Skip Barber Interview:
This is file 94. This is Jean McMillen and I am interviewing Mr. Skip Barber of the Lime Rock Race Track. Today’s date is April 22, 2015. We will start with a little genealogical information. Then he is going to tell me about the race track.
JM:What is your name?
SB:My name is Skip Barber.
JM:When were you born?
SB:November 16, 1936.
JM:Your birth place?
JM:When did you first come to this area?
SB:I first came to this area when I came to race at Lime Rock which I came to drive in. I had just started racing. I think that was 1959.
JM:What was the car that you were using?
SB:I was using an Austin Healey Sprite.
JM:Which came first Lime rock Race Track or your Racing School?
SB:The Racing School started in 1975. I bought the race track with a group of five others. There were six of us in 1983.
JM:What did you teach at your driving school? Was it just like you do now with snow skidding or what were you teaching when you started?
SB:For the first few years we did racing schools only, in single- seater cars called Formula Fords. The racing school worked for people that didn’t want to go racing; they just wanted to be better drivers. It turns out that the skills that make you a good race car driver make you a safer, better driver on the street, not to go faster on the street. The good race driver can slow the car down in a really short distance; he goes around the race track faster that way. He goes further at full throttle before he puts on the brakes because he is so good with the brakes. Those same braking skills are what you need when the baby carriage gets pushed in front of you.
JM:Or the little old lady with a walker.
SB:Right it really turned out that that was ok for people who just wanted to be better on the street. But four or five years after the racing school started, we started a driving school component.
JM:You have added winter driving now, haven’t you?2.
SB:Yes, we have added winter driving just this year (2015 Ed.) That‘s a track function, not a school function. I don’t own the school any more. I sold that 14 years ago. We made snow this winter for the first time.
JM:That must have been interesting.
SB:Well, it was great but of all the winters to decide to make snow…
JM;Mother Nature didn’t cooperate.
JM:I would assume that with your driving school and your racing school there would be a certain age where the reflexes would be maximum.
SB:I don’t know if that is true or not. They are good at 13. No I don’t think that is true. If it is true, I don’t know it. If it is true, you certainly couldn’t tell it.
JM:Good point. I do the” 55 Drive Alive” and the reaction time is slower for somebody my age than when I was 16.
SB:Oh for sure.
JM:But if you have those skills, you still know how to compensate.
SB:When you asked the question, I wasn’t thinking in terms of say people in their 70’s or 80’s. Actually the first racing school we ever did, we had a guy 75 years old. He happened to be just fine, but of course your reflexes get worse, no question. Age, but it doesn’t happen at the same time for everybody.
JM: When you were working with the racing school, you were a teacher at that point.
SB:I started not only as an instructor, but the instructor.
JM:But you found that you strengths were in other areas. What were your strengths?
SB:I discovered you know I never expected the racing school to amount to much. I was treating it almost as if it was a hobby. I learned in the first year that I loved solving problems. I loved dealing with the logistics which of course is what generally businesses are about. Driving a race car is problem solving, it just happens real fast. So I didn’t spend a lot of time as an instructor; I spent it more as an organizer.
JM:How long did you keep the racing school? You said that you started it in 1975 and you sold it 14 years ago, so you have had it…
JM:You bought the Lime Rock Race Track in 1983. Whom did you buy it from?3.
SB:I bought it and my group from a guy who was a Greek ship owner named Harry Theodora- copulos. (The land had been a corn and potato field originally. Jim Vaill developed a Sand & Gravel business on the property. In 1957 the track was built as a European road racing track by a group of private individuals who loved racing. In 1969 Harry Theodoracopulos bought it. Ed.) He had raced as an amateur and by 1983 he had lost interest. He wasn’t racing anymore, and wanted to do other things.
JM:What is the size in acreage of the park?
SB:It is roughly 360 acres.
JM:That is a lot of property, and I am assuming that you manage all of it whether it is the physical track part of it or whether it is woodlands or wetlands or whatever.
SB:Yes, there is a significant chunk of it that is woodlands and wetlands.
JM:You had a consortium of 5 other people with yourself.
SB;I put together a group to buy the track; I was worried about the prospects of other people who wanted to buy it. They didn’t want to convert it into something else, but I thought that they might not be very successful in running it. For example, one of them wanted to build a big hotel here, not instead of the race track, but to benefit from the race track patrons. Try building a big hotel here; what happens in the winter? Not a good idea. I saw that. So I put together a group of people I knew who raced in the school race series or who I knew from other racing ways.
JM:So it was racing people that knew about racing and knew some of the ins and outs of possible problems.
SB:Yeah and anticipated enjoying the whole process and it worked out that way. We borrowed all the money; none of us had any money. Each guy’s obligation was to make two mortgage payments a year. That was how the track could reinvest in itself without having to serve the debt.
JM:It has been developed over the years as what you are doing now. What are some of the things that you have developed as far as the infrastructure?
SB:It turned out when we bought it we discovered that the infrastructure was completely used up. I think the first time we turned on an electrical switch, it cost $30,000 in 1983 money for electrical services. It was the same thing with turning on a faucet, on and off. It was a great lesson in pouring money into the ground.
JM:Like building a house!
SB:Well, no you have a house to look at when you are done, but when you put it underground with electricity and water and you see nothing. We built some buildings early on. We just steadily worked
away at it. The two most significant things we did were: in 2008 we not only repaved the whole track, but we dug up much of it which did not have a proper base and put in a proper highway standard base under it. This winter, 2014-15, we have addressed a lot of the infrastructure. There is a common quote about Lime Rock. There is a website called “Jalopnik” which not famous, but extremely popular in automotive and racing circles. Actually it is one of the most visited websites in the world. They last year said that Lime Rock was the most beautiful track in North America and 5th most beautiful in the world. They were kind enough not to say that all the infrastructure was prehistoric which is true. This winter we are addressing that –better sight lines for spectators, bigger spectator areas, flatter and better areas for hospitality tents, lots of new trees.
SB:We have done that pretty regularly. We had a tree drive two years ago; we raised money for 55= that was on our 55th anniversary. Lime rock fans bought 55 trees; each one individually in memory of somebody. It was really neat; we were celebrating anniversaries, and a lot of them in memory of someone.
JM:I have two trees in my backyard in memory of my husband, and then I got a little annoyed so I planted a tree for me, equal opportunity.
SB: Getting a jump
JM:Getting a jump on whatever happens. Have you made an application for the National Register List?
SB:We are on the National Register.
JM:Isn’t that unusual?
SB:Most of the town of Salisbury is. (1997, 260 Acres, 31 building, I object Ed.) ; The center of Lime Rock village is too (1984, 1,200 acres 69 buildings Ed.) What we have made an application for is Historic Landmark which is extraordinarily unusual.
JM:Is that because of John Fitch’s …
SB:Nothing to do with him, no. The qualifications are that something significant has to have happened at the place, and the most important road race, which is the kind of racing we do, probably in this country was here. That was the first time that amateurs, professionals and Indy car drivers all competing in a major race. You probably don’t remember but when I was a little boy, certainly in the 1950’s, and 1960’s amateurs did do things with professionals. Great tennis players were no longer allowed to play in major tennis events because they dared to be professional. We broke that rule. Racing has sanctioning body just like tennis and every other sport. We did not do with a sanction; Lime Rock did this on its own. We had this race, it was a BIG deal. Further big deal sport cars people were
snobby and some Indianapolis driver won the race in a 10 year old midget racer and he beat the best sports car in the world. You are not supposed to be able to do that. Apparently he wore the brakes out in practice, and they had brake drums that they had relined at a gas station in Lakeville. They came back and he won the race. I wish I had been here. There must have been a lot of long faces. His name was Roger Ward, he was a wonderful guy. He did win Indianapolis that same year. He thought that this was the most significant race of his life. People said that.
JM:I can see where it would be.
SB:You were talking about Historic Landmark, so something significant has to have happened. You have to have been and it has to be the same facility as it was 50 years ago or then or when it was built. Our track hasn’t changed at all. The part you drive on is exactly the same. The feel of the place is exactly the same.
JM:It is bucolic and beautiful.
SB:It turns out there is a guy in Washington who is very involved in this who went to Trinity College and was a Lime Rock fan then and he came and checked and said, ”Oh same place!” Despite all the money we’ve spent under grass.
JM:But it doesn’t show.
SB:That is correct. I think when we finish all this earth moving; it is not going to show. You will not realize that you are standing three feet higher looking at a corner; you are not going to realize that you can see a little further around the corner hopefully nobody’s going to realize that.
JM:I won’t tell. Now you must have a staff?
SB:We have a terrific staff. We have a bit over 20 full time people and of course many more seasonal people. Then many, many more on events, on our major events
JM:Like the Rotary used to come to volunteer and pass out programs and so forth. What is an “engineered” track?
SB:That’s another tiny component of the land mark. This is the first track that had any engineering design with an effort to make it safe. They were early days of the interstate highway system, and people were getting interested in road design. There were engineers at a place called Cornell, with aeronautical labs. Some of the engineers were also racing fans. In fact they raced and they got involved. Jim Vaill (see Jim Vaill #56 A/B) kind of designed it with his bulldozer driving it around his non- functioning gravel pit after all the gravel was gone. They a guy named Bill Millikin who I think was a professor at Cornell and a race car driver got real involved in the cambers of the corners, very specifically the angles of the layout of the corners. That is not a big deal.
JM:It is because it is designing something to be safe and not just nothing. What is the difference between a road race and an oval race?
SB:A road race track in which this is obviously one, have both right and left hand corners and have elevation changes. They go up hill and downhill sometimes. Ovals are just that, flat.
JM:Like horse racing?
SB:Not necessarily flat, but they are oval shape; you turn one direction always left.
JM:Like horse racing?
SB:Well, good question. When automobile racing started, it started in Europe which is where the very first cars were built. They raced on public roads. Then when it was time to get off the public roads and went to tracks, they built race tracks that simulated the public roads. When car racing started in America, and we had lots of county fairgrounds which had oval horse racing tracks…
JM:Great Barrington Race Track
SB:You raced on the dirt oval, and that is where it started. That is just gone on that way forever. There are almost no oval in Europe. I think one, two actually. Not so many road courses in North America.
JM:I am think of the Cheltenham race track, and I think that is an oval, but I wouldn’t want to swear to it.
SB:In England? No, a guy who works for me used to be a steeplechase rider there, before he became a car racer. That is jumping.
JM:Oh I know what steeple chasing is.
SB:Well, maybe it does a loop, but it is not round and round. On an oval race you do many laps.
JM:I learn something all the time. Who owns the race track now? Do you own it by yourself?
SB:Yes. I own it by myself.
JM:John Fitch, what can you tell me about John Fitch and his association with the park?
SB:John is often called the designer of or creator of Lime Rock and that is not really accurate. He was very involved. I believe he came in the picture after Jim Vaill had kind of bulldozed the basic course. John brought in the engineering component; he brought in Cornell. He was absolutely influential in that; John was an early manager of the race track. It was John who put on and organized that major road race that was so significant. He moved to this area because of Lime Rock. I think he lived in Stamford and came here and never left.
JM:Did he develop his safety barriers here?7.
SB:Yes, John developed his safety barriers here. We have great pictures of crashing station wagons down at the end of the straightaway, crashing cars into barriers.
JM:What haven’t I asked you, that I should ask you about either the racing school or your track?
SB:You haven’t asked anything about economic impact on the community.
JM:Let’s go for that as it does have a great impact on the area.
SB:It has a huge impact, but I can only answer that question anecdotally. Years ago we had an economic impact study done, but that is so long ago that I don’t remember any numbers. So many restaurants owners and most of the hotel owners have all said to me that they would not be in business if Lime Rock ever closed. I think that is true.
JM:The schools are out during the summer so you don’t have the competition between getting a room because you are going to the track or getting a room because you are a Hotchkiss parent or Salisbury School parent.
SB:Right, we certainly have a much greater impact that Hotchkiss.
JM:Oh yes, you have a much bigger catchment area of people.
SB:Right, if you needed a story, I was surprised this year 2014 Lime Rock had fewer major events than traditionally for all kinds of reasons. I guy who owns a very good restaurant in Great Barrington said to me, “I am going to lose money this year, and it is your fault!” I believe it, but the impact is not just the obvious hotels and restaurants, I have had antique dealers tell me that. A common thing a guy comes to the racing school and he brings his wife or girlfriend.
JM:She does the shops and perhaps lunch out. That is what ladies do. You have had events like the classic cars weekend, Labor Day weekend, and you have had other special events other than racing here.
SB:We had this past year a wonderful event to benefit an AARP charity “The Drive against Hunger”. We raised over $100,000 and on the 4th of July weekend before the fireworks, we packed I think one hundred thousand meals; it was huge all done by volunteers. We raised the money to buy the food. We had a lot of cooperation from LaBonne’s, Bob LaBonne really helped a lot. We had a stock car driver who was very popular named Jeff Gordon who came in the fall. We sold rides around the race track with him. There was a dinner with him, and autograph sessions. We raised a lot of money that day. Some guy from Millerton gave us an anonymous $100,000. It was a huge number and we raised $100,000 so over all we raised $200,000. That is a special kind of event.
JM:That is wonderful because it benefits so many other people that just race car people.
SB:We were able to stipulate that all that money and all that food go to Litchfield County, Southern Berkshire County, and Duchess County food banks. I don’t know if they realized where a lot of it came
from this year but they were grateful. It went through the Connecticut Food Bank which is a good organization. We had a concert here for Tri-Arts, now Sharon Play House. We have done things like that in the past. Sharon Hospital before it became a for-profit hospital we used to have benefits here. There have been a lot of things. The community mental health center, they came here on and off.
JM:It is fascinating because I came with the perception of one small thing and how you have broadened my horizons as to all of the wonderful that you do for the community.
SB:I think that is true. I don’t think generally people know about that.
JM:This is why we are doing the interview so that people do know.
SB:We do a bunch of things every year. It varies year to year.
JM:The fireworks are always popular.
SB:Yeah and that’s on us.
JM:The Rotary buys the fireworks.
SB:The Rotary buys the fireworks and collects the money. We do everything else. We pick up the trash.
JM:You have a professional group that comes in and actually sets off the fireworks.
SB:Rotary hires a group I think it is a group from Long Island.(Legion Fireworks ED.) They have the license to shoot off the fireworks. As the Rotarians have gotten older, we have assumed more of the responsibility. It is really sad about Rotary, it is so small now. Nothing like the group I used to know.
JM:I know. When Foster was in Rotary in 1976 until he died in 2005, we used to go the Rotary dinners and there would be 50-80 people. I have now spoken to Rotary twice and there were maybe 18? I have had school classes bigger than that.
SB:We had Rotary yesterday. I went and we had a good guest speaker and I felt for the guy. We certainly didn’t have 20.
JM:I am a local so it doesn’t make any difference to me whether I speak to 2 or 22, but when somebody is coming from a distance you really like to have a big audience.
SB: We feel terrible.
JM:But it is like a lot of the organizations now; the senior members are getting tired. The new blood is too busy, not interested and they just don’t join these organizations as they used to which is a shame.
SB:Yeah and that is Rotary’s problem and everybody’s problem.
JM:Oh yeah, whether it is Rotary or DAR or book club or churches…9.
SB:Oh boy for all churches.
JM:The Fall Festival back in the 1950’s it was a really big deal, and this past year fewer of the churches are participating because the members are tired.
SB: The service clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, and the Salisbury Rotary club may not have a future. It has been around a long time, and every year there are fewer people there. If somebody dies, they don’t get replaced, let alone any chance of growth.
JM:With the volunteers there is a lot of work that they used to do; people don’t have the time any more. It is sad but it is like everything else, it is a cycle. It will go around again. It always does.
SB:Well don’t be sure. That is the historian you know that the population of these towns was double in the late 1800’s to what it is now.
JM:Yes and there was work then. There is not work now.
SB:Where are we going to be 25 years from now?
JM:I don’t have any clue, but the race track will still be here.
SB:Probably but where will the people with the modest income live?
JM:It is hard on ordinary people.
JM:I am an optimist. There is going to be a silver lining someplace.
SB:I live in Sharon and there is a road very near my house where most of the houses must have been built just as beach cottages near Mudge Pond. Certainly in Sharon it has got to be the road which has the least expensive houses on it. I was on a tour, being driven around by an affordable housing group in Sharon five years ago. I said, “you know if I ever had the money, if the day comes that I sell the race track or part of it, I could see slowly buying all those houses and having that become affordable housing in Sharon. I would fix those places up. The woman who was part of this was horrified at of idea that there might be a street where all those people would live.
JM:Why not, they have to live somewhere?
SB;Well it is the old NIMBY; it is a great concept but don’t do it next to my house.
JM:But they are all working people.
SB:You don’t have to defend it to me; I was the guy who wanted to do it if it were ever possible. I was shocked. There is somebody that you would think would be for it as opposed to the people that you know are going to be against it.
JM:People are different.10.
SB:But you need them to cut your grass or plow the snow, you just don’t need them to live near you. It is unbelievable.
JM:Is there anything else that you want to add.
SB:No, I was going to find out about …I know it is $200,000.
JM;I am going to say thank you very much.