With Ferraris, Porsches, and Alfas around me as the flag dropped, I was living the dream I'd had as far back as I can remember
If you walked the paddock at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca during the 35th Annual Monterey Rolex Historic Automobile Races on August 16-17, you might have thought vintage racing was entirely the province of wealthy enthusiasts-especially the three featured classes.
On your left you would have seen big rigs anchoring canopies over lines of Can-Am cars-ground-pounding McLaren and Lola V8s built and raced with virtually no limits on aerodynamics or engine size, until the first energy crisis in 1974. Tucked under those same canopies were neat tables covered with white cloths, at which participants and friends relaxed between races, while being served by uniformed caterers.
On your right was a marvelous display of equally noisy Trans Am cars-Mustangs, Camaros, Challengers, 'Cudas, and Javelins, raced to promote sales in the muscle car heyday of the late 1960s-artfully arranged around small tables with parasols shading their owners and friends from the sun.
Along the two front rows nearest the track, over 100 Formula Junior race cars were neatly lined up in front of their transporters. Lotuses, Coopers, Brabhams, and Lolas were shipped in from all over the world to celebrate the 50th anniversary of these minimal single-seat race cars, the entry point for so many open-wheel drivers from 1958 to 1962.
Black and white photos from the old days
It's a challenging proposition to buy, maintain, and race one of the complicated cars from these three feature classes, and the person who can afford to participate at this level is also going to expect the very best in service and accommodations.
But what about black-and-white album photos from the old days, with drivers towing or driving their sports cars to weekend races, doing their own wrenching with the help of family or friends, and camping out on the hillsides above Laguna Seca?
As a participant in the Historics, I can tell you that those days are still relived by many of us driving the more than 400 cars in this year's races. The total budget for me and the three buddies who helped me with maintenance and moral support was actually about the same as our entry fee.
We towed my 1959 MG A to the track in a single-car trailer behind my sport-ute and set up our canopies and folding chairs next to the trailer. Instead of staying in a chichi hotel in Monterey, we made camp with Sergio's RV and a tent in the same campsite that Tracy has been reserving for five years, above Turn 6, looking across the valley to Salinas.
Sure, the nearest hot running water was a few hundred yards down the hill at the campground showers, but considering the time the hotel folk wasted in traffic each day, I'd say we were ahead of the game.
No caterers for us, though Sergio's wife and children had prepared salads, vegetables, tortillas, refried beans, and sliced marinated beef for our dinners, to which I added some pork tenderloin for grilling and sandwich fixings from the nearest market.
And instead of champagne and chardonnay, we assembled obscure beers to enjoy under the full moon above the campsite after our days of walking the paddock and racing the car. When we tired of the campfire made from used construction wood Brian had brought from home, we even had outdoor movies to remind us of the old drive-ins. A neighboring campsite had set up a big projection screen so we campers could watch Steve McQueen in "Le Mans" on Friday night.
Rubbing shoulders with our heroes
Regardless of the differences in accommodations and catering, however, our experiences in the paddock and on the track were the same as every other vintage racer and crew member. At the opening paddock party for participants on Thursday, we were all able to rub shoulders with heroes like Derek Bell and Danny Sullivan, and rising stars like Timo Glock, who would drive spec-prepared Scions in the Toyota Race of Legends on Saturday.
During the weekend, we watched from the hot pits as the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Phil Hill drove to victory in the 1951 Pebble Beach Road Races was driven on ceremonial laps, and we stood this close to F1 World Champion Mario Andretti as he climbed into the Lotus 79 John Player Special-the very car he drove to six victories in 1978-to take some awe-inspiring fast laps of the track.
Lifetime racers live for such moments, though less dedicated fans probably enjoyed seeing Patrick Dempsey of "Gray's Anatomy" being driven around the track by David Swig in his prewar Chrysler. For a racer, there's no comparison. I grew up watching the careers of people like Hill, Andretti, Bell, and Sullivan, and to be driving on the same track was a thrill beyond compare.
I was able to stand on that same hot grid in my own driving suit, climb into my car, cinch the straps tight, and be waved on to the track by grid stewards to line up with Ferraris, Porsches, Thunderbirds, and Alfa Giuliettas as the green flag dropped. I was living the dream I'd had as far back as I can remember.
This was my fourth Historics since buying the MG A in 2001, but only the first that passed without car problems. Replacing the body two years ago, the transmission last year, and the engine over this past winter were the keys-the steering wheel, driver's seat, and differential are the only parts left from the car I bought seven years ago. This year I broke my previous best lap time on eight of the ten laps of my race while starting and finishing in the top half of the grid.
At the end of my race on Sunday, all I could say was that I had the best weekend of my life. Who cares about race budgets, hotel rooms, or catering menus at a time like that? With friends around the campfire and on the track, under circumstances imagined in my junior high days when I drew race cars on my looseleaf binder, my weekend was, as the ad says, priceless.