Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) marks its 40th anniversary in 2018. In that time SVRA and all American vintage racing has come a long way with high-profile events attracting legendary drivers, including the entire Unser family of Indianapolis 500 veterans. Just since 2012 SVRA has evolved from club racing largely confined to the Eastern United States into a national platform that spans America with race weekends at storied venues such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Watkins Glen, Sonoma, Road America, COTA and its original home, Sebring, where it returns this week for the Sebring Vintage Racing Classic.
Leading into the Sebring weekend RACER caught up with SVRA’s founder, Ford Heacock III, and Tony Parella, who serves as the current president and CEO. The two men offered their thoughts on the evolution of SVRA and the state of vintage racing in general.
Q: Ford, 40 years is a long time. What was vintage racing like back in 1978?
Ford Heacock III: SVRA traces its roots back to what was then called the Kendall Vintage Grand Prix, supported by Kendall Oil. The logical interest was triggered by the established 12 Hours of Sebring. It was only natural that there was a fascination with vintage race cars by that time as people reflected on how American sports car racing was started and how it progressed. Charlie Mendez and David Cowart had just taken responsibility for promoting the 12-hour race. They approached me about organizing a class of historic race cars of 1960 to 1972 vintage for a support exhibition race.
The most prominent vintage racing organization at the time was the Vintage Sports Car Club of America (VSCCA), but they did not run cars newer than 1959. That created a demand for the newer vintage cars and that opening became the basis for SVRA, originally know as the Southeastern Vintage Racing Association. We ended up with two classes, Classic and Historic. VSCCA produced the Classic group and I organized what we called Historic.
Q: There’s been an awakening for vintage racing in the last few years, not just among car owners and drivers but also unprecedented levels of spectator attendance. Did you ever think in 1978 that you would see the day when as many as 25,000 spectators would be attracted to a vintage racing weekend?
Heacock: I was fairly young at the time we first organized the vintage races at Sebring. I was 29 years old. Everything was new to me as I did not have experience as a race promoter, but my grandfather and father had been in leadership roles establishing the 24 Hours of Sebring. Also, I grew up there, so all of that gave me a deep appreciation for the sport. The endurance race transformed the town. Suddenly, international flags appeared everywhere, foreign languages were spoken, and famous drivers like Stirling Moss and Pedro Rodriguez stayed in local homes. I had a lot of enthusiasm but honestly, I did not have a specific vision of where we would take vintage racing other than to provide a friendly club environment and include the later model vintage cars.
We gained momentum after we organized a support race at Road Atlanta in 1979. As we progressed into the 1980’s, we started running at Watkins Glen, Moroso Motorsports Park near Palm Beach, Mid-Ohio, Road Atlanta, and, of course, Sebring. Even as time went on, we did not promote our events to the public. We let the tracks do that, and while we did have spectators, it was not at all like what you see today.
Q: In your time leading SVRA is there a particular event that stands out in your mind?
Heacock: Certainly among the most challenging and interesting events were the Grand Bahama Vintage Grand Prix races of 1987 and 1988. The Bahamas have a great history of auto racing, dating back to top professional racing in the 1950’s. They had done a vintage race in 1984, but had not repeated it. The Grand Bahamas Ministry of Tourism approached us about taking on the effort.
I hired Susan Wright, an expert in organized travel, who deserves a ton of credit for managing logistics. Our team was responsible for shipping over 100 race cars as well as all safety equipment including fire and tow trucks. It was a very ambitious project, as we also had to design and create a street course. We worked closely with the Ministry, and while there was lots of racing, there were also elaborate parties every night during the week. It was an amazing experience.
Q: I understand you sold SVRA in 1989 over concerns about the direction the sport; can you elaborate?
Heacock: During the 1980s the car collection hobby exploded and values skyrocketed. By 1988 and especially after the death of Enzo Ferrari in August, high-end cars were selling in the range of one to two million dollars. This was unprecedented and the market spike made many owners decide to leave their best machines in their garage and not take them onto the track. This wasn’t limited to Ferraris, but other coveted cars like Ford GT, Cobra, and Porsche 917.
I thought the character of the sport had been altered, as what we saw at the track were clearly cars of less importance. Also, we had a couple of accidents as people started pushing the rules for modifications for things like carburetors, transmissions and especially modern tires. Some competitive people were too focused on awards like point championships and trophies. These things weighed on my mind and by then I had a family and the demands of running my business, Heacock Classic Car Insurance, were significant. Something had to give.
Q: Skipping ahead to today, what do you think of how SVRA has evolved with a national schedule of events at major tracks plus sponsorship investment with such global brands as Jaguar, Merrill Lynch, and Capital One?
Heacock: I am in awe with how Tony Parella has taken SVRA from a club to a genuine business. He has attracted top brand sponsors, and built a schedule at most of the important tracks across America. With his leadership, SVRA has also faced the challenge of delivering more detailed rules, enforcing safety standards, and policing drivers who get too aggressive. The Gold Medallion program to recognize authentic, historic cars is important too, in bringing back the most valuable examples. He’s put it all on a big stage. I never thought I would have the opportunity to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for example, but I did. It’s fun to come back now and simply be a participant driving my Porsche 356B.
Q: While SVRA has emerged as the largest organization in vintage racing, there are other noteworthy events like the Hawk, Lime Rock, and the Monterey Motorsports Reunion as well regional club racing. What do you think of the state of vintage racing in its larger context?
Heacock: SVRA is clearly the most prominent vintage racing organization, but I think there is room for variety. All of us in vintage and historic racing have a great deal in common. We all love beautiful vintage cars, and enjoy seeing them in action. Some of the smaller events at less well-known club racing tracks can make for a relaxed weekend. Overall, I’m pleased to see the growing level of interest in vintage racing because, obviously, it is close to my heart.
Q: Tony, is it fair to say that when you acquired SVRA in 2012 you set out to transform it from a club racing organization to an expanding business?
Tony Parella: Absolutely. I have always been an entrepreneur in business. I built and acquired companies generating hundreds of millions of dollars during my decades in the telecommunications industry. But I was always a racer at heart. I raced dirt ovals in New York State as a very young man but set all that aside to get a “real” job and raise a family. Later in life and once I felt I had the resources, I wanted to come back to racing. As I became familiar with vintage racing, I saw business opportunity. It was really kind of a sleeping giant.
Q: At the core of the culture of vintage racing is an ethic of fellowship and sportsmanship. Do you worry that the character of the sport is changing with the influx of sponsors, legendary drivers, and the attraction of race fans more accustomed to the wheel banging world of professionals?
Parella: That’s a great question. I think it is like any business challenge; there are always strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. When you ask about sponsors, understand that I developed SVRA as a business to make it sustainable. In order to preserve our sport, we need to make it economically viable. When I have to step away, I want to be able to hand SVRA off with a structure that is sustainable. It requires vigilance.
I’ll give you a good example. One of our most important accomplishments for advancing the SVRA brand was to organize the Indy Legends Charity Pro-Am at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We’ve brought back dozens of Indy 500 veterans to the Speedway and it creates a great buzz. There’s a flip side to that when we have people violate the core tenants of our sport by pushing too hard and taking the kind of risks they did as professionals going for that opening that could put them on the podium. In our first two Pro-Am races, we had two of the most accomplished drivers in the field step over the line and tear up two great cars. A lot of vintage racers have a good chunk of their net worth tied up in their equipment. I had to dis-invite both those drivers, and one was a former Indy 500 winner.
I have been very tough and direct in our driver meetings. We don’t tolerate drivers who don’t respect these values of vintage racing.
Q: Do you think new fans that come out to watch SVRA are disappointed to learn that vintage racers are not taking the same risks they have been accustomed to seeing in the professional series?
Parella: If anyone is concerned about that, it’s our job to educate them. Yes, vintage racing is about competition, but we call it “nine-tenths” racing. Make no mistake vintage racing can be intense, but finishing at the front cannot come at the price of damaging cars or hurting someone. We have zero tolerance for that. I use an analogy to flag football. You still have to pass accurately and run fast so it still takes skill and talent. You just don’t hit people or even rough them up.
Consider Indianapolis, a true racing city, where it seems everyone “gets” auto racing. Most everyone I talk to there understands where we’re coming from. Those fans are there for the atmosphere. I think those coming for the first time walk away a little stunned by how accessible everything is. They can roam the famous Garage Area without credentials, do our pre-race pit walk, and bring their kids or grandkids. They can walk right up and shake hands with Indy 500 winners and drivers with championships from major series. Racing heroes are just wandering around Gasoline Alley and the Formula One garages. Cars that fans remember seeing in years past, sometimes decades ago – but only through the chain link fences – are suddenly right there in front of them. They can touch them and talk to the owners.
Q: Do you think spectator interest in SVRA is the result of promotion or is there something else going on?
Parella: My team does do a lot of great work, but we also came along at the right time. A lot of older fans miss the days of diversity of design and even engine sounds. So much of professional racing today is pretty spec, with little differences between the cars except livery. We typically have hundreds of cars at our races, so I think we are filling a void. The cars span literally 100 years of history. Also, they represent a lot of classes across sports cars, open wheel, and NASCAR.
It’s not just the older fan that is interested. A lot of younger ones have told me they go on YouTube and see the old races or even just find pictures from long ago and are kind of envious they missed all that. Now, with phone cameras and social media, they can not only capture an image, but also immediately share their experience with friends. It’s kind of ironic, but the vintage cars are great subjects for 21st Century platforms like Instagram. We’ve done a lot of work to make our events accessible and most of them have a festival theme. We have music concerts and arrive-and-drive opportunities with sponsors like Jaguar and Land Rover. That kind of philosophy was proven in by the gold standard of racing festivals, the Festival of Speed at Goodwood in England.
Q: Has rising spectator interest been a factor in attracting sponsors?
Parella: Well, our gate receipts don’t rival the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500 and they never will. The reality is that our sponsors recognize that SVRA members, the car owners, represent an extremely upscale demographic. When you look at the collective net worth, it’s no exaggeration to say we are a billion dollar paddock. That’s the profile of many of our sponsors’ customers, whether you’re a Merrill Lynch, a Capital One, or Jaguar. Luxury brands are a natural fit. Obviously the automotive or racing brands like Bell Helmets and Hoosier Tire see our membership now over 2,500 and they want a piece of the action too. Understand that we live in a “lean forward” world today.
More and more people seek experiences and opportunities to participate instead of just watching. A generation or two ago, the kind of person who owns and or races a valuable historic car might have been an Indy 500 team owner. Today, a lot of men and women with those resources would rather find a way to get behind the wheel of an iconic car and do it for themselves. These are people who demand quality products and have the financial power to acquire them. Sponsors see that.
Q: Looking beyond SVRA, what about the vintage racing landscape in general?
Parella: The various organizations have differences because we play different roles. Vintage racing has long been about club racing and while SVRA members are the cornerstones of our business and we will never forget that, we have brought business practices to our branch of the sport. We have made vintage racing accessible to the average race fan that is looking for a fun, affordable, and relatively low-key family weekend outing. I was raised in a blue-collar family and I take a lot of pride in offering a product that appeals to that profile.
We want to continue to live by the values of vintage racing. The spirit of camaraderie and a generally relaxed atmosphere is essential to our success. It is also appealing to fans becoming acquainted with our sport. They can take in so many sights and sounds and get the chance to have a real conversation with champion drivers they may never have imagined they would actually meet. I think the vintage racing world is broad and varied, so I support what other clubs are doing. We recently announced an inter-club B Sedan championship we are doing with regional groups across the country. I’m a vintage racer too, and I completely understand the joy and relaxation of tooling around in one of the race cars I admired as a boy and then kicking back with some buddies outside our transporters and crack a beer that evening. I love the culture of vintage racing.