Saturday, July 22, 2017

Northeast Grand Prix, Lime Rock Park--July 22, 2017

Our next big trip--and it would be a really big one to Massachusetts, Connecticut,  New York and Michigan--would take us to see our first auto road race, the Northeast Grand Prix, and the opportunity to see Corvette Racing in action.

Crossing the St. Lawrence into Ogdensburg, New York, on July 21, we headed south and then joined the New York Thruway/I-90, eventually connecting to the Massachusetts Turnpike to bring us, after a bit less than 6 hours of driving, to the small town of Lee, where we had booked accommodation at a nice Bed & Breakfast.

The Chambery Inn was originally the St. Mary's School, built in 1885 as the parish school.  Its usefulness came to an end in 1957 when the diocese built a new school but did not have a particular use for the old one.  It was threatened with demolition when a local businessman purchased it and in 1989 the 300-ton edifice was lifted off of its marble foundations and moved one block to its present location.  Having saved the building, it took a few months to decide how to use it and it was reborn as a country-style inn.  It is currently under the management of an enthusiastic young couple and we were delighted to be given the "Petit Palais" deluxe Schoolhouse Suite, which is 500 square feet in size and includes the 1885 blackboards.

Lee is a very charming town and, like most of the Berkshires region, looks very prosperous.  We walked a short distance down Main Street and had an early dinner at the Morgan House Inn, a comfortable colonial-style tavern originally built in 1817 and opened to the public as a stagecoach stop in 1853.

The Colonial Theater, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Our next stop that day was Pittsfield, a 20 minute drive north of Lee.  We had tickets to a performance of "The Music Man" presented by the Berkshire Theater Group.  Of particular interest was the theater itself.  The 1158-seat Colonial Theater was built in 1903 and hosted many great theater personalities, including John Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Billie Burke and even the Ziegfeld Follies.  The theater was widely praised for its acoustic qualities.  It operated as a movie theater from 1937 until 1949 and was then turned into an arts supply store in 1952 but kept intact.  It was treated to a $22 million restoration and reopened for live theater events in 2006, seating 760 in more comfort than in the old days.  We enjoyed the energetic performance of "The Music Man," an ideal musical for a summer evening performance in a small town.

The next morning our breakfast was delivered to our room at the inn (it has no dining room) and we set off early for Lakeville, Connecticut, the home of the famous Lime Rock Park racing circuit.  It took about an hour to drive there along US-7S, passing through North Barrington, Sheffield, North Canaan and Canaan, all equally charming.  Tourism is clearly a major industry in this region and there were many elegant little hotels and B&Bs on our route.  We found the entrance to Lime Rock Park easily as the traffic was starting to build but had no delay getting in as we had pre-purchased our tickets for the day.

Once you own a Corvette, you discover that you can get special treatment (well, somewhat special and you pay for it) when you go to races where Corvette Racing competes.  The Corvette Corral is a special parking area set aside for owners.  There are activities associated with it but the extent of these seems to vary considerably from track to track.  It seems at the 24 Hours of Daytona that Chevrolet is the main sponsor but otherwise it seems to be up to local Corvette dealers or clubs to put something together. The affair at Lime Rock Park was modest: a parking place, a chance to hang out with other owners as well as the opportunity for a few parade laps of the track, then to hear from Doug Fehan, Corvette Racing's manager, and meet the four team drivers.  In addition to the Corvette Corral, there was a Porsche Corral, one for Minis, and another for American Muscle Cars.

The turnout for the Corvette Corral seemed pretty impressive to me, although I think it was dwarfed by the really big numbers of Porsches.  Everyone was very sociable and we were adopted by an American family who come every year for the race and would show us a good place to sit.  Lime Rock Park really is park-like and everyone brings comfortable chairs and coolers.  It seems very family-oriented and seems like a good value for a very full day of motorized entertainment.

After looking at the other Corvettes, all those who wanted to do the parade laps were asked to assemble at the Porsche Corral.  Their sponsor was able to offer coffee and doughnuts, which we enjoyed as the safety briefing was given.  Pretty standard: no passing anyone; keep in line; obey whatever the lead vehicle wants you to do.  It all went pretty smoothly and we enjoyed our three laps and did not get into any trouble, although we had to be quick to get onto the track as when everyone pulled off the grass to turn onto the asphalt they gunned it and a big gap opened up.

Here we go!
Lime Rock Park sits on 325 acres and features a 1.5 mile long track with seven turns and some nice changes in elevation.  Opened in 1957, it is the oldest continually operating road racing track in the United States.  There is a permanent injunction preventing Sunday racing.  After his retirement in 1964, racing legend John Fitch (who had been associated with Corvette, among other marques) became the track manager.  He died in 2012 at his home not far from Lime Rock Park, aged 95.  The track was the home course of actor Paul Newman, a talented racer, but saw all of racing's greats pass through, including Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Sam Posey and Mark Donohue and the lap record of 43.112 seconds was set by Parnelli Jones in 1993.  Sam Posey, who has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and experience as an architect, designed the gorgeous timing tower building at the start/finish line.


The first order of business was to walk down from the hill where the Corvettes were to the area next to the track near the start/finish line where all the teams were working on their cars.  The day would see a number of practice laps before the official races began.  The Northeast Grand Prix is an event sanctioned by IMSA, the International Motor Sports Association, and the series is the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.  The series began in 2014 and features cars in three classes: the Daytona Prototype International (DPi)--currently the fastest race cars in the world, the GT LeMans (GTLM) and the GT Daytona (GTD).  As well, other races would be taking place during the day.  The WeatherTech series at Lime Rock would only be for GTLM and GTD cars.

DPi cars are single seaters built entirely for racing, while the other classes feature cars that are based on factory sports cars.  The GTLM cars feature professional drivers, while the GTD ones are a mix of pros and top amateurs.  Corvette Racing has taken the Team and Drivers' titles each year from 2016-2018, and won the Manufacturers' title in 2016 and 2017.  Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette were defending their 2016 win at Lime Rock, although it is interesting that when we met the Corvette Racing people at the Simeone Museum, they were not particularly keen on the Lime Rock Park circuit as they felt the short course did not suit their cars as well but also the logistical issues of getting to a track not near any major city.

Of course, as this blog is a celebration of Corvettes and driving them, here are my images from hanging around the Corvette Racing enclosure:

Corvette No. 4 Drivers: Oliver Gavin (l) and Tommy Milner

It was very informative to see the preparation work for all the cars, whether Corvettes, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Acuras, BMWs, or Porsches.  All of the teams had big marquees equipped with all their workshop tools, and their transport trucks were nearby.  Corvette Racing has two enormous  18-wheelers but everyone else was not lacking in tech support.  We had the opportunity to speak with Doug Feehan, manager of the Corvette Racing operation, whom we had previously met at the Simeon Museum.

After our walk around, we headed back to the hill where we had strategically positioned our chairs and our cooler and we watched the practice sessions for all the cars of different classes.  Then we returned to the start/finish line where the pits were opened to spectators before the WeatherTech race and we could see all the cars in the GTLM and GTD classes close-up.  As well as the WeatherTech Girls, a throwback to the Good Old Days of Very Tall Women in Very Tight Clothing.

The race itself was fun to watch.  It went for the scheduled 2 hours 40 minutes and there were no delays due to crashes or other incidents.  Alas, Corvette Racing was unable to defend its title as the Porsche RSRs (mid-engined racing versions of the 911) were dominant throughout the race, ultimately taking first and second place.  Corvette Racing did manage to slip by one of the BMWs near the end of the race and received the last podium spot.

As well as the chance to watch the current cars race, there was a nice collection of vintage race cars on display as well, plus some historic BMW racing machines.  And Continental, the tire sponsor, had a big stand too, with a yellow/orange promotional Corvette on display.  One could only be impressed by the vast number of tires that the various teams went through during the day as tire transport vehicles were zipping around constantly.

We had a terrific day out at our first car race, meeting some very nice fans and enjoying some good racing.

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