Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Trip to Atlanta (and Some Track Time)

"I've got tickets ordered for the Mitty in April. You can get off work, right?" came the question from long time friend and fellow British car enthusiast Richard Cunningham. Actually the inflection was more in the form of an order than a question. "Uh, sure. Lemme see what I can do," I replied not at all sure that I could swing it.

Fast forward to a really early Friday morning in late April and Richard and I were stowing a lot of gear in the back of my daily driver Honda Civic for the trek to the Big Peach. I've always considered myself a 'travel light' kind of guy but since absolutely nothing about me can be remotely thought of as light any more, my baggage and other required accoutrements seem to have grown over the years as quickly as my middle. Slamming the trunklid, we started our weekend of vintage speed.

For those not in the know, The Mitty is the annual party that the Historic Sportscar Racing Limited organization puts on in conjunction with Classic Motorsports and Grassroots Motorsports magazines at the famous Road Atlanta race track just northeast of Atlanta. Owners of historic racing cars gather to give their cars a good spring workout and put on a show for fans of vintage racing. There's bound to be a car in the dozens present that is of interest to even the most casual auto enthusiast.

A Feature Race
We rolled through downtown Atlanta at one of the less busy hours for the highways in town. My inner Fangio came out when I saw that I had to cut and thrust in traffic just to keep up. Since there were two of us in the car, we took advantage of the HOV lanes as much as possible and we soon found ourselves looking for the exit to Braselton and Road Atlanta.

Richard and I were warmly greeted by HSR and magazine staff members at the gate and since this was the first race event I attended in about eight years, I had a hard time paying attention to the other cars on the entrance road while ogling the fast movers on the course just a few hundred feet outside my window. We found a convenient spot to park and wandered through the specialty car parking corral and vendors row. 

For late April it was beastly hot in the hills of north Georgia with nary a cloud in sight and very little breeze. Most of the vendors had tents set up to protect their wares from the weather and provide a little shade, but instead of cool shade the tents were more like saunas in the heat and humidity. 

I chatted with one of the vendors - an automotive artist - and looked through his work. He is a painter, but he also uses modern computer graphic software to create startlingly accurate plan views of classic road and competition cars. One of his prints caught my eye immediately; it was a dead ringer for my brother's vermillion MGB. It became a gift for him in some small repayment for his generosity to me. Richard found a photographer who had been shooting the practice sessions earlier in the day and print of a Group 44 Racing Jaguar XJR became his first souvenir of the trip.

The Downhill Prior to Turn 12
We moved into the VIP tent (actually, everyone could come in, so don't be too impressed) to find a cool drink and some shade. As we were talking, I thought I spotted a familiar face at a table on other side of the tent. Pointing out the white haired gentleman, I asked Richard if that was Bob Tullius (the driving force behind Group 44 Racing back in the day). Never the shy, retiring type Richard decided he would find out the only way he knew how: he would ask him.    

Richard and Bob Tullius (in dark shirt)
As it turns out, it was indeed Bob Tullius and Richard spent the better part of a half hour chatting with him and sharing photos that he took at Road Atlanta in the 1970s when Group 44, and many others, raced for all the marbles. Bob graciously autographed the souvenir photo of the Jaguar XJR that Richard purchased earlier in the day and gave him the background story about the car.

Seeing that the time was quickly approaching for us to take part in the on-track parade laps, we headed back to the trusty Civic and fell in line for access to the race course. I was impressed that the Road Atlanta team didn't require signed releases or provide a litany of thou-shalt-nots, unlike another well-known course that I was able to drive on.

It turns out that the laps were anything but parade. The line of cars moved quickly out on the course and we were being pushed hard by a riced-out Miata to pick up our pace. Right. A mid-trim Honda Civic with an automatic transmission with two gentlemen inside built for comfort instead of speed. Nothing left to do but floor it and try remember everything I'd learned at the controls of a Sony Playstation running Gran Turismo 4. 

Richard with a Jaguar XJR7
We climbed the hill after the first turn and headed down to the esses. From Spectators Hill they look long and undulating, like a country road. From behind the wheel at speed, they look like killer turns, with the curbing reaching out to snatch you off course. To add more excitement to the event, cars ahead would suddenly decide to stop to allow traffic to move on so they could get a fast run at a particularly fun part of the track. This meant that you might not know that cars had stopped just over the next blind rise. Yeah, that was fun, too.

The first time around, I completely screwed up the last turn. Just after a quick left-right complex, the course rises to the Audi overpass where the road drops immediately and enters turn 12 to the pit straight. I stayed too far left and almost went down the escape road before I was able to catch it and stay on the course. Much nervous giggling ensued and kept up for the next four laps. 

For All the Marbles
I did get better as the laps progressed by manually shifting the automatic and keeping my growing panic under control. Apexes were clipped and braking got later until Richard very kindly said that I was "doing pretty good." It seemed to the both us that we were absolutely flying around the course, but the video that Richard shot showed otherwise. Catch us in the right mood and we'll show it to you. Oh, and the telephone ringing while we were scything through the esses is for real.     

We finished our parade laps and found a a spot on Spectators Hill to watch the rest of the day's practice session. We were entertained by cars at speed that we remembered from our misspent youths. For Richard, the trip marked his first return to Road Atlanta in over 40 years. We were lost in our thoughts as the historic racers roared past. Soon it was time to head to north Atlanta and to our accommodation there.

Andy Wallace Chats with His Team
We headed back to the track early the next morning where we were greeted by cool misty weather that made for perfect wandering through the paddock. We were struck by how friendly and open the the owners and team members were to fans like ourselves. This was underlined when Richard and I were admiring an Audi R8 and a Jaguar XJR7 from a respectable distance outside the temporary shelter attached to the support rig. We were waved inside by none other than multiple LeMans winner Andy Wallace who chatted with us about the cars and the event. 
That's PBCA's Mike Japp in the Yellow Spit

The featured marque for this year's Mitty was Triumph and I have to admit that I've never seen so many Triumphs in one place. My best guess would be in excess of 200 TRs, Spitfires and various rarer-in-the-US models. A series of parade laps for the featured marque looked like a bumper to bumper traffic jam. A thrilling sight, indeed.

The day's events included qualifying and racing and we both got what we came for in abundance. Classic racing cars from all classes and marques were given their own races, most of which were 30 minute sprints. While we came for the classic British cars, we were just as thrilled to watch the high-horsepower prototype cars from the recent past as well as classic Can-Am, Trans-Am, Formula 5000 and NASCAR classics. The event was even open to classic motorcycles which put on a show to remember.

As the day wore on, the cool weather gave way to more searing, white-sky heat prompting us to seek shelter in the air conditioned Civic while we chugged water.
The Featured Marque Race

Road Atlanta has a number of fine vantage points for spectating from hillsides, under shade trees and at points of the track where cars brake hard and downshift (my favorite) and areas of acceleration out of the turns. I have to give the facility high marks for access, amenities and upkeep and everyone we dealt with at the venue was quite friendly and seemed to be genuinely concerned that the fans had a great experience.

Our next goal is to return to the track to take in a Petit LeMans 6 hour race at some point in the future. I can't wait.

Click on the photos to enlarge them


  1. Great post Rodney and a great experience (especially turn 12) Next time we take a tent to sit under. Bet we'd make a lot of friends.

  2. I just found this post with a pic of my Spitfire on the track. Thanks for taking the photo of me! I had a great time on my first time at the "Mitty".


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