SPECIAL: 70 years of the SCCA

SPECIAL: 70 years of the SCCA

Pro Racing

SPECIAL: 70 years of the SCCA


In February 2014, the Sports Car Club of America celebrates 70 years of automotive admiration. The club, known not only for its amateur motorsports programs but also setting the tone of professional racing in America, has a history that rivals any organization. As a benefit, SCCA members receive SportsCar magazine, the official magazine of the club, and in the February issue the magazine celebrated the rich history of the SCCA. What follows is one of the features from that issue telling the tale of the SCCA, written by Pete Hylton.

In conjunction with the February issue, SCCA members were also treated to a 13-month wall calendar celebrating the heroes of the SCCA. The calendar, brought to the SCCA membership courtesy of Brembo, Honda Performance Development, Motovicity, Tire Rack, and SCCA, as well as RACER magazine and Racer Media & Marketing Inc., features some of America’s greatest racing talent, including Skip Barber, Jim Downing, Paul Newman, Bob Tullius, Peter Cunningham, and more.

To join the SCCA, head to www.scca.com. Digital issues of SportsCar magazine are available to SCCA members by logging in to https://ams.scca.com.

On Saturday evening, Feb. 26, 1944, seven car enthusiasts from Boston, Mass., met at the home of Chapin Wallour with the intent of forming a new club specifically for those with an interest in the new breed of automobile that many were calling “sport cars.” These cars provided a more enjoyable driving experience than the run-of-the-mill vehicles of the day. These sport cars tended to be lighter, faster, and handle better than those developed for mere transportation. However, they also tended to have a rougher ride, fewer driver and passenger amenities, and when driven hard, required a bit more maintenance and repair. Thus these cars were not destined to be the choice of the common driver. Instead, they would find a place only in the hearts of those who enjoyed driving for the fun, or “sport,” of it.

At that first meeting, a draft constitution, which had been prepared by Ted Robertson, was reviewed. The constitution required that a member own at least one sport car and that if a member sold his car to a non-member without first offering it to the other members, he was to be dismissed. Dismissal would also occur if any member sold his last sport car and was no longer an owner.

The constitution was adopted that evening and Robertson was elected the first president of the new Sports Car Club of America. Wallour was elected vice president and presented a draft design of a Club emblem, which used a stylized wheel and tire. As the story goes, the emblem was sketched from the wheels on Robertson’s Mercer Raceabout, which was sitting outside. The logo was adopted and remains the SCCA logo today, 70 years later. The Club immediately began a newsletter, which the founders named The Sportwagen. The name was chosen because it seemed to be the most commonly used term, worldwide, for cars of a sporting nature. Volume 1, Issue 1 was sent out in March 1944 as a stapled packet of mimeographed pages.

The earliest record of an event that actually involved cars, as opposed to being purely social, was the first weekend in May 1944, when the weather in Boston turned unexpectedly pleasant, and a number of phone calls rounded up some early members for a tour. It began at the Wallour estate and traveled cross-country to the Charlie Fisher estate.

Things began to grow and change in 1945. The most obvious change was in the name of the SCCA newsletter, which became SportsCar – as it remains today. Second was that Russ Sceli started up a new chapter, or “region,” in Hartford, Conn., and was appointed the first “Regional Executive,” overseeing activities in his local area.

On July 22, 1945, members of the SCCA gathered at Thompson Speedway, a half-mile, paved oval with 15-degree banking, for the Club’s first speed event. Timed runs from both a flying and standing start were conducted, with George Weaver’s Bugatti turning the fastest lap in both formats.

In 1947, on June 22, SCCA conducted its first true race, at Langhorne, Pa. It was a preliminary event to the AAA Big Car races that afternoon. Seven Mercers and one Mercedes took to the one-mile dirt oval for a five-lap sprint in front of about 35,000 fans. Alec Ulmann won in a Mercer, giving the crowd a look at a completely different kind of racecar than they were used to. Not long after, on July 26, the biggest SCCA time trial event to date was held at the oval track at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut. A variety of timed runs were made for all cars, along with gymkhana-type handling challenges and a few two-car pursuits. Another type of time trial debuted that summer, with single car runs up the Fairfield Hillclimb in Connecticut.

Things got serious in 1948, when it was announced that SCCA would organize a “Grand Prix” for sports cars at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in October. Cameron Argetsinger was appointed General Chairman of the event and Bill Milliken was named as Chairman of the Technical Race Committee. After months of preparation, the course was laid out down the main street of the village, and then it wound around local country roads and through the park that contains the scenic gorge for which the town was named. Frank Griswold won the main event, driving an Alfa-Romeo with an average speed of 63.7mph over the eight-lap, 52-mile race.

By 1951, there were enough drivers competing and enough races on the schedule that the SCCA was able to conduct a National Championship series. Drivers could score points toward this championship by competing in any class in any event anywhere around the country, including races, time trials, hillclimbs, and rally events. John Fitch was the winner of that initial championship. Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway was the only purpose-built road racing track in the 1951 series, and the first such track used by SCCA. The 1951 track utilized a quarter-mile oval inside of a half-mile oval. The event consisted of two-lap time trials around the large oval followed by four-car match races in which cars ran clockwise around the outer oval, then made a sharp turn onto the inner oval and ran three quarters of a lap before making another sharp turn onto the outer oval again. This formed a sort of mini road course that included a pair of quite challenging corners.

Also in 1951, one race, virtually forgotten today, changed the perception of the SCCA beyond our national borders. Argentina had an internationally recognized racing program in that era. A number of top drivers, led by Juan Manuel Fangio, had come from the South American country. Speed Age magazine and Road and Track, America’s top racing publications of that time, included regular coverage of the racing activities south of the equator. An invitation was sent to the SCCA president from the Automovil Club Argentino, inviting the American club to send a team of cars and drivers to Buenos Aires to compete in a challenge race between the two countries. The inspiration for this was the Pan American Games being hosted in Argentina. When Fitch took the checkered flag at the end of 40 laps, there were U.S. drivers in first, second, sixth, and seventh.

This early international expedition was one of the events that led to the growing recognition of the SCCA in particular, and American sports car racers in general, as being world class. Fitch went on to gain international acclaim racing in Europe along with Briggs Cunningham, another SCCA member who built the first American cars to challenge the Europeans at the highest levels.

For 1953, the shape of road racing in America changed. The 1952 Watkins Glen main event had been cut short at two laps when SCCA President Fred Wacker sideswiped the crowd on the main straight, killing a small boy and sending several other people to the hospital. It had become obvious that street racing was no longer acceptable, and permanent road racing facilities were needed. While early circuits such as Road America and the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Circuit were designed, in the interim it was America’s airports that supplied the racing circuits that kept SCCA alive into the 1960s.

By 1954, there were enough SCCA races and racers that National Championships began to be awarded in each class. However, competing for one of these titles still required a driver to travel around the country to events. Also in 1954, the SCCA President’s Cup was inaugurated and was presented to the Club’s top competitor, with the inaugural award presented to Bill Spear by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. The cross-country format for determining the national champions lasted until 1964 when SCCA divided the country into geographic divisions and allowed drivers to compete for points only within their division. The top competitors from all the divisions came together for an event in the fall that became known as the SCCA National Championship Runoffs.

While other organizations were hosting professional races in the United States, SCCA continued to adhere to a strictly amateur policy, even suspending the license of drivers who ran events for money. This led to an extremely divisive year in 1961 as various elements of the SCCA Board of Governors held to the traditional position supporting amateurism, while a more liberal wing of the Club felt that SCCA should embrace professionalism. In the end, the Board voted to not only allow SCCA drivers to compete for money, but also to begin sanctioning professional SCCA events in 1962. This led to creation of the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) series in 1963, the Trans-American Championship (Trans Am) series in 1966, the Canadian-American Challenge Cup (Can-Am) series  in 1966, and the SCCA Continental Championship series in 1967.

The Club’s first events back in 1944 had been simple tours where members drove their cars at legal speeds on public roads. These evolved into the sport of RoadRally which, by 1958, was large enough to merit its own SCCA National Championship. Rally eventually diverged into two types of competition: Time-Speed-Distance (TSD) events run on public roads, using either simple or convoluted instructions depending on individual taste; and Performance Rally (Pro Rally), which was essentially a race on limited access roads over rough terrain.

The granddaddy of all SCCA Rallies is the Press On Regardless (POR), run since 1949 on some of the most challenging roads in northern Michigan. The event has been run as a TSD rally, an SCCA Pro Rally, and an international rally championship event at various times during its existence.

The early single-car-against-the-clock events, known as time trials, also evolved. First they led to gymkhana events, which required precision driving through tight courses, and then into a Solo events series, beginning in 1968. Solos were divided into two categories with Solo I being high-speed events run on race circuits, and Solo II, which could be run at relatively low speeds in local parking lots. The first National Championship for Solo competitors was held in 1971.

The 1970s saw major changes in the professional side of the Club, as the highly successful Can-Am series fell on hard times due to the cost of maintaining and racing virtually unlimited cars; and the series was discontinued in 1974. The Continental Championship only lasted two more years, and died after the 1976 season. The cars from this series were recycled, covered with new fully enveloped bodies, and used to create the second generation Can-Am, which produced some truly great racing until it also perished in 1986. Only Trans Am remained healthy through these times, although it was joined by a new production sedan based series, which became known as World Challenge, in 1984.

In 1984, SCCA also moved into a new arena of activity, marketing its own racecar, initially know as a Spec Renault, and later as a Spec Racer. This car would become the most popular purpose-built racecar in American history with well over 800 of them built and raced.

In the late 1990s, Trans Am, the longest running professional road racing series in SCCA history, was turned over to an outside operations group; eventually ending its 41-year run in 2006 (the series was re-launched in 2009). Meanwhile, in 2004, the Club discontinued participation in Pro Rally due to safety and insurability.
The SCCA Hall of Fame was initiated in 2005, with the intent of honoring those individuals who had made a significant mark in the sports car world through their SCCA involvement.

In 2014, the SCCA celebrates 70 years of existence, having survived growing pains, uncertainty about what its direction should be, political turmoil (both internal and external), fuel shortages, economic crises, unexpected leadership changes, classes and series that grew to huge success and then dwindled to non-existence, and a host of challenges in keeping up with a changing society and membership. Yet it remains, just as it was in 1944, an organization for those who enjoy cars that are, quite simply, fun to drive.   

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