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'Guys who like cars' put on a show

Oregon City's Rich Thomas will return to the stage for this weekend's Baxter Auto Parts Portland Historic Races

PORTLAND - Portland International Raceway will be the hottest ticket in town for classic car buffs this weekend, and at least one local man will be among the proud participants.

The occasion is Baxter Auto Parts' 30th annual Portland Historic Races.

Rich Thomas, 57, of Oregon City will once again be entering his 1956 Austin Healey in the 100 M event.

'I've always liked those little sports cars,' says Thomas. 'I had one of those in high school.'

This is the 12th year that Thomas has entered his pride and joy in the event, and he doesn't expect to win. That's because Thomas is racing in a production class that includes vehicles made as late as 1960.

'There will be a lot of guys in the race with cars that are a lot faster than mine, but I'm a little more competitive than I used to be. I'm not in the back of the pack anymore. Now I'm around the middle of the pack.'

Even if Thomas had a vehicle with an engine that could win the race, there'd be no physical reward for him at the finish line.

No trophies, no payday

'There's no trophy or money in vintage racing,' said Thomas. 'It's just camaraderie of guys who like their cars.'

Thomas has spent a great deal of time and money restoring his Austin Healey since he purchased it in 1981, but he assists he is not as obsessed with restoring as some of his buddies.

'There are some guys who've got to restore every nut and bolt to the original,' said Thomas. 'If it looks like original, that's good enough for me.

'Now, if I could find something to make it go a little faster, that would be a different story.'

Thomas admits he has rebuilt his engine and upped the compression ratio to make his vehicle more competitive.

Thomas says his Austin Healey was 'an old basket case' when he first began work on it 25 years ago.

'There were actually two cars,' Thomas said. 'A 1955 Austin Healey and a 1956 Healey. 'They were both all in parts and rusty, and I used parts of both.'

He dipped the body frame in an acid dip, stripped off all the paint and rust, and cleaned the aluminum body panels. Rex Urban of Mini Motors in Salem helped him with the paint and body work.

And after thousands of hours of labor and thousands of dollars in invested, the vehicle is a thing of beauty, to the unindoctrinated, as well as the vintage car buff.

And the vehicle is street legal, except that it is without a bumper, and the tires are racing tires, which are thinner and lighter than the tires on everyday vehicles.

Thomas, who works as a surveyor for the state of Oregon, travels to Mini Motors in Salem on weekends to work on his vehicle.

'There are too many distractions and chores around here,' said Thomas, who with his wife Chic tends sheep, chickens, a garden llama and a house full of foster children on 10 acres in rural Oregon City.

Thomas explained why he races: 'It's quite a thrill getting out there and competing. I'm not the best driver in the world, but it takes a pretty good driver, and I'm getting better.'

The Oregon City man says the question he is most often asked is how fast his car goes in a race.

'I've got this stock speedometer and I'm probably going 30 miles faster than what it says,' Thomas said. 'But I don't really know how fast I'm going. You don't watch the speedometer when you're racing.'

For Thomas, the Baxter Auto Parts Portland Historic Races are a family affair.

His sisters and brother-in-laws usually show up with their children and everyone gets involved as a part of his pit crew.

Brother-in-law Cary Lowe brings his motor home and is 'crew chef.'

Brother-in-law Bob Sears is 'crew chief.'

Thomas' wife dons a t-shirt that has the words 'co-owner' inscribed on it.

Sister Mary Ellen Lowe has designed caps inscribed with the words 'Thomas Racing Team (56).'

A family dog is 'crew mascot,' and the kids are 'support crew.'

'Everyone's got a title,' said Thomas. 'It's a lot of fun!'

One of the popular features of the Portland Historic Races is the open paddock, which allows spectators to view the legendary cars up close and interact with the drivers.

Some of the most popular entries in this year's races include: a 1953 Allard J2X, a perfectly restored 1955 Corvette; a 1976 March Formula Atlantic; a 1955 Triumph TR@; a 1938 BMW; and a 1988 Spice GTP/L, driven by local racing hero Parker Johnstone.

American's first true sports car, the Corvette, will be the featured marque at this year's event, with legendary Corvette driver Guldstrand serving as the race's Grand Marshal.

A paddock celebration of 50 years of the British roadster Allard will also featured, along with a race of Vmoto vintage motorcycles, a display of more than 700 collector cars and hot rods, an autocross for participants, an upscale food and wine chalet, and a vendor midway.

The races, which run Friday through Sunday, are a fundraiser for the Children's Cancer Association. Admission fees are $10 for Friday, $25 for Saturday and Sunday, and $40 for all three days. Children age 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult, and discount tickets are available at all Baxter Auto Parts.

The races run daily from 8:30 to 6 p.m.

For additional information about the races, check out the website at www.portlandhistorics.com.