GTU championship in 1989. I hope he continues to race for many more years.
With a last look at Thompson Speedway, where the Mustang is about to turn onto the oval portion of the track, it was time to depart. I would have enjoyed spending the whole day at Thompson, but I had reservations in Liberty, NY for the night—and many more things to see and do along the way.
A mere 70 miles later, I found myself at F40 Motorsports in Portland, CT. Pulling onto the lot, I was immediately dazzled by the most beautiful BMW 507 I’d ever seen. Its new owner was picking it up later that day, and it was parked right out front. What a car! By comparison, the Aston Martin, Fisker Karma, Mercedes Benz, and other exotics parked alongside seemed downright ordinary.
Although F40 Motorsports specializes in Ferrari restorations and sales, I found additional BMW’s inside the showroom. I was particularly taken with this pre-war BMW sports car, with its striking two-tone green paint. I believe this is a mid-1930s 315/1 Roadster—but someone please correct me as necessary. I was so fixated on this car that I failed to notice that another prewar BMW was parked just to its right. (Yes, I’m ashamed of myself.)
Other eye-catchers in the showroom included this 1933 MG J2 Midget. Like many of the cars at F40 Motorsports, it’s already been sold.
How about a Ferrari Dino 246gts, Brock Yates’ Pebble-Beach-winning custom “Eliminator” hot rod, or a seemingly brand-new 1940 Ford Coupe? I was particularly fond of the coupe, which, to outward appearances, is completely stock. Although my BMW 335i is visible through the window, parked next to a number of vintage and modern classic cars, I was a little surprised that no one ventured into the showroom asking its price… 😀
Here’s the not-altogether-stock engine in the ’40 Ford. It’s an original flathead Ford V-8, but with aluminum cylinder heads and a supercharger, fed by twin downdraft Stromberg carbs. A classic 1940s’ “sleeper.” I had to ask its price (which tells you something I should have suspected). Yep, at $88,500 I can’t afford it, especially after having just purchased the 335i a few months ago! Some day…
I couldn’t leave F40 Motorsports without a photo of this MGA Twin Cam Roadster—the most perfect I’d ever seen. Geez, what a place!
Oh, I forgot to mention what many of you already know, namely that F40 Motorsports is owned and operated by Wayne Carini, the host of the popular TV show “Chasing Classic Cars.” While I was nosing about the showroom, his daughter Lindsay mentioned to me that “If you stand in one place long enough, Wayne is bound to come running by.” Well, she was right! As I was photographing the Jaguar XKE in the background, Wayne literally came running right through my photo. He was kind enough to pause for a picture and to chat with me a bit about his business and which classic cars best fit someone who is 6’ 6” tall; he recommended a 356 Porsche (but I’ve already owned one of those).
While talking with Wayne, I happened to notice an old friend of the mechanical variety on the lot outside. In 1966, another Thompson alumni named John Fitch designed a car that he planned to produce and sell in significant quantities. Unfortunately, the prototype Fitch Phoenix came out of the Intermeccanica factory in Italy only weeks before the Traffic Safety Act of 1966 was enacted, dooming the Phoenix’s prospects despite its advanced safety features. Consequently, there is only one Fitch Phoenix in the world. Sadly, John Fitch passed away in October 2012 at age 95. His Phoenix was sold by Bonhams Auctions (with assistance from Wayne Carini) and is currently at F40 Motorsports for a thorough reconditioning before being used by its new owner.
Seeing the Fitch Phoenix again was a bittersweet reunion. The last time I saw it was in June 1981, when my wife and I visited John and his wife Elizabeth at their home near the Lime Rock racetrack (which John designed, incidentally). John was keeping his prototype in a humble wooden shed at the back of his property, covered by an ordinary tarp. He proudly showed it to me, noting its modified Corvair drivetrain, the dual spare tires (to match the different-sized fronts and rears, the electrically powered rear window, and the built-in roll bar in its targa roof. We stayed in touch after that visit, right up until his death. We would call or write each other, and I always enjoyed hearing about his latest invention or clever idea. My favorite was a glider that would carry an engine just powerful enough to enable it to take off on its own power. Once airborne, the pilot would shut off the engine and glide for the remainder of the flight. I don’t think the powered glider project went into production. In contrast, John’s best-known invention was the Fitch Safety Barrier—the yellow sand- or water-filled plastic barriers that you see on highways everywhere, which can bring an errant vehicle to a stop with minimal damage. His barriers are credited with having saved tens of thousands of lives since he introduced them in the late 1960s.
Here’s a photo of John Fitch in the early 1950s, when he raced Briggs Cunningham’s mighty Chrysler-powered sports racing cars at Le Mans (third in 1954), Sebring (first in 1952), and other tracks around the world. That’s a Cunningham C4R in the background. John joined the Mercedes Benz factory racing team in 1955 and was instrumental in helping them win the World Sports Car Championship that year.
For my final photos from the Connecticut vintage tour, here’s John standing in his driveway next to my brand-new 1981 BMW 320i. As he admired the car, he commented “You’ll have a lot of fun with this.” He was right—but only for 3 years, after which I sold the car to help finance my venture into SCCA racing. John was the nicest of people, a talented inventor and builder, and an incredibly capable racing driver. I like to think that he’s perched on a cloud these days, coming up with even better inventions and applauding Mercedes’ successes in this year’s Formula 1 races. And repeating his earlier thought about my 320i, but now regarding the 335i.
I enjoyed these vintage memories as I motored on to New York. It’s even possible that the mighty 335i experienced a few trips to its redline as I tried to make back some of the time I’d spent at Thompson and F40 Motorsports. On behalf of all of us motoring fanatics, I salute the brilliant designers, builders, racers, restorers, and others—whose names include Paul, Wayne, and John—who have so enriched our lives.
Historical photo credits:
Thompson Speedway courtesy of the Binghamton Automobile Racing Club.
Paul Newman painting courtesy of artist Chris Osborne.
John Cooper courtesy of the Formula Junior Historic Racing Association.
John Fitch courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune.