The Grassroots Tradition of Amateur Motorsports
In today’s world of corporate-sponsored professional motorsports, it is easy to overlook that auto racing originated with a small group of enthusiastic amateur sportsmen drawn to the thrill of competition for its own sake. There were no sponsors, and prize money for victory was a pittance compared to the expense—and the danger. These men raced out of passion for speed, not the desire for profit. And for the most part, they spent their own money to buy and maintain their racing machines. Then, as now, speed was often a question of money. Prestigious brands, like Duesenberg and Bugatti, built some of the fastest cars on the road or track—and they were priced accordingly. Well-heeled sportsmen—the first gentleman racers—spent lavishly to best their peers. Initially, most race-worthy cars were regular production models conscripted into track duty, but soon limited-production variants of street cars evolved, fortified with competition-oriented upgrades. Eventually, the purebred turn-key race cars were offered. Manufacturers recognized the profit potential in selling track-only specials alongside production models—a dynamic that persists to today. In the United States, the privateer racing tradition thrived in everything from board tracks to dirt ovals to speed trials and, later on, drag racing. In Europe, it carried on in rallying and endurance road racing, symbolized by the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Mille Miglia, and the Targa Florio. American racing took a hit during the Great Depression, but in Europe, things proceeded much this way until the eruption of World War II, which suspended virtually all forms of organized racing. In recent years, a host of diecast companies have released scale versions of these early gentleman racers. Duesenbergs are particularly prolific, with examples from the Mints (Danbury and Franklin), Automodello, Ertl, Mattel, Minichamps, and TrueScale Miniatures (now TSM) being just a few. Bugatti is nearly as common, with Amalgam, Bburago, and CMC leading the way there.
Gentlemen: ReStart Your Engines!
Following the war’s conclusion, racing resumed, and amateur racing, in particular, experienced a postwar renaissance. It was fueled by a booming economy, a flood of manufacturing firms large and small switching back from wartime production to consumer goods,
and the millions of young servicemen returning to civilian life with an appetite for adventurous automobiles. In the states, V8-powered sedans and coupes were plentiful and cheap to buy new or used. A wave of small-displacement, affordable, track-ready sports cars surged out of Europe, joining already-established premium brands. And regardless of style or price point, it seemed like everyone wanted to race. Beaches, lake beds, and airstrips became impromptu venues for speed trials. Sports-car clubs and road-racing circuits popped up all over. Some, like Silverstone in England and Sebring in Florida, were built on converted WW II airfields.
Britain was particularly prolific in sports-car manufacture, but Germany, Italy, France, and, eventually, the United States all followed suit. Jaguar was quick out of the blocks with its XK120 in 1948, followed shortly thereafter by the XK140/150. Aston Martin entered the fray with the DB series, while makes like MG, Triumph, and Austin Healey vied for the lower-priced market.
All saw more than their share of track duty. Lotus started producing tiny track specials during this time, but didn’t really hit its stride until the introduction of the Lotus Seven in 1957 (evolutions of which are still produced today by Caterham with up to 310hp!) and subsequently the Elite (Type 14) and the Elan (Type 26). Other track-specific brands, like Ginetta and Elva, earned respect in the amateur racing ranks. BMC’s diminutive Mini made a reputation for itself in rally circles, especially once the more sporting John Cooper models debuted in 1961—the same year Jaguar changed the sports car (and diecast!) world forever with the E-Type.
Italy had an equally rich tradition of track-worthy sports cars, and it recovered surprisingly quickly after the war. Alfa Romeo had produced a slow trickle of 6Cs throughout the war years, which it continued through 1952. The 1900 served as the basis for a number of sporty cars during the ’50s, while the little Giulietta performed well until it was replaced in the early 1960s by the legendary Bertone-designed Giulia—Sprint/GTA variants of which are staples in vintage racing to this day.
Maserati increasingly focused its road-car production on the grand touring segment to compete with the likes of Jaguar and Aston Martin while simultaneously developing dedicated sports racers, like the famous 1959 Tipo 61 “Birdcage.”
Lancia aimed slightly lower but distinguished itself with technical innovation, particularly with its Aurelia, which featured the first production V6 engine, coupled to a rear-mounted transaxle with inboard brakes—advanced stuff for 1950! It worked on the track—Aurelias swept the top three places at the 1952 Targa Florio.
But when it came to Italian racing, the purest pedigree belonged to the little Maranello-based company founded by the former Alfa race team manager turned manufacturer: Enzo Ferrari. Scuderia Ferrari began as Alfa’s customer race-prep facility—building cars for gentleman racers and privateer teams. Only when Alfa absorbed its racing operations back into the factory in 1938 did Enzo strike out on his own. Ferrari did not build its first production car, the 125 S sports racer, until 1947, and the first true non-competition road car did not come until 1949. Enzo famously said that he only built road cars to finance his racing operations, and Ferrari has continued to sell competition-prepped models to wealthy amateurs and privateer teams with great success. Models like the 250 Testa Rossa and the 250 GTO were sold as customer cars, and utterly dominated their respective classes in international competition, the TR winning Le Mans outright three times (’58, ’60, and ’61) and the GTO sweeping three straight FIA GT Championships, 1962–64. Ferrari is, of course, one of the most modeled brands, as well, at nearly every scale and price point. For years, Hot Wheels churned out popular classics in 1:18 before Bburago won the license in 2015. CMC, Kyosho, and BBR produce select high-end 1:18s. Several companies do them in 1:43, as well, with IXO’s extensive library being one of my favorites.
German Engineering ReAscends
German racing powerhouse Mercedes had been nearly unstoppable in the years leading up to the war, but afterward, it—like Germany itself—needed some time to recover. Its first foray was in 1952 with the Gullwing 300SL sports racer, which took victories at Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana. Mercedes followed the Gullwing with the legendary 300 SLRs, but those were not sold to customer teams, and after the tragic accident at Le Mans in 1955, Mercedes withdrew from organized racing. Still, the production 300SL that debuted in ’54 enjoyed some racing success in private hands by virtue of having translated much of the race car’s technology to the showroom.
Meanwhile, the company founded by former VW engineer (and designer of the Beetle) Ferdinand Porsche released its first model—the 356—and, with it, began establishing a customer racing program that would become the envy of the world. The 356 remained in production until 1965, undergoing a steady stream of handling and power upgrades. It was joined by a dedicated sports racer—the 550—in 1953, and was succeeded by the most successful customer race-car platform of all time: the 911. AUTOart does a beautiful diecast 356 Speedster in 1:18.
Stars, Stripes, and Checkered Flags
Detroit’s primary postwar focus was horsepower, which was manifested in the fledgling sports of stock-car racing (shepherded by the birth of NASCAR in 1948) and drag racing (guided by the NHRA, 1951). While it might be a stretch to call many of the participants “gentlemen,’” both sports were founded upon grassroots amateur competition. Ford’s proletariat powerhouse Flathead V8 helped get things rolling, and Detroit’s horsepower wars throughout the 1950s powered both sports’ meteoric rise.
Domestic manufacturers were somewhat slower to embrace amateur road racing. America’s signature sports car—the Corvette—remained on the sidelines throughout most of the 1950s, until Chevrolet contracted with veteran racer John Fitch to develop a Corvette racing program. Fitch, who had piloted a Mercedes 300SL to victory in the 1955 Mille Miglia, guided the Corvette to its first major successes—class wins at Sebring in ’56 and ’57—followed by a class win at Le Mans in 1960. When the Vette was redesigned in 1963 to include an independent rear suspension and larger displacement engine options, it became a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, racer turned manufacturer Carroll Shelby began mating Ford V8s to modified AC Ace roadster chassis to create the first of the legendary Cobras and, in 1965, set about turning Ford’s new Mustang into a legitimate contender for sedan classes. There followed a succession of track-oriented ponycars—Z/28 Camaros, Boss Mustangs, AAR Cudas—built to vie for the SCCA’s fabulous Trans-Am championship. Roadgoing Corvettes are well represented in diecast, and there are a fair number of race versions, too. Spark produces the 1960 winner in 1:43, and AUTOart has issued 1:18 versions of the 1957 Corvette SS and 1959 Sting Ray racers. As for the Trans Am cars, GMP did a brilliant Z/28 a few years ago, and Welly did a cool Boss Mustang.
Disco, New Wave, and the rebirth of the Everyman’s Sports Car
The 1970s marked the rise of Porsche as the dominant marque among amateur and privateer road racers—a reputation it enjoys to this day. It won everything from showroom stock to rallying to FIA Group 5 with whale-tailed 800hp monsters! In the smaller classes, Japanese makes became a factor for the first time as the traditional small Brits faded into memory. BMW began to forge its modern reputation, first with its 2002 and 3.0CSL models, and later with the seminal M1 and the world-class M3. Lancia had become the car to beat in international rally competition with its wild Stratos, then with its Rally 037 and Delta models. Ferrari had largely pulled back from sports racing to focus on Formula 1, although well-heeled privateers had success with track-prepped versions of Maranello’s dominant supercar: the F40 in the late ’80s. Jaguar worked mightily to adapt its more luxury-oriented XJS to racing, winning the Trans Am twice, but XJS owners spent more time on the golf course than the race course. By the mid-’80s, the Old Guard had largely been replaced. Chevy and Pontiac used the resurging Trans Am series to help establish the performance credentials of the Gen 3 F-bodies, as did Mercury for its Mustang-clone Capri, and the C4 Corvette established itself in showroom stock classes of various series.
Then, in 1989, an amazing thing happened. Mazda, best known for its rotary-powered RX-7, introduced a little 4-cylinder convertible , which captured the hearts of the enthusiast world. Virtually overnight, the Miata became a sensation, sparking the passion for the classic roadster that had lain dormant after the obsolete British roadsters disappeared from the market. Here was a spunky, charismatic little 2-seater that had all the best traits of those charming MGs, Austins, and Triumphs but was new, was affordable, and had dramatically improved reliability. Sales exploded worldwide, and the Miata went from a sensation to a cult to a phenomenon to a way of life. Now, 25 years later, it remains one of the most loyal customer bases in the auto industry. And it’s a natural-born track star. Entire racing series have cropped up for Miata competition. It’s the most common vehicle in any autocross club. It’s the people’s track car, turning legions of amateur enthusiasts into budget gentleman-racers!
The New Millennium—And Beyond
The Miata sparked renewed interest in amateur track days and autocrossing that has trickled down to other brands, generating a breadth and diversity of track-capable models for sale that rivals any previous era. This has happened just as America’s other grassroots motorsports pastime—amateur drag racing—is on the decline, and local tracks are closing up due to rising insurance costs, increasing property values, and decreasing interest as front-wheel-drive cars have taken over. But amateur road racing, autocross, and track-day events are going strong, and front-drivers can be seen in droves at such venues—where chassis balance is more important than launch traction. Honda’s Civic (and its variants) enjoys a particularly strong following, due to its light weight and high-winding VTEC motor. And the late S2000 roadster is a regular at track events, being a sort of Miata on steroids. European entries from resurgent Mini and VW also make their mark. The rally-inspired Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi EVO have established fanatical followings, and with their all-wheel-drive and torquey turbo powerplants, they are terrors on tight, twisty autocross courses.
BMW has ascended the production-based ranks with its M division, and now rivals Porsche for sales with the affluent weekend-warrior set. The M3 sedan largely carries the BMW banner but now has been joined by M versions of the 5 and 6, as well as the Z roadster—essentially an upscale Miata. Even non-M Bimmers are forces to be reckoned with, and BMW owners are among the most likely to track their machines. Jaguar, although still large and luxury oriented, has recently refocused on track-worthy performance, offering “R” versions of its XJ; XK; and new, smaller F-Type. The XKR-S offers an even higher echelon of race-readiness in street trim. Porsche’s 911 comes in nearly a dozen levels of performance, ascending up to the naturally aspirated GT3 RS and turbocharged GT2 RS uber-911. The smaller, more affordable Boxster and Cayman midengine siblings are also supremely capable and frequent attendees at track days.
Lotus has re-established its motorsports cred with the scalpel-like Elise, followed by a host of track-specific variants, like the Exige. Aston Martin has charged back into competition with its Vantage, building it in GT4 and GT3 trim with V8 or V12 power to make it legal for a variety of classes. AUTOart is the go-to brand for first-generation M3s, as well as modern 911s, Jags, and the Lotus Elise/Exige.
Ferrari has re-embraced privateer racing in a big way with its one-make Ferrari Challenge series, producing a Challenge variant for each of its midengine V8 models over the last 25 years—348, 355, 360, 430, and 458. In addition, for the ultrarich, track toy versions of its flagship Enzo (called the FXX) and 599 GTB (599XX) have been made. Its newest hybrid hypercar entry, the LaFerrari, is nominally a street car, but with 950hp and sophisticated aerodynamics aboard, its limits can only really be explored on a racetrack. And of course, a track-only version called the FXX-K is offered for billionaire would-be racers.
Lamborghini has emulated its Italian rival with its Gallardo and Huracán Super Trofeo models. Alfa has come back strong with the dramatic little 4C coupe and roadster. Modern Ferraris have been amply represented by Hot Wheels and Kyosho, and will continue to be with Bburago. There have even been a couple of Challenge models made. AUTOart, BBR, and TSM each have beautiful 4Cs.
Domestically, Corvette has gone full-bore at reviving its racing heritage, returning and utterly dominating the GT ranks at Le Mans. Meanwhile, customer offerings, like the Z51 track package, high-performance Z06, and ZR1, have given buyers truly exceptional track capabilities available off the showroom floor. The Camaro’s return has been exploited in SCCA sedan classes, where track-prepped versions are perennial contenders against the likes of Mustang and BMW M3. And the return of the legendary Z/28 has brought one of the purest track cars ever to carry a Bowtie emblem. Ford served up a track warrior for the exotic market with its mid-2000s’ GT (and is about to again), turn-key factory race Mustangs under the FR500 program, and capable contenders in the touring-car classes with the ST and RS Focus models. More recently, it revived the Boss 302 and offered the Laguna Seca track package to counter the Z/28. Dodge continues to produce a string of track-prepped Vipers, including the Competition Coupe, ACR (American Club Racing), GT3-R and GTS-R racers, all available to customers. AUTOart has a nice selection of race-prepped Corvette, Mustang, and Viper replicas, but no one (yet) has a quality 2014 Z/28.
So where does it go from here? Who can say for sure, with consumer tastes, economic conditions, and manufacturing trends all combining to determine the availability of track-worthy vehicles. One thing is certain: Right now, there are more—and faster—race-ready vehicles for sale than ever before, and there are no signs of that letting up. Meanwhile, a robust vintage-racing scene has kept a large number of classic cars—import and domestic—on the track where they belong. For now, the future looks pretty bright for weekend enthusiasts and amateur racers. So when you’re not out there collecting the diverse selection of diecast patterned after all of these fantastic track cars, get out there on the track yourself if you can!