History's eye-popping race cars rev it up

CNN via Sportcar Vintage Racing Assn
Friday, June 6, 2014 - 7:30am

Attention all who drool over head-turning, rubber-burning cars: Here's your candy store.

This weekend the world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts two days of races between hundreds of vintage vehicles spanning the past 100 years. They're billing the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational as the "largest gathering of race cars in the United States."

Al Unser Jr., Buddy Lazier, Parnelli Jones and Bobby Unser. Ever heard of these guys? They're Indy 500 winners. They'll be there -- on the track and behind the wheel.

The whole weekend threatens to be a 100-mph-plus parade of eye-popping race cars that would quite literally blow your hair back.

But let's be frank: This is a celebration of a time when race cars were, well, a helluva lot more interesting to look at. Right?

If you've never seen the lines of Johnny Rutherford's 1980 Indy-winning "Yellow Submarine" Chaparral, do yourself a favor. Enjoy some eye candy.

Same with Jones' 1963 winning car "Ol' Calhoun," which took the checkered flag as it crossed Indy's brick start/finish line. Respect Calhoun's awesome side-pipe and its snazzy front-end air scoops.

Both cars are expected to come out to play this weekend.

The 1960s, '70s and '80s offered a smorgasbord of car designs born from mechanical grit.

These are cars that were truly unique. Some cars were shaped like wedges, some like tubes. Wings in the front. Wings in the back.

Compare them to today's designs -- both Indy and NASCAR. Nowadays there's a lot of what Mark Dill calls, "sameness."

"There's not just a hunger -- there's almost a starvation for design now among auto racing fans," says Dill, of the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association. "They loved looking at the variety of cars, and this event is going to provide that in spades."

The weekend is sponsored by the association -- a race car restoration and preservation group dedicated to "rolling art."

"Some people collect art," their website says. "We race it."

In addition to the open-wheel Indy racers, the event plans to showcase Corvettes, Mustangs and Camaros from the '60s and '70s. Also invited: cars made by Ferrari, Porsche, Jaguar and MG.

While car designs have remained much the same, other aspects of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been shifting gears during the past 20 years. The hallowed facility has embraced new ideas like no other time in its history.

"It's changed a lot," says Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson, who's been a part of the Indy 500 since the mid-1960s.

Take for example, the Snake Pit -- known during the 1970s as a scandalous den of race-fan debauchery located in the infield. It made headlines in 1974 when dozens of naked race fans climbed the fence and "streaked" down Turn One.

After that, officials "very subtly phased the Snake Pit out," Davidson recalls. Five years ago, the speedway opened a safer, sanctioned, "new-school" Snake Pit inside Turn Three, complete with international DJs, dancing, food trucks and volleyball.

This weekend, overnight camping in the infield will be available for the first time, according to the speedway's video.

Privately owned by Indiana's Hulman family for nearly 70 years, the track executed an ambitious plan in the '90s to embrace other forms of auto racing, including Grand Prix and NASCAR.

Indy's Brickyard 400 NASCAR event sparked a new tradition at the century-old track. In 1996, winner Dale Jarrett and crew chief Todd Parrott spontaneously got down on their knees and kissed Indy's brick start-finish line.

Within a year or two, everybody was kissing the bricks. It transformed into a major photo op for both the NASCAR and the Indianapolis 500.

Some people who find themselves bored with race car design blame the rules. The IndyCar league requires teams to use the same chassis and engines. Critics say that limits car designs, and the sport suffers.

So-called "aero kits" are supposed to spice things up a bit.

Beginning in 2015, Chevrolet and Honda will offer IndyCar teams special body kits that include "distinct aerodynamic configurations" designed to boost speed and "improve the diversity of the fan experience," according to IndyCar.

Will any of today's race cars earn their way into the museums and vintage shows of tomorrow?

A Facebook friend of Dill's predicted that museums will largely remain the "same as they are today because there isn't anything new to show," Dill says.

Some fear that the enthusiasm to "ooh" and "ahh" over the same car painted 25 different ways just won't be there.

"That may be a little hyperbolic, but it's not far off, " says Dill. "After all, it's variety that stimulates the imagination."

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