O Opinions & Commentary

Monterey Car Week Part Two: The Races at Laguna Seca

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For me the centre piece of what has become known as the Monterey Car Week is the historic race even. Formally, what used to be the Monterey Historics has become the Rolex Monterey Motorsport Reunion now that the track operators have taken over operation of the event – and the circuit is correctly referred to as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Originally the Concours at Pebble Beach was paired with races at that location for current race cars. Even after the races moved to the purpose-built circuit at Laguna Seca, they were for current cars. It wasn’t until 1974 that the Monterey Historics were established by Steve Earle. And that pattern of old cars at the Concours and old cars at the race track has continued since then.

This year the race event saw 550 entries in 16 different race groups. Corvette was the honoured marque, saw 45 cars of that make in the entry, but GM made an effort to make this Corvette year at Laguna Seca a memorable one for their fans. In truth, I found the appearance of the Corvettes on the track in the races a bit underwhelming – there were few cars that I recognized a ground-breaking historic examples. The part I like was their centre piece Corvette Heritage Display which featured a collection of the most important cars in the Corvette’s evolution – with a pair of cars, one street version and one racing example – for each of the major generations up to now plus the new 2014 Stingray C7.

A big feature of this event – like most vintage car races – is the open access to the paddock for everyone. Being able to wander up and down the aisles getting a close-up look at all the cars and a chance to talk to owners and drivers is perhaps the best part of the experience. After all the on track action is often more like high-speed demonstration laps than all-out racing.

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I managed to miss out on a number of things. I didn’t seem jay Leno or Stirling Moss. Nor did I see the lap around Laguna Seca by the Tour d’Elegance cars or the parade as the cars left for the limited admission Quail show down the road.

The whole event is an exercise in nostalgia and for me, I remember most of the post-war cars from when they were new, either from seeing them in magazines or actually seeing them on the race tracks. With so many cars from the past here it is hard for me to focus on any particular ones – so I tend to fall back on my memories of specific cars or similar models to guide my reminiscences.

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Among the Corvettes in the Heritage Display, I was drawn to the yellow CR-5 that Ron Fellows drove (with assistance from three other drivers) to win the 2001 Daytona 24-hour outright. This race is a special memory for me because it was only time I ever managed to stay up for the entire 24 hours (albeit with a few naps in my chair). The other car was a 427 cu in Stingray from the mid-60s. My warm feeling for this particular Corvette monster car come from my having had the opportunity to drive Mo Carter’s personal example as the pace car at a race event at Harewood – a place where it was possible to get a taste of the incredible performance of this car. My greatest fear was that, if I went too fast, the tires would explode from the stress of the speed.

I did see an example of the legendary Grand Sport Corvette in the paddock but I never noticed it out on the track.

Another car that caught my interest was an unpainted little Formula Junior parked near the media centre. Actually, someone else had told me about it so I knew enough to go over and talk to the owner Bill Sadler. His story is well known, how in the 1950s he built as series of car cars culminating in his outstanding MK, V, a rear-engine V-8 powered sports car that debuted in the Player’s 200 in 1961. Arguably, Sadler’s project was the first of this type of car which was to become the dominant type of car in the Can-Am which followed a few years later. Unfortunately he and his car owner Chuck Rathgeb did not see eye-to-eye and Sadler exited the project before the cars were ever properly developed. Rathgeb soon dropped the Sadler experiment and moved on to other makes of cars. Sadler dropped out of auto racing completely and he has only returned in recent years.

In 1959, at the height of the Formula Junior popularity, Sadler built a run of 12 front-engined Juniors on his own design. By then the rear-engine Cooper and Lotus designs had taken over but Sadler’s cars were simple, cheap cars that amateur racers in this area could afford to race. Sadler found this example a few years ago and he now has it restored and running in some west coast races. It must be hard for a scrutineer to tell Bill that some apparent modification tot he car is not authentic – anything he does is by the original builder.

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With 550 cars entered for the 16 races, that’s a lot of cars – and no one can complain that there aren’t enough cars to make it a good event. For sure, I was kept busy identifying the old cars as they came around past my location up in the corkscrew. Some of the ones that I noted included the Lola Mk I, the Lotus IX, Eleven and Fifteen (all with a similar look), the original Lotus Elite, Porsche 550 Spyder, the Aston Martin BDR2 that my friend’s father once owned, the Scaglietti-bodied 1954 Ferrari Mondial like the one I saw in 1955 and which made me a life-long sports car racing fan, a 1956 Denzel which is some kind of cousin to the Porsche, and on and on.

Not everyone is as old as me or has been going to the races for fifty-plus years like me, but I think that going to a historic car race event like this still has to be a tremendous experience for anyone of any age with an interest in cars – like going to a museum with a huge collection of historic race cars only better. Instead of a static display of cars you get to see them in action on a race track like they were meant to be used. I didn’t talk about it but I do find seeing the pre-war cars (which are truly before my time) engaging. I often wish that I could have brought my father (who was a ordinary farmer but a prewar car guy) to see all these historic race cars.

Last year, after I went to the vintage car races at Elkhart Lake, I commented that the field seemed to be dominated by MGs and Triumphs and that was a bit boring. This time, I am tempted to complain that the field was full of cars that I get bored with quickly – Porsche 356s and 911s, Corvettes, Cobras, Mustangs, Camaros. All important cars I’m sure and all of special significance to their owners and their band of fans – but my attention starts to wander.

I haven’t documented this, but just like last year at Elkhart Lake, I worried that we are seeing fewer and fewer of the great race cars from the ‘50s and the ‘60s, I worry that the same thing is happening here. As record multi-million dollar auction prices are being set of many of these icons from that earlier time, it seems inevitable that we will see them less and less in the risky environment of the race track.

It’s been said that the Monterey historic races as second only to the Goodwood Revival. I’m always leery of these superlatives. I do know that both these events are outstanding and I would rank Goodwood over Monterey, but there are many other historic race events in Europe (where the pool of available cars is greater) that I have never been to for me to feel confident that I could rank the top events.

I do know these two historic car race events – Monterey and Goodwood – are ones that I have been fortunate to attend several times now – and they are both great!

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