Usually home to those looking for some peaceful exercise, the air of Schenley Park was split by the sound of revving engines and the smell of racing fuel this weekend.
An annual tradition since 1983, the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix brought about 150 drivers to race on repurposed public roads throughout Oakland’s lush green park.
At the races’ start — and finish — line at the intersection of Panther Hollow and Greenfield roads, an announcer introduced some of the racers as their brightly painted cars flew by.
“We see the same people come out year after year,” the disembodied voice said.
George Shafer is one of those regulars. Shafer, who lives in Somerset, Pennsylvania, has been present for 32 of the Grand Prix’s 34 races. And at age 82, he isn’t slowing down, figuratively or literally.
“I’m trying to quit, but so far it hasn’t been working,” Shafer said, sitting under a tent with members of his family surrounding him. “It’s addicting.”
Shafer, a Pitt alum who graduated in 1955, started racing during his college days.
“I had sports cars when I went to school,” Shafer said. “[And] I like competition.”
This love carried over to his son Craig, who was also competing at the Grand Prix. Barb Shafer, Craig’s wife, was present at the starting line to root for the two.
“It’s the first time we’ve gotten two cars here,” she said, visibly excited as George’s red 1951 MG TD paced his pack, the second of the day. Craig was participating in his race later in the day.
The Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix itself is a weeklong event.
Staffed by over 1,200 volunteers, it included a track race at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, July 8 to 10, along with plenty of car shows, galas and tune-ups for local and visiting gearheads throughout the week.
Anthony Chef is one such gearhead.
Coming to the Schenley Park race has become a “ritual” for Chef, a Pittsburgh resident. He used his one-hour break from work — as a chef — to watch the vintage cars jockey.
“Our generation will never see this type of racing,” Chef said as cars navigated one of the 11 turns that make up the Grand Prix’s winding Schenley circuit.
Chef is a fan of this “European-style” racing, which focuses on a varied course and lighter vehicles, rather than the purpose-built oval tracks and heavy cars of modern American NASCAR racing.
“I love that it’s one of the last races that shut down the streets,” Chef said.
The Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix is in fact the only race in the United States that still uses public roads, which helps bring back racers like Shafer. At this point in his racing career, he typically competes in four to five races a year, but the Pittsburgh event is his favorite.
Not that location makes much of a difference — Shafer, who is going to Michigan in two weeks to compete in another race, is just a competitive person.
“I’d race a wheelbarrow,” Shafer said with a laugh. “[But] I might not go far now.”
Lester “Pops” Neidell knows the spirit. He’s been racing since 1970, and sees this passion as a natural byproduct of owning the cars.
“I got started in sports cars, and sooner or later you want to see, ‘[can we] make it go faster’,” Neidell said, his blue 1959 Ellison parked in front of him.
While still an active racer, Neidell isn’t competing at the Grand Prix this year, although he did last year. The 1933 Plymouth he was going to race was having engine troubles, but he decided to swing by Pittsburgh — from his home in Oklahoma — anyway.
“I’m here for the old cars,” Neidell said. There were plenty of those — 2,000 cars from all over the world lined up for show on Schenley Park’s golf course.
Pittsburgh native Dennis O’Donnell isn’t paying to be part of the Grand Prix’s show, the proceeds of which all go to the Allegheny Valley School — for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities — and the Autism Society of Pittsburgh. But he still drove the red Studebaker he’s maintained himself to see the race.
“I’m a total gearhead,” O’Donnell said. “It’s therapy for me … after a couple hours working on a car I can talk to people again.”
O’Donnell, who goes to the Grand Prix every year, arrived about noon Sunday, complete with a lawn chair and cooler for snacks. He used to race in the ’60s and can easily recall the excitement he felt stepping on the gas.
“It was a rush,” O’Donnell said. “[There’s] nothing like the feeling of acceleration.”
While Neidell claims he is “known for going slow,” at his age he knows continuing to race is about staying smart.
“When you are 77 you kind of go one year at a time,” Neidell said.
But Shafer is having none of that. When asked how he placed, he flashed a wry smile.
“Me? I won,” Shafer said.