A Fun Weekend in the Tradition of Airport Racing

It was the grand era of American amateur sports car racing. Each May from the1950s through the early 1970s, the likes of Carroll Shelby,Briggs Cunningham, Roger Penske, Dick Thompson and Bob Holbert would trailer (or drive) their rides into the Maryland mountains for the annual Cumberland Airport Nationals Sports Car Race. This event, sanctioned by the Steel Cities Region of the SCCA, featured the greatest cars of the period - Birdcage Maserati, Ferrari Testa Rossa, D Type Jaguar, Porsche 356 Speedster, Cobra, Mustang, Camaro, Sunbeam Alpine, Austin Healy 100, theHowmet Turbine Car.
Those days are gone but the great cars are still welcome in the town that hosted them. The first weekend in June, the sound of exotic cars will ring again across the ridgetops surrounding Cumberland, Maryland. Our downtown, now rejuvenated as a historic district, eagerly awaits the return of classic sports cars to our streets.


Roger Penske took his SCCA driver’s test in Cumberland in a 283 Corvette in 1958. Roger passed, but the Vette blew a motor and then fell off the trailer on his way home. In 1967 the first race win for the new Z28 Camaro came in Cumberland, in a car purchased in the same order as Penske’s own famous ‘67.

Bob Holbert saw his first Porsche race car - the RS 550 Spyder - as he lost to it in Cumberland. This 250MM Spyder raced in Cumberland in 1954 as did a Testa Rossa in 1957 and 1959. The D Type Jaguar won in 1956 driven by Walt Hansgen.

A History of Cumberland Airport Racing by Year

1953-- Sports Car Races were held at the Cumberland Municipal Airport in 1953. There were 80 entries.

1954—In 1954 a crowd of 12.000 watched a filed of 122 cars. The feature race was called the Cumberland Cup Race—The winner of the 80 mile event----Dr. M.R.J. Wyllie.

1955--- The Sports Car Club of America had 1,100 licensed drivers in 1955. And with 284 cars entered, one fourth of them were at Cumberland. To date this was the biggest sports car race ever run in the United States. There were eleven races including one for ladies. The modified cars wre divided into two classes--- over and under two liters. Races for these cars were of 60 minute duration. Briggs Cunningham brought in a fleet of new Maseratis and John Bently of Sports Illustrated entered an Abarth. A Ferrari driven by Sherwood Johnston won the feature race at an average spped of 67.9 mph. Dr. Skitarelic of Cumberland, one of the originators of the Cumberland Races entered his MG TD.

At the finish of the 10th race one of the contestant’s brakes locked at the finish line injuring 5 persons in the vicinity of the judges’ stand. There were no serious injuries. In fact this incident was probably the most serious in all the races held at Cumberland.

1956—In 1956 entries soared to over 350. Famed band leader Paul Whitman was honorary starter, although Jesse Coleman was now in his second year as starter at Cumberland. Class G production was still dominated by the now near classic MG TD’s, TC’s, and TF’s. The Briggs Cummingham’s team was again present---this time with four D-type Jaguars.

One of the most distant entries ever at Cumberland, John Edgar of Sherman Oaks, California, took delivery of a new Ferrari two days before the race. The car was brought by special truck from New York. The driver of this car, also a Californian, Jack McAfee, had already won the 1956 race at Pebble Beach.

Walt Hansgen beat McAfee in the feature at an average of 68mph. McAfee’s new Ferrari had broken down during practice so he was driving a Porsche 550. With the same car he won E and F modified race, and was second in the B, C, and D modified race.

There were a few Corvettes entered, but the Cumberland races had still not seen an American winner.

1957---This was the first and only year that a well known figure in American Racing—Carrol Shelby ran at Cumberland. He entered a Maserati 300 SD and won with an average speed of 60.5 mph.

The entry list for C production was dominated by the XK 120 Jag, but the Corvettes took 1, 2, and 3 with Dr. Dick Thompson getting the victory lap. This was the first win for an American built car at Cumberland.

The Cunningham team was back again with Briggs behind the wheel of a C61R and John Fitch and Walt Hansgen driving the D Jags.

Bruce Fennings and Lake Underwood began competing in FP in Porsche. Underwood was the winner this year.

1958----This year was the biggest yet! Crowds were estimated at 45,000. A driver named Roger Penske showed up for the first time at Cumberland, driving a B Production Corvette. The Briggs Cunningham team was at it again, this time with two Lister Jags and a D Jag. Walt Hansgen won the feature event in the Lister at an average of 71 mph. The ladies race was still popular and was won by Denise McCluggage in her Porsche. In D and E Production the TR-3’s Morgans, and Austin Healy’s were out in force, but the Bristols took 1,2, and 3.

Many race fans at Cumberland have often wondered whether a race car ever went over the bank. Well it happened in 1958. The brakes on a Siata Special owned by Louis Jeffries failed as he came off the long straight. The car plunged down the steep embankment overturning several times. Injuries to the driver were not serious.

1959 ---There were only 201 cars entered in nine races this year. Roger Penske was back again--- this time in a Porche RS. The ladies race was a popular feature and saw Peg Wyllie, Susy Dietrich and Denise McCluggage competing.

Briggs Cunningham arrived with three Lister Jags this year. Walt Hansgen, Ed Crawford, and B.S. Cunningham were the drivers. Hansgen was first again with a new record of 72 mph. The feature race for B, C, and D modified also had the first three cars from the H and G, and the D, C, and E modified races. The winner of G and H modified was Dr. M.R.J. Wyllie, one of the originators of the Cumberland races. Bruce Jennings was first in EP with a Porsche Carrera and Ray Heppenstall won DP.

1960-- Bruce Jennings renumbered his Correra to 77 this year, but still won the DP. Walt Hansgen took his fifth win in the Vandegrift Trophy race, driving a Maserati 61 entered by Briggs Cunningham. The ladies race for the Queen’s Cup was won by Denise McCluggage in an Osca F. Jr. Charlie Kolb won three races with three different cars. He was first in FP, Forumla Jr. and H modified. There was still a lone MG TD in G and H Production, and a lot of XK120 and XKL50 Jags ran in C and D production.

1961--- Bob Holbert won the Naderift in a Porsche RS 61 at an average speed of 74.33 mph. Penske who set an unofficial lap record of 1:17 in a bird cage Masserati threw a rod while holding a six second lead.

The ladies race saw Donna Mae Mimns for the first time as she took the cup in a B production Corvette. Another Newcomer Bob Tulius entered the Novice race and finished third in EP in his TR-3. M.R.J. Wyllie piloted his Lola to victory in G, H, and I modified. His speed was 68.32 mph. And winning the Corvette race in CP at an identical speed was Don Yenko.

1962—In 1962, Penske came to Cumberland with two National wins already under his belt. During practice he set a new record of 1:14 with the Telar Special. This car was powered with a 2.5 liter Climax engine. Hap Sharp of Midland, Texas also had good practice times of 1:15 in a Cooper Climax. This car had an engine similar to the Telar Special but game away about 400 pounds. Penske brought the Telar Special Copper Monaco to victory with Hap Sharp 5 seconds behind. A new track record of 1:14 was set-equivalent to 77.5 mph.

This was the first year without a ladies race. The first race of the day in H Production saw a bumper to bumper battle between two Fiat Abarths driven by Ed Astri and Ed Hesset who was the eventual winner. Dick Thompson was the winner in A Production with his big ‘vette and M.R.J. Wyllie was again victorious in G modified with his Lola Climax.

1963-- The Telar Special of last year was now driven by Tim Mayer, who turned a 1:13 lap in practice. However Roger Penske returned with the Zerex Special (a Ferrari) and won the Vandegrift in record time. His average was 77.5 mph with a best lap of 1:12. Mayer was out in the twelfth lap. Veteran driver Walt Hansgen in a Cooper-Buick was the only car not lapped by Penske.

In A and B Production the new Cobra of Bob Johnson sent the Corvette Sting Rays howling to the snake pit. In G and H Production Nagel was first in a Morgan followed by the pink lady, Donna Mae Mims in her AH Sprite. The Porsche race (sometimes called E Production) went to Lake Underwood. Bob Tulius was first in D with a number 44 TR-4.

1964--- Both Bob Tulius and Ed Lowther arrive at Cumberland undefeated in the new season. Tulius won his race but the Cumberland ‘jinx’ was after Lowther again. His Geni Mustang snapped a universal joint and O’Brien won the Vandegrift in 2.8 liter Ferrari.

Bob “King Cobra” Johnson mopped up the Sting Rays in A and B Production. Hal Keck in another Cobra was second. The little Lotus Super 7’s dominated the C Production race. This year Bruce Jennings took the E Production Porsche race in number 77, which by now was becoming a familiar fixture at the Cumberland Airport circuit.

1965—This was the first year of Sedan races at Cumberland. The entry list of only 8 cars was a disappointment, but a good race was held. Pettit was first in a Lotus Cortina, with a Mini Cooper second. This was the tenth year for Ed Lowther at the Cumberland races. He fought for last the first year and hadn’t finished a race since, although is record at other tracks was once of success. The Cumberland ‘jinx’ was still with Ed Lowther. After blowing two engines in practice on Saturday, a quick trip to Pittsburgh produced a third engine. However on the first lap the car locked in third gear, and after driving a very erratic seven laps Ed was forced to retire, Decker was the ultimate winter of the Vandegrift in a Cooper Ford.

The B Production race saw a fantastic duel between the GT Mustang of Bob Johnson and Frank Dominiani in a Corvette. Johnson passed Dominiani coming out of the Kelly turn on the last lap and both cars raced side by side to the finish line. Bob Johnson was the winner in a photo finish as both cars crashed through the barrier and spun into the infield.
The E Production race was also closely contested between Bruce Jennings and George Frey, with Frey emerging as the eventual victor.

1966--- A tragedy at LeMans, France in April of 1966 led to the beginning of a new memorial race at Cumberland. Walt Hansgen, a five-time winner at Cumberland was killed when his Ford Mk. II skidded on the rain-wet pavement at LeMans and flipped end over end. The Walt Hansgen Memorial race for A and B Production cars was established in his memory. The event was won by Ed Lowther, his first victory at Cumberland in 11 years. Driving a 427 Cobra, Ed also set a new lap record of 1:13 for production cars.

The entry list for the sedan races was sufficient for two events. In the A and B event, Tom Yeager in a Mustang edged the Dodge Dart of Bob Tulius by a scant 12 seconds. A constant challenger for second place was Morty Winkler in a sleek red Alpha. The class B Alpha proved superior in the turns but couldn’t cope with larger Dart of the 2,200 foot straight. The C and D Sedans event was won by a Mini Cooper driven by Jim Murphy.

The races on Sunday were postponed one hour until 10 a.m. due to a heavy fog. Visibility was so bad that it was impossible to see from one flag station to the next. Bob Bucher of New York set a new lap record of 1:11.8 in his new Lola.

In E Production Dick Sundra nosed out Ted Krokus in one of the tightest finishes ever seen at Cumberland. Both drivers failed to negotiate the inverted S and crashed through the barricades. They were temporarily disqualified, but a later decision gave the victory to Sundra.

1967--- The Sedan races again saw a Mini Cooper first in the C and D race. In A and B sedan, Don Yenko jumped into the lead in his Camero, but dropped out after 7 laps with low oil pressure. John Moore was the eventual winner in another Camero with Macolm Starr second in a Mustang. A Porsche 911 was third and first in B.

Sunday brought rain and a crowd of only 12,000, the smallest since 1954. George Alderman won the Vandegrift in a Chevy powered McLaren. Hal Keck was the victor in the Hansgen Memorial with his A Production 427 Cobra.

It took the camera to decide the E Production race. Bruce Jennings driving the familiar number 77 Porche Speedster grabbed the lead. But George Frey, also in a Speedster, caught up and a blazing finish was inevitable. Jennings was the ultimate winner, having also won the C and D Production race a Porsche Carrera.

1968-- Finally, the C and D Production race was NOT won by a Mini Cooper. Jim Netterstrom was first at the finish line a Porsche.

The big news this year at Cumberland was the Howment Turbine, the car of the future, driven by Ray Heppenstall. However Bob Nagel, behind the wheel of a McKee Ford 427, put on a real performance. After spinning out, Nagel made up a 21 second advantage by the turbine to take the checkered flag. The Turbine, with its four wheel drive was more agile that the big Ford but lacked acceleration coming out of the turns. Nagel in overtaking the Howmet TX Turbocar set a new lap record of 1:07.6.

Hal Kek made it two in a row by winning the Hansgen Memorial race in his Cobra. Tulius was again the victory in his Triumph 44, this year a TR 250 with fuel injection.

1969-- Group 44, the colorful northern Virginia racing team, had a three for three day at Cumberland. (G and H, F and C Production) Bob Tulius of group 44, brought the fans to their feet with his victory over Bruce Fennings in Class C. This was by far the most thrilling race of the day. The lead changed hands no less than 12 times, usually in front of the timing stand, and often at the end of the long straight. There was however, some suspicion among the more experienced viewers, that Tulius with the superior car was playing cat and mouse. At any rate it was a fantastic race and a whale of a good show.

Bob Nagel won the featured Vandegrift Memorial for the second year in a row and bettered the course record set by himself the previous year. He turned a sensational 1:04.2 on the 17th lap. Nagel also holds the fastest average speed of 85.5 mph. It was fortunate for Bob that the race was no longer. He blew a head gasket on the next to last lap and could have made one or two more circuits. Dr. M.R.J. Wyllie, who has raced here every year since 1963 was fourth.

1970--- The Vandegrift memorial seemed like a sure thing for Bob Nagel, only to find himself sitting behind Jerry Crawford and his McLaren Pussycat in the final turn. Crawford slipped by to score his first win in the local show. This year found many classes of cars being run together because of withdrawals. And, it seems like you can’t have a race without looking for the Big 44 and Bob Tulius, who always puts on a good show.


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