Above: Jason Isley drove his Toyota Yaris racecar to a pair of wins on Saturday, July 30, 2016, during the 56th annual Rose Cup races.
The first Rose Cup races took place during the Portland Rose Festival in 1961 on the streets of Vanport, Oregon, a one-time shipyard near the banks of the Columbia River that was all but washed away by a flood in 1948. When the water recessed, the empty streets were good for little other than racing. By the time the 1970s rolled around, a more formal racetrack, Portland International Raceway, stood atop much of the Vanport site giving the Rose Cup, and other events, a permanent home.
Over the years, the Rose Cup races have attracted top amateur and professional drivers, as the format has allowed for a wide range of racing classes to join in. At one time, the thundering cars of the Trans Am series paid regular visits to the Rose Cup, bringing with it the likes of Paul Newman, Willy T. Ribbs, Tommy Kendall, Dorsey Schroeder and local Pacific Northwest racing legend Monte Shelton. Shelton took part in the first Rose Cup and has amassed the largest collection of Rose Cup trophies of any driver. Fast-forward to this year, and the 56th Rose Cup presented by George Morlan Plumbing took place on July 29-31, 2016, with the Friends of PIR managing the event, which would include a combination of Oregon Region Sports Car Club of America and Cascade Sports Car Club racing classes.
Shortly before the Rose Cup, I received a call from Toyota asking me to bring the H Production 2015 Toyota Yaris I race in the SCCA U.S. Majors Tour and at the SCCA National Championship Runoffs to Portland so multi-time X Games gold medalist Jamie Bestwick could step behind the wheel. This call wasn’t unprecedented; in 2015, Bestwick participated in the Rose Cup in a previous iteration of this Toyota Yaris, pulling off a win over local hero and ex-IndyCar driver Parker Johnstone. Unfortunately, as periodically happens with real-life stars, a last minute conflict sidelined Bestwick; but with the car prepped and the trip already planned, it took no cajoling for me to take his spot.
Having grown up in the Northwest, I have two distinct memories of racing, one of the Grand Prix of Portland and the other of the Rose Cup. The Grand Prix visited Portland in the heyday of the Champ Car World Series, with names like Unser Jr., Andretti, Sullivan and Emmo headlining the playbill. The Rose Cup, of course, was steeped with local history, and unlike when pro racing visited, the Rose Cup was something obtainable by anyone with a recognized amateur-racing license. But having left the Northwest around the same time I started dabbling in motorsports, I never had the opportunity to partake in the Rose Cup as a driver. This year would rectify the situation.
The combination of SCCA and CSCC classing meant the H Production Yaris I pilot would be in the Small Bore 2 class facing off against a wide range of cars, from Improved Touring racecars to the 3-series BMWs of Pro3 to Pro44-classed Porsches. Grossly outgunned by horsepower, the Toyota Yaris would rely on its light weight, handling and the grip provided by sticky Hoosier racing slicks. In both of Saturday’s Small Bore group races, I was able to pressure the quicker cars, ultimately claiming the Small Bore 2 class wins. A racing version of David beating Goliath, if you will.
The great thing about the Rose Cup is that thanks to its history, it draws top drivers from all walks of life. Taking part in the Spec Miata race was 2014 SCCA Pro Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup champion and 2016 Rolex 24 winner Kenton Koch (pictured). “What inspired me to run there were the people, the racing and the location,” says Koch. “Also, [my girlfriend] Dani Ferrara was racing that weekend in her dad’s Spec Miata in another class while her dad was running that car in SM, so it was a family trip that turned into a race weekend. Since I was coming with her to the race, I figured I’d try to find a ride.”
The wide range of classes competing at the Rose Cup means if you’re a racer, there’s likely a class for you – and if you’re a spectator, there’s plenty to see. From vintage racecars to factory-built GT racers, the popular Spec Racer Ford and the fire-breathing monsters of the Great American Stockcar Series, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. One particularly grand treat at this year’s running was demonstration laps by Johnstone in a 1995 Reynard IndyCar. Oh, the sweet sound.
And that, in a nutshell, is the story of the Rose Cup – racing emerging victorious through utter despair (which is refreshing, really, because it’s usually the other way around).
Jason Isley is the Associate Editor of SportsCar magazine, SCCA’s official publication. He’s also a four-time Sports Car Club of America Solo National Champion, three-time Runoffs podium finisher and amateur-racing junkie who’s always quick to capitalize when someone has to cancel their travel plans at the last minute.