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VILLAGE MAN, 74, COMPETES IN VINTAGE CAR RACE

His will not be the oldest vintage racer competing at the 50th anniversary event at Watkins Glen next month, but at 74, John Archibald might be the oldest competitor.

The annual Zippo Vintage race weekend, scheduled for Sept. 10-13, has been a top draw at the Glen for years. Some say it is second in attendance only to the track's NASCAR events.

This year it takes on a special significance because modern American sports car road-racing began on the streets of the Village of Watkins Glen in 1948, the same year Archibald's spidery English MG-TC roadster came from the "Morris Garages" -- that's what the name "MG" stands for.

The East Aurora resident never raced it on the streets of Watkins Glen or at the track that later was built outside town, but he did race at other classic post-World War II venues: Bridgehampton, L.I., the Giants Despair Hillclimb in Pennsylvania and the Mount Equinox Hillclimb in Vermont, as well as races in and around Buffalo.

After Archibald married, his little red roadster became "a grocery cart and a nursery-school taxi for a while until I put it on blocks in the 1960s," he said.

In 1977, at the urging of fellow TC owner Jay Lockrow, he restored the car. And after attending the 1995 vintage race at Watkins Glen, he decided to be there this year.

Restoring the car and putting it in racing fettle was not as hard as it sounds because "there is a cottage industry for MGs that creates almost every part you need, except for engine blocks -- although you won't like the prices, much," Archibald said.

It also helps that he has his own basement machine shop where he turns out scale-model airplanes, radio-controlled sailboats and precision target rifles, as well as the occasional bit for his old car.

To compete, Archibald had to get medical clearance, go to a driving school and test with the Vintage Sports Car Club of America, which favors autos built before the mid-1950s. The Zippo weekend next month is sponsored by the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association, which takes in newer and much faster cars and sometimes sees retired professionals at its events.

"I had to get some waivers from them -- my car is old enough so it does not need a roll bar. In fact, it is a 1930s design, so I'll be allowed to race with the pre-World War II cars, as well as in the Collier Cup for MGs. But those Bugattis and Alfas will blow my doors off," Archibald said.

As it came from the factory in 1948, the stock TC was hard-pressed to top 75 mph. But its diminutive size, light weight and low cost made it the first affordable sports car and one that could surprise any American car on the two-lane roads predating the interstate system.

With race engine modifications, Archibald's car can top 100 mph -- enough to place in the top TC ranks, but probably well down in the field compared with the more modern MGs he will race against.

The biggest visual difference between 1948 and 1998 is in the clothing. Before they and their cars gained "vintage" status, drivers wore white cotton coveralls and rudimentary fiberglass helmets supported by webbing.

"Now I wear three layers of fireproof Nomex and a far superior foam-filled helmet," Archibald said.

"I'm looking forward to the parade through the village on Friday," he said. "We'll follow the old street course where I watched the first post-war American road races."

There will be dinners, receptions and parties with those faithful to the Octagon-badged MGs, as well as gatherings for other makes and a great time watching the cars compete in a wide variety of races.

Getting to that point was fun as well, if only because, at last, Archibald conquered Mount Equinox.

"The first time I ran there in 1953 I did not make it," he said. "Started throwing oil before the first parking lot. The next year I went back and blew a clutch.

"This year, even though my times were lousy -- I only had time for one run, and that was in rain and fog -- I made it to the summit, and I may have beaten a couple of other MGs, too."

Since 1996, when he began his quest to take part in this historic racing event, Archibald has only raced in five events. And after this Golden Anniversary reunion at the Glen, he says he will hang up his driving gloves -- unless, maybe, he does really well.

"This year, even though my times were lousy -- I only had time for one run, and that was in rain and fog -- I made it to the summit, and I may have beaten a couple of other MGs, too."

JOHN ARCHIBALD
Vintage car racer

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