Shelby American Automobile Club – May 14, 2008
Lime Rock Park Undergoing a Facelift
By Rick Kopec
After more than 50 years without significant changes, Lime Rock Park is undergoing a major facelift, on several levels.
Lime Rock Park, the challenging 1.53-mile road circuit nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in northwestern Connecticut, bills itself as the fastest road racing course in the country. How can that be? It's very simple: the track record of 43.112 seconds, turned by P.J. Jones in 1993 in a Toyota MkIII GTP car, is 128.595 mph. No track in the U.S. Can boast a one-lap average speed faster than that.
Established in 1957, the track's footprint has been basically unchanged since then. The charm of that was that you could compare your lap time against any of the racing greats who drove there over the track's 50 year history. Sharon resident Sam Posey was the first one to crack the magical one-minute lap in 1967, in a McLaren Can-Am car. The Trans-Am days of the late 60s and early 70s saw drivers like Mark Donohue, George Follmer, Dan Gurney, Peter Revson and Parnelli Jones muscle their way around the track.
However, times change, and the track is presently undergoing a facelift. Thankfully, the original footprint will remain, but three new sections will be added to provide a new, optional configuration which can be used as a "new" track, or one or more of the sections can be employed with the "old" track, producing a total of 8 different configurations.
Lime Rock has been struggling for the past few years as the racing landscape changed. The days of seeing 40,000 spectators viewing the Trans-Am weekend are 25 years old. Since then, fields of entrants have shrunk in direct proportion to the increase in the technology required to compete. Sponsors must be courted by the track to keep it afloat (because the cost of everything continues to increase and cannot be offset by merely increasing ticket prices). Sponsors are also needed to fund race teams so they can compete at current levels. Race series were built around cars which were alien to spectators, with fields of often only a dozen starters. The front-runners immediately took off and the resulting parade lacked excitement or spontaneity. Support races were even worse: formula cars or spec racers which all look the same, driven by unknowns. It was a giant yawn and spectators began to find other things to do.
Lime Rock's vintage weekend has also spiraling down. Higher costs attract fewer entries and the result is that they draw smaller crowds. Clubs putting on open track events have to fight with the Skip Barber school for track dates. Things were looking bad but the savior seems to be the "Club" philosophy. Essentially, a small number of members pony up $110,000 for a 50-year membership (which can be passed on to offspring). This entitles them to 60 track dates every year. The track is essentially theirs for the day. Other perks include VIP passes for full race weekends, clubhouse access and garage storage for members' cars. To date 118 people have signed on and their money is being used for a host of track improvements. A second level of membership was recently enacted, allowing those with less disposable income to become Associate Members. For $27,500 you can get a 10-year membership allowing you 10 on-track days a year and the most of the club perks.
What instigated the track's reconfiguration? Word has it that a number of these high rollers, who had little actual driving experience, were going out on the track and wadding up their expensive race cars. Make no mistake...Lime Rock can be a dangerous piece of asphalt to someone who lacks experience. But experience is no guarantee. It will even bite those who have experience. So "improvements" were made to slow cars down by eliminating high speed turns and replacing them with tight corners which require lower entry speeds and thereby lessening exit speeds. The entire track will be repaved between May and July and will be widened to allow passing in more areas. And a new pit entry will be created lengthening the actual hot pits. The result will be the same old Lime Rock for racers but also a new, slower and friendlier track for the high roller club members.
SAAC has held two national conventions at Lime Rock Park, in 1995 and 2000. Both were large, as attendance numbers go, and virtually all participants found them enjoyable. One lasted five full days! Will Lime Rock ever see another SAAC convention again? It's highly unlikely because there are already more groups jockeying for the ten unmuffled race weekend dates each year allowed by the court injunction the track has had to lived with since 1957. For SAAC to get a date it would mean bumping some group out, and virtually all have been holding their events there for decades. It's just not in the cards.