About halfway through our first year, Connecticut Magazine sent sports writer John Birchard to pay our first visit to one of our favorite sporting destinations, Lime Rock Park in Lakeville. In "Lime Rock Bridges the Gap" he explores the enduring appeal — whether one is a racing fan or not, there's something for people from all walks of life to enjoy. (Or, as we put it in the introduction to this May 1972 article, "[h]eads shaggy, crew-cut, grey and bald peacefully co-exist at the track.")
This article is being posted to the web in March 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
Between now and the time snow flies again in the Berkshires, a total of 50,000 people will have made their way to a small town in northwest Connecticut to watch sports-car racing. The town is Lime Rock and the track—Lime Rock Park—attracts some of the best racing drivers in the United States and Europe who compete on the tight, twisting, one-and-one-half-mile course.
Spending a day at the races at Lime Rock is almost guaranteed fun, even for persons who may not be dyed-in-the-wool sports-car fans. First, there’s the setting. The track is nestled among the tree-covered Berkshires on Route 112, about a mile from Route 7. Unlike oval tracks for stock cars or midget racers, there are no grandstand seats. Here you can bring a blanket to spread on the ground or your favorite camp chair.
The most popular spectator area is called “the Hill.” The side of the Hill forms a natural vista from which one has a good view of the start-finish line; the straight-away where the cars reach their highest speeds; the Big Bend which is a sharp right-hand turn that requires great skill for the drivers to negotiate properly; and “the Esses,” a series of quick right-and-left turns that allow the spectator to view different driving styles of the competitors.
For an extra dollar you can buy a paddock pass, which permits you to stroll around the area where the racing cars are being readied for their runs and see and talk to the drivers and their crews as they prepare for action or give their personal post-mortems on why they won or didn't win.
To satisfy the appetite, there are concession stands that sell a variety of food and drink. But many spectators bring a picnic hamper and a cooler full of their favorite potable. Some even tote portable barbecue grilles and cook up hamburgers or steaks while enjoying the races.
As far as dress is concerned, anything goes. Some people show up in blazer and ascot—others in tee-shirt and dungarees. Of course, if the weather is threatening (the races go on rain or shine), foul-weather gear is in order.
The range of people who find their way to Lime Rock Park is amazing. The lure of good competition bridges most of the gaps that exist in American society. Heads shaggy, crew-cut, grey and bald peacefully co-exist, as attention is focused on the brightly-colored vehicles rushing about the asphalt track. And it’s not only Connecticut people who attend. A quick scan of the license plates on the rows of parked cars reveal visitors from throughout New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, as well as Eastern Canada and elsewhere.
Lime Rock Park calls itself “the road racing center of the East,” which is only a slight exaggeration. It certainly is one of the most active and well-run tracks in this part of the country. Its history stretches back to the ground-breaking in 1955; the first race was held two years later. Texan Carroll Shelby set the first lap record in a Maserati with a speed of just over 79 miles an hour. An indication of the rapid technological advances in suspensions, brakes and tires—as well as driver skill—is the current lap record, held by British driver David Hobbs, of more than 108 miles an hour—an increase in average speed of nearly 30 miles per hour in 14 years.
Some of the world’s greatest drivers have competed on the demanding up-and-downhill contours of Lime Rock: Indianapolis winners Parnelli Jones and Roger Ward, Grand Prix stars Dan Gurney and Jochen Rindt. Among the internationally-known drivers who began their careers here in amateur sports- car races are Mark Donohue, Peter Revson and Connecticut native Sam Posey.
To attract such talent a track has to be well-managed and also pay substantial sums in prize money. On Labor Day, 1971, Lime Rock Park posted the largest purse ever paid in the history of auto racing in New England—more than $50,000 in prize money for the L&M Grand Prix.
An operation of this magnitude doesn’t run by itself. In Jim Haynes, Lime Rock Park has secured one of the most respected promoters in the field of auto racing. Haynes combines experience, hard work and imagination with his knowledge and love of the sport. He is a former racing driver himself and once held the lap record at Lime Rock. An outgoing, congenial man, Haynes understands racers’ problems and deals with them sympathetically.
Haynes operates the track for a combine headed by Greek shipping magnate Harry Theodoracopulos of New York, who spends his spare time driving an Alfa Romeo in competition. It’s a little-known fact that all profits realized from the operation of Lime Rock are donated to Cornell University’s Aeronautics Laboratory. The Cornell Aeronautics Lab is internationally known for its work in highway safety. One of the first safety-engineered experimental cars was designed by the Lab. More recently, it has been involved in improving designs for car bumpers and in research on studded winter tires—whether their safety aspects are outweighed by the wear they cause to highway surfaces.
There are three major dates on the race calendar at Lime Rock this year. The first is Saturday, May 6, when the Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-American sedan series gets underway. The Trans-Am, as it’s called, is really two series in one. The major event pits the sports sedans or "pony cars," such as Ford’s Mustang, American Motors' Javelin and the Chevrolet Camaro, against each other. These powerful machines are extensively modified to increase cornering ability, endurance, stopping power, speed and safety.
The preliminary event—if it can be called that, as competition is as keen, if not keener, than among the larger cars—is titled the 2.5 Challenge. This event is for smaller sedans, with engines of two-and-a-half litres or less in displacement. In this race you’ll find the Japanese Dat- suns, Italian Alfa-Romeos, German BMWs, as well as American cars such as the Ford Pinto and the Chevrolet Vega. The 2.5 Challenge races are characterized by closely-fought duels that lead to near-photo finishes.
The next big date is Tuesday, July 4. Traditionally, the Independence Day Weekend is observed at Lime Rock with the running of a day-long series of sports-car races, all counting toward National Championship standings for the winning drivers. Twenty-two different classes of automobiles are represented at “the Nationals,” ranging from the tiny Mini-Cooper sedans to the big, powerful Formula A cars that closely resemble the machines that race at Indianapolis.
Speaking of the Indy-style cars, they appear in force at Lime Rock this year on Labor Day, Monday, September 4, as part of the Sports Car Club of America’s Continental 5,000 Series of road races, with events that take place across the U.S. and Canada. These are the fastest cars that compete on the difficult Lime Rock course. It’s one of these machines — a British-built McLaren, driven by Continental champion David Hobbs—that holds the all-time lap record of 50.8 seconds or 108.42 miles an hour at this track. The Continental and the Trans-Am always draw the largest crowds of the season.
Besides these events, the track stays busy with six private, regional sports-car races. These special events are for clubs made up of owners of specific makes (like Jaguar or Porsche), with so-called driver’s schools that train aspiring racing drivers in the skills necessary to obtain a competition license. Tuesdays are “practice days" for owners who wish to make use of the track to carry out tests on their cars and iron out problems in preparation for an upcoming race. Consumers’ Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine uses the track also, as they evaluate various vehicles upon which they report.
Auto racing in Connecticut is not restricted to Lime Rock. In the northeast corner of the state, in the town of Thompson, you’ll find the New Thompson Speedways. This facility combines an oval track—for stock cars—with a road course for sports cars. The New England Region of the Sports Car Club of America holds national championship
races at Thompson on June 10 and 11 this year. They have also scheduled three regional races later in the summer.
Stock cars run on the Thompson oval many weekends during the year and stock-car fans can also watch their favorites compete on Saturday nights at such locations as Plainville Stadium, Danbury Arena, New London Speedway and at Stafford Springs. On Sundays and holidays throughout the spring, summer and autumn, drag races are held at the Connecticut Dragway, off Route 16 on the town line between East Haddam and Colchester.
Lime Rock is the most important track in the state, however. The village is small (Lime Rock is actually a section of Lakeville, which has a population of only 1,800 during the summer), but accommodations for an overnight stay are available. Motels, hotels and tourist homes are scattered about the area. For more specific information, write to: Lime Rock Corporation, P.O. Box 491, Lakeville, Connecticut 06039.
There are three camping areas within a 15-minute drive of the track: Housatonic Meadows, a state camping area; Rudd Pond State Park, just over the state line in Millerton, New York; and Lone Oak Camp Sites, a privately-owned area in Canaan.
Drivers who appear in the professional races, such as the Trans-Am and the Continental, are men who make their livings in the cockpits of racing cars. But the vast majority of drivers in sports-car racing are not pros. The cars you see hurtling around the track at regional and national races are driven by people who do it for love, not money. These are the weekend racers, the ones who work at other jobs five days a week so they can spend long evenings tinkering and preparing their cars for a few hours of super-accelerated enjoyment on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
As the cars line up on the starting grid, you’re liable to find a doctor on the pole position and, alongside him, a grad student in geology. In the second row you might find an auto mechanic and a stockbroker side-by-side. The competitors come from all walks of life and, although racing is generally considered a young man’s game, ages range from the twenties to the fifties, with some of the best drivers sporting more than a little grey at the temples.
Family participation is not restricted to spectators. Very often the pit crew will include the driver’s brother-in-law changing a tire, his wife keeping an eye on a stop watch and recording his lap times, his young son retrieving a cold soft drink to quench his thirst at race’s end. And, if he loses, they all gather around to commiserate and encourage him with plans for "next time.”
A group of people without whom there would be no racing are the course workers. They are dressed in white and are stationed around the track, near the corners, as well as in the pit area. Their jobs are vitally important to both the participants and the spectators, as they handle the functions of flagging, communications and—if need be—rescue. To man these posts, they must undergo intensive training by experts. Workers are expected to be on hand throughout a meet, rain or shine, and remain constantly alert to the activities on the track.
The job of the flag personnel is vitally important, as drivers' lives may depend on the swiftness of decisions made by the flag men. The flags are of basic colors. The best- known are the green flag which means “go—the course is clear" and the checkered flag that signifies one has completed the race. A yellow flag tells the driver to slow down and exercise caution; there may have been an accident or some obstruction on the track ahead. The red flag means to stop immediately. The white flag indicates to the driver he has one more lap remaining in the race. A blue flag advises that the driver is being overtaken and should allow the faster car to pass.
A black flag means the driver should proceed immediately to the pits, that he is disqualified for any of a number of reasons, such as a rules violation or a mechanical condition that makes the car dangerous. A flag that combines the colors red and yellow tells the driver there’s oil on the track, usually spilled by a malfunctioning car, and the surface is slippery.
A delightful custom is the trek to “The Barn” when the racing day is over. The Barn is just that—an old barn converted into a crude but satisfactory refuge. It is near the track office and, after a long day of sun, excitement and hard work, drivers, their crews, course workers, flagmen, communications people and just-plain fans congregate there and trade stories while they feast.
Auto racing has captured the imagination of a vast segment of the American public. A Louis Harris poll, released late last year, indicated that auto racing has moved up to fourth place in the hearts of American sports fans, behind only football, baseball and basketball. Figures are almost impossible to come by, but in Connecticut only football outdraws auto racing.
If the trend is any indication, car racing will continue to grow in the Nutmeg State. Whether you prefer a Saturday night of fender crunching with stock cars, a Sunday afternoon of rocket-fast action with drag racers, or a Saturday in the sun with the sports cars at Lime Rock, you’ll find your preference easily available in Connecticut’s active auto racing scene.
More sports stories from the archives:
Most everyone thought it was a crazy idea, but on the eve of ESPN’s launch, Bryan Miller takes a sneak peek at the upstart, sports-focused cable station out of Bristol in “Television Gets (Even More) Sports Crazy” (September 1979).
Terese Karmel’s “Husky Heaven” (March 1995) takes a look at the classic UConn basketball women’s team at the start of their phenomenal streak.
Get to know Fairfield native and former Westport resident James Blake, Connecticut's most famous tennis product, in “Blake’s Progress” (April 2002) by K. Lee Howard.
And Charles Monagan visits the starting line of a slightly less, let’s say sanctioned, type of auto race in “The Cannonball Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash” (June 1979), a Darien-to-California cross-country race that was the inspiration for the 1981 big-screen comedy The Cannonball Run.
Read even more stories from Connecticut Magazine's 50-year history at connecticutmag.com/archives