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Satisfy your kid’s need for speed: A guide to the (mostly) free Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix

Candy Williams
July07/ 2017

Above photo: A young race fan finds a favorite Porsche for a photo opp at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix Walnut Street Car Show. Photo by Matt Little

Abigail Patterson, 12, has been attending the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix since she was very little as a member of the Patterson clan of race enthusiasts.

Her grandfather, Alan Patterson Senior, who passed away in June, was the Grand Prix’s founder and the event’s first race director in 1983. Abby’s father, Alan, and her cousins, Kelsey Patterson, 24, and Spencer, 22, will be competing in the vintage races for Patterson Racing.

The 2.33-mile race is the country’s largest vintage race event and the only one that still runs on city streets. The course winds through Schenley Park in Oakland, challenging drivers to negotiate 23 turns, hay bales, manhole covers, telephone poles, and a stone wall.

Abby agrees that the Vintage Grand Prix is a great family activity.

“As a kid, I liked being around cars and being able to just walk up to the cars in the paddock,” she says. “Also, if you ask, the drivers sometimes give you a ride in the cars. Being around the cars really makes me want to race when I am old enough. It is a great way for adults to drive race cars for fun and for charity.”

A family strolls through the Paddock Area for a close-up look at race cars and drivers. Photo by Bill Stoler

Meghan Speer, whose father, Bob Speer, is the event’s car show director, says the Vintage Grand Prix has been part of her family as long as she can remember. Meghan has been part of the 1,000-strong volunteer team that supports the event since 1998.

“It was always about the fact that this is what we did, as a family, to give back to our community and help those who needed us,” she says. “I think that idea of service is crucial for people to learn early and I’m glad my parents used things like the PVGP to teach us to value that. I love being a part of the PVGP family and I’m proud of the work we do.”

That work has led to the group donating $4.75 million to the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and Allegheny Valley School since 1983, including a record $405,500 in 2016.

If your kids have developed a need for speed by watching the latest animated “Cars” movie or they can’t get enough of their Hot Wheels, the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix offers enough fast-paced action for a week’s worth of family fun.

And the best part is that participating in many of the activities and events featuring cool cars, hot motorcycles, and other assorted vehicles are free.

“The Vintage Grand Prix a great family event,” says Dan DelBianco, executive director. “Schenley Park is a family-friendly environment and alcohol sales are not permitted.”

There are 10 days of motorsport activities in and around Pittsburgh – car shows, parades, and cruises. But the big events take place the weekend of July 15 and 16 with the vintage races in Schenley Park.

Here are some highlights for gear-head kids:

Parents and kids will work together on binary code bracelets as part of the activities from Science Tots.

Kids Pit Stop Tent

Besides watching the races, kids can find fun activities and entertainment in the free Kid’s Pit Stop Tent at Schenley Park from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. July 15 and 16.

Activities will include:

  • The 6th Annual Ford Junior Grand Prix, where kids can create a racecar out of interlocking building bricks and race it against other cars for a chance to be crowned one of this year’s Ford Junior Grand Prix Champions.
  • At the Green-Screen Postcard Booth, attendees can pose with family and friends and get a print of a customized postcard.
  • Fischer Nutrition will make healthy food fun with activities such as a Bicycle-Powered Blender to make smoothies and an Interactive Nutrition Game that gets everybody moving and learning about good food choices.

Science Tots will provide free S.T.E.A.M. activities in the kids’ tent for families and children ages 3-8.

Activities include making Binary Code Beaded Bracelets, science-themed Shrinky Dink keychains, Ozobot play on paper and with iPads, and iPads loaded with cool S.T.E.M. apps from companies like TinyBop and CodeSpark.

“It’s important for families to participate and learn more about S.T.E.A.M. activities they can try at home,” says Erica Peterson, founder and president of Science Tots of Pittsburgh. “This is a fun opportunity to try something new with your kids.”PVGP

Schenley Park Car Shows and Race Qualifying

 On July 15, race fans can experience an exhilarating lap of the Schenley Park track with a licensed vintage racer in the Vintage Ride Experience from noon to 12:50 p.m. for a $40 donation.

Throughout the day, from 11 a.m.- 4 p.m., it’s free to admire the classsic, antique, and exotic cars — including British, American, German, Asian and Italian vehicles — parked on the golf course. There will be special displays in the Italian Cortile, British Car Day and Camaro marque. Watch vintage racers compete on the track to qualify for Sunday’s featured races.

A Jaguar F-Type pace car leads the field through Schenley Park. Photo by Bill Schmitt

Best Places to Watch

There are many places where families can watch the race, with free shuttle bus service from the Bob O’Connor golf course and the parking lot on Flagstaff Hill.

Pit/Paddock Area: The pit/paddock provides a close-up view of the race cars, drivers, crews and support vehicles. If you arrive early enough, you can see the cars being unloaded, going through “tech inspection” and watch the crews making them ready for practice and qualifying runs, and racing. It’s a busy place with last minute tuning, fueling and race preparation.

Start/Finish Line: Just a few hundred steps from the paddock area is the center of all racing activity. The Start/Finish area is basically the grassy area encompassed by Bartlett and Beacon Streets at Hobart Street. Spectators can see the stewards, pace cars, timers/scorers, flagmen, race announcers, press and photographers, VIPs, drivers and track vehicles.

George Westinghouse Pond: Just below the entrance to Carnegie Mellon University and the George Westinghouse Memorial Pond is a gently sloping grassy area that is ideal for race watching. It is the first major hairpin (180-degree) turn of the racetrack. The race cars come up a gentle slope, fighting for the best “line” through the turn. There’s some good dicing going on here as the cars drift into position, accelerating out of the turn, up another grade and through the next bend in the course. This is a good area to try your speed photography and to picnic under the trees.

Golf Course Area: The golf course, largest of the spectator areas, has sloped grassy areas ideal for sitting and provides long views of the track through two “hairpin” turns. On Saturday, July 15, the golf course is host to the popular British Car Day and 1,000 other show cars. On Sunday, July 16, the course is taken over by festive Patron Parking parties.

Eats, Treats and Souvenirs

What’s a fun family day without eats and treats? Some 25 vendors on the Schenley Park golf course will offer both, along with merchandise items, on July 15 and 16. A food truck courtyard will feature food items from Nakama, Tambellini’s and Pittsburgh Halal and treats from Oak Hill Kettle Corn and Rita’s Italian Ice. Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix will be selling race-logo T-shirts and hats, souvenirs and a new “special edition” Terrible Towel.

Other Race Week Events:

Invitational Car Show on Walnut Street: (5-9 p.m. July 10) View rare, classic and exotic cars along Shadyside’s Walnut Street view rare, classic and exotic cars at this invitation-only car display. Free.

Waterfront Car Cruise: (4-9 p.m. July 11) More than 650 cars of all marques at this casual car show at The Waterfront in Homestead. $5 donation is suggested.

Downtown Parade & Car Display: (10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. July 12) One hundred race and show cars will thunder through downtown Pittsburgh on their way to car displays at the U.S. Steel Tower, PPG Place, Market Square and Point State Park. Free.

Forbes Avenue of Speed – Race Car Parade & Car Show: (6:35-9 p.m. July 14) The “Forbes Avenue of Speed” Parade and Car Show in Squirrel Hill will showcase race cars parked on both sides of Forbes Avenue for a show. Free.

Candy Williams

Candy Williams is a freelance writer and journalist whose articles have appeared in national and local publications. She lives in the South Hills.