GALLERY: Paddocks, ‘Parade Laps,’ And What America Has To Offer
Photography by Alex Sobran
Let’s get this out of the way: Europe kicks American ass when it comes to the act of racing old cars around old tracks. Hem and haw about how accessible and fun SVRA and VARA and the like may be, but the fact of the matter is, at the top level, there’s nothing here that can compete with a grid of prototypes compressing through Eau Rouge and unweighting at Raidillon, and the only way to see 935s burping fire into the darkness at 150mph on the Circuit de la Sarthe requires a visit to France. A group of Elans and MGBs at Buttonwillow can’t touch that. Locations are one thing, but our friends on the other side of the Atlantic also just seem more willing to engage in million-dollar dice on the edges of the rumble strip. If you’ve got the means to buy these cars you also have enough to fix them if you bin them, but that doesn’t explain the dichotomy—there are plenty of wealthy folks with United States passports, after all.
It’s hard to pin down any single reason to illuminate the difference between the approaches to exotic vintage motorsport that separates American “parade laps” from European door-banging, though it isn’t hard to notice the manifestation if you have access to YouTube. And while we Americans don’t have places to race that are as hallowed as the Nürburgring or Monaco, there’s a special something here that keeps us from being second fiddle. Sometimes it takes the form of a guy in a cowboy hat working on a car plastered with beer logos.
The DeKon Monza represents the point I’m aiming at: here’s a car that began life as a mass-produced platform that was intended for innovation (the Wankel rotary engine) but was built during the malaise era and received watered-down inline-fours, V6s, and V8s instead, yet it spanked the Porsches of its day in IMSA after its DeKon treatment. I’m overplaying the humbleness of the car to be sure, but the point stands that this was a very American approach to beating the Europeans (a big-power pushrod V8 with side pipes and huge slicks), and it worked. There’s something about American gumption that will always be intriguing, and this is evident at Laguna Seca during the Motorsports Reunion.
There are gleaming haulers worth more than most stationary homes, manufacturers bring out the decidedly big guns (like the Le Mans-winning McLaren F1 that we’ll feature soon), and signs of corporate sponsorship abound, but in between the pomp and circumstance there are so many moments to bring you back down to earth. It’s a strange claim to make while looking at cars like the ones below, but that’s why it’s so significant; it doesn’t matter how much these machines are worth or where they came from, it’s the people that make this an American event, and one that’s every bit as worthwhile as those held abroad.
You might hear a southern drawl getting into the finer details of velocity stack geometry as it relates to setting up the Webers they feed before a beer swig and a belch from the same mouth; you might see another guy jacking up the same car he’ll later use to dive into the Corkscrew to change the oil with the same tools you have in your carport storage bin; walk a few tents to the left and you’ll see a little girl playfully bothering an old dog while her dad tears down a gearbox. There’s a sense here that you’ve somehow stumbled into a massive collection of personal garages that just happen to house some of the world’s most belligerently powerful and objectively beautiful racing cars. I’ve been to prominent historic racing events elsewhere, such is the nature of this “job” I’m so lucky to have, but nowhere else have I felt like this. Press pass or not, it feels like your local speed shop turned up to 11.
The atmosphere is lively and colloquial, the cars are among the most impressive ever constructed, and the paddock presents a near-endless stream of opportunity to get very close to things that are typically only accessed through screens and stories. The racing though? It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Most of the people aren’t really going for it so to speak, but in typical American style there are always a few front-runners who are willing to take risks. The peloton of cars in each race is generally just going through the motions (though this in itself is still worth the price of admission, for how often is it that you can witness a double-wide line of Group 5 cars on a race track?), but they’re often lapped at least once by the ones who can’t help getting a little competitive.
To be a part of all this, even just a small one whose purpose is to take a few cell phone pictures for personal use, is to contribute. You can put the top cars on the top tracks with the best hired talent wire transfers can buy, but you can’t replicate what you’ll find in Monterey. It’s not better than the Le Mans Classic, nor is it inferior, it’s just different. If you go, you’ll get it, and if you can’t or haven’t yet, I hope that the following gallery of paddock photos and my attempts at “motorsport photography” will get you at least part of the way there.