Racing through the city
● By Stone Lieberman
By Phyllis Rowan
Step back almost 90 years in history, when Lincoln Highway through Coatesville was the major route between Philadelphia and Lancaster and other points west. Cars rumbled down the street while residents waved to them from the sidewalks.
On Saturday, Sept. 23, that bit of history will return to the city when Coatesville holds its second Invitational Vintage Grand Prix.
It all began in July 2015 when City Manager Mike Trio was inspecting buildings slated for redevelopment as part of the city’s Gateway Project at the corner of First Avenue and Lincoln Highway. One of those buildings was Dick Miles’ workshop on Diamond Street. Miles has been described as a machinist, a vintage motorcycle and go-kart racer and a magician – calling himself Houdini in his act.
“He has the Gasoline Alley of Coatesville, I call it,” Trio said. “When I walked in, I said, ‘Holy smokes.’” Miles’ workshop is filled with cars, motorcycles, go-karts, scooters and much more. “It was a total visual overload.”
Trio admits he’s not a “car guy,” but he watched the movie “Rush,” about Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. He talked about the movie with Miles and ultimately said, “'Let’s have a race through the city,' and it started from there.”
It was word of mouth through the vintage car community that brought the event together. Denis Branca, who serves as chairman of the event, had organized many car shows in the past. He heard about it through Bill O’Connell, who got involved through John Lawless, who was involved with the vintage car and motorcycle show held at the Radnor Hunt. Lawless heard about it from Dick Miles. Ed Simpson was the city council liason who worked with the group to ensure that that the race happened and that all issues were addressed.
There are now 18 people on the committee, with additional support from the city public works department, fire companies and police, State Police, and the county Sheriff’s Department. “We had a full effort in putting this all together,” Trio said.
They also worked with area businesses, encouraging them to sell their wares and food to the many onlookers lining the streets.
“When we started this, it was a great place for people that owned cars … they go to car shows and have them sitting on a lawn somewhere and people can look at them, but a they want to turn it on an run it,” Trio said.
Last year, there were 15 motorcycles and about 40 cars participating. This year, organizers are anticipating more than 60 vehicles.
“Cars allowed in are from 1900 to 1965,” said Branca. “There were some really rare cars here, and having rare cars in an event like this is really impressive.”
Some of those participating in last year’s event were owner/driver Dave George’s 1936 Indy Champ car Bear Special and former Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil’s restored 1927 Miller Schofield Sprint car. Len Rusiewicz brought his Le Mans-prepared and raced 1969 Ferrari 365 Daytona prototype. Roger Radbill’s original 1923 Mercer Raceabout was the oldest car there. Many are expected to return this year.
Just like last year, the cars will race through city neighborhoods on a 2.2-mile course, with the start and finish lines at Third Avenue and Lincoln Highway. The Vintage Grand Prix is not a wheel-to-wheel race. Each car runs alone and is individually timed. Speed on the eight-block race will be challenged by hay bale chicanes arranged along the route, recalling the early days of racing. Dick Miles will again serve as course marshal.
Racers have been broken down into groups. Group 1 is set aside for 1900 to 1940 open-wheel race cars; Group 2 for 1940 to 1965 four-cylinder race cars; Group 3 for 1940 to 1965 six-cylinder cars; and Group 4 for 1940 to 1965 eight- and 12-cylinder race cars. Group 5 is for 1940 to 1965 motorcycles. New this year is Group 6, for 1900 to 1965 non-race cars.
There is only one other non-professionally run race, and that is in Pittsburgh, according to Trio. “We are the only other one right now. We understand that there hasn’t been one that races past buildings in a city since the 1952 or 1953 Watkins Glen. So this is a historic race,” he said, adding that the Pittsburgh race is run through a park.
“The bottom line is this is not a money-making venture,” Trio said. “It’s an economic development project.”
According to Trio, funds raised through the event will go to the Coatesville parks capital budget to improve and repair playground equipment and water features throughout the city. But the biggest boost will be to the city’s image. About 5,000 people attended the event last year, many of whom might not have come into Coatesville before.
“It’s a huge positive image building event for the city,” said Branca, event chairman.
Many of the people that have the money to restore and race these cars have funds that can be used elsewhere – in Trio’s case, he’s hoping they see development opportunities.
“The star of the show this day is the city,” Trio said. “We want to bring people in that may not usually come into the city proper and see the bones of the city and the buildings, the business and the real estate opportunities here.”
And it brings recognition. “The city is coming back in economic development programs,” Trio said, citing the Gateway Project and the new $25 million to $30 million Amtrak station and mixed-use project between Third and Fourth avenues, scheduled for completion in 2021.
“It’s a big event for the city and it takes a lot of commitment from the city,” Trio said. It also takes a big commitment from the residents. Because the neighborhood streets are used for the race, many residents had to find alternative routes to and from their homes. But after last year’s inaugural race, while city personnel were cleaning up, Trio witnessed the positive reaction from the neighbors. “Parents and kids were coming out of their houses and saying, ‘Are we going to do this again next year? It was the best thing that’s been done in the city.’”
“I was totally surprised by [how the residents] embraced it,” Branca said. And this year they plan more activities, a DJ, more food trucks and entertainment. “I think it’s going to be better than last year.”
“We have planted the seed and gotten it to grow. Now we have to sustain it,” Trio said. “We’ve got to make sure that, 10 years from now, this thing keeps moving and keeps getting better and the city keeps growing.”
For information, visit www.coatesvillegrandprix.com or the Facebook page for Coatesville Invitational Vintage grand Prix. The free event will be held Sept. 23, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The start/finish line located at Third Avenue and Lincoln Highway.