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Life In The Fast Lane: Vintage Auto Racing

In Vintage Auto Racing, It Isn't Whether You Win or Lose--It's How You Run the Race
Bob Knotts
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

Within the religion of auto racing, Bill Mazzoni has just committed a mortal sin.

The sacred ethos of this sport, recorded in some yellowing book of rpms now nearly a century old, can be pared to a one-word essence: win. Chapter Two, Verse One says that a pole winner must hold his front position through the first turn, increasing his odds of a relatively unobstructed run toward victory. A pole sitter who starts from last place is a heretic.

Thus it is written.

An experienced and skillful racer, Mazzoni knows this full well. But after annihilating his competition during qualifying laps to earn the pole, he has chosen for some reason to ignore this commandment. He is flouting the racing gods.

As the gentlemen--and one lady--start their engines, Mazzoni's spectacular Chevron B16 growls alive from behind his 11 opponents. Behind even the lumbering two-cylinder DB Panhard driven by Andre Garnier, a droll 71-year-old retiree from France who first raced in 1948.

"Top speed? My car goes up to 90 miles an hour," Garnier said earlier with a grin in the pit lane. "When it's going really, really good, it'll go a little over 90."

Mazzoni's blood-red Chevron can hit 170.

With the nimble Porsche 911 of John Rollins taking over the pole position, the field rumbles and revs its way onto the twisting road course for a single slow pace lap at Metro-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex, south of Miami. They form a peculiar parade. Trailing Rollins in single file is Paul Rowan's hulking, muscular Mustang Boss 302, followed by Michael Kennedy's sleek, streamlined Lotus Formula Ford and Mike Jackson's angular, one-of-a-kind Shadowfax and all the others, a hodgepodge of automotive technology turned into a colorful circus of fiberglass and sheet metal and chrome. Andre Garnier's blue Panhard is second to last in line--followed by the Chevron B16.

As the cars appear around the final turn of the 2 1/4-mile track and dive down the long front straightaway toward the starting line, one car is missing. The Chevron is nowhere in sight.

The green flag drops in front of John Rollins' Porsche, as Rowan's Mustang accelerates in a bid for the lead. Even the Panhard picks up a little steam, rolling toward the starter's flag stand. But still there is no Mazzoni.

Long seconds tick by, an eternity in a sport where world championships often are decided by the nano-fractions on a stopwatch. Finally, the Chevron funnels casually onto the front straight, trundling along at perhaps half speed. "Heeeeere comes Bill," one of Mazzoni's pit workers says calmly, standing with one leg braced on the trackside wall. A full 20 seconds after the green flag fell, the Chevron B16 is officially in the race--and clearly in no hurry to make up lost track.

Incredible as it may seem, Mazzoni is deliberately hanging back, allowing his rivals to get a huge lead. This is not unusual for him at smaller club events such as the competition in Homestead. Other racers say, with amusement and respect, that Mazzoni sometimes pulls into the pits on the pace lap and sits through what he considers a civilized delay before starting to race.

There is a very decent, very practical reason for all this that has nothing to do with the arrogance of owning a machine capable of warp speeds: in an event that ends after the leader completes just eight laps, the Chevron B16 can easily pass the slowest cars several times. Andre Garnier and the other so-called "backmarkers" might haul their vintage automobiles hundreds of miles, tune up their engines, dress in a triple layer of fire-resistant Nomex--and race only three laps. So the Chevron B16 is all but idling now, sauntering through the quick, angled first turn. In a throwback to the sportsmanship of childhood, when competition and camaraderie mattered more than winning, Bill Mazzoni is giving his opponents a head start.

This is the gentleman's end of an aggressive, cutthroat sport. Nothing could distill its spirit better than Mazzoni's simple act of generosity.

It is vintage auto racing, where decades-old cars appear again like ghosts on the tracks of their dimly remembered glories. Machines built by dreamers, machines driven by legends. Machines that made pimply faced young men salivate almost as much as their fathers' hidden stash of Playboys. Today, the kids are grown and earn enough money to own those machines, driving them every weekend around the United States and Europe. Together, those men and those machines make vintage racing a very different class of motor sport.

England's upper crust was among the first to savor the joy of restoring and racing old automobiles. At least as far back as 1950, gents in small, specialized organizations such as the Aston Martin Owners Club competed together by day and laughed together by night over glasses of Port and fine cigars. Soon vintage racing had crossed the Atlantic. It began in 1951, when a driver named Lindley Bothwell raced in the first Pebble Beach, California, events with cars already more than 40 years old.

"He was running a 1908 Mercedes-Benz when people were running Allards as new. He was a pioneer," says Steve Earle, who has played his own pioneering role in the growing popularity of vintage racing. Earle owns the California-based Historic Motor Sports Association, one of nearly 50 vintage racing groups in the United States. He also originated and still operates the Monterey Historic Automobile Races, held annually in August--the premier vintage event in the world.

"The idea I had was to take the sport public, in a sense, because of the tradition of racing in this area, the tradition of Lindley Bothwell running here," Earle recalls. "There were a lot of old race cars sitting around with nowhere to go. If it was broken, it just sat there. Mechanics were saying, 'I don't want to work on that.' "

The first Monterey historic races were run in 1974, attracting about 1,000 people. "That included the 60 drivers and all our friends," Earle says with a laugh. Today, the event is limited to 400 racers and pulls in more than 30,000 spectators. Other big races such as the Sprint Vintage Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio also draw drivers by the hundreds and fans by the tens of thousands.

Drivers and fans alike are united by their passion for old cars. But they are divided by spirited disagreements that make generalizations about this form of racing dangerous--even about its name. In this country, most aficionados simply use the term "vintage," but some insist the only proper adjective is "historic." Then there's the stickier issue of just which cars qualify as vintage. Steve Earle's association accepts any "racing car that has historic significance," though normally that means only automobiles made before the 1960s. Organizations such as the Sports Car Club of America allow cars built before Jan. 1, 1973, to run in its vintage class. And the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association, the largest and one of the best in the United States, accepts "historically significant cars constructed prior to 1980."

The people in vintage racing also defy easy categorization. As in all motor sports, drivers are mostly men, but a sizable number of women take part as well. Typically, vintage competition is a very expensive, high-end hobby enjoyed by executives, bankers, doctors and lawyers. Sometimes, it's unbelievably expensive. But even Monterey draws its share of modest-income guys, from gas station mechanics to middle-level managers. "Mazzoni pays more for his tires in a year than I paid for my whole car," says Mike Jackson, a computer manager whose 1969 Shadowfax is worth between $5,000 and $10,000. "Among vintage racers, almost none of us know what each other does for a living. It's almost an unwritten rule that you don't ask. Though we're pretty sure all the guys who run Porsches are lawyers."

Whatever they're doing, many of the vintage racers have plenty of disposable income. And their sport helps them dispose of it quickly. Bill Mazzoni has turned down a six-figure offer for his Chevron B16. He carts the car all over the country in a $110,000 trailer that carries at least $15,000 worth of tools and a $15,000 1965 Mini-Moke support vehicle for getting around at sprawling race tracks. The cost of racing adds another $100,000 to the annual tab. He does all this as a flower grower: "We grow gladiolas--32 cents a stem wholesale," he says. A very large flower grower--with substantial holdings of valuable south Florida land.

But even Mazzoni is not among the fattest cats of vintage racing. Mike Amalfitano, who is in the electronics business, says he owns "about 10 vintage cars worth about $15 million." His comment is telling. When you're not sure exactly how many race cars you own and what they're worth to the closest $100,000, you're probably not worried that the Social Security system might collapse before your retirement. Among his collection is a 1970 Porsche 917, a thoroughbred with 630 horsepower and 12 cylinders. Before he bought the car, it raced throughout Europe, crashed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, competed once or twice in the United States, then was sold to the Chandon family in France--"the Moët & Chandon Champagne people," Amalfitano explains.

"You drive into the pits of a big historic event and you see what's in there--and you'd swear you were at a major race like an IndyCar event. The top guys have, I would say, $300,000 to $500,000 tied up just in their trailers," Amalfitano says. "I have three people working full-time on my cars, including Colin Bennett, who was Derek Daly's race team manager. He's known throughout the industry. This isn't a game."

A rare Ferrari with a distinguished racing history might cost as much as $10 million, says Frank Rupp, president of the nearly 2,000-member Sportscar Vintage Racing Association. "Like a painting, it's how much it's worth to the buyer. Some people collect art. We race it."

They do not race these rolling Chagalls for cash. Vintage racing offers no prize money in the United States, sometimes not even a trophy. Some organizations award the same prize to everyone who takes the green flag, a small token of participation such as a clipboard or tool box. "We're doing it simply for the thrill of racing, to honor the old cars and to know the people who are part of this sport," racer Mike Jackson says. "There's a sense of community that builds up around vintage races. Most of us don't give a rip about who finishes first or second. On any given day maybe John Rollins is running about the same speed as me and we may go out there and have one hell of a race together. The two of us can celebrate the experience of that race. It doesn't matter if we're running ninth and tenth, or first and second."

For racing's true believers, this is sacrilege. To them, auto racing is a hair-trigger skill where squeezing the throttle an eighth of a second too early spins you into the grass, or depressing the brake an eighth of a second too late skids you into the wall. It is a contest where testosterone runs thicker than oil but where blind machismo is more dangerous than inside a singles bar. It is a sport without compassion, fierce and unforgiving. There are no umpires to rule impartially on racing's equivalent of a close strike and no referees to call back what amounts to the winning touchdown pass. There are only gravity and inertia and the other natural laws of Newton. Only the attempt to keep four rubber wheels on asphalt while all the equations of physics try to push you off. There are only adrenaline and raw fear as you try to remember the precise point on the track where you must downshift and into which gear and the exact line through the corner and where to accelerate again, while at the same time watching the tachometer and the oil pressure and the water temperature gauges to avoid boiling the engine, all while trying to block three or four equally busy and determined racers behind you and to slide past another driver in front. You do this knowing that if you are passed by any of those three or four cars, you have failed. And that if you pass the car in front, you have seven or eight more to pass for the lead and the chance then to stay ahead of the full field of relentless competitors for a half hour or two hours or 24 hours. And that if you don't gain the lead, or if you take it and don't hold it, you also have failed. That is real racing to those who pray in the temple of speed.

Some drivers, outside and inside vintage circles, dismiss historic races in the United States as more pizzazz than piston. America's first Formula One champion, Phil Hill, turned to vintage cars long after winning his 1961 world driving title. He's among a few former racing legends, such as Stirling Moss and Brian Redman, who still strap themselves into the elegant old bucket seats of a bygone era. But he has no illusions about reliving the dramatic, daring battles of his youth.

"Vintage car racing has more to do with cars than with racing. Though in England, they seem to drive just as hard with the old cars as with the new ones," Hill says. And in the United States? "I don't do enough of it to talk about that without making someone mad at what I might say," he suggests tactfully--until he's pressed. Reluctantly, Hill says, "I don't think it's a very high level of competition."

Jim Proffit, a competitor whose West Coast business restores old race cars, is a bit blunter. "Vintage racing is like peeing in your pants. It feels hot to you but to everybody else it looks like you're just peeing in your pants," he observes. "This isn't real racing. In real racing, the only thing that counts is winning. I've been in vintage racing since 1977 and I'm still not sure I can define it. It's putting yourself in a time and place to do something as it was back then. Say you have a 1952 car. You know what that car was capable of in 1952. You hop in the seat and try to match or exceed that."

New tire technology and modern pre-race techniques such as camber adjustments considerably ease the task of beating 44-year-old lap times. Those same advances also help ensure that your 1952 Ferrari is less likely today to hurtle into a wall than when it first slid through the inner loop at Watkins Glen.

Safety is in some ways an even bigger concern in U.S. vintage racing than in other branches of amateur auto sports. This is for two reasons: First, the cars are often much less crashworthy than, say, a 1996 Formula Dodge--and no one wants to die on the hood ornament of a Bugatti. Second, the cars are often much more valuable than that Formula Dodge--and no one wants to destroy a 1974 Ferrari GTO worth $4 million.

"It's a more laid-back form of racing," Porsche racer Rollins says. "When you're running wheel-to-wheel with a Ferrari into turn one at Sebring, you tend to be very careful. It is not a contact sport, because the cars are too expensive. You drive within your limits."

Adds Chevron owner Mazzoni: "The rule of thumb in vintage racing is, 'If in doubt, don't.' There's definitely history involved here, definitely respect for the machines. But if you don't think someone will shut the door on you because he's got a million dollar car and you have a half million dollar car, you're wrong. Because he will."

Vintage racing enforces its more gentlemanly, don't-scratch-the-paint approach with some stiff penalties. Many clubs have what they call a "13/13 rule": A driver who causes any mishap resulting in car damage can be placed on probation for 13 months. If he commits a second fender-bending blunder within that period, he is banned from the sport for another 13 months. At Monterey, the regulations are even more summary: "If you have an incident sufficient to cause damage, you're out for a year," race operator Earle says.


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