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As Time Goes By: Two Hill Climbs – Sixty Years Apart

Bill Lightfoot VSCCA Hill Climb 2018 Ed Hyman Photo
photo by Ed Hyman

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As Time Goes By: Two Hill Climbs – Sixty Years Apart

Editor’s Note: We first featured Bill Lightfoot – in May of this year – supplying details of his ’65 Porsche 356C Carrera 2. Both the car and Bill have a wonderful history, and while his Northern Virginia zip code is some distance away from anyone’s Texas garage, if you enjoy cars and the people – like yourself – that also enjoy them, getting to know Bill is something we’re all too happy to do. This article originally appeared in the VSCCA’s club publication. DB

No wonder I’m deaf! Race cars are noisy and, as of this year (2018), I’ve been a participant in sanctioned sports car competition for sixty years. The first sanctioned speed-related event that I competed in was a hill climb at Mt. Belknap, New Hampshire, near the present New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. The competition took place on 19 October, 1958, and was held by the Intercollegiate Sports Car Association (ISCA), a club with links to VSCCA.

The ISCA was a somewhat casual organization with not-very-stringent membership requirements. Theoretically, members were supposed to be attending one of the participating New England colleges. The list of participating institutions included schools such as Harvard, Tufts, Dartmouth, Clark, WPI, MIT, UMass, Yale, Brown and the like. In practice, however, I don’t think anyone really cared, and certainly never checked, to see if participants in its activities actually attended the schools on the list. However, the club DID care, as we shall see, whether (or not) you paid dues.

Mark Donohue's Corvette - 1958

Mark Donohue’s Corvette – 1958

The selection of cars at ISCA events was, with a couple of exceptions, the usual ‘50s collection of Jaguars, Triumphs, MGs, Alfas, Morgans, Corvettes and Austin Healeys. One notable exception, however, was that one member’s daily driver was an almost new D-Type Jaguar. We’re talking about some seriously spoiled brats here.

Participating in the October ’58 Belknap ISCA Hill Climb was a typical sample of the cars listed above. As far as the drivers were concerned, our levels of expertise ranged from pretty bad to a couple of guys with real talent. In fact, there was one participant there that weekend that would rise to the very highest levels of competitive motorsports. That man was Mark Donohue, and he would go on to become – in his association with Roger Penske – a world famous racer and automotive engineer. As with me, that year’s Belknap was Mark’s very first sanctioned competitive event.

At that time, Donohue was an engineering student at Brown and, until shortly before this event, hadn’t been at all interested in motorsports. However, a friend of Mark’s, Dave Lawton, was interested in sports car racing, owned a Jaguar XK-120 coupe, was a member of ISCA and had convinced Mark to go up to Belknap with him and run in the hill climb. Mark arrived at the event in a box-stock 1957 Corvette that he and his parents had chipped in to buy (see photo). As it turned out, whether interested in motorsports or not, Mark Donohue was good. He ended up getting the overall fastest time of the day (FTD), this in a stock Corvette, and despite a couple of outright race cars there – including a highly modified race-prepared Corvette! It was clear to at least of few of us that Donohue was a natural. Also, he was a really nice, low key guy, and fun to chat with.

“What do you mean I don’t get the trophy!” shouted the previously quiet and mild-mannered Donohue. It turned out that, because Mark wasn’t a dues-paying member of the ISCA, they wouldn’t give him the FTD trophy. Mark was, of course, miffed about the situation. In fact, he was SO miffed that he mentions the episode in his fine autobiography, The Unfair Advantage, written almost twenty years later. So, even at the premature end of his hugely successful motorsports career (Mark died at 38, in a horrific crash while practicing for the Austrian Grand Prix), and after winning dozens of major international awards and trophies and hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money, he was still upset about not getting a trophy, probably worth ten bucks.

Following my amateur sports car competition while in college, I went into a hiatus from auto racing while I finished college, spent some time in the Army, got married, fathered two children, moved to Europe and did the myriad other things that occupy our lives. After returning to the US from a number of years of living overseas, however, I became extremely active in sports car competition. I raced quite seriously in SCCA for many years, and even raced in some professional events with both SCCA PRO and IMSA. But I always preferred vintage sports cars and ended up joining VSCCA (Vintage Sports Car Club of America) about thirty years ago. Since then I have always loved VSCCA and its events, and have participated in dozens of them over the years. Just as one example: I’ve competed in eighteen VSCCA-sanctioned Pittsburgh Vintage Gran Prix!

So, the years and the motorsports events have flown by and this year, right after arriving at the 2018 running of VSCCA’s delightful Grand Ascent Hill Climb in Hershey, Pennsylvania (where I was running my 1959 Morgan), my mind drifted back all those years to that beautiful but chilly Belknap, New Hampshire hilltop. The sounds, the smells, and the noises were all the same. (Well, OK, not as much castor oil as there used to be, but except for that, everything was close to what it was.)

Even the cars themselves were pretty much the same; MGs, Morgans, Triumphs, Corvettes and the like. Then, in my reverie, I starting running the numbers through my head; Let’s see … Belknap was 1958 and this is 2018. I was 20 then, and I’m 80 now. And then it suddenly hit me. MY GOD! I’ve been doing this for SIXTY YEARS! WOW!

So, that’s my story, sixty years from hill climb to hill climb and it’s been a ball. With luck, I hope to squeeze in a couple more years but, more important, I hope that many other people are able to get the enjoyment out of motorsports in general – and VSCCA events in particular – that I have. WOW, I’ve been doing this for sixty years!

Bill Lightfoot

Guest contributor.

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