By Don Rosendale -- All Photos Courtesy of Lime Rock Park Archives
For anyone whose memory of Lime Rock is based on the days when a “race car” was an MG with the spark plugs changed, a visit to that sports car racing track 15 minutes beyond the New York State line in Connecticut for the Pirelli World Challenge over Memorial Day weekend must have been a culture shock.
The “tow” rig for the Pirelli race wasn’t a pickup truck with a few spare parts thrown in the back dragging a rickety trailer, but typically a Volvo truck as tall as my house and a rig capable of four cars. Instead of MG Midgets and Triumph TR3’s the cars on board were $250,000 Ferraris, Bentleys and AMG
Mercedes. If I owned one, I wouldn’t trust it to a parking attendant much less put it on a racetrack where it could be dented or wrecked. Lunch for driver and crew wasn’t a hero sandwich in a cooler, but in a restaurant-sized tent with tablecloths and silverware.
But a couple of things haven’t changed at Lime Rock since the 150-or-so races since the first starting flag was dropped in 1957. The most memorable race wasn’t won by a 12-cylinder Ferrari, but a funny little “midget” that looked a lot like a motorized baby carriage. And that sweeping downhill turn into the straightaway still separates the men from the boys.
That memorable race was called a “Formula Libre,” which meant you could enter just about any kind of car as long as it had been driven in some sort of race. To appreciate that, you have to understand the different world of sports cars and sports racing that existed in the Fifties and Sixties, sometimes considered the “Golden Era” of sports car racing, when Lime Rock was young. What Hugh Hefner and Playboy told you in those days was that you could drive your MG, Alfa-Romeo or Austin-Healy to the track, put in “cold” spark plugs and go racing. The cars of that era were equipped to enable that. There were accessible bolts that let you take off the windshield and bumpers and there were no windows to add weight but “side curtains” to be cast aside. “Safety” consisted of a seat belt from an Army surplus store and a nylon jump suit that had been “fireproofed” by soaking in boric acid.
The very first race at Lime Rock, April 28, 1957, was won by Ted Sprigg in an Alfa Romeo.
Rodger Ward beating the big-name cars and drivers with a Kurtis-Offy midget, Formula Libre race at Lime Rock Park, 1959. He’s passing Chuck Deigh in a Formula 1 Maserati 250F!
Sports car people flashed headlights when they passed each other, except for Porsche drivers who only flashed at other Porsche drivers. They had a superior attitude over other kinds of car racing, like the Indianapolis 500, which was considered just “driving around in circles.” While the new era of sports car racing tracks like Lime Rock had left turns, right turns and hills to go up and other spots to come sweeping down. And that “sweeping downhill” turn is at the heart of this tale.
Lime Rock had only been open two years when it announced a “Formula Libre” race in July of 1959. It created a lot of excitement, because there was $5,000 in prize money. The race attracted a rainbow of different kinds of cars. There was the Aston-Martin which the year before had won the 24-hour race in LeMans and a Maserati that had triumphed in Formula One races.
Drivers came from Europe and Mexico. And then Rodger Ward showed up in his Offenhauser Midget. “Midgets” were at the bottom rung of oval racing as the “midget” didn’t have a gearbox, it was either in gear or out. No brake pedal either, just a long lever on the outside. It’s “Offy” engine produced just over 100 horsepower, which was laughable compared to the 300 horsepower Jaguar on the starting grid. But Rodger Ward had twice won the Indianapolis 500.
And then there was this sweeping downhill turn leading into the straightaway, still there and scaring the heck out of drivers on Memorial Day. Not to go into a long lecture on racing dynamics, but if you enter a straightaway 5 mph faster than me and accelerating, you’re doing 15 mph faster than me before you reach the end of the straight. A famous racing driver was once quoted as saying that he never takes his foot off the gas. He has a string tied between his belt buckle and the big toe of his right foot. Sometimes he has an involuntary intake in his abdomen which pulls has foot off the gas. The downhill at Lime Rock is one of those “belt buckle” moments. It’s fast and sweeping and sharply downhill, and you not only have what horsepower the engine might be pumping out, but also the pull of gravity. It takes a very brave man to keep his foot planted on the throttle, and I must confess that on the occasions I drove down that hill at Lime Rock I had a full dose of belt buckle withdrawal symptoms. But on that day, Rodger Ward did not, flinging his little Offy down the hill and around the curves like a skier doing a downhill. And bested the best that the best sports racing cars and drivers in the country.
To give you an idea, Ward set a lap record of 1 minute, 4 seconds. Almost forty years later, with better tires and bigger engines and a recently resurfaced pavement, times on Memorial Day are still in the one-minute range.
Memorial Day was the first weekend of racing at Lime Rock this summer. There is sports car racing at Lime Rock starting on Memorial Day, followed by the IMSA Grand Prix on July 20 and through the summer, culminating on Labor Day weekend (September 1-4) with what I think is a thrilling throwback to those “sporty car” days, the 35th Lime Rock Vintage Car races. The old MG’s and TR 3’s and JaguarXK-120’swill come out of the garage, take the side curtains off, change the sparkplugs and do laps around Lime Rock again.
Don Rosendale in the 60s and 70s held Sports Car of America Senior Racing and FIA International Racing licenses. He was never able to keep his foot on the throttle coming down the Lime Rock hill, but did manage to win the SCCA New York Region Amateur Driving Trophy in ’65. Alas, it’s pewter and not silver and he’s never been able to figure out how to polish pewter.