Written by Spencer Canon
Jul 26, 2021
I thought she was crying. Then I thought she might be throwing up; she was definitely exhibiting some body language to that effect: turned away from me in the passenger seat, door open, her feet on the paddock’s concrete and her head down. Physically processing her first-ever laps on a racetrack. But she wasn’t crying, she was laughing. Laughing so hard she was crying. She’d had that much fun. And it was that much to take in. My girlfriend Sam and I had come up to Sonoma Raceway to attend Retro Sporting, a track event exclusively for vintage cars. It felt special. And it made me wonder why there aren’t more events just like it.
Most track days are dominated by late-model Camaros, E46 BMWs, purpose-built beaters, and the like. Many of their drivers are either trying to literally come to grips with their modern car’s horsepower or attempting to wring the last tenth from their over-cambered tires. And although incidents of car-to-car contact are very rare at track days, the environment can feel less than comfortable in a delicate, comparatively-underpowered vintage car. Sure, there are a handful of race-bred classics that can lap like a modern. But of course, raw performance isn’t why we buy vintage cars, is it? Driving performance is rarely coupled to a driving experience; and if you’re anything like me, “experience,” in the broadest sense of the word, is why you drive old cars.
Despite the reckless manner in which many of us may or may not have driven on undisclosed twisty public roads, some experiences are best had on a track. Enter Retro Sporting. An on-track driving experience designed around vintage cars. It was here that my adventurous, long-suffering girlfriend found herself coming to grips with the carnival ride that is Sonoma Raceway. The recurring event is the brainchild of Ace Robey, himself an avid vintage sports car collector and race driver. Ace was already well-known for organizing track events for high-performance supercars but he felt like his classics weren’t well-suited for the events.
For Ace, Retro Sporting is a labor of love. Entries are limited to just a few dozen cars; probably nowhere near enough to turn a profit. Consider it a public service to the vintage car drivers who snag one of the few available spots.
We pulled into Sonoma Raceway on a foggy Friday morning, our Lotus Europa in tow. The air carried with it the distinct smells of carburation, marshland, and coffee. Other cars arrived. A 993 GT2 circled the paddock like a big-hipped, homologated shark.
With some notable exceptions, like a Ferrari 512BB, a Lotus Seven, and a Mk.1 Ford Escort, the paddock that morning was full of air-cooled Porsches, each the color of a jelly bean.
Imagine a great Cars & Coffee but with a sense of purposefulness and anticipation. Wheel nuts and oil levels double-checked, helmets fished from bags, the excited chatter of men and women eager to grid up.
Formerly called Sears Point, Sonoma Raceway is draped across the hills north of San Francisco, the circuit following the contours of what was once rolling pasture. Sonoma is a beautifully interesting strip of tarmac that curves and rises and falls in a way that feels naturally suited to the speed a car can travel across it. In my opinion, there’s no better race track for road cars on the West Coast. Unlike tracks with long straights that can make a road car feel comparatively chelonian, Sonoma presents you with a constant but enjoyable barrage of things to do. Very few of its corners are merely corners; each left and right comes just after a crest, or is part of an upward or downward sweep. It embodies some of the best qualities of those canyon roads we all love, but with considerably less likelihood of rolling down a mountainside or colliding with a cyclist.
Sonoma is unique but that doesn’t mean it has a monopoly on the joy and exhilaration any track can offer.
The process of learning a circuit is also a process of learning oneself. Like anything truly worth doing, it is a process that is not always comfortable, but is always rewarding, giving back what you put into it. In that way, it parallels vintage car ownership.
Both challenge the driver to master them; both reward patience, attention to detail, and a little faith. All this is to make the point that if you do take your vintage car to the track you will find yourself at the very core of what the vintage sports car experience can be. After all, you could go to any track day in any car to chase lap times. But Retro Sporting is about extracting from the past the aesthetic experience we’re all chasing: to not just drive, feel, smell, and hear your own classic, but to do so while surrounded by other classics.
Before getting on track, all of us assembled for the drivers’ briefing. Safety is by far the number one consideration when anywhere near a race track. Ace shared procedures to follow for mechanical problems, passing, etiquette, and accidents. He told us to respect the other cars on track, and to not be aggressive or unpredictable. And above all, to watch for flag-waved instructions from the course workers, who are, for all intents and purposes, no less than President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of your life while in their domain.
It is these rules that keep drivers safe and precious classics unbent. Although you can technically drive as fast as you want, a track day like Retro Sporting is not a race: cars aren’t drag racing on the straights and dive bombing the corners; they’re not honking at you to get out of the way. The same can’t be said for an average Friday on I-405.
Pre-track checks complete, Sam and I got strapped in and the car settled into a choppy purr. Modified to be more race-focused than most of the other classics there that day, it’s hard to believe the Europa was ever meant for public roads. Our car tops out at a little under 38 inches, putting the driver’s eyeline roughly at Camry-door-handle height. A less charitable occupant might call the cabin coffinesque; and the Europa’s blindspot is best measured not in what the driver cannot see, which is a lot, but by what the driver can see, which is very little.
It is a silly, ridiculous thing that is rarely described in synonyms for “attractive” but is nonetheless wonderful and rowdy and imbued with a personality disproportionate to its size.
I teased the shifter into first and eased off the clutch to join the queue of ‘70s and ‘80s standouts. Sitting in the hot pit, an Alfa GTV on one side and a Triumph Spitfire race car on the other, I was struck by an appreciation that was part nostalgia and part pride; but I also felt a little sentimental. Days like that don’t come often, and may very well go extinct in the coming decades. And yet, there isn’t a lot of demand for events like this. Every weekend, hundreds, if not thousands, of vintage car enthusiasts hit their local twisty roads for a small taste of what the track offers in Big Gulp-sized doses; but only a fraction of these drivers actually venture out to their local circuit.
I’m here to tell you to give tracks a chance. Simply sign up for your local track day and take whatever car you think will be fun. If your classic is mechanically sound, well by all means take it! Now that you’re all fired up, let’s cover some basics.
First off, do all the things you should be doing anyway: change your oil, flush your brakes, and torque your wheel nuts. Check your belts and hoses for cracks and age. Overall, your car needs to be in excellent mechanical condition; so no leaks, frame rust, blown-out shocks, saggy springs, or pulverized bushings. If your tailpipe is held on with a coat hanger or your tires were made last century, you should fix those.
If you have a convertible, it needs to have a roll bar. And although some organizers may let you out on track with only a lap belt, a retractable shoulder belt is leagues better for obvious reasons. Your tires don’t need to be high-performance but they do need to be relatively fresh.
On the day of the event, you’ll be presented with a safety checklist that you’ll be asked to sign. Check every item and don’t cut corners. If you have the slightest doubt about any of the above, take it to your mechanic for thorough going through.
Finally, know the limits of your car. Even if everything else is tip top, your engine’s original redline may not represent what it should be revved to after 40 years of use. Your brakes probably weren’t designed to slow you from 90mph to 20mph every 30 seconds, so they’ll start to fade once hot. You don’t need to make any performance modifications to have fun but if you want to do something, swapping in high-performance brake pads will have the biggest effect. Once out on track, listen to the engine and watch your gauges. If you’re not sure what to look for, find someone who knows your engine well and ask them what your oil pressure and coolant temp should be when hot.
Now that your car is ready to go, get to work on yourself. You’ll need a helmet but won’t be required to wear a fireproof race suit. You will be encouraged to wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt made of natural fibers like cotton or wool. Bring lots of water and food and force yourself to actually drink and eat. Most importantly, bring the right attitude.
If you’re relatively new to the track, you will not be fast, and no amount of trackside swagger will hide that fact from the people who are. So embrace your kook status with humility and patience. If you want, bring a GoPro so you can review your line, but leave the stopwatch at home.
It was my first time on Sonoma Raceway, so I approached the opening laps with respect, following the natural flow of the circuit without coming close to my or my car’s limits. I eased into familiarity the way one would approach a powerful animal: gradually, passively, and with slow, predictable movements. The beauty of driving a streetcar on the track is that enjoyment can be had at any speed. At first, there’s joy in the gently carving turns, like getting first tracks on a casual ski slope. And as you learn the track and your skills progress, driving quickly will feel as comfortable as driving slowly.
We followed a Lotus Seven around for a few laps and I did my best to commit the braking, turn in and exit points to memory until I started feeling the choreography of it. Our pace picked up and we passed a few of the 911s. I saw the GT2 grow large in the mirror and pointed it by on the front straight and followed it as long as I dared. Its exhaust popped and flamed on downshifts. I checked my gauges: oil pressure, oil temp, water. Then snuck a quick glance over at Sam to see her wide eyes.
The engine was too loud to know if she was laughing or shouting, or yelling at me to slow down or speed up. And after what felt like both all-day and no time at all, the checkered flag came out to signal the end of the first session.
We rolled back into the paddock and I shut down the engine. Though I’ve done this a hundred times before, the sudden silence always hits me louder than the noise before it. I unbuckle the harness and look over at Sam again but she’s already half out the door. “Oh shit. Is she throwing up? Did I overdo it? Have I just dashed her dreams of becoming a rally co-driver?” But she wasn’t crying.
She turned back and I saw her face for the first time since she’d pulled on the helmet 45 minutes earlier. “This was the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “When can we come back?”
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