By Chuck Gilchrest
As the kickoff weekend of summer, the three-day Memorial Day holiday has long been associated with motorsports.
Whether it’s the glamour of the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix, the spectacle of the Indianapolis 500 or the raucous NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the thunder of the engines and the roar of the crowds can be heard everywhere on this special holiday.
But what if time and budget don’t allow for a special trip to see a motor race where factory teams dominate the grid and celebrities mingle with drivers along the pit wall?
But there was great alternative for race fans in the Northeast United States: The Lime Rock Memorial Day Classic.
Lime Rock Park, in Lakeville, CT, and close to Boston and New York City, has hosted sports car and club racing since the 1950s and remains one of the most accessible and scenic race venues in America.
Racing legends, such as Sam Posey and Paul Newman, called Lime Rock their home track, as does the world famous Skip Barber Racing School.
Barber oversaw two major renovations to the facility, but Lime Rock has managed to retain much of its historic character including the 1.5-mile track layout to the idyllic setting in the Berkshire Hills. The facility stays busy throughout the racing season, hosting events for various sports car clubs, corporate track experience and performance driving skills sessions.
Special weekends at a special track
On three weekends during the year, spectators and race fans can see wheel-to-wheel racing action, with the Memorial Day Classic leading the way. This year, the FCP Euro Northeast Grand Prix is scheduled for July 21-22, and the do-not-miss Historic Festival 41 is scheduled for Labor Day Weekend.
While the track isn’t well suited for the likes of open-wheel F1 machines or Indy Cars, lovers of sports car racing are treated to a wide variety of modern and vintage racers spread out over a three-day program during Memorial Day Weekend, with the SCCA TransAm Series bringing in the pro drivers and teams.
The TransAm program has experienced a resurgence from its origins in the 1960s where Ford Mustangs, Chevy Camaros, and AMC Javelins battled on U.S. road race courses with the likes of Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, and Mark Donahue at the wheels.
The series continued through the 1990s elevating racers, such as Tommy Kendall and Boris Said into the history books.
To celebrate the 2023 race weekend, Boris Said was the Grand Marshall for this weekend at the track and had the joy of watching his son Boris Jr. compete in the TransAm2 race held on Saturday.
Along with the SCCA TransAm feature and TransAm2 support class, several other race organizations took the stage at Lime Rock during Memorial Day weekend.
Fans of European GT cars were treated to the International GT Series races, with a strong turnout of modern Porsche 911 GT3 RS racers along with a Ferrari and Mercedes thrown in for good measure.
If old-school vintage racers were your jam, the SVRA hosted multiple classes grouped by performance metrics that featured British cars, such as Jaguar XKEs, Austin-Healeys, and Triumphs along with Mazda Miatas, air-cooled 911 Porsches, and even a Shelby Mustang or two.
Open-wheel racers were on hand, with 1600-cc and 2000-cc Formula racers competing in Formula Race Promotions classes.
Getting close to the action
With all this racing going on, one might ask how to get seats in the grandstands for such a cool event. The answer is, there are no grandstands at Lime Rock Park! You bring your own lawn chairs and picnic blankets and watch the racing from the hillsides or from atop your RV.
There are plenty of RVs and campers because Lime Rock’s campsites are plentiful and affordable with a great festive atmosphere. Tent campers have their own special area under shade trees — but still well within view of the racing.
But what about pit passes? No need, as the paddock area (with the exception of the hot pit lane) are open and accessible to all spectators, so it is easy to see what’s “under the hood” of these special race cars.
Veteran Lime Rock race fans often tell stories of chatting with their race heroes in the pits in between practice sessions and races.
All of these factors give a Lime Rock Park race weekend a very “home- grown”atmosphere, where spectators feel more like participants rather than observers.
One unique aspect of the Memorial Classic is the longstanding tradition of no racing on Sunday.
Lime Rock observes this practice to maintain good relations with surrounding residents and land owners.
Instead, Sunday’s festivities include two car shows held on the front Sam Posey straightaway. The car shows are sponsored by Royal’s Garage and Hagerty, and there is an afternoon craft beer festival on the outer lawn.
Celebrating Paul Newman
This year, Lime Rock Park paid tribute to perhaps its most famous competitor, the late racer, actor, and philanthropist, Paul Newman.
A special display of his racing trophies, race suits and helmets, along with a Rolex watch he won at the 24 Hours of Daytona race. Another Rolex on display was engraved by his wife, Joanne Woodward, with the inscription: “Drive Very Slowly.”
Newman’s family members were on hand and shared many memories of him at the track.
“Lime Rock is my Dad’s happy place,” said his daughter Lissy. “He was a race car driver first and an actor second.”
Bargain racing thrills
Featured races of the weekend in the TransAm, SVRA, IGT, and Formula Classes were held in front of record crowds under bright Connecticut sunshine under ideal track conditions.
There were lead changes, new lap records set, wheel-to- wheel contact, spinouts, and spirited battles throughout the races — all to the delight of the fans.
As the trophy celebrations came to a close and the spectators packed up their campers and headed out of the track, I imagine that each and every attendee enjoyed themselves as much as any race fan sitting in the grandstands at Indy or Monaco.
And they still had enough cash left over to treat the kids to ice cream on the way home.