Vintage Auto Racing, Fleet Week Style
Airfields and motor racing have a kindred history. Every year, during San Diego Fleet Week, fans and competitors alike are reminded of this storied history, as the vintage cars take to the Coronado Island Navy Airfield at the Coronado Speed Festival for a bit of vintage auto racing fun. A passion for historic racing cars and its history collide in a very fan and competitor friendly event. Before there were the great American road racing tracks like Road America, Watkins Glen and Riverside though, there were “public” road races—then airport racing! At the Coronado Speed Festival, everything from pre-war cars, to Trans-Am, to FIA and USRRC Sports Racers to former NASCAR Cup Cars are divided into several run groups to challenge the airport course in front of a sizable crowd, enjoying the many attractions of Fleet Week. It has all the elements to take racing back to its post-World War II roots. Consider that some of the most legendary tracks in Great Britan are all former air bases: Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Goodwood, Aintree, Donnington, Thruxton—just to name a few—were airfields that served King and country in multitudes of airborne skirmishes with Germany, in defense of the British Isles. In the United States, Sebring remains the best known airfield-turned-racing circuit. But during the early 1950’s, there were several in the US—all thanks to a racer/US Air Force General named Curtis LeMay. LeMay is easily credited with single-handedly saving sports car racing here in America. After WWII, many Americans who served overseas, became intrigued with European cars—particularly the nimble, smaller engined, well handling “sports cars”. Previous to the war, most of the racing in the United States was done on ovals—the most notable of those races was the Indianapolis 500, dating back to 1911. Former or current horse racing tracks and towns with a large circular layout to their streets would host races. The roadster type cars that had developed by WWII were very specific to going in a circle. In Europe, however, the races were held on public roads—twisty, curvy, undulating roads—these included LeMans, Spa Francorchamps, Nürburgring, Monaco—these sporty cars were developed to be quick, to be able to accelerate, brake, corner and win in ever changing conditions. These European sports cars were quite alien to the American public who were used to their large Hudsons, Packards, Cadillacs, Chevrolets and Fords. But, give a guy a quick car and what does he want? Naturally, to drive it with the same spirit of its origin and purpose. Shortly after, a number of like minded sports car enthusiasts founded the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). They began to organize “street races” in small resort towns—calling to mind similar roads to the famed road circuits in Europe. This proved a win-win for places like Elkhart Lake Wisconsin and Watkins Glen New York, whose businesses were bolstered by attracting the sports car enthusiasts and the fans. Sadly, the SCCA was just getting its footing and the events were rather disorganized. Despite attracting thousands of spectators, hay bales were the only line of defense between the interested crowds and the speeding cars. During one such event in 1952, on the roads of Watkins Glen, New York, a car left the road, went through the hay bales and struck a child, killing him instantly. Needless to say this became national news—and to the general public, who perceived sports car racing an already frivolous sport suddenly became public enemy number one. Congress voted to make these events illegal; no longer could the SCCA or any sanctioning body contest races on public roads. Enter General Curtis LeMay. He was a hard-nosed military man, who just happened to own an Allard J2 sports car, which he liked to race. LeMay was the head of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Now that the war was over and America's biggest threat was the “Cold War” with the Soviet Union. The Strategic Air Command had bombers and spy planes that patrolled US and international airspace from several military airbases around the United States. In 1952, LeMay had a problem too: budget and morale. His pilots and support for the air bases were amongst the lowest pay grade in the military, and not many “peacetime” promotions existed for earning more. LeMay needed additional funds that the government wouldn’t approve. But clearly being a smart salesman, LeMay pitched the leadership of the SCCA and the Department of Defense to hold racing events at the SAC bases. Somehow, he got it done. In 1952 through 1954, more than 20 SAC Airfields hosted SCCA sanctioned racing. These airfield races were in close proximity to populations, which attracted enthusiasts and fans—most importantly, provided a safer environment, allowing racing to continue by providing needed monies to pay LeMay’s personnel on a much improved basis. Proceeds from entries and ticket sales went right to a fund to build improved housing near the bases and improve the pay scale of the Airmen. Some of these SAC Airbases included March AFB near Riverside, CA; Turner AFB in Albany, GA; Stead AFB in Reno, NV; Lockbourne AFB in Columbus, OH; Offutt AFB in Omaha, NB; Bergstrom AFB in Austin, TX; and MacDill AFB in Tampa, FL. The racing was sorely missed from the resort towns and clearly the “SAC Era” was merely transitional; men like Cliff Tufte, a Wisconsin-based highway engineer built Road America on 400 acres of farmland near Elkhart Lake, and Cameron Argetsinger, a New York attorney, built Watkins Glen just outside of town. Many would follow: Riverside would replace March AFB, Mid-Ohio replaced Lockbourne and Road Atlanta would make permanent, the pivotal races at Turner. General LeMay was awarded the Woolf Barnato Award, the SCCA's highest honor, for his contributions in 1954. He was inducted into the SCCA Hall of Fame in 2007 and remains a hero to many America sports car racing fans. As the throngs of sailors and enthusiasts watched the beautiful vintage cars skid around the flat corners of Coronado, somewhere in eternity, General Curtis LeMay was smiling.