A Lap of Schenley Park
July 1, 2022 – It is a rare moment, a drop in the bucket of time, a flashback to the halcyon past of legends and a brief, brilliant chance to taste an experience that, for the most part, no longer exists. Come along for a lap through Schenley Park, one of the few remaining street courses open to the grassroots racer.
Leaving the gratefully shaded false grid in an explosion of vintage cacophony, a symphony of ancient iron, your peripheral vision catches the brilliant pallet of spectators lining the roadway, reduced to brief swatches of color as you accelerate by.
What lies ahead is not the smooth expanse of a race track but the grooved, striped, crowned, occasionally bumpy, crumbling and multi-laned surface of an urban street. Curbs, some visible, some lurking under tufts of overgrown grass, line every inch of the park lane, a leisurely path, curving lazily through verdant woods, a relaxing drive for three hundred and sixty three days a year. But for two days a year it sprouts hay bales, saw horses and nearly two dozen corner stations as it morphs into a race course calling up memories of the original Watkins Glen or Elkhart Lake where the legends of your youth slung over-powered under-tired machines with temperamental and woefully inadequate brakes down streets designed for much tamer traffic. This is the annual Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix in Schenley Park.
As you leave the false grid the long, wide, uphill straight lulls you into a “piece of cake” sense combined with a post-pubescent pursuit of the risky—yes it’s a street—there’s a speed limit sign and double yellow lines you cross with impunity and glee. Cresting the hill toward the end of the straight you encounter the tight, second (maybe even first) gear hay bale created chicane and poo-poo the whole “nanny-ness” of it all.
Powering out of the chicane you straighten out the lazy two lane zig-zag onto the bridge. Off its high concrete walls lies a valley you noted on the track walk, a roll cage might not be much help against the momentum gained in that four-story drop. On the bridge, though, your only thought is setting up for the closest version to a high speed sweeper on the course. A third of the way through that fast right hander you do your best to manage the colony of bumps and pavement patches as your car jitters across them—a super stiff suspension is not your friend here—takes a set, then heads, full throttle, into the wide, fairly flat final bit of the turn, suppressing the urge to giggle as you sweep right through the stop sign on the corner, foot mashed to the floor, heading toward the forest.
So far the course has been four lanes wide and fairly flat, camber not being much of an issue, but an acute, second gear uphill right hander shoots you into the more intimidating part of the lap as the pavement, cosseted by trees, slims to a claustrophobic, heavily crowned and narrow winding two lane course uphill toward a two foot high roughhewn sandstone wall mottled in a decades old coating of lichen.
Beyond that stunted barrier are the tops of old growth trees. You don’t really see them as you hug the inside of the long curving left hand bend, where the camber and pitch is in your favor. As your car takes a set it’s very tempting to tip the accelerator but two thirds of the way across the pavement the cambers drops abruptly off into curbing and that stone wall a couple feet past that.
After modulating the gas and steering wheel around the sweep that alternately widens, subtly tightens, then widens again and seems to go on forever, you pop out into the sunlight and a sea of green hills blanketed in race fans. The road weaves back and forth among ancient, and very sturdy old trees each sporting a single hay bale, the dappled old stone wall reappears on your right and what the organizers refer to as “the serpentine” arrives. The right left combo, essentially a pair of U-turns, is so tight your HANS device allows you to just glimpse the apexes with your peripheral vision and as you complete the final left U-turn you can see corner workers literally a few feet away through your driver’s window. The road again unwinds and heads downhill. After the agonizingly slow serpentine section you upshift and go to full throttle for the lazy S ahead—but take care, this corner has eaten a lot of competitors as the road dips (decreased traction you know) away to the left and your car wants to drift to the very off camber right side of the road. Keeping things under control you swing right down the short start-finish line stretch, slight touch of the brakes before the very fast bear right (through a blinking traffic signal), drift left but not so much as to clip the temporary Jersey barrier at the end the turn’s track out and back onto the straight that began this whole 22 turn, 2.1 mile urban road course.
Driving Schenley Park, aside from being an incredible and rare experience, provides a real, visceral sense for what road racing was like in its earliest days. In the park the organizers and racers say the same thing; this is a unique opportunity to be part of a yearly celebration of racing’s heritage, best experienced at a seven tenths pace. But it also gives you an insight into the talent, courage and, yes, luck, it took to survive and excel in a sport that often turned deadly when the driving ratcheted to ten tenths, an unforgettable drop in time.
Dan DelBianco (412) 559-3500 firstname.lastname@example.org
Bernie Martin (412) 996-5700 email@example.com
Susan Gera (724) 396-9372 firstname.lastname@example.org
About the PVGP
Begun in 1983, the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix is entering its 40-year and features two weekends of racing action. The first weekend is the PVGP Historics at Pitt Race. The second weekend is racing on a 2.33-mile road course set on the streets of Schenley Park, a city park adjacent to the Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh campuses. Between the race weekends there are car shows, parties, car shows road rallies, and more. PVGP is a volunteer-run event with 1,200 volunteers. The PVGP is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization with a charity mission and has raised $6 million for the Autism-Pittsburgh and Merakey Allegheny Valley School for individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism.