Portland Vintage Racing Festival: More Than A Race

Jul 17, 2015 04:29 PM EDT | Nick Jaynes


Last Saturday morning, under a cover of light gray clouds, tens of blurry-eyed vintage racers stumbled out of their trailers and tents to attend to their now-dewy lumps of vintage steel. Sipping on coffee and turning a wrench or two, the drivers made final adjustments before dropping behind the wheel of their respective car.

In a matter of minutes, the paddocks at Portland International Raceway (PIR) in Portland, Oregon, transformed from quiet former wetlands to raucous racetrack, as each one of the cars rumbled to life.

One by one, a bevy of brightly painted cars lined up at the entrance to the track, some methodically revving to keep their cars alive while others required a hefty push from bystanders just to get going. Though none particularly fast or fearsome, each of the grumbling machines was a shrine to passion and petrol.

With the wave of a weathered checkered flag, the races were off, marked by a smattering of tepid applause. After all, the excitement of the event wasn't the 15-minute races but rather the congregation of likeminded motoring enthusiasts and their striped driving machines.

Portland is an odd place. It's known the world over for its eccentric population and gloomy weather. Despite its "People's Republic of Portland" nickname, the city of roses is a haven to classic cars and their owners (I'm one of them). In fact, the Portland Vintage Racing Festival – formerly known as the Historic Races – is one of the oldest events of its kind in the country and now on the calendar of the Sports Car Vintage Racing Association (SVRA).

For years, mustachioed men have made the pilgrimage from all across the country to participate in the annual event, keen to flog aging racecars around PIR's 1.9-mile circuit and through each and every one of its 12 corners.

Held over three days, the event, as I mentioned before, isn't so much about winning or losing; no big fortunes will be made at the festival, though plenty have been burned at the race (in more ways than one). Instead, it's about participating, socializing, making a racket – and getting a few bugs in the teeth while at it.

The event is broken down into three chunks, over the weekend: Friday is dedicated to practice laps, Saturday features qualifying in the morning with feature races in the afternoon, and Sunday hosts a 60-minute enduro race with the final feature races in the afternoon. In the evenings, fireworks, food and entertainment are offered for anyone willing to stick around the entire time.

Throughout the long weekend between races, attendees are welcome to wander through the paddocks, interact with the drivers and admire the cars. So that's exactly what I did. Perhaps my favorites were the 1971 Volvo 142E and the 1970 Dodge Challenger in bright green livery, which was so loud it might well alter your DNA.

Mostly, the races were uneventful. There was an abnormally slow Austin Healey, a few spritely open-wheel drivers, and, of course, many of the muscle cars were more sonorous than a Seahawks game. A few cars went off, a few broke, and a few really impressed me with their speed and agility. Generally, the vintage vehicles performed exactly like how someone might expect a handful of aging racers might. What stuck with me, however, was the passion and community on display at the Vintage Races.

I can't imaging many other motorsport events where drivers would help push-start a competitor's car – let alone a racecar that'd be allowed at the starting line without being able to start on its own power. Sure, there was some competition; no man in his right mind invests all that time not to win. Even when they didn't win, though, the participants were still happy to be there, tossing their little (save the muscle cars) gas burners around the circuit.

It wasn't all old-timey vehicles, though, Jaguar Land Rover, in addition to sponsoring the event, had a big display and the British brands also hosted experience events for attendees. In the center of the track, Jaguar was offering up the keys to F-TYPE R Coupes, which could be slalomed through an impromptu autocross course I should mention the F-TYPE was the only this with an exhaust note ear-shattering enough to give the '70 Challenger a run for its money. And off on the motocross track, Land Rover offered guided off-road driving lessons in one of its many vehicles, from LR4s to Range Rovers.

Although certainly fun, what impressed me most about JLR's presence was its dedication to and support of classic motoring. Many brands have storied pasts, with infamous vintage models. Few work as hard to keep a connection to the past quite like JLR and use that heritage to connect buyers with its new models.

It's JLR's investment that leads me to my boarder point and the essential takeaway from the Vintage Races ... aside from auto envy, of course.

That weekend, I drove to the races in my 1979 BMW 320i. On the way home Saturday evening, the left rear wheel nearly fell off on Interstate 5 due to some faulty lug bolts. It was a harrowing experience to be sure. Funnily enough, it was that near disaster that put the event into perspective.

My car, like the cars that raced that gray Portland weekend, was old, wildly unsafe by modern standard, and questionably reliable – not to mention capable of putting off more pollution parked in the paddock than a hybrid generates at 70 mph on the freeway. With those things in mind and the unstoppable implementation of self-driving technology just a few years off, it won't be long until cars like mine and the vintage racers won't be allowed to operate on public motorways, either by law or by market force (insurance companies).

I suspect in a few decades, these kinds of loud and pollute-y cars will be relegated to middle-of-nowhere highways and private racetracks. So, for those of us who care, it's important to keep this kind of motor event alive to prove that these cars are worthy of more than being admired in museums; rather, they are worthy of being driven and enjoyed by all the other senses out on tracks.

It doesn't matter who won the Portland Vintage Races. Not at all. As long as events like this – and associations like the SVRA – continue to exist, all motoring enthusiasts, car guys, or gear heads will win ... not just the one who crosses the finish line first.

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