Lime Rock Park
Nestling in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in north west Connecticut, Lime Rock Park is a short, fast and tough circuit which has become a mainstay of sportscar racing through the years.
Set in beautiful parkland, Lime Rock is unusual in having no grandstands, with spectators invited to picnic on the grassed banks which overlook the circuit, giving it a reputation as a very friendly and family-oriented venue.
It continues to attract top-line series, despite a ban on Sunday racing. Headline events include the Trans Am Memorial Day Classic, the IMSA Northeast Grand Prix and the Historic Festival, alongside SCCA regional events.
The pioneer behind Lime Rock was Jim Vaill, whose father owned the land on which the circuit was eventually built. Vaill's friend Jack Fisher owned an MG-TC, and they often drove it rapidly in circles in the cornfield at the top of the hill. Vaill himself operated the gravel pit that was on the site, in the north face of the hill. In the mid -1950s, rumours of Vaill's 'racing' activities reached members of the SCCA, who visited the site to assess its suitability as a circuit. Persuaded, Vaill began planning a course, diverting Salmon Creek to what would become the north side of the main straightaway.
He enlisted the help of racing driver and road safety pioneer John Fitch to come up with the track layout, using Cornell University's Aeronautical Labs. It was the first time that scientific and highway-safety principles had been used to determine the configuration of a circuit in north America. Fitch would go on to become circuit manager and enjoyed a lasting relationship with the circuit for the remainder of his 95 years.
The original plans had called for a longer course, sweeping up through the tree line, and the shorter 1.5 mile course that we are familiar with today. The trees were bulldozed for the mountain circuit, but it was never built, though visitors can still trace its outline on foot through the forest. This forgotten variant has lived on however in virtual form however; enthusiasts have created the mountain course for a variety of computer racing games.
The track opened for business in 1957 and has hosted a remarkable variety of racing, from SCCA club races to top level IMSA, ALMS and Grand-Am Sportscars. It has even seen visits from the NASCAR Busch North Series.
Not every local is an enthusiastic supporter of the facility, however, and the early years of operation saw some particularly vocal opposition. In the late 1950s, a group of residents formed the Lime Rock Protective Association and took the circuit to Litchfield Superior Court in an effort to curb racing activities. Central among their complaints was disruption caused to Trinity Episcopal Church, located across the road from the main straight. Tales of services being disrupted by noise from the circuit, along with parishioners finding their traditional roadside parking spaces occupied on race weekends no doubt raised their ire. The court issued a permanent injunction against Sunday racing and its decision was upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1963.
Happily, relationships between the circuit and local community have improved over the years, and the rector of Trinity Church is now a regular at circuit events, providing the invocation before racing commences. It's even been known for event schedules to be rearranged to accommodate any weddings taking place... Nevertheless, the consent decree still stands and the track continues to fall silent on Sundays.
Enter Skip Barber as owner
In 1985, Jim Vaill sold the facility to racing driver Skip Barber, who brought his world famous racing school to the site (though since 2011 it has been headquartered at Road Atlanta). Barber has maintained the character of the circuit throughout a number of modernisations. The first came with the addition of a chicane after the sweeping Uphill Corner, following a frightening crash involving John Morton's Nissan GTP which became airborne after the rise. The car rolled multiple times and was completely destroyed, with Morton fortunate to escape with burns to his face as his most severe injury.
The bumpy track surface was repaved in the 1992/93 off-season and again in time for the 2008 season, as part of more major modifications. The 'Morton' chicane had been replaced by a revised Uphill complex, which was much slower and also provided a new overtaking opportunity. West Bend also received an alternative and much slower route, though in both cases, the original circuit variants were also retained. The new uphill and West sections were employed when the ALMS series visited for several years, though later events have seen the original West Bend utilised once more.
In recent times the track appeared to have an uncertain future. In 2020 Barber lost a further court battle to overturn the longstanding injunction against Sunday racing. This has been a long-standing barrier to expanding the circuit's programme of professional racing and was something of a hammer blow. With the land now much more valuable for non-racing purposes and Barber in his 80s, a sale looked inevitable and redevelopment seemed like an eminent possibility.
Thankfully, Barber was cannier operator than most and brought in new investors in 2021 and put in place a new ownership structure. Lime Rock Group, LLC, comprised of general partners Charles Mallory, Dicky Riegel, and Bill Rueckert, and a group of private investors, assumed control of the facility in April. The company was formed specifically to acquire Lime Rock Park and sees Riegel, a former president and CEO at Airstream, take over as CEO of the circuit. Skip Barber remains a significant owner in the new entity and be an integral part of its management committee.
“The Group... [is] bringing outstanding new vision and vitality to Lime Rock’s operations and to our local and regional community," said Barber of the sale. "They are the ideal stewards of the Park’s long and successful legacy. This is truly wonderful news for everyone involved with Lime Rock as we commence our 65th year of operations."