Lost in time
Lime Rock Park offers glimpse of racing's storied past
Posted: Thursday August 30, 2007 5:54PM; Updated: Thursday August 30, 2007 5:54PM
"Is this heaven?"
That exchange, of course, is fromthe movie Field of Dreams and serves as a perfect distillation of that film's evocation of a baseball paradise. Were the moment to be translated into an auto-racing context (Infield of Dreams?) the dialogue would require a slight tweak:
"Is this heaven?"
Lime Rock, Conn., to be specific. Nestled in the rolling foothills of the Berkshires, in the bucolic, horsy northwest corner of the state, Lime Rock Park and its mile-and-a-half of hallowed asphalt has, for the past 50 years, stood as one of the treasures of American motorsports.
As NASCAR editor at Sports Illustrated, I'm more used to the vast scope and pageantry of Daytona and Talladega or the chariot-race madness of Bristol. And don't get me wrong, I dig three-wide, high-banked, paint-tradin', Junior-and-Jimmie-and-Tony stock car racing as much as the next guy (well, unless the next guy happens to be one of those shirtless sunburned fellows with the beer-holder helmet and a big red "8" painted on his chest ...).
But I retain a special place in my burnt-rubber-loving heart for sports car racing, in which the cars turn right as well as left, and so on a sunny Friday afternoon last month I packed up the car and headed not south -- where the Nextel Cup boys would be running under the lights at Daytona the following night -- but north to Lime Rock, where the American LeMans Series was holding its North East Grand Prix (and where the Rolex Vintage Festival presented by BMW, a collection of races for classic sports cars, will take place over this long Labor Day Weekend). With me was my 17-year-old daughter, Valentina. Though Valentina is a dedicated NASCAR fan, who could tell you Jimmie Johnson's average finish at any track, this would be her first experience with sports car racing. She sounded a bit skeptical -- "If this place is so cool, why didn't Will Ferrell make Lime Rock Nights?" -- but I think she was putting me on, and we had a pleasant drive north from New Jersey.
You hear Lime Rock before you see it. Approaching the village on Rte. 7, a lovely drive through thick forest along the silvery sweep of the Housatonic River, the only sounds are the birds and the crickets. Then, from somewhere beyond the trees, comes the first, faint whine of a racing engine at full song. It is that music that has drawn car enthusiasts to this spot for half a century. (It is, however, a tune you will never hear on Sundays; since May 12, 1959, a Litchfield Superior Court noise-control injunction has prohibited racing at Lime Rock on the Sabbath.)
The track itself is a thing of almost natural beauty, a 1.54-mile circuit framed by steep densely wooded hills that are lush and green in the summer and ablaze with color in the fall. The place has hardly changed since '57, when Jim Vaill (at the urging of local auto racers) used a bulldozer to carve out the course from his father's farmland.
The racetrack Vaill unveiled is a kind of crumpled oval, a mitten-shaped ribbon of asphalt draped over the hills: The long front straight leading into the horseshoe righthander known as Big Bend; followed by the esses, a quick left, right alongside the paddock; and then the fast, thrilling run up No-name Straight, which is anything but straight; a quick chicane at the top of the hill is followed by a fast righthander and then the plunge down through Diving Turn and back onto the front straight.