Grace Under Engine Pressure
The Monterey Historic Auto Races, the Concours d'Elegance and the Concorso Italiano draw the biggest crowds of the year to Monterey County this week.
Thursday, August 17, 2000
It must be something in the water that attracts three of the most well-respected car events in the U.S. to the Monterey Peninsula. Or is just a local concentration of car buffs who have some extra cash to spend on restored luxury automobiles and sports cars?
Actually, it turns out that most of the car owners who participate in what has affectionately become known as "Classic Car Week" in Monterey--beginning today and revving up all weekend--aren''t even residents here, nor are they the supposed millionaires people expect.
"Some people think all owners and drivers are filthy rich, and it''s just not true," says Eric Bernhardt, a local car restoration specialist who has worked on dozens of projects for Entropy Designs with Mac Archer, who is driving his 1965 Shelby Cobra 427 in the Monterey Historic Automobile Races at Laguna Seca on Saturday.
"We have a history of good race drivers on the Monterey Peninsula, like Chuck Parsons," continues Berhardt, who has his own vintage Alfa Romeo he sometimes brings to Laguna Seca. "I think that''s what creates the interest in all these events. From the history, it''s like a high school that we keep getting graduates from."
"We started coming at the very beginning, 25 years ago," says Archer. "We were just here to watch, sit in the stands. Then I would think, ''I wanna do that!'' We started to look around for a Ford Cobra, and in 1983 or so, we found this one in New Jersey. It wasn''t in good shape but Eric drove it across country and it took about two years to get it race-prepared."
Archer''s obvious enthusiasm shows in his face as he points out the details that indicate "race preparedness": a roll bar behind the driver''s seat, a foam-encased gas tank and an on-board fire extinguishing system. The car, he estimates, cost about $6,000 when it was new in 1965.
"The difference between this [Monterey Historics] and Concours [Pebble Beach] is people work on these cars so they can race," Archer explains. "These cars have race histories and drivers have stories. I''m sure Gary Cooper''s Dusenberg has some great stories too, but many of those cars are trailered in, then go home. I used to drive mine. I''d take my kids to school in it. These cars are old, but they''re made to race. You just have to make sure they''re well-prepared and you have to pay attention when you drive."
Meanwhile, almost directly south over the hill from Laguna Seca, Quail Lodge is preparing for the Concorso Italiano. If you have a serious case of auto amore, this place on Friday will get your heart racing with a gleaming display of more than 25 Lamborghinis, a tribute to Maserati (the car also being honored at the Historics and at Pebble Beach), and the 25th anniversary of the Ferrari 308.
Sylvana Stratton of Monterey has a special place in her heart for the Prancing Horse. Her husband got her a 1986 Ferrari 328 for Christmas about four years ago. She has entered it in the Concorso ever since, while her husband brings his 1984 Ferrari Boxer along also. But the couple isn''t trying to win any prizes with their cars--it''s the social aspect of the event and the thrill of racing engines that draws them.
"It''s fun to be with other people who have similar cars," says Stratton. "If you own that kind of car, it''s good to go to shows to compare notes."
Like Mac Archer, and unlike the rarer million-dollar cars at the Concours d''Elegance, Stratton does drive her car quite often. The much-beloved Ferraris have small seats, considerably less trunk space than average cars, and are built low to the ground for speed, yet she claims her car is even comfortable enough for a six-hour trip to southern California. Just watch out on curves.
"It''s great to drive, but you have to be careful driving too fast around corners," she says. "You have to remember the engine is in the middle, so you could ''lose the rear end,'' as they call it."
Cars like the Strattons'' Ferraris, Archer''s Cobra and the group gracing the greens at Pebble Beach don''t have their chrome shined by just anyone. Archer does much of his own detailing himself, but Stratton recommends McCall''s Motorsports.
And indeed, the shop seems to be a popular choice this week, which owner Gordon McCall describes as "frantic." Most of the cars seen at the Concours and Concorso are gussied up in this garage found amidst body shops and industrial-looking warehouses between the Monterey Fairgrounds and the airport. An array of BMWs sits at a nearby curb next to a gleaming, 1950s-era, white-and-teal Coupe de Ville.
Luxury sports cars such as Sylvana Stratton''s are generally considered male territory. But Stratton has had no problems. "Driving around, sure, you get attention. Always as a woman driver, I get comments. The funniest thing that happened was I ran out of gas," she laughs. "And it was in front of a police officer."
Luckily there are no cops out at Laguna Seca, where Mac Archer has previously taken his Cobra up to 120mph. Safety, however, is the name of the game for the racetrack officials and Archer. When not racing his red #22, Archer consults on car safety designs and treats patients with spinal injuries. Laguna Seca has set strict rules for the Historics to ensure the well-being of the drivers and the vintage autos, says Archer. Restoring his historic coupe accurately and racing it safely blend fine with his profession.
"I find it cerebrally challenging. It''s pretty complicated to get all of a race car''s systems working together. Drivers can process an information flow much faster than in other sports. You need to know the mechanics, how to get around a track, how to navigate other drivers. Things happen in split seconds. It''s not like a baseball player out in the field waiting for someone to hit a ball."
For more details about the week''s vintage car and auto racing events, see Hot Picks, page 28.