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Former NFL coach takes in Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix

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By Thomas Zuck
Monday, July 20, 2009
 

Under normal circumstances, a former football coach from Philadelphia would have gotten a less-than-courteous welcome in Pittsburgh.

But the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix isn't "normal circumstances," so former Eagles, St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil was welcomed with open arms, as he helped start the event's race day.

Vermeil began with a lap in a restored Model A Miller Schofield, a car that's in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. Vermeil's father, Louis, was inducted into the Sprint Hall of Fame in 1995.

"Oh yeah, definitely, I would like to do more of this," Vermeil said. "This Pittsburgh Grand Prix is a one-of-a-kind event when you think about what it does for the community and the support it gets. The people who run the city let something like this happen, and it is just a great thing."

Vermeil wasn't just posing at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix.

Long before he was famous as an NFL coach, his father was famous in racing. The Calistoga Speedway in California's Napa Valley was just renamed Louis Vermeil Calistoga Speedway, and it's the site of the two-day Louis Vermeil Classic for USAC Sprints.

"I was here (Saturday), and it is amazing how knowledgeable the Pittsburgh fans are about their racing and race cares — almost as much as they are about NFL football," Vermeil said. "I grew up with this with my dad and my brother. So, I know this group of people.

"When I was in the National Football League, I would certainly follow (racing). Mario Andretti was my favorite (driver), and now, Tony Stewart, and of course, Marco Andretti.

"I would certainly like to do some racing. I would have to go to racing school before anything. I certainly wouldn't race that type of car, like my dad's. I would go for something else. I don't know yet, but I will give it some thought."

The Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix is run on city streets, which makes its 2.33-mile, 22-turn course different than any other event of its type in the country. It also makes it perfect for smaller displacement cars.

The first race of the day was the Pre-World War II group, and Ben Bragg of Woburn, Mass., claimed his first Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix checkered flag since 1993, when he won in a Buick Straight 8.

"It feels very good. This year, Frank (Mount) and I traded places," Bragg said. "This is my fourth year in this car, and the car and I are starting to get comfortable together. It is a very good short course car. On the long courses, it will run out of steam."

After sitting out last year's event, Keith Lawrence was ready for a win in the Under 1-Litre Post-World War II group.

"It was ready to race; I was not sure it was ready to win," Lawrence said of his Auto Dynamics Mark 1. "This is the first time I had this car here, and it ran. Last year, it sat in the paddock with a broken engine. It's a very low-power car, which is usually bad. But it has a lot of torque, and I can pull out of the tight corners."

Dick Fryberger was back in Victory Lane in his 1958 Lotus.

Fryberger has dominated the Under 1-Litre class and couldn't recall how many times he has won at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix. Fryberger's winning car and runner-up George Vapaa's vehicle had their engines built by Tivvy Shenton, another perennial winner in the Over 2-Litre class.

"I get tired out there, but not of winning," Fryberger said. "This car is very honest and well-handling. It's very well-balanced."

Mark Gessler of Potomac, Md., had a tough moment in Group 4 when he rolled his 1956 Alfa Romeo Guilietta Sprint on Turn 9. The race was halfway complete when Gessler rolled, so the entire field was red-flagged, then black-flagged, and Michael Oritt of Solomons, Md., was declared the winner. Gessler wasn't injured.

That broke a string of four consecutive victories in the group for Manley Ford, who was in second when the race was called.

"I didn't feel comfortable when Manley was in my mirror," Oritt said. "I'm especially pleased to win in front of (Ford). It's my third time here; first win. Well, second race because I didn't race last year because of the rain."

The tight confines of the Schenley Park course would have made Ford's attempt at a pass for the lead tricky.

"I was certainly able to catch him, but getting past would have been another thing," Ford said. "His car was faster up the hill, but my car handles a bit better. From the fountain up the serpentine, I had to get back close to him, but I never really saw an opportunity to pass him."

There was an upset of sorts in Group 5, as the top two cars — driven by Tivvy Shenton and Rich Maloumian Jr. — made contact on the course, which eventually sent both out of the race and to the pit area. That meant R.J. Mirabile in his 1955 Austin Healey inherited the lead.

Mirabile held the lead and took the checkered flag. Mirabile's car also won at the 1983 Monterey Historics at Laguna Seca.

"My car was good enough to get me through a half hour," Mirabile said. "Those other guys are faster than me, and I knew when they went out, I had a chance. It's a good car with a lot of torque.

"This is our sixth year here, and it's the best we've run."

Two years ago, Tom Grudovich won his first Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix feature race in a 1959 Elva. Later that day, he won another feature in a 1961 Elva. The '61 was back yesterday and back in Victory Lane in Group 6, the Small Bore class.

"A couple years ago, I won in an Elva Mark 4. And that was a 1959, and this is a 1961. And although only two years separate them, there was a decade of racing technology," Grudovich said. "It went from front engine to rear engine, drum brakes to discs.

"This is a tough track. You have to be very careful with the curbs and the trees and the telephone poles, so you have to dial it back a little."

The final race of the day was the BMW group, which had its own race because BMW was the Marque of the Year for this year's Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix. It was fitting then that Marcus Glarnor, of Port Perry, Ontario, won again, like he did in 2001.

"I got him at the last lap, just before the start-finish," said Glarnor, who finished second in 1998. "In the beginning, I didn't want to go too hard at it and wanted to run smooth."

Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix winners

Group 1: Pre-World War II — Ben Bragg; Woburn, Mass.; 1935 Reuter Special

Group 2: Post-World War II — Keith Lawrence; McMurray; 1964 Auto Dynamics Mark 1

Group 3: Sports Racers and Formula Cars — Dick Fryberger; Watertown, Mass.; 1958 Lotus XI

Group 4: Under 2-litre (pre-1960) — Michael Oritt; Solomons, Md; 1958 Elva Courier

Group 5: Over 2-litre (pre-1960) — R.J. Mirabile; Lower Gwynedd; 1955 Austin Healey 100M

Group 6: Small Bore through 1965 — Tom Grudovich; Palm Beach, Fla.; 1961 Elva Mk7 Sports Racer

Group 7: BMW — Marcus Glarnor; Port Perry, Ontario; 1973 2002 3.0/CSL

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