It wasn’t the likeliest spot for a speed mecca, just a little village on a little island in Lake Erie, but there was something special happening in Put-in-Bay, and the racers knew it. For a few memorable years, they drove their MGs, Austin-Healeys and Porsches to Ohio’s northern shore, rolled onto a car ferry bound for South Bass Island and rolled off onto one of the last real American road courses.
In 1957, Bill Jackson was one of five freshly minted East Coast Morgan factory drivers („We had to pay $2,500 a piece for them—a little discount on a competition model. After that, Morgan would pick up all of our expenses,“ he says) when he heard Put-in-Bay’s call. „I’d driven for Morgan for six or seven months and I got my draft notice. All of the honest-to-God road races were disappearing. Watkins Glen had gone to a closed course, Bridgehampton had gone to a closed course, almost all the West Coast tracks were closed courses.“
Not Put-in-Bay. The village’s main street, Delaware Avenue, hosted the course’s starting line, kicking off 3.1 miles of harrowing corners, questionable road surfaces and a 5,825-foot whopper of a straight that made drivers wring out their small-displacement machines for all they were worth. All on public roads. The safety barriers? Hay bales.
Concern for safety was not quite at today’s level when the road races were initially run.
„I figured when I came back after being in the Army for two years, all of the road courses would be gone. So I had our mechanic go over the Morgan, got it all in race tune and I just took off. Production cars in ’57, you didn’t trailer them. You’d drive them to a track, take the windshield off … we didn’t even have roll bars. Anyway, I had a late entry so I missed the lottery for starting position, and I ended up last on the grid.“
He can still talk you around the course, through each turn and every overtake, as he recounts his E-Production class win from that last-place start. After the race, he hit the road, not even spending the night on the island. That’s how they did it Back Then.
The Put-in-Bay Road Races ran from 1952 to 1959 and then one final time on an abbreviated course in 1963. No big purse to contest there—it was racing for racing’s sake. Restricting road cars to 2.0 liters and under added a safety factor that probably made the thing possible in the first place, even as it kept big-name drivers away. But the participants had to have known it couldn’t last forever; the cars were getting to be too fast.
„In 1959, you had Manny Holder in a Porsche 550 Spyder going 140 miles an hour down Cooper Straight into town,“ says Manley Ford, Put-in-Bay Road Races Reunion event coordinator and owner of a positively gnarly race-prepped 1952 MG TD. „Imagine the roads being just chip-and-peel, some not even that, and much rougher. Down on Meechen Road, there were ruts from a tree that would just rip the bottom out of a car if it was too low. The long straight was the longest in sports-car racing, around a mile long. Can you imagine driving a Bug-Eyed Sprite flat-out for a mile?“
Ford never witnessed the road races in their heyday, but like many of the guys at the Reunion—and this becomes apparent as soon as you get them talking—he carries a deep knowledge of, and appreciation for, the ones who raced Back Then. He’s been involved with the event in one way or another since it began back in 2009 as sort of an informal SVRA Mid-Ohio Vintage Grand Prix spinoff; vintage race organizers Jack Woehrle and Bob Williams thought it’d be nice to invite sports-car racers up to the island for a little get-together. The response was overwhelming. It seemed like there was something to this thing!
As Ford tells it, Woehrle (now the event’s race director) asked him to see if Put-in-Bay’s airport would be amenable to hosting a wheel-to-wheel racing event at some point. Improbable as it seemed, the fliers went for it. „The next year, we had a few cars come and autocross on the taxiway. Then, in 2011, they shut the airport down; I picked 10 cars, including my own, and we set up some pylons and we ran a much shorter version of the course. In 2012, we started with the full course, and it’s been growing ever since.“
Manley Ford in his MG.
Which brings us to the 2017 Put-in-Bay Road Races Reunion, held the Monday and Tuesday before Labor Day. It’s the ninth running and, per consensus, the biggest and best to date. (2018’s Reunion is scheduled for the last week of September.)
By Sunday evening, when the racers are rolling in and settling down, the tide of bachelorette parties that swamps Put-in-Bay on weekends has largely ebbed; Thursday night’s blowout Toby Keith concert is a comfortably distant threat. The place is, more or less, tranquil, at least until the odd TR6 buzzes by. South Bass Island has changed a lot since the 1950s; it’s more developed, and many of its grand old landmark buildings are gone, but it’s still a unique place—the right sort of spot for a few days of automotive escapism. You can feel it.
Monday morning, the drivers‘ meeting: „Our level of competition is eight-tenths,“ Woehrle stresses to the crowd, which isn’t exactly youthful but is definitely too young to have raced Put-in-Bay the first time around. „My car doesn’t know what eight-tenths means,“ some driver mutters under his breath. Therein lies the contradiction at the core of vintage racing: While motorsports is supposed to be about pure competition, this event and others like it ask competitors to dial it back and always err on the side of caution.
That’s another discussion for another day. This particular day starts around 10 a.m., after the island mail plane takes off and the last hay bales and barriers go up on the 1.2-mile course. Barky little Alfas, grinning Triumph TR3s, the odd single-seat Lotus all roll out of the pits for practice, then racing, two solid days of it. The Midwest loves its Euro sports cars, and Put-in-Bay is an ideal venue for that love’s expression. You can’t get into much trouble on the course; then, as now, hay bale barriers don’t do serious damage. There’s no money on the line. Races aren’t even timed.
There’s a parade lap—a blessedly fast-paced parade lap—of the old road course Monday evening. It’s a high point for drivers and a respectful way to tie the event’s past to its present. Riding shotgun in Ford’s TD, now putting down well over double its stock 54 hp, I get an immediate sense of how wonderfully insane those old races must have been. Without missing a beat, Ford points out the trickiest corners, the most infamous jumps, the site of the gas station cars careened into. (And remember, the roads were worse, and narrower, Back Then.) There’s no passing allowed, but even from the passenger’s seat, the urge to overtake is overwhelming …
Ford says 2017’s turnout, around 100 race cars and 60 street cars, is about as large as he’d like to see the field get when it comes to registered entrants. There’s no reason that it couldn’t go on like this indefinitely; as an event for and by racers, it works beautifully.
Yet it could be a bigger spectator draw—especially if it picks up cues from England’s Goodwood Revival, which Ford cites as one of his inspirations. „It’s the whole experience. I’ve told the islanders, you could make this ’50s week. Get everybody to dress up, change the street signs, change the jukeboxes.“ Land some vintage planes at the airport. Fill the harbor with mahogany runabouts and old Lymans. It just might work …
There are no (well, not too many, at least) fancy pit crews in vintage racing. When your car breaks, you have to fix it yourself.
Which isn’t to detract from what the Put-in-Bay Road Races Reunion already is. „This is tremendous,“ Jackson says, as we talk history trackside. „This is the first I’ve been here in 60 years; they invited me back as a guest to tell stories about how it was back then.
„They call it the golden age, and it really was. I was a 22-year-old kid by the time I was really racing … But there were probably only 200 of us that had SCCA licenses on the East Coast, and there weren’t a lot of big egos. We all got to be like a fraternity,“ he says, „just like these guys here, coming back for this reunion race.“
My Packard was in good company.