Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix puts charities in gear

Proceeds benefit autism groups

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At the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, it's the cars that are the stars.

And Sunday was no exception at the 31st annual race, capping off a 10-day festival with vintage Jaguars, Lotuses, Porsches and Maseratis whizzing around the 2.33-mile course in Schenley Park with 19 turns and 17 different elevations.

"It's a challenging track, and a very dangerous track," said driver Mike Zappa, the owner of a 1962 MGB and executive board member for the organization. "Many drivers say the feel of the race reminds them of Monte Carlo because of the stone walls on both sides."

Mr. Zappa, 63, of the North Side, won the British Heritage Challenge race Saturday and had high hopes for his performance Sunday.

"We're doing very well," said Mr. Zappa, who has been racing for 35 years and has been in the Vintage Grand Prix for the past 20.

The event, which draws about 300,000 spectators to the city, began as a way for vintage car enthusiasts to use city streets for an annual race while benefiting local organizations.

Since its advent in 1983, the festival has raised $3.2 million for the Allegheny Valley School, which serves 900 children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the Autism Society of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Zappa, also a member of the race committee and advisory committee, said he became more active in the organization after his nephew had an autistic child.

"I really participate now on the patron and volunteer side," he said.

About 10 of the 150 registered racers are from the area, said Stephen Weber, media director for the Grand Prix.

In its inaugural year, the festival lasted one day and raised $24,000. Last year, the festival raised a record $250,000 and members hoped to match or increase that total this year.

To that end, Mr. Weber said more spectators than ever participated in the festival's patronage program, which reserves a car-sized spot along the race route for $250. In recent years, corporations have reserved larger areas with hospitality tents as a way to treat employees and honor guests.

"It's getting closer to getting filled up every year," he said. "It helps the coffers of the charities. We find ways to give the spectators value."

More revenue was generated this year from presenting sponsor Shop 'n Save, which sold snack items such as ice cream and sandwiches for $1 each, with all proceeds going to the school and the Autism Society.

The festival added a new event this year that planners hope would kick-start profits: the Cars & Guitars concert Thursday at Hard Rock Cafe. The event was well attended, Mr. Weber said, and featured four local bands.

The success of the festival can be credited to the 1,100 volunteers that make it possible, said Dan Torisky, co-founder and grand marshal of the event.

"We don't pay any salaries," said Mr. Torisky, 81, of Monroeville. "This whole thing is volunteer driven."

Mr. Torisky's son Edward, 56, is a student at the Allegheny Valley School, and since the younger Mr. Torisky was diagnosed with autism in 1960, Dan Torisky and his family have been instrumental in raising awareness, modernizing laws, and, most importantly, changing minds about the disorder that medical professionals thought at the time was caused by "frigid mothers."

"Despite his humbleness, he remains the most recognized face of the Grand Prix," said a story about Mr. Torisky in this year's race program. "He is one of our hardest working volunteers."

Mr. Torisky co-founded the Autism Society of Pittsburgh in 1966 and served as president of the national organization for four years.

The millions of dollars raised by the annual festival have helped to create innovative and flourishing programs, Mr. Torisky said, including the Spectrum Charter School, opened in 2000.

The Monroeville school, which offers classroom instruction in the morning and job training in the afternoons, now has 32 mostly autistic students and a waiting list.

The revenue also helped to fund the Summer Program for the Education of Autistic Kids, or SPEAK. With about 60 to 90 participants each summer, the program at Steel Valley High School aims to keep autistic children engaged during the summer months with activities like yoga, music and art.

"We realized that they regressed in the summer," Mr. Torisky said. "Autistic kids have to be constantly stimulated."

The funding also helped to create vocational training programs, special education programming and a number of other initiatives that have been successful over the years.

"Our goal in Pittsburgh is to take care of the autistic among us," Mr. Torisky said.


Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867. First Published July 22, 2013 4:00 AM


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