75 Years Later, The SCCA is Still Very Relevant

Steven Cole
By Steven Cole Smith
Mar 19, 2021 | SCCA | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

Story by Steven Cole Smith • Photography as Credited

Lisa Noble was a slightly precocious, free-range 14-year-old when a scandalously older boyfriend took her to a sports car race, the SCCA’s Lake Garnett Grand Prix in Kansas, which ran from 1959 to 1972.

She was smitten: “I walked through the gate, stood there, and literally said out loud, ‘This is what I am going to do for the rest of my life.’”

She joined the SCCA in 1971, “and they became my family. And to think that kid managed to become the CEO of the SCCA–it was never a goal of mine, but I’m going to tell you, it was the toughest work I’ve ever done in my life, and it was the most rewarding.”

She stepped down as president and CEO in 2016, replaced by the current president and CEO, Mike Cobb. He credits Noble and Heyward Wagner, the club’s senior director of marketing and experiential programs, with starting one of the most innovative initiatives the SCCA has ever tried: Track Night in America. The program “lowers the barrier,” Cobb says, to being able to drive your car, safely, on a real race track.

Considering the plethora of competition the SCCA faces, ranging from lower-cost racing series Lemons and ChampCar to fellow sanctioning bodies like NASA to local car clubs renting track time and letting members drive with a varied amount of preparation and safety equipment, the club is no longer the “gatekeeper,” Noble says, for road racing. “In the 1990s, for example, if you wanted to race, you had to come through our programs–our schools, our training, our licensing. Racers no longer have to follow our path.”

Cobb and Wagner agree, but bearing in mind some of the organization’s newest programs, Wagner makes a distinction: “I like to think of the SCCA not as the gatekeeper, but the gate crasher,” helping people with an interest in performance cars actually get on the track without the old “rigmarole,” as he calls it, that the SCCA was once known for. All involved say a “welcoming environment” is the goal for the club, now more than ever.

And it seems to be working, Cobb says: The SCCA convention this past January was the largest ever, and member ratings of the programs they participate in are at their highest. “I feel like we have momentum,” he says, “and we’re working like hell to keep it.”

From Then to Now

So how did the SCCA start, and how has it endured for 75 years?

Several years ago, Noble was leafing through some documents from the club’s old Connecticut office and found a message written on a piece of paper: “Seven men had a dream. Through their efforts, and those of the thousands of members, workers, entrants and administrators, the SCCA has benefitted all those who possess a passion for the automobile, whether for sport or transportation, and to this end the Sports Car Club of America is dedicated.”

On February 26, 1944, those seven men gathered at the Boston home of Chapin Wallour, a Harvard-trained engineer who, during his 96 years, owned many sports cars, his favorite being his vintage Bentley.

Photograph Courtesy Jaguar

Meetings were simply get-togethers, increasing in size so that when the members gathered, a car show ensued, often at the Petit Bone Tavern. As World War II wound down, members organized “speed events,” but the group didn’t sanction its first genuine race until 1948, on the roads around Watkins Glen, New York. By 1951, the SCCA had created a national championship.

Through the ensuing years, the SCCA tried to make sure its members maintained an amateur standing, but by 1961 it gave up and allowed members to race for money. The following year, the SCCA even hosted its own pro events, beginning an internal conflict that did not disappear. The SCCA’s Trans-Am series began in 1966. Then came Can-Am, an addition that many consider a mistake.

Photography Credit: Jerry Wallens

The lead from a story in The New York Times on October 22, 1972: “It seldom is news that the professional racing program of the Sports Car Club of America is in trouble. What is news now is the extent of disarray in the club’s headquarters.”

IMSA and USAC, the story said, were “nipping” at the SCCA’s flanks. Even today, whether–and if so, how much–the SCCA should be involved in pro racing remains a bone of contention. Back in 1972, with The New York Times on its case, the SCCA was solid on the amateur level. Its trademark event, the Runoffs, traces its history to the American Road Race of Champions in 1964 and was formally renamed in 1987.

Photography Credit: Perry Bennet

Bill Lester: From SCCA to the Bigs

Photograph Courtesy NASCAR

No question that it’s the countless racers who moved through the SCCA ranks and into professional motorsports at the highest levels that gives the club its swagger.

But one of the most typical, yet atypical, SCCA success stories may be that of Bill Lester, 59, who earned his college degree from University of California, Berkeley, in 1984 and began working as an engineer and project manager at Hewlett-Packard. He started road racing on weekends, winning the SCCA Northern California Region Rookie of the Year title as well as SCCA GT3 regional championships in 1985 and 1986.

And there, you’d think the story would end. Plenty of racers pass through the SCCA as a rung on the ladder to the top, but those are mostly kids who began racing karts at age 4, and with family money or solid sponsorship in place. But not racers with a college degree, a family, and a solid 9-to-5 job. And especially not racers who are African American.

But Lester kept racing, and winning. One day he sat down with his wife, Cheryl, and they decided that he should pursue a lifelong dream before it was too late. So he quit his job.

Lester raced in IMSA, in the SCCA’s Trans Am series, and in 1999 he got his break: He competed at Watkins Glen in the NASCAR Xfinity series, reaching the top 10 before a disagreement with another car dropped him to 21st. The prize money: $8750. He could do this. He knew it.

“SCCA amateur racing was the foundation for my professional racing future,” Lester tells Grassroots Motorsports. After racing in Solo 1, “I entered SCCA GT class amateur racing and learned what it took to succeed in wheel-to-wheel competition.” Help abounded. “The SCCA also provided us a family-friendly environment where competitors often became friends.”

Lester rose through the NASCAR ranks until 2006, when he finally got a hand on the top rung of the NASCAR ladder: The Cup series, where he was the first black driver to compete at that level since Willy T. Ribbs ran three Cup races 20 years earlier.

For Lester, it was only two races. His team, Bill Davis Racing, had stretched its resources to run a third car, and the money ran out. Soon Lester returned to his road racing roots, driving Daytona Prototypes in IMSA, then a Chevrolet Camaro in which he and a young factory-backed driver, Jordan Taylor, took second in the season championship.

Lester was 45 when he finally made it to the NASCAR Cup series. Jeff Gordon was 20. Joey Logano was 18. For any SCCA member who punches a time clock on weekdays and races on the weekend, Bill Lester proved that it can happen. And he is quick to credit the SCCA, without whom, he says, his family would have never seen his face on all those boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios.

“I’ve been fortunate to compete successfully in the top levels of IMSA, Trans Am, World Challenge and NASCAR, with the lessons learned and the racecraft honed as a member of the SCCA,” he says. And still, “Some of the best memories I have in my racing career came from competing in the SCCA. It was the springboard for achieving my dreams.”

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View comments on the GRM forums
sir_mike New Reader
5/22/20 6:17 p.m.

A little help maybe.I bought at a Thrift Store in Lancaster,PA area a trophy...which is sad to me...from Steel Cities SCCA.For the Cumberland Nationals 1967.All it says is second pace...no class given.Tried contacting the Steel cities region and local Harrisburg region. And race results posted on Google sites.Just wondering who the driver might have been.We had a few in our area and new some from auto crossing and hill climbs.Just sad to me that if they passed that the family gave it away.Thanks

californiamilleghia Dork
5/22/20 6:24 p.m.

Is there a database of old races ?

I have an old car that was probably raced in the 1950s in Southern California,

I even have the owners name  but it was a "Special"  so chasing "car make" does not help :)

Coupefan Reader
5/25/20 4:22 p.m.

My information may be outdated, but I remember reading the rule book ages ago, and noted the requirement for manual transmissions only.  If that requirement hasn't changed in modern times, how will the SCCA deal with all the semi-automatic gearboxes?

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