Vintage Grand Prix honors legendary driver and her favorite car, the Corvette
Alfa Romeos, Bugattis and other members of the sportscar alphabet are the heart of Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, but this year’s event also is focused on what has been called a “racing triangle.”
The classic cars set the tone for the Grand Prix, but this year’s celebration also focuses on the memory of Donna Mae Mims, a legendary driver who pulled on the brake for the final time in October 2009; her favorite car, the Corvette; and the modified muscle cars of Yenko Racing.
Those three elements tie together in a bit of Western Pennsylvania sports car lore, says Dan DelBianco, president of the Grand Prix, which is sponsored by Shop’n Save.
â€¢ The crusty blonde everyone refers to simply as Donna Mae was drawn into racing through her love of Corvettes and became the first woman to win the Sports Car Club of America racing championship in 1963.
â€¢ She bought that car at the Yenko dealership in Canonsburg, which will be celebrated by a Yenko Sports Car Reunion that will bring together some of the remanufactured vehicles put together by car dealer and auto modifier Don Yenko.
â€¢ Part of that display, of course, is the Corvette, which Roger Zrimsek calls “America’s car,” because of its range from sporty street machine to a powerhouse racer. More than 100 will be on display in a show put together by Zrimsek and the Western Pennsylvania Council of Corvette Clubs.
Of course, they are simply part of the weekend that features two days full of racing and a parade and welcoming ceremony Sunday morning.
But they also set a theme for the weekend, which also will include the Thunder Run Motorcycle Ride from Glenshaw to Schenley Park on Sunday,
DelBianco says Mims was going to be the honorary race director this year and, when she died, there “wasn’t a second thought” about honoring her at the event.
Don Baker of Irwin, a friend of Donna Mae and a member of the Sports Car Club of America, says the champion started setting the tone for the feminist revolution without even thinking of a crusade.
“She was just always one of the guys, but she just happened to be female,” he says.
Mims, of Bridgeville, died at 82 from complications after a stroke. The Dormont native and her husband bought their first Corvette in 1958 and she was bitten by the racing bug. She won her first race in 1961 in Cumberland, Md., got an Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite in 1962 and won the Sports Car Club championship in it in ’63.
She also raced at Daytona, Sebring and Riverside and was the basis of the character played by Adrienne Barbeau in “The Cannonball Run.”
It wasn’t easy being a female racer in those days, Baker says. Once, when she was racing in Heidelberg near Carnegie, one driver told her he was the guy who was told to “take her out,” Baker says.
“Great,” she responded. “Where are we going?”
She was unaware that meant to get her out of the race.
He says dealing with such drivers at events sarcastically called “redneck roundy runs” was just part of life and Donna Mae seemed to accept it.
Those were the days when Corvettes, Camaros and Mustangs created a macho world of muscle cars, and if took someone of Donna Mae’s dedication to push her way into it, he says,
Those cars will be part of the Grand Prix in the Yenko and Corvette displays.
Mark Gillespie of Indianapolis is one of the crew bringing the Yenko Sports Car Reunion here, celebrating the dealer-modified cars Yenko put together at the heyday of his dealership and racing career. A Camaro, which had been given a Corvette engine, sold for a princely $5,000 in the late ’60s, he says, and now draws about $250,000.
“The collector car world is a very strange world,” says Gillespie, who wrote the book, “The Yenko Era,” with Mims and Warren Dernoshek, who was the dealer’s crew chief.
Yenko got into car sales in 1948 and his success merited him bigger and added dealerships, Gillespie says, even though Yenko wanted to “be a racer all his life.”
That’s what led him to the modifications he did and eventually led him away from “what had been a family business, and eventually became a real business.”
Yenko died in a plane crash in 1987 and the last of the Yenko dealerships closed in 2008, Gillespie says.
Such artistic work on cars takes a slightly different touch in the work on Corvettes, a parade of which was part of Donna Mae’s funeral, says Zrimsek, from Pleasant Hills. The display at the Grand Prix will show masterworks from members of the Corvette council, which is made up of 14 Western Pennsylvania clubs.
Zrimsek says there are between 1,400 and 1,500 members and car ownership is about two per member. Zrimsek has his prize, a ’91 with only 14,000 miles on it, and a 2001 that he drives.
He knows members of the council are looked at as “car nerds” because they focus on staying exact to the pieces used on the original car. “Original” in their vocabulary does not mean individual or creative; it means the real thing.
“There is no other car like it,” he says.
Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix
• Practice sessions: 8:15 a.m. to noon
• Qualifying races: 1 to 5 p.m.
• British Car Day and international car show: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• Practice sessions: 8:15 to 11 a.m.
• Parade: 11 a.m.
• Qualifying races: Noon to 4 p.m.
• Car show: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m..
Where : Schenley Park, Oakland