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The Montery Motorsports Reunion: Disneyland for Race Fans

Watching racing history come back to life.

by on Aug.22, 2011

A trio of classic race cars come back to life at Laguna Seca during the 2011 Monterey Motorsports Reunion.

It’s hard to escape your past – or so Derek Bell discovered as he wandered through the paddock at the Laguna Seca race track.  Everywhere he turned he discovered another car that he had driven, at one point or another, during his long and illustrious career.  That includes a Ferrari 250 GTO that is getting ready for a race on Saturday afternoon.

“I’m always surprised,” the British legend said, “by how many cars they have here and how many cars I drove,” including the classic ’64 Ferrari 250 GTO he piloted at the Goodwood Festival of Speed five years back.

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Bell isn’t alone.  Indeed, it seems there are surprises for everyone at the annual Monterey Motorsports Reunion.  The three-day event gave the estimated  40,000 fans a chance to see some of the world’s rarest, oddest and most successful race cars – some nearly 100 years old – come back to life on one of the country’s most challenging tracks.

And unlike the typical race event, the Reunion broke down the traditional barriers, letting race fans get up close and personal with the cars and the drivers.  That includes not only weekend racers like Tom Price, a San Francisco collector with a warehouse full of old cars, but some of the best-known names from the motorsports world, including Bell, Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, Carroll Shelby and British racing giant Stirling Moss.

Tom Price just before taking his $25 million Ferrari 250 GTO out onto the track.

“It’s really a great few days out here,” proclaimed Mark Morgan, a regular at the track who drove up from Los Angeles.

While Morgan appreciates modern racing, there’s something special about watching the old cars that turn up for the Motorsports Reunion, he said.  “I love their style.  They’re sculpture, artwork.  They were made when cars looked like cars and you could tell one from another.”

The Reunion has become one of the must-have tickets during what is arguably the most important weekend of the year for “gearheads” from around the world.  It overlaps an assortment of automotive events, notably including the plush Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, itself generally conceded to be the most exclusive classic car event in the world.

Reunion boss Gill Campbell has defied critics and surprised skeptics.

Yet, just a couple years ago the race weekend’s future was in doubt.  In a controversial move, Steve Earle, the long-time organizer of what was known as the “Monterey Historics,” was forced out, and it was anything but certain the new management team could fill his Piloti race shoes.

“It wasn’t easy taking over from the master,” conceded Gill Campbell, the Reunion CEO, as she watched a wall of video monitors giving her a view of every corner and straight along the serpentine Laguna Seca track.  There were plenty of folks who were ready to “challenge (us) to fail.”

Mazda brought its 1991 787B race car - the only Japanese entry to win the grueling 24-hours of Le Mans and the endurance event's only winner not to use a conventional piston engine.

But last year’s event, the first to adopt the Reunion name, proved unexpectedly successful given the fledgling team’s challenges.  That only raised the bar for 2011.

Long-time fans discovered a number of changes, most of them well-received.  The Historics have put even more attention on honored marques, like Jaguar, which brought an assortment of old C- and D-Type racers out for this year’s event – as well as track-ready E-Types, marking the 50th anniversary of what many – including Ferrari’s namesake Enzo Ferrari – have called the world’s most beautiful automobile.

While fans oohed and aahed over Jay Leno, the celebrity talk show host gushed over a classic Jaguar XK120.

A new stage gave fans the chance to see some of the most famous cars up close, including a Jaguar that got even comedian and late-night talk show host Jay Leno bubbling.  It turns out, he explained to an expansive crowd, that his love affair of cars began when, as a young boy riding his bike he crested a hill only to find a neighbor working on an old Jaguar XK120 like the one in front of him.

(Check out what Leno had to say about the Jaguar XK.  Click Here.)

“This is Disneyland to the auto world,” said Campbell’s second-in-command, Barry Toepke.  “It’s theater…and while the cars don’t talk we’re trying to find ways to get their stories told.”

Indy 500 drive Dario Franchitti talks with motorsports legend Derek Bell.

While it may be great to get up close to the cars, most of those who’ve bought tickets want to see them actually move, and the crowds headed for the track every time a new class lined up, one after another, pre-War Stutzs and Bugattis followed by nearly-new Indy and F1 cars.

“Tell me how lucky I am,” said Tom Price, the owner of the 250 GTO, has he pulled up the zipper of his Nomex race suit.  “This is a great track and it’s a blast to race here.”

With that, he fired up the Ferrari and headed for his spot on the grid.

It may not be the Indy 500 but owners take great care to ensure their cars can make it through a race.

The new organizers have made a few changes for the racers, as well.  For one thing, they’ve cracked down on aggressive driving – not that most of the owners mind.  Price’s 250 GTO is worth an estimated $25 million and fixing a dented fender can cost more than the average home.

That doesn’t mean it’s all a Sunday drive.  There’s plenty of passing and the better drivers still treat their races like they’ve turned up for the Indianapolis 500.  For the fans, it’s an excuse to gawk and cheer for cars that might not have seen a checkered flag in decades.

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