Steamboat Springs Terry Hefty told an audience of 40 people at the Tread of Pioneers Museum's Brown Bag Lunch on Friday that he hasn’t forgotten the time he came around Mount Werner Circle at a high rate of speed and came upon an Italian sports car in a predicament.
“I saw a 1933 Alfa Romeo on its side,” Hefty said. “It was scary. There’s no roll bar on that side.”
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The driver escaped relatively unharmed.
Hefty definitely was speeding himself when he came upon the wreck, but it was all legal. He was taking part in the Steamboat Springs Vintage Auto Races, a late-summer event that had a great 15-year run in the '80s and '90s.
The sports car races helped to establish Steamboat as a summer tourism destination that could rely on volunteer labor to pull off complicated events. Many of the members of Friday’s audience were proudly wearing old Vintage Auto Race T-shirts, a sign that they had been among those loyal volunteers.
Hefty and fellow founding organizers Nick Rose and Eddie O’Brien reunited at the United Methodist Church of Steamboat Springs this week to talk about the old days when some of the hottest cars on the planet ran nearly wide open on a race track built on city streets.
From 1984 to 1998, the drivers came flying down Mount Werner Circle in front of where The Steamboat Grand stands today, made a quick left and right onto Village Drive and then up the winding climb back to Mount Werner Circle.
“We were one of the very few street races,” Hefty said. “In the 1950s, there were a lot of street races — Elkhart Lake (Wisconsin) and Carmel (California) both started as street races, but then Carmel went over to Laguna Seca (a racetrack). They had street races in Avon and Pittsburgh and Kansas City for two years. We ran a street race for 15 years.”
O’Brien recalled that board members of a Front Range organization, Rocky Mountain Vintage Racing were persuaded to come see the motorcycle races and consider collaborating on a car race.
One of the board members said, “I don’t know if we can do this, you don’t even have crowd control!”
“Yes we do,” O’Brien shot back. “Look at the back of our T-shirts. It says ‘Keep off the Track!’”
They got the event running the next year with 60 race cars and built it up to 200 cars in succeeding years, turning as many as another 100 drivers away.
Rose reminded his audience that when the need for spectators to cross the track in between races became unmanageable, the organizers acquired two 60-foot pedestrian bridges made from shipping containers and built a third themselves.
He said it was outstanding support from the city’s public works department and law enforcement as well as the many volunteers who sold tickets and helped to keep the crowds. Organizations such as the Hayden Cub Scouts were paid $1,000 for a weekend of selling tickets.
The mishap with the Alfa Romeo that Hefty came upon should never have happened because vintage auto drivers are required to play safe. If traditional race car drivers at full throttle are going down the track at level 10, vintage drivers required to drive at a 9 and in Steamboat, with its tricky street course and built-in hazards, they were expected to dial the speed and risk taking down to an 8.
But that doesn’t mean the drivers didn’t have leeway to entertain the crowds.
“I don’t want to equate vintage racing with pro wrestling,” Hefty said. “But some of the races we had at Steamboat were scripted. Augie Pabst (of the famous brewing family) and I would agree to pass each other to keep the crowd into it.”
Those were the days of rolling thunder in Steamboat Springs.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1