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Austin Healey, Cadillac, Motorsports, Vintage & Classic — June 26, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Austin-Healey at The Mitty 2012


James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” first published in The New Yorker in 1939, describes the main character as a regular guy with a rather mundane life. But Walter Mitty is not bound by the everyday reality that surrounds him physically. Instead, he escapes into daydreams of heroic adventure in which he envisions himself as a pilot, surgeon or assassin. Some seven decades later, the character’s name is part of the American English lexicon and the perfect tongue-in-cheek name for a historic sports car race involving mostly-amateur weekend warriors.

While the drivers participating in the 2012 Classic Motorsports Mitty may not be automobile racing professionals, the competition on the track is certainly real. And although participants come from a diverse range of occupations, they gather at the 2.5-mile Road Atlanta circuit to live out their racing fantasies, at least for the weekend. We made the drive from Atlanta to Flowery Branch, Georgia, to witness the action, find some Healeys and meet the Nomex-clad daydreamers.

Triumph was the featured marque at this year’s race, but it didn’t take us long before we stumbled upon the earliest of Donald Healey’s creations, a 1951 Nash-Healey owned by local racer Miles Whitlock. Although Whitlock’s Nash-Healey was not a contender on the track at this year’s event, it was an exciting machine to see. Mechanic Klaus Ortmann was glad to give us a closer look, and even provided us with a three-ring binder containing a comprehensive history of the vehicle, dating back to when it sold new in Monterey, California.

It was shortly after that original sale that the owner traded it back in, an even exchange for a Mark VIII Jaguar. It was then purchased by Rocky Bowersox, owner of the Rocky Point Restaurant in Big Sur. Under his ownership, this particular Nash-Healey was a founding car in the Pebble Beach Sports Car Club. Presumably in search of more power, Rocky swapped out the original straight-six for a Cadillac V8, the motor Donald Healey wanted for the model but that Cadillac refused to provide. With its new mill, Rocky’s Nash-Healey reportedly hit 149 mph on the salt flats in ’53. Rocky also claimed to have traveled from Carmel to his restaurant at an average speed of 92 mph.

After passing through the hands of Wallace Washburn, this Nash-Healey was sold to Bob Olinger in ’59. He raced it on oval tracks and drag strips before covering it with a tarp in ’62. It sat until 1988, when a vintage racer purchased it, reportedly with fenders flattened by years of use as a step ladder. Miles picked up the car in 1992 and has owned it since. Although we didn’t get to see it speed around the track, this 1951 Nash-Healey was a winner in our book for its well-documented and fascinating history.

Jim Williams’ 1959 Sebring Sprite tribute car was already in the trailer when we found him cooling off in the paddock. Jim’s red-and-white car was purpose-built by Jerry Etzel for SCCA racing. The walls of the little enclosed unit surrounding the diminutive Healey are covered with photos of the famous racing Sprites upon which his is based. The collection of images showed the Works cars that dominated competition at events like Targa Florio and, of course, Sebring. Perhaps the tiny racers of the past provided inspiration for Jim, too. He may have finished 50th overall in one race, but he was second in class. Only another 1275-cc Bugeye ran quicker.

Jim Gregg and his son John were also struggling to beat the heat. The two were shirtless and munching post-race tacos in their trailer when we [N1]¬†[N2]¬†approached… We first spotted the red 100-6 with a white hardtop on the starting grid and racing on the Road Atlanta circuit, then tracked it back to the paddock. While Jim finished eating, we speculated on the purpose of its bulging decklid. Aerodynamics? Space for an extra spare?

The odd design was indeed accommodation for an extra spare tire, a characteristic of special rally models. Jim’s car didn’t begin life as an Alpine Works car. It was a road-going 100-6 that was converted to rally style early in its life by John Chatham and Nick Howell. The pair bought the inventory of the Austin-Healey motorsports group when the program was shut down. The modifications, including an alloy body, aluminum head and magnesium exhaust manifold to keep weight down, were performed with exacting detail. Howell raced the car in England, building its reputation as one of the fastest Austin-Healeys around. Phil Coombs purchased it in 1984 for Dan Pendergraft. The pair brought it to the U.S., their Wild West Racing team proving the vehicle’s prowess on American soil.

Owner Jim Gregg, a real estate developer from Carmel, California, who has owned and raced the car since 2002, admitted that his 100-6 is not as quick in his hands as it was when the Wild West guys were driving it in the eighties and nineties. But Jim still cracked a proud smile when his son let him know that one of his laps was, for him, a track record.

As much fun as it is to watch these fine vintage automobiles circle the track, the people at The Mitty provided the real stories. Jim Gregg helped a buddy race a Sprite in the late fifties and early sixties, turning wrenches and schlepping parts for fun. Now he’s ripping around the track in a car with a rich history of competition. These guys may not be “real” racecar drivers, and their rigs may not be the fastest by today’s measure. But the stories of how they came to arrive here are certainly not the imaginary stuff of Walter Mitty’s daydreams, even though the whole affair seems almost too good to be true.

Photography courtesy of Dave May. See the full gallery.