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Thousands relish thrill of Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix

Sunday, July 20, 2014, 10:20 p.m.
 

Chuck Hager knows turn 20.

It's where a BMW ripped two feet of bark from an old oak tree. Three years ago, an Elva careened into a brick embankment there. An MG TD driver threw a tire in 2013, narrowly missing Hager and his fellow corner crew members.

“I love it here. Gas and oil burning off in fumes. The rumble of the engines. It hits you right here,” Hager said on Sunday, tapping his chest.

Hager, 70, of Zelienople celebrated a quarter-century guarding the corner of Bartlett Street and Serpentine Drive at the 32nd annual Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, where thousands poured into Schenley Park in Oakland for car shows, vendors and a look at more than 300 drivers representing decades in early car and motorcycle design. Races capped off 10 days of activities.

Steve Hronek, 56, of Cleveland sat perched in a chair under a one-man umbrella near turn 18. A cooler on his right and goodies to his left, Hronek said he comes for nostalgia and red-blooded competition.

“My dad had an MG TD, and I used to hang on his seat and see the trees flying by because I wasn't tall enough to see over the doors,” he said. “He'd always tell me when we got home, ‘Don't tell your mom about that.' ”

Some cars often fly by dragging orange traffic cones under their chassis, or with a hay bale impaled on a support bar.

Operators like Hager never call “red” on their radios. To indicate a car's color, they say crimson.

“Red is dangerous,” Hager said. “Red means stop, and everyone has to do it at once. We only say that when something bad happens, like (Saturday).”

Crews halted qualifying laps for about an hour on Saturday afternoon when an unnamed driver wrapped his Lotus 23 around a telephone pole in turn 16. Event spokesman Steve Weber said the driver broke four ribs in the crash, which he blamed on rain-slicked roads.

Clutching a blue and yellow pass flag, Bill Frieder, 73, of Wheatfield, N.Y., jumped when a hunter green 1964 Bobsy Vanguard Formula Vee spun out 30 feet ahead.

Tammy Lynne Calef, 51, waved as she righted the car.

“Moments like that, they're the fun and scary part of racing,” she said later.

A grandmother of four and Stonewood, W.Va., native, Calef took up racing one year ago under the tutelage of a growing number of racing mentors, lovingly dubbed her big brothers, including frequent champ Christian Morici, 37, of Clifton, N.J.

Usually in a Lotus 22, Morici, the third generation in a line of Grand Prix racers dating to the inaugural race in 1983, came to watch this year.

“I went into the wall in 2013, and one car is down, so my buddy's driving the Lotus for me. It works out fine,” he said, grabbing a sandwich. “More beer for me.”

His father, Chris Morici, 59, teased Calef between bites. “It's all about knowing your car,” he said, bowing his head over prayer hands. He winked at her.

“Keep saying it, ‘I am one with the car.' ”

Across the paddock on Prospect Drive, the 36 members of the Kolesar family squeezed in for an annual family photo, one that seems to grow — by cars and admirers — every year.

“It all started five years ago when Jack, my dad, rebuilt this rusty shell of a Jaguar he bought 40 years ago. Brad, his grandson, raced for the first time last year, and they talked my brother Russ into driving this year,” said Lori Cruthers, 55, of West Mifflin.

It's three times as exciting, and three times as nerve-racking, said a cousin, Sandy Philipp, 50, of Columbus, Ohio.

“But that's the cool thing about the Grand Prix,” she said. “It's not just a race to (Jack), or to any of the guys. Friends and family come in from all over to cheer them on, and when it's over, they still have these really cool cars.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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