Vintage Racing: Where winning isn't everything

Monterey Saturday, Mazda Raceway @ Laguna Seca

Vintage racing

Vintage Racing is a gathering of mostly "men of a certain age" who race exciting and historic cars on famous race tracks all over the world.

Vintage Racing is everything that modern sports car racing has left behind; colorful, distinctive and recognizable cars without the electronic or aerodynamic aids that make today's cars quicker but virtually identical and devoid of visual relationship to the cars we love and drive.

The drivers are mostly mature men who have the wherewithal to indulge a lifelong passion. The spectators, generally of the same age, are also reliving the moments they first witnessed these, now "vintage" cars, driven in anger by the professional heroes of their youth. The cars have been restored to their historically mechanical best and painted with the colors and driver's names of their glory days. For participants and spectators alike these events are a step back into what many consider the best of times in motor racing.

This past August they gathered again at Mazda Raceway in Laguna Seca, on the Monterey peninsula of California for the 36th running of the Monterey Historics.

New Englanders were well represented both in the stands and on the track.

Joe Freeman is passionate about open wheel racing. He drives open wheel racers and is a collector of the history of these cars and the men who drove them at Indianapolis and other tracks across America and around the world. Until injuries from a crash ended a promising career, he had raced cars successfully in the sixties. Like many of his fellow racers today, he is back at the track, vintage racing. Unlike most of them, he hasn't resurrected his old racer for the effort. He has gone back further in time and now races cars that would have been vintage racers in his youth.

Vintage racing

Joe is the driving force behind Racemaker Press, a publishing company specializing in books about vintage racing. He would happily concede that he has been seduced by his subjects. This weekend he raced the 1932 Sparks-Thorne Little Six, often raced at Indianapolis in the thirties and forties. This car finished 2nd in '39 and 3rd in '41. A sister car to Joe's actually won the Indianapolis 500 in '46.

Vintage racing

Photo ©2009 Dennis Gray

Laguna Seca 2009 is a far cry from Indianapolis 1946 and the Little Six was never designed to run on a road course. Its gearbox and clutch were meant to bring the engine to speed on an oval course and survive the torque of acceleration out of the corners and on to the straights. The brakes are operated by a hand lever outside the cockpit. As the race progresses, the brakes heat up and fade. This demands the driver use them more judiciously and with more pressure in order to slow the car. Hilly, twisty road courses require multiple gear changes and ratios for which this transmission was simply not designed. Joe uses strategic braking and engine torque to get the Little Six around the 2.2 mile Laguna Track. It is a tribute to his racecraft that both he and his beautiful racecar not only survive but are competitive.

In the race, Joe pushed, rested and nursed his "Little Six" vintage racer to a very credible seventh in a race dominated by a 53 Ferrari and Bugatti Formula One car.

Vintage racing

Joe Freeman's commitment to motorsports is multi-faceted. He puts in far more than he takes out. A long time supporter and past President of the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline Mass., he continues his involvement in this historic New England motorsports hub. His company, Racemaker Press, sponsors the leading driver in the Indy Lights racing series for up and coming open wheel racers. And Joe is a judge at Pebble Beach. Anyone who has done car show judging knows it is a thankless chore. Much of Joe’s Monterey Weekend is involved with Pebble Beach events and judging the car class in which he is considered expert; Open Wheel Race Car.

Time may one day catch up with Joe, but it will have a hell of a time passing him by.

Why? Because Joe Freeman is a racer.