Steve Earle remembers the days when he and some of his fellow Southern California sports car enthusiasts used to drive up to Antelope Valley, “sneak onto Willow Springs and play for a while, then slide out and go home.”
While folks with fancy older cars could “fix them up for a concours or car show, what did you do with an old race car?” Earle asked, immediately answering his own question: “Nothing.”
Nothing much, that is, until Steve Earle decided that he, his buddies and vintage racing car enthusiasts everywhere needed a place to race, or as he puts it, “to play race.”
So like Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and so many others in so many similar Hollywood movies, Earle decided to put on a show. In 1974, he organized the inaugural Monterey Historic Automobile Races, a weekend for vintage racing cars to be exercised at the Laguna Seca track, just across Carmel Valley from Pebble Beach, where a car show staged alongside the early, post-war sports car races through the Del Monte forest had become the world’s premier concours d’elegance.
There were local clubs engaged in vintage sports car racing, but Earle’s event was different on several levels. For one, it was national in scope, open to everyone from across the country with a car with significant racing history. For another, he brought in corner workers and safety personnel from the Sports Car Club of America, “the same guys who worked the Can-Am races,” to make sure the racing was conducted as safely and as sanely as possible.
At first, his goals seemed modest enough. He wanted to encourage people who had old racing cars to preserve, maintain and enjoy them. He wanted everyone else to come and appreciate seeing those cars on the track again. And he wanted to plant a seed, to create an event that might be a template for similarly safe and organized vintage-racing events in other places.
He has a proven track record in identifying, encouraging and celebrating authentically prepared cars.”
— Tony Parella
[/pullquote]“It was successful. The seed grew,” said Earle, now 74 years old and sort of semi-retiring now that he’s enfolded his General Racing Ltd. historic racing enterprise into the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association.
“I am thrilled to have Steve Earle join our team,” SVRA chief executive Tony Parella said in a news release announcing the merger. “Steve shares our vision and focus on developing national vintage racing. He has shown himself to be an extraordinary leader throughout his career and has a proven track record in identifying, encouraging and celebrating authentically prepared cars.”
“I have been involved in vintage racing at all levels for over 40 years. I look forward to lending my experience and knowledge to help and support the growth of SVRA,” was Earle’s official response. “There is a recognized need for car period-authenticity and preparation as well as events that embrace it. I’ve been impressed with Tony Parella’s vision and determination to open the doors for those who share similar interests in the historic significance of the cars they and their competitors enjoy owning and racing.”
Earle told ClassicCars.com that he’s “very happy with this arrangement.”
“When Tony Parella bought SVRA, we met and talked and talked some more and through time and watching what he was doing I realized he might be for real and, in the end, he’s a real enthusiast, a car guy, but he’s coming at it from a business standpoint which will not only make it work, but will make it last,” he said.
Earle’s General Racing productions went on the road, but it remained a regional troupe with performances at Portland, San Diego, Long Beach, Kansas City and, for 28 years, just north of San Francisco at Sonoma. Earle and his Monterey venue parted company several years ago. The beloved “Historics” were replaced by the Monterey Motorsports Reunion, which takes place again this weekend at what now is known as Mazda Raceway.
SVRA was born as the Southeast Vintage Racing Association in 1981. Parella acquired the organization in 2012 and has expanded its program to 17 national events. Earle said he was particularly impressed by the way Parella launched two new and important events — the U.S. Vintage Racing National Championships last year on the new Circuit of the Americas U.S. Grand Prix track near Austin, Texas, and the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational earlier this year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
With General Racing enfolded, SVRA has a vintage racing footprint from coast to coast and from Florida to Wisconsin.
Initially, Earle’s focus with SVRA will be on its Gold Medallion Program for people who race their cars in their historic, period-correct configuration. Earle sees the sport at a crucial crossroads.
“It’s play racing, not real racing,” Earl says of racing vintage vehicles. “But a lot of guys now want to come at it believing it’s real racing.”
Earle’s answer to such people is, “You’re not (four-time reigning World Driving Champion) Sebastian Vettel. It’s about the car and the cars are old. They’re not 100 percent perfect. There are hazards with that, but guys want to forget that.”
Earle contends that while cars need to be safe, they should run in their historic configuration. Period parts were not designed for the dynamic stresses that come with super-sticky modern tires. A car that had a top speed back in the day of, say, 120 should not be pushing 150 thanks to updated technology.
“Run the cars as they were and enjoy that,” Earle said. “If you have a car that has some history, that’s really special.
“Driving an old car around the track requires every bit as much skill now as it did then,” he added. “That’s something to be proud of, to be able to go out and drive that car well. That’s what it’s all about, not that I beat so and so.”
Earle also worries about mixing cars that never were intended to race together. For example, a race class that includes 1980s-era Le Mans prototypes and old-time Can-Am cars.
“Younger people don’t know the story,” he said. “They just see somebody beating up on those big loud things. But that’s not the history.”
The point is cars are about fun, enjoying the drive.”
— Steve Earle
[/pullquote]He also is concerned about people buying historic racing cars as investments to be put away instead of as cars to be exercised and enjoyed — by driver and spectators alike.
“The point is,” he said, “cars are about fun, enjoying the drive.”
And with that in mind, Earle said that now that he doesn’t have to spend all his time organizing and dealing with all the ancillary issues, he hopes to finally get out on the track and race his 1959 Chevrolet Corvette.
“I’ve had this car for a long time,” he said. “My goal now is to be able to do some of this myself.”