In every religion there are certain holy places, shrines where the basic tenets have been tested and fortified. For the true believers of the automotive faith, there are events like the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Heures du Mans, the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Daytona 500, touchstones to help connect us to our automotive brethren. There is also a certain weekend of vehicular gluttony in August that's known simply as Monterey. For 28 years this combination of the world's premiere Concours d'Elegance on the golf course at Pebble Beach and three days of vintage racing at nearby Laguna Seca Raceway on the Monterey Peninsula has been like a visit to heaven for the automotive faithful.
I had never been to either event before 2001's weekend, but, like many enthusiasts, I'd always toyed with the idea of going. There always seemed to be something else automotive to do on that same weekend, and the cost of attending from the Midwest is also somewhat prohibitive. So when Editor Brown told me he wanted me there to cover the story, I signed up immediately and made my plans early. I quickly learned there is more to the Monterey weekend for the car enthusiast than just Pebble Beach and Laguna Seca. My weekend started at the Quail Lodge Resort in Carmel, California at Concorso Italiano.
Concorso Italiano-sixteen years ago a group from the Maserati Club International decided to hold their annual "Maserati Days" meeting on the grounds of the Quail Lodge Resort in Carmel. Other Italian car clubs were invited to attend until the event grew to become one of the biggest car shows on the West Coast. More than 600 cars are on display, and while Concorso now allows cars from other than Italy to join the fun, it is Italian cars that dominate the picturesque landscape of the Quail Lodge golf course. Frank and Janet Mandarano co-chair the event, and they have for the past 16 years.
The first thing you notice when approaching the Quail Lodge Resort is the number of interesting cars sharing the road with you. We follow an open 1920s Lancia for a while. Its occupants are bundled up and huddled against the cold morning air. As we get closer to the event, every street corner seems littered with shiny Italian cars. Fiats, Alfas, Lancias, the odd Pantera or Maserati. And Ferraris. Lots of Ferraris. Everyone eventually funnels to the grass parking lots of the Concorso and through the lines to buy tickets. The cost of attending the event is $60 for adults; children under 12 get in for free. The good news is at least some of this money is going to a worthy cause: Concorso has donated more than $200,000 to the Carmel School District and other youth programs over the years of the show's existence.
Once inside the grounds, what strikes you is the immense size of the event. Even early in the morning there is a huge crowd strolling about looking at the cars and looking at each other. The cars are arranged roughly into groups. Ferrari here. Alfa Romeos there. Maseratis and Lamborghinis prominent. The theme of last year's event was Technology and Beauty as expressed by 50 years of collaboration between Ferrari and Pininfarina. Concept cars from the Pininfarna collection were flown from Turin in Italy to California for the one-day show, and Sergio Pininfarina and his wife and daughter were in attendance.
We started off with the Ferraris. Every red Ferrari ever built seemed to be on display. There were some remarkably beautiful early cars and lots of aggressively styled later cars. There were even a few Ferraris that weren't red. Not many, but a few. Nearly every person in the crowd was wearing something with the prancing horse of Maranello emblazoned upon it. Many were wearing shirts and hats that had been chosen to be the exact shade of red that matched their car. Scary. Most of the Ferrari owners seemed to be copying the behavior of rich people as defined by television situation comedies. The idea that these are really only just cars falls onto deaf ears.
We moved on. The Lamborghinis were out in force with a second reunion of Miuras after 2000's successful inaugural gathering. Miuras are the cars that ushered in the mid-engine supercar revolution at the end of the '60s. They are beautiful to look at but not always pleasant to drive. They were never particularly common cars, but there sure were a lot of them at Concorso Italiano. Their owners seemed less imperious than the Ferrari owners did and almost none of their cars were painted red. Maybe owning a car built by a Italian tractor manufacturer who was angry with Mr. Ferrari because he wouldn't sell him the car he wanted makes you a bit more humble.
Finally, we came back to earth among the owners of various Fiats and Alfa Romeos. Picnic lunches were spread out on blankets next to the cars. Many of these cars were daily drivers, and they showed the honorable nicks and scratches that come from real life. Among this crowd of owners there was none of the snobbery and one-upmanship that some of the other Italian marques seem to engender. These are people who simply love their cars and brought them out to share with other people. Some were polished and pampered, but most were driven regularly and have a charming honesty that elevates them above many of the trailer queens at the other end of the golf course.
Beyond all of the seeing and being seen was the business of a judged car show. Cars on the lawn were all entered, and judges scurried from group to group to make their decisions. There were winners and losers. There were some that didn't choose to play the game.
Throughout the day, vendors sold their wares under large tents set up throughout the grass area. Not surprisingly, Ferrari items were most popular, and as the crowd grew throughout the day, the venders did brisk business. Meanwhile, selected cars were brought before viewing stands and described over the PA system. The atmosphere was relaxed, the cars were beautiful and the crowd seemed just as happy looking at each other in their red Ferrari regalia as they did looking at yet another red Ferrari.
Monterey Historic Races-more properly it is called the 28th Annual Rolex Monterey Historic Automobile Races presented by Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge. Once upon a time, a bunch of guys who really liked their old sports cars got together at the tricky Laguna Seca racetrack to have some fun. More people found out about it and joined along. People in other parts of the country began doing the same thing, and vintage racing was born. The Monterey Historics continued to grow, and eventually Steve and Debbie Earle, who organize the whole shebang through their company General Racing, attracted corporate sponsors like Chrysler and Rolex. The event got bigger and bigger, and the Earles began choosing which entrants would be allowed to race each year at their event. Corporate America continued its takeover, and even venerable Laguna Seca became "Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca" last year. As a result, corporate bigwigs, public relations types, hangers-on and rear echelon skulkers were thick on the ground during Saturday's feature races.
Each year the Monterey Historics has a featured marque, and last year Bentley, hot off its third-place finish at Le Mans, was honored. There were a dozen and a half of the big pre-war machines in the pre-1931 Sports Touring Cars race, and long-time Bentley man Stanley Mann, who brought his car from England, won the feature race on Saturday. In addition, American racer and all-around hero Phil Hill was honored on the 40th anniversary of his becoming Formula One World Champion in 1961. Hill drove several cars in exhibition laps to the delight of the Saturday crowd. He also had a tent setup in the paddock to sell his racing photographs, and there were long lines of fans patiently waiting to get his autograph.
For a racer, it is hard to see what the fuss is all about. You get only three track sessions for the whole weekend, a practice on Friday and then a qualifying and race session on either Saturday or Sunday. There are 375 entries, and it is true the paddock is jammed with some pretty delectable machinery and the pre-war grids are truly outstanding. But, that isn't much track time for a racer who has to come all the way from the East to compete. Maybe it explains why most of the racers are from California. In reality, the event isn't about the racers. It is about the corporate sponsors who've paid big money to be a part of the excitement. Car company presidents, legendary racing drivers and the rich and famous wander around the paddock, followed by their entourages. Corporate hospitality suites keep the VIPs isolated from the rest of the crowd, while live television feeds keep everyone indoors and safely away from the noise and grit of the racetrack. Unfair? Perhaps. But with the stands less than a third filled on Saturday and almost empty on Sunday, and with ticket prices at $35 for Friday, $55 for Saturday and $45 for Sunday, clearly the event isn't being run for its spectators.
Ultimately, to the racers it doesn't matter. When you walk around the paddock you find them closely focused on their next track session or fixing something or bench racing, just as in any other vintage racing paddock in the country. There are racers like Steve Sailors from Huntington Beach, who brings his tiny A-110 Alpine-Renault to Monterey year after year to be a part of the bigger picture, but also because he really likes racing his diminutive sports car. There are a few more big rigs at Monterey than at most vintage races, but a fair number of really exotic sports cars arrive on the backs of open trailers and a few are even driven to the track. Because the Monterey Historics are up against Pebble Beach on Sunday, all of the beautiful people and corporate types decamp after Saturday's races, and Sunday's race environment is much more low-key and normal. In the best vintage racing spirit, the trophies for each class are awarded to an arbitrarily chosen finishing position. Last year, the drivers who finished tenth in their races got to take home the class prize, while those who finished first got only the glory.
Pebble Beach-last year marked the 51st Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Pebble Beach has always been the ne plus ultra of car show competitions. Entrants spend literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore a car in the hope it will win a class award. Cars that win immediately increase in value, so for some the search for gold is more mercenary than it is a hobby. There are classes for all manner of antiques and classics and special categories for cars like Duesenbergs, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz. As at the races, Bentley was the featured marque for Pebble Beach in 2001, and a large number were on the golf course for the competition.
I came to Pebble Beach having only heard about the overly restored cars and rumors about entrants scrubbing their tire treads with toothbrushes to remove the grass clippings. Naturally then, the first thing I saw when I arrived was row after row of impossibly perfect cars, surrounded by armies of people with toothbrushes. It's true, they actually scrub the offending grass clippings out of the tire treads, lest a judge believe the car was driven into place rather than transported by magic.
Actually, the setting itself is somewhat magical. The cars are arrayed on the golf course on the cliffs that overlook the ocean. In the morning, wisps of fog drifted around the cars as a mournful flute filled the air with a haunting melody. The mood only lasted a short time before it is broken when the crowds begin to appear.
If Saturday at the races seemed all about corporations and corporate involvement, Pebble Beach is about celebrities. Mere car company presidents and chief executives seem a dime a dozen. Actors and talk-show hosts are almost equally commonplace. True captains of industry and commerce are at the top of this food chain, and most are showing cars that are many times more perfect than the were when they were first produced. Unlike the Monterey Historics, where the majority of the entrants are from the West Coast, Pebble's entrants are from all across the U.S. with more than a few coming from Europe, Asia and Australia.
Just as Concorso Italiano has benefited the surrounding area, Pebble Beach has provided more than $1.75 million to support community needs with a particular emphasis on education. In addition, support is given by the Pebble Beach Concours to the United Way of Monterey County.
Ignoring the celebrities and focusing on the cars, there was some pretty neat stuff to be seen. If your tastes ran to pre-war American classics, you could see such nameplates as Stutz, Auburn, Kissel, Pierce-Arrow, Chrysler, Marmon, Duesenberg, Mercer or Wills Sainte Clair. Prefer something European? How about a Hispano-Suiza, Talbot-Lago, Delage, Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Bugatti or Delahaye. Bentleys had their own three groups, and almost two dozen of the British cars were on the lawn to be judged. Ferraris had their own category, as did competition Ferraris, and there was a class for postwar sports and racing cars.
My favorite class was the Pre-war Preservation category, which was new in 2001. The class realizes the value of a car in its original condition without any restoration. After all, cars are only original once, and if they have been restored it can be argued they are no longer all together the same car they once were. The preservation class cars are easy to spot among the restored wonders on the field. Wearing battered paint and scuffed and worn upholstery, many of them were ignored or even sneered at by the assembled multitudes. Personally, I loved them, and as it was a Bentley year, I was enchanted by a rough and ready 1926 Bentley 3-liter owned by Frank and Leah Gabrielli from Danville, Calif. Its faded paint, worn leather upholstery and stone-chipped driving lights made me wonder what stories it could tell if only it could speak. The judges didn't find the Bentley to be quite as charming as I did, and it didn't place.
By midday the crowd had grown quite large, and the champagne vendors were doing brisk business. It was not a young crowd; most people seem to be well into middle age or beyond. The ticket price may have something to do with this--at $100 per person and with tickets only available in advance, it isn't a cheap date. Many men were wearing blazers and many women were wearing outlandish hats. The sheer stylishness of the place was palpable.
Was It Car Heaven?I started out thinking I would be heading to Monterey on a pilgrimage, a quest for the automotive Holy Grail. I didn't find it. On the surface, the three major events of the Monterey weekend are about money and corporate sponsorship. Beneath that somewhat ugly veneer, however, there are some redeeming qualities. Several car clubs use the event as a backdrop for their own activities. They join together from far away and travel en mass to the event. They have their own parties and picnics and drives through the beautiful and scenic Monterey Peninsula. They don't charge each other for the time they spend together, and they are about as far away from corporate sponsorship and interests as any group of enthusiasts can be. They go to the races, they cheer for their favorites, and they don't worry if Audi or Bentley or Chrysler has the best hors d'ouvres or the best viewing stand. They have the same spirit of pure and unadulterated automotive enthusiasm that started the Pebble Beach Concours 51 years ago, the Monterey Historic Races 28 years ago and Concorso Italiano 16 years ago.
For me, the best part of the weekend was Sunday afternoon at the racetrack. We left Pebble Beach early to catch the last of the historic races and then stayed around for the prizegiving. All of the racers were there, and very few of the corporate types were in evidence. A cool breeze was carrying in a light fog, and racers were pulling on sweatshirts and jackets against the chill. For a brief time, as competitors received their trophies, the whole event boiled down to just a bunch of vintage racers who had competed against each other for the fun of it and were now trying to prolong the weekend just a bit longer before returning to the real world. That's what it should be all about.