Lime Rock Park- A Brief History

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It was the spring of 1955 and Jim Vaill was just passing time with his friends when inquisitive strangers changed the direction of his life.

Vaill and his friends, Jack Fisher and John Clark, had been playing around with Fisher’s MG-TC, racing it around the sandy gravel pit owned by Vaill’s father, Frank. They were eating onion sandwiches and having a few beers when several members of the Sports Car Club of America approached them. The group, which included Gaston Andrey, Briggs Cunningham, Sebring winner Bill Lloyd and Fred Poctor, wanted to know about Vaill’s race track.

A race track? Vaill had never even considered the idea. But he was intrigued by the suggestion. Vaill and the SCCA members walked around the area, envisioning where a race track might go. Shortly afterwards, Vaill went to two Lime Rock town meetings and received permission to build a track.

“I don’t have the faintest idea why they (the SCCA members) thought I was building a race track. All I know is they came down and said, ‘I hear you’re building a race track,’ ” Vaill said. “I was intrigued with the idea more than anything. I said, ‘Why not? Let see what happens.’ It turned out to be more involved than I imagined.”

With the blessing of his father, who agreed to let him use the land, Jim Vaill put his plan into motion. Using an aerial photo of the 385-acre property, Vaill drew an outline of the track based on the geography of the area. For instance the woods were so thick beyond what is now the Big Bend turn that Vaill couldn’t get through even with a bulldozer.

On his trusty Caterpillar D-8, Vaill personally bulldozed the site. Along the way, Vaill rearranged the direction of the Salmon Kill River (by filling it with dirt, he changed its course from the main paddock to outside the front straight); overcame the hurricane and ensuing flood of 1955; and the financial difficulties of raising money for the track.

The hurricane and flood delayed the project for about six months and forced Vaill to start nearly from scratch.

“It ruined most of my equipment,” Vaill said. “I saw a dump truck disappear (during the flooding). We never did find it. It was quite an experience. I did most of it with my own equipment. Many times I’d have to hire some help, but I was working 16 hours a day. It was a labor of love I guess.”

Vaill tried to offset the financial burden by selling stock in The Lime Rock Corporation, an entity created to support the track. Vaill never secured a big investor, but he did get a lot of support from small, local businessmen.

“Most of (the financial backing) was local. They just took my word that it would increase their business,” Vaill said.

The effort took about 18 months and by the time the 1957 season rolled around, Lime Rock was race ready. The first event at Lime Rock was an SCCA driver’s school on April 20, 1957. Some 152 cars showed up and by the end of the day the macadam surface, which hadn’t had time to properly cure, was all torn up.

“It was pretty bad,” Vaill said. “I had paved it with macadam. That’s what the town roads had been paved with, so I thought it would be fine. But it does need time to harden.

“It (the track surface) had been down all winter, but there hadn’t been any traffic on it. It just sat there fermenting all winter. It needed to be scuffed up a little, but they tore it to shreds.”

Vaill overcame this obstacle, too. He hired local contractor Sid Terhune, called in every dump truck in the area and for three days worked from dawn to dusk to put down a new asphalt surface. There wasn’t enough time to remove some of the road grading machines and Vaill’s gravel loading conveyor from the infield, but the track was repaved in time for Opening Day, April 27.

Registration and practice was held on Saturday and eight races, ranging from an MG class to Class C sports cars, were run on Sunday, A crowd of 6,600 watched. Afterwards Vaill was offered $150,000 – a considerable sum of money in those days – for his share of the race track. He turned it down.

The first race weekend was a tremendous success, but Vaill would have to face one more challenge, one that threatened the future of Lime Rock Park.

Though Vaill had followed the proper channels in building his track, a small group of local residents didn’t welcome the new venue. Calling themselves the Lime Rock Protective Agency, this well-financed group began making life difficult for Vaill.

“They thought the flood would finish me, but once they found out I was serious they came at me full-blast with all kinds of lawsuits,” Vaill said.

The legal haggling led to a trial in Litchfield Superior Court. The Lime Rock Protective Agency wanted to close the track. After hearing both sides argue their case over a six-week period, the judge ruled on the matter. In an injunction dated May 12, 1959, Lime Rock’s operating options were severely limited. Lime Rock was allowed only ten unmuffled race weekends per year and was barred from holding races on Sunday. It also restricted operating hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“I thought it was too restrictive, but they wanted to close us down,” Vaill said. “At least the judge was a little more sympathetic.”

Despite the injunction, Lime Rock and the history of road racing have been inseparably entwined. Lime Rock has played host to nearly every great race driver, car and series over the past 47 years. From Carroll Shelby to Roger Penske, to Mark Donohue, Al Holbert and Tom Kendall; from SCCA Regionals, to midgets, to Trans-Am, Can-Am, IMSA GTP, the American Le Mans Series and NASCAR stock cars. Lime Rock has seen it all.

And on more than one occasion Lime Rock has been the track that made history happen. It began in 1957 with the Little Le Mans endurance race and that innovative spirit continues to this day. In 1995, Lime Rock held the first ever co-sanctioned event by IMSA and SCCA, the Dodge Dealers Grand Prix. In 1996, Lime Rock was the site for the debut of the North American Touring Car Championship. Last year, the ALMS made its first trip into the Northeast at Lime Rock and the Formula BMW USA series debuted at the Road Racing Center of the East.

It’s an amazing story, especially when you consider how it all began. With a few friends having fun in a gravel pit on a lazy Sunday afternoon.