Amateur auto racers hit the track on Belle Isle

When it comes to racing, there are few demographic limitations -- young and old feel the need for speed. The Detroit Region of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), has no problem facilitating your fix -- starting at age 5. On Sunday, Sept. 30 at the Detroit SCCA's final event of the year, enthusiasts set up a course on Belle Isle that was open to anyone with a running car that won't roll over.

The SCCA Solo events allow anyone -- so long as their car passes a simple inspection -- to race their vehicle against the clock on a small, improvised course marked with cones. Competition is friendly but fierce. Souped up Mustangs, tiny Toyotas, go-karts, vehicles that look like they aren’t particularly roadworthy -- there's no discrimination. Never raced before? Not a problem. All you have to do at SCCA Solo events is sign up in the morning, pay the fee, rent a helmet, and get your car inspected and you can be out racing that very day.

Speeds can reach 65 to 70 mph on some courses. Last Sunday, cars were finishing the course in less than 34 seconds. Cars lined up and took turns hitting the course about every 25 seconds. It wasn’t as loud as a  NASCAR race, but engines gave a throaty salute and the acrid smell of burned tires filled the air. The cars took off quickly and hit a slalom and negotiated a tight sequence of curves. The announcer’s deadpan delivery was frequently humorous and he warned the passenger in a vintage Camaro to keep his hands safely inside the car.

Keith Armitage of Canton drove his cream 2009 Pontiac Solstice down to Belle Isle. He said that people called his rare ride, “the unicorn.” (GM's Pontiac Division ended production in July of 2009.) This was his first season driving after watching a SCCA Solo event last summer. It’s turned into a fun hobby for him.

“Everyone I met was helpful and excited and kind. There are men and women racing, young and old. It’s a very diverse crowd that’s very fitting to the area. Belle Isle has beautiful trees, architecture, the riverfront. The only thing missing today is a coffee truck,” said Armitage.

Racing seems to be a family affair. Christian Hubbell and his son, Oscar Hubbell, age 7, take turns racing at events around the state. Oscar races a 3 and ½ horsepower kart that can go up to 45 mph. Christian races a kart that can hit 60 mph in less than four seconds. Oscar said, “Last time I beat everyone.”

Kids revved their tiny engines in a makeshift pit, adjusted their helmets and gave a steely thumb up before lining up at the starting line. Seconds later they were flying through the cones, negotiating corners and trying not to spin out while battling for the best time in their class.

Kart steward Frank Putman assured they add an extra layer of safety for the young drivers. Only one car is allowed on the course at a time, so no one is racing wheel-to-wheel. But there was some serious sibling rivalry out on the track. Shawn Alexander, who designed the Belle Isle course that day, brought his children Eli, age 8, and Megan, age 10. Dads and moms gave advice on the sidelines and readied the drivers. They each got four runs on the course with the best scores giving the racers bragging rights until the next event.

The SCCA, formed in 1944, is a national club with local chapters across the U.S. The events attract professionals and amateurs alike with some members going on to compete at national events.  Vehicles can be raced in 90 different classes.

Brand new Cadillacs, 10-year-old Mazda Miatas, Corvettes, several Subarus and a Ford Focus or two. Not the kind of place where the toys on display were only new and shiny. Solo event director Jeremiah Mauricio explained that classes were determined by aftermarket performance modifications.

“Some people come out and just want to play, others are very serious about racing.” Said Mauricio, who races his 2007 Mustang GT.

Two men who looked like they were having a good time were John Rogers, of Milford and his friend Justin Wrighton, from Indiana. They took turns driving a stripped down 1992 Chevy S-10 pickup truck that looked as if it could have been used in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The checker-painted vehicle had taken some punishment. The bed of the truck was gone as was anything else that added extra weight. There were a few choice electronic amenities in the cab that the pair promised did nothing but look cool.

Rogers and Wrighton had come out to test their vehicle for an upcoming endurance race called the 24 Hours of LeMons that will take place at the Gingerman Raceway in Southwest Michigan. Rogers said that the endurance race “is pretty intense and more stressful than a two-hour commute, but a lot more fun.” Drivers at that race take a junk car purchased and modified for under $500 and race them on the track for over 15 hours. The SCCA Solo races on Belle Isle was the perfect opportunity to test their junker's limitations.

This was the second SCCA Solo event held on Belle Isle this summer and the last one of the season.

Leaving the island after a morning spent watching amateur auto enthusiasts race on an impromptu course next to the lovely Scott Fountain, a caravan of Model T’s driving east on Jefferson re-emphasized the obvious. Detroiters love their cars.

Glen Morren is a freelance writer and musician.

All photos by Samantha Sergi.
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