By Joe Wiercinski
Herald Staff Writer
Men have always loved racing. These days, we know that women do, too. Speed excites everyone.
From the days of Achilles and Ben-Hur lashing their horses to Barney Oldfield a century ago at the Brickyard, from Emil Smolnik and Lou Blaney circling local dirt tracks in the 1950s and Dave Blaney competing on the NASCAR circuit, racing pumps excitement through the pounding hearts of drivers and fans alike.
John Styduhar knows that exhilaration and wants much more of the rush that comes from the sounds, sights, smells and camaraderie of the race track and the pit.
For the Hermitage man, that means racing with other amateurs as members of Vintage Racer Group.
A 1962 Triumph TR-3 is the retirement hobby for the Sharon native who moved back to the Shenango Valley after a career out West working for the Bureau of Land Management in the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Tinkering with cars began at an early age, the self-described “motorhead” said, leading to a part-time job at the former Wein Motor Co., which sold British-made Triumphs at its East State Street, Sharon, dealership.
Styduhar’s older brother Dan, owner of a 1958 Triumph, got him interested in cars and showed him how much fun it is to work on them together.
As a high school student, the younger brother bought a ’68 Triumph TR-2. He sold that one but never stopped dreaming during his career in forestry that he would one day race Triumphs which he couldn’t afford to do when he was a kid.
Amateur racing means Styduhar is his own mechanic, body man, welder, painter and fabricator on the racing circuit that travels several states from July to November.
“Yeah, I’m the driver and mechanic,” said the 58-year-old father of two twentysomething sons. “When I drive into the pit, I grab a wrench or screwdriver and start looking for things that need to be tightened or need to be fixed. There’s a lot of cost and money invested in vintage racing but only a few drivers have the motor homes and mechanics that professional racers do.”
Club members drive everything from sports cars made from the 1940s to 1979 and selected sedans and formula cars. They race in classes based on engine size and horsepower.
Styduhar’s class includes pre-1965 cars with small-bore engines including MGs, Lotus Elans, Alfa Romeos and others.
Ground-pounding Ford Mustangs, Pontiac Trans Ams and other muscle cars compete against each other.
After retiring two years ago, Styduhar found the Triumph he was looking for in Ohio. It was in good shape when he bought it for $8,500 but it wasn’t driveable. It also had to be modified for the track, according to VRG rules that require, as much as possible, the use of parts available when the cars were in production.
“There were only 4,000 made and that was the last year they made that body style,” he said. “It was used in circuit track racing when it was in production and it did fairly well. I like the styling of the car. It has classic lines, simple engineering and parts are readily available.”
Friends helped to lift the body off the frame and Styduhar took everything apart for reconditioning and preparation for racing that cost an additional $10,000.
“I had the frame cleaned and painted and reinforced for the rigors of the track. I added suspension components, a roll bar and seatbelts, replaced the drive train and rebuilt the engine,” he said. “The pieces not necessary for racing – the horn, headlights and interior – are in boxes in the rafters of the garage. When I get the bug out of me for racing I will put it back on the street with its lights, the windshield and wipers and all that.”
Styduhar finished the work two months ago, just in time for the required driver’s school he attended at Summit Point (W.Va.) Motorsports Park.
His first race was in the Jefferson 500 as part of his training and he has a provisional license for now. Drivers have to complete the course and participate in three races without incident to be fully licensed by the group. They also must pass periodic physical exams.
Fender banging and crashes are part of the excitement of racing in other venues but vintage racing includes none of that. Car-to-car contact isn’t tolerated.
Vintage racing is more about preserving the history of the cars by driving them as safely as possible in timed races. Instead of purses for drivers, races often raise money for charity.
Styduhar says he will be racing next weekend at Pittsburgh International Race Complex in Wampum, helping to raise money for autism research.
Drivers will take practice laps Friday and qualify in heats on Saturday for pole position in races on Saturday and Sunday.
The two-mile asphalt course has left and right turns to challenge drivers and their cars during the 20-minute races.
Everybody’s goal is to finish first or place in the top tier if they can, but winning matters less than the fun the drivers have competing with each other.
“It’s a constant learning process for all of us to know the car, to fix it and get to know what it can and can’t do,” Styduhar said. “We’re all like-minded and we’re all willing to help each other and trade and lend parts to each other. It’s nice to be around people with a common interest. They will be lifelong friends of mine.”
Fellowship aside, racing is also about excitement and something that Styduhar describes as the “pucker factor,” when a driver’s mechanical skills and preparation get tested at racing speeds.
“When I’m coming down the straightway into the first turn, it’s all adrenaline and fear and hope that the brakes work,” he said.
For more information, visit www.vrgonline.org for race dates in the region. Also see www.pvgp.org for details of the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix race and classic car show July 20-21 in Schenley Park, Pittsburgh.