Lime Rock Park helped Charlie Downes to a landmark in African-American racing history
Photo via Charlie Downes personal collection
LAKEVILLE, CONN. (17 February 2023)- Back in the early 1980s, IMSA instituted a one-make division for street legal cars that would set the scene for future competition including the IMSA Firestone Firehawk, SCCA World Challenge and a number of one-marque series.
Black History Month is a good time to remember one of the competitors who ran competitively in the series and made African-American history in the process.
Charlie Downes, of Parlin, N.J., was one of the drivers attracted to the Renault-backed series that ran at Lime Rock Park and other top circuits. A victory at Lime Rock Park was key to him winning the Renault Facom Cup East Coast championship in 1984 – becoming the first Black driver to win a championship in an American-based series.
The series originally used the boxy Le Car for two seasons before moving to the larger Encore for the East Coast and the Alliance on the West Coast. Grids of 40-50 cars were common back then, with plenty of bumping and banging through the pack.
“I had good seasons with Renault Cup,” Downes recalled in a recent telephone interview. “I enjoyed the series despite some of the stuff that happened. It was a perfect storm. It was the first time we literally had a professional series that allowed all the ‘Walter Mitty’ types to come out of the woodwork. It spawned a lot of really good races, setting good trends that continue to this day with really good people.”
A contender in the Le Car days – losing the 1983 title to Kurt Roehrig in a contested battle – Downes took off with the Encore in what was called the Renault Facom Cup East Coast Championship. He won three races and the title in 1984, and one race among three podiums the following year. Downes ended up with five total victories – tied for the most in series’ history.
Lime Rock played a key role in both the 1984 championship and the final 1985 season, with Downes winning both races in different conditions.
He also won at Mid-Ohio and Road America in 1984, managing to prevail despite struggles both on and off the racetrack.
“That was an up-and-down season,” Downes recalled. “There were forces that didn’t want me to win the championship, and it was the second time that it happened. The organizers kept checking the car over very closely, and I was hearing rumors that I had to be cheating if I was winning. Myself, Alan Pope and a number of other people who were vying for the championship. But despite the obstacles, I managed to win the championship. Fortunately, one of the people in the management of the series recognized that I was winning on talent, and he made it easier for me not to have the hassles I was having.”
Downes entered the season finale at Watkins Glen International needing to finish seventh or better to clinch the title.
“During the final race, I had a couple people bumping me trying to take me out, but I still finished seventh, which was enough to win the championship,” he recalled.
Downes and East Coast runner-up Alan Pope joined West Coast competitors Mitch Wright and Parker Johnstone for a trip to France for the 1984 Renault Cup Championship at the old Paul Ricard Circuit.
“We did pretty well in qualifying, but we didn’t have the tactics that the Europeans had. We didn’t realize until qualifying that the way they played the game over there was not on an individual basis – they acted as a team with a No. 1 driver from each country, and the team supported him.”
Downes was in the fight for the win right up until the closing laps, when a trip of French drivers pulled a slingshot pass to knock him off the podium.
In 1985, he won Lime Rock in addition to taking second at Road Atlanta and third at Mid-Ohio. However, a bid for a second-consecutive title fell through when he got caught up in an accident and ruined his car at Watkins Glen.
“I had good seasons with Renault Cup,” said Downes, now 77 and a resident of California.
Lime Rock has a special place in his memories.
“I forget the year, but there was one race where we had rain and about 40-50 cars,” he said. “I lapped everybody up to about fifth place. There were always rumors that I had been cheating, but that was when they finally acknowledged that – for an old guy! – I could drive!”
After Renault Cup, Downes continued to race in different series right up until 2000. His best success was in the SCCA World Challenge, where he was also a multiple-race winner with strong showings at Lime Rock Park.
“I love Lime Rock,” he said. “The whole track was definitely a challenge. There were little things there that challenged everybody. The guys that did well were the guys that figured out those little things. As simple as Lime Rock looks, it was a lot harder than some of the bigger tracks, and you paid a penalty if you got things wrong while trying to be the fastest. I’m sorry that the GTP cars flipped at the uphill and they instituted the changes, but that was a key to a good lap at Lime Rock. There are lots of challenges there for a simple-looking track.”
Among his accomplishments were becoming the first Black driver to capture a championship in an American series. Willy T. Ribbs was the first African-American to win an international title in Europe prior to becoming a standout in American competition.
“I think Willy T. had been champion before that,” Downes said. “If it wasn’t Ribbs, it was me. It was a great honor – especially where I was competing up against all the other Walter Mittys.”
Lime Rock Park will kick off its 66th year of racing over Memorial Day weekend, hosting SpeedTour for the Trans Am Memorial Day Classic May 26-29. For more information visit: https://limerock.com/events/all-events/