Blast from the Past: Muscle Cars invade Streets of Long Beach

So, you’re looking to exercise your inner race car driver like A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones and Mark Donohue, but you’re not ready for open wheel cars and have no intention of competing in the IndyCar series? Consider vintage car racing.

“Anyone can do this,” said Cris Vandagriff President of the Historic Motor Sports Association, or HMSA. HMSA is the organization that brought American muscle cars from the late 1960s and early 1970s during the glory years of the Trans American Championship Series to the 44th annual Grand Prix of Long Beach, in California.

Line of Trans-AM muscle cars | Photography by Nicole Ellan James

The series, which features about 50 racers, visits several of the country’s top venues including Sonoma Raceway, Watkins Glen International Raceway in New York and  WeatherTech Laguna Seca in Salinas. But this was the first time the series held a race during a major racing series event.

“The Trans-AM group is really the pinnacle of historic racing in the united states” Vandagriff said, adding the cars aren’t replicas, but they are the actual cars raced by A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones and Mark Donohue during the glory years of the Trans American Championship Series.

Additionally, each wear period correct livery, retain their period correct mechanicals, and have a documented history.

“For us to be invited (to Long Beach) was a real honor,” said Tom McIntyre, driver of the 1968 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 originally driven by Mark Donohue.

Sunoco Camaro raced by Mark Donohue

“It’s a little bit intimidating, realizing what a tremendous job Mark did in that car,” McIntyre said. “I’m hardly worthy. But I enjoy the sensation and the feeling that the real guy was actually sitting in the same seat I sit in. It’s a real thrill.”

Unlike professional racing, anyone can do this. “You can sit in the stands and your significant other will be like ‘oh, you should do this;’ your significant other isn’t going to say that during the Indycar race” said Vandagriff.

Parnelli Jones, winner of the 1963 Indianapolis 500 and a 2008 inductee to the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, encouraged drivers to “Keep them off the wall,” prior to the race start in a nod to the possibility of crashes – and the historic value of the cars that can be expected to be included in the race. The HMSA cars range in value from $120,000 for a factory built 1969 Camaro to over a million dollars for the championship winning 1972 Trans Am AMC Javelin originally piloted by Donohue and George Follmer.

championship winning 1972 Trans Am AMC Javelin

“We have all walks of life participating with us. It’s something that people can go out and try if they can afford one of the Trans-AM cars,” he said adding there are other vintage racing series and events that people can enter with a car at a much lower price point.

For those nervous about driving a million dollar race car, Vandagriff said “we have a rule in historic racing that if you damage another car or your own you are excused for 13 months. Rarely do we ever see contact.”

Understandably, the cars have been well-kept and many are thought of as extremely reliable with the owners and drivers aware of their cars weaknesses and flaws from the period.

“It’s just the top of vintage racing” Vandagriff said, adding the event is unique because there is so much going on that appeals to all ages and demographics. “My neighbor is an accountant, drives a Jeep and is not a car person, but comes to this event every year. Spectators who attend future Grand Prix of Long Beach events beyond this year’s may see different selections of classic cars in an effort to add a historical component each year.”

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About the author

Nicole Ellan James

As an automotive journalist and avid car enthusiast, Nicole Ellan James has a passion for automotive that is reflected in every aspect of her lifestyle. Follow Nicole on Instagram and Facebook - @nicoleeellan
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