Always wanted to give vintage racing a try? There’s an opportunity every February at Buttonwillow Raceway in Buttonwillow, California, that offers a safe, low-cost way to get out on the track in a classic car and learn racing techniques from the experts. It’s presented by the Vintage Auto Racing Association (VARA), a group that’s been organizing vintage racing in California, Arizona and Nevada for more than 35 years.
VARA University participants can bring their own classic cars—the only requirements are a roll bar for open cars and a helmet. Cars of any vintage and style are eligible; at this event old MG street cars are as welcome as new Corvette race cars. Rented rides are also available at reasonable rates for out-of-town participants who want to fly out for the three-day weekend event. VARA University costs just $275, a bargain compared to other racing schools.
Drivers and their cars are sorted into four groups according to car preparation and race experience. Everyone gets in-depth classroom instruction, on-track coaching and track time. The experts leading the program are Danny McKeever, a professional driving instructor and stunt man, and VARA’s own John Wilkins.
Novice racers learn about flagging, basic driving techniques, and how to take the different types of corners. More experienced drivers learn proper racing lines, defensive moves and other advanced techniques. On the skidpad, students learn the limits of their car in a safe, controlled environment. The threshold braking exercise teaches additional valuable skills. After the slalom exercise to teach car control, students are ready for the track.
Groups are first introduced to the tight East Loop, running at speeds barely faster than a typical autocross event. Racers progress to the much faster West Loop and then combine the two loops for the full-track experience. Each group gets at least three track sessions per day. All racers get some wheel-to-wheel racing action, but it is more limited and tightly regulated for novice racers in street cars.
Instructor McKeever’s most important advice for racers at all levels is to keep eyes focused ahead. He explains that racers concentrate too much on the current corner to determine where they need to be next. This has an impact on car placement and the driving line. He adds that drivers typically start out quite timid, but end up becoming better, more confident drivers, not only on the track, but on the streets as well.
“This program is a great way to see if vintage racing is what you really want to do,” says Steve Rogers, owner of a MGB GT. John Nikas took the plunge first, buying a TR4 race car and taking it to VARA University as his first event. But he struggled with some mechanical problems with his car during the event. His advice to program participants: Shake out your car in advance to ensure it’s in good mechanical shape so you can focus on learning.
After the program, many participants decide to make the time and financial commitment to fully prepare a classic car for vintage racing. A one-year VARA membership is just $85.
By Kathleen M. Mangan
Photos by Tim Suddard