We're celebrating 50 years of racing at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with personal recollections from some of the racers and events that have made their mark at one of America's finest natural-terrain tracks. This week, a quick history of this American motorsports icon. And to learn more about Mid-Ohio's heritage and see more evocative photos from the track's first 50 years, click here to open the free Mid-Ohio@50 digital special!
When Les Griebling (LEFT, with Brian Redman) climbed aboard his road grader in October 1961, and began to carve out a racetrack on 200 acres of tired farmland in Morrow County, Ohio, making a ton of money from the venture wasn't top of his agenda. A few miles down the road, in Mansfield, his auto dealership specializing in British cars was doing fine, so no worries on that front. First and foremost, he just wanted a place for him and his friends to go race on a weekend.
At the start of the '60s, airfield tracks were becoming a rarity, thanks to kill-joy federal controls. But the final blow for road racing in the Buckeye State came in 1960, when the Ohio Legislature brought in an anti-drag-racing law which also killed off regulated racing on closed public highways – most notably the races up at Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie.
Facing long treks to get their fix, others had looked at building road courses in central Ohio, but were put off by financial realities. Griebling and his group of investors turned dreams into a plausible plan when the Sports Car Club of America agreed to sponsor a driver school and a race meeting at the new track in July 1962. Time to get to work and turn the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course into reality...
To an extent, the shape of the old farm's perimeter and the surrounding woods defined the basic layout, but it was Griebling's sense of flow that gave it its character and challenges. Just like the best golf course designers, Griebling didn't fight the rolling topography, he embraced it, carving a layout that felt three-dimensional and natural. And which, bar a few minor tweaks over the years (including a straightening of the Thunder Valley section soon after its construction and, in 1990, a general widening of the racing surface and the addition of a straightline section to bypass the chicane before The Keyhole), remains the same flowing and undulating ribbon he cut into the clay in the fall of '61.
With only a gravel base laid, the Ohio winter called a halt to the work, but the hands-on Griebling and every volunteer he and his friends could muster started again in March of '62, building four miles of spectator fencing, a two-story cement block timing and control tower, a technical inspection area and a rudimentary, but lighted paddock.
Coming from hardy, eastern European farming stock, Griebling wasn't afraid to throw himself into whatever manual work was required, but even he drew the line at laying the 3,400 tons of asphalt... A pro crew set to work on that in the final week of June and, July 1, 1962, America's newest natural-terrain road course was ready to go.
First event was the inaugural race school, with 60 entries flooding in for the two days of intensive instruction on the 2.4-mile, 15-turn track. The sun shone, the rain poured – typical Mid-Ohio weather, really – and choking dust turned to mud, but the layout drew rave reviews.
A Northeast Ohio SCCA regional on July 18-19, attracting an eclectic entry, was the first real race meeting. Afterward, the consensus was that Griebling had pulled off something very special indeed. As SCCA's SportsCar magazine succinctly put it: “Lots of entries...people...dust...fun.”
It didn't take long for the track to become a fixture in some of North America's biggest touring series. In 1967, the muscle cars of Trans-Am paid their first visit, Jerry Titus' hairy Mustang heading off pole-sitter and moonlighting NASCAR legend David Pearson in a Mercury Cougar.
In 1969, the big-money, big-banger sports cars of the Can-Am Challenge Cup shook the Mid-Ohio earth for the first time, Denny Hulme heading them home in his thundering McLaren M8B-Chevrolet.
In a golden era for both series in the late '60s and early '70s, June at Mid-Ohio meant Trans-Am, while August was Can-Am time, with 40,000 fans regularly packing the place to see the likes of Hulme, Parnelli Jones, Mark Donohue, George Follmer and Jackie Stewart hustling their mighty machines through The Carousel, The Esses and The Keyhole. (ABOVE: Ed Houlehan's flamboyant flag-waving greets '69 Trans-Am winner Ronnie Bucknum).
But Mid-Ohio was always a track where the sum was even greater than the parts and it was the flow of the layout, it's tough, unrelenting nature and the lack of respite it gave a driver in the hot and humid Ohio summers that made a victory there a highlight on any résumé.
By the mid '70s, Trans-Am's heyday was long gone and Can-Am was in decline. Formula 5000 was touted as America's marquee road racing series, but failed to excite fans in the way its predecessors had, despite the efforts of three-time Mid-Ohio winner Brian Redman (1974, '75 and '76), Mario Andretti and Al Unser.
As the '70s drew to a close, IMSA sports cars and a revived Can-Am (now little more than a closed-wheel take on F5000) kept U.S. road racing ticking over. But a renaissance came at the start of the '80s, thanks to the formation of CART (RIGHT: Patrick Carpentier leads the field in 2002) by a group of open-wheel team owners frustrated by what they saw as USAC's ineptness at running Indy car racing, plus the rise of a spectacular new generation of IMSA GTP prototype sports cars.
Not only were classic road courses like Mid-Ohio fundamental to the plans for each championship, but a new owner for the track labeled “The Most Competitive in the U.S.” also brought significant investment in its facilities and ensured it a long-term future as a host of America's top racing series.
That new owner was Ohio businessman and long-time racer Jim Trueman, who'd built the successful Red Roof Inn motel chain and was looking at starting up a track near Fort Wayne, Ind. But why do that when Mid-Ohio was only a couple hundred miles down the road?
As luck would have it, Griebling was looking to wind down his involvement in Mid-Ohio and agreed to meet Trueman. He liked what he heard and, confident his legacy would be in safe hands, signed over ownership on Oct. 1, 1981.
Trueman's investment included building the large spectator mounds that give the track its unique raceday atmosphere, state-of-the-art scoreboard, and the pit buildings and five-story tower – with red roofs, of course – that remain signatures of the track to this day.
Sadly, Trueman passed away from cancer in 1986, just days after seeing his friend and driver Bobby Rahal take his Truesports March 86C-Cosworth to victory in the 1986 Indianapolis 500. But Trueman's family retained ownership of the facility and ensured it remained a cornerstone of U.S. road racing, both pro and amateur.
In March, a new chapter in the Mid-Ohio story began when Green Savoree Racing Promotions purchased the track, ready to take it into its second half-century.
For more on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and its 50th season of racing, visit the official website at MidOhio.com.
Coming up Aug. 5-7 in an action-packed 2011 schedule is a double-header starring the IZOD IndyCar Series and American Le Mans Series. To purchase weekend or single-day tickets for the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Challenge/Honda Indy 200, CLICK HERE.
Sept. 16-18, the Grand-Am Rolex Series takes center stage with the EMCO Gears Classic presented by KeyBank. For tickets, CLICK HERE.