Last weekend the roar of vintage racing returned to the hills of Monterey as Velocity Invitational kicked off a third year of the new automotive meeting. Not just a continuation of the Monterey Car Week, which takes place every August and also attracts historic cars: WeatherTech Raceway Laguna SecaVelocity Invitational aims to attract a wider segment of the enthusiastic community for three full days of fun.
I spoke to founder Jeff O’Neill earlier this summer on his vision to bring Goodwood-style glitz and glamor to the track, while providing more educational opportunities as classic car fans can get up close and personal with some of history’s greatest automotive icons (both with four wheels as with two legs). I drove curiously to Monterey to experience how that plan manifests itself in the real world, after my experiences during the past two years of Monterey Car Weeks expanded the range of camping in the hills around Laguna Seca until the chicest soirees at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering.
Back on track
Exploring Laguna Seca gets much easier every time I visit. Driving up from Monterey, far fewer lines of cars caused traffic for Velocity Invitational, and clearly marked directions from the gate steered me straight to the parking lot. From there I walked straight into the paddock and found it had once again been transformed into a car mecca. As O’Neill told me, fake green grass and white posts divided the grid area of tents where racers prepared their cars. Catering booths and displays surrounded the grid, plus placards for nearly every car detailing its history, importance, and ownership. Suites overlooking the pit lane attracted VIPs, and of course a driver’s lounge required credentials to access. Further towards the corkscrew, streams of guests hiked down dirt paths to find the best view of the course. Along with my media wristband, I was also given a photo vest and entry codes to get even closer, but spectators at Velocity Invitational can expect to definitely need earplugs – no mufflers or catalytic converters here!
The best cars in the world
In the pits and paddocks, the sheer variety of incredible cars was immediately apparent. O’Neill hoped to release cars with a bona fide racing history, from a friend’s 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO to Porsche Carrera Abarths, a McLaren F1 GTR and the Petersen Museum’s lineup of original Formula 1 racers. But amid the showstoppers, classics from BMW, Datsun and Jaguar sat alongside the best muscle cars of the Trans Am era, homemade one-offs and even a row of teenage-prepared Mini Coopers. At this point, finding a car I can’t recognize or at least guess at rarely happens – instead at Velocity Invitational, I spent a lot of time reading signs and educating myself about cars that drive me. left completely baffled.
Ragtime Racers have fun
Right near the entrance was one of the most entertaining sections with a group of cars nicknamed ‘Ragtime Racers’. The Number 16 Packard above dates from 1912 and uses a 430ci four-cylinder with an aluminum crankcase and iron pistons, which produced a whopping 40 horsepower at the time. Those wheels have wooden spokes, the three-speed transmission uses no synchros, and only the rear axle has brakes. And yet owners dressed to perfection in period-correct outfits raced these hilarious blasts of the past on the track, narrow tires squealing as they tiptoed through the corners before firing (slowly) on the straights.
Also modern supercars
As an almost immediate contrast, next to the enclosed grid where drivers prepared to take to the track, were two rows of modern supercars. Ferraris in 1990s Rosso Corsa to the iconic Enzo and even a LaFerrari were wrong dallara IndyCars and even the modern Dallara Stradale, which may only have a Ford EcoBoost four-banger mounted amidships, but somehow only weighs 1885 pounds without fluids! Twenty yards away was a series of McLaren’s “Ultimate” series cars featuring not one, but two examples of the iconic F1 – somehow the Bugatti parked in the background and a Ford GT parked on a tow truck , overshadowed.
McLaren makes an entrance
All McLarens on hand point to British automaker’s involvement with Velocity Invitational. Technically, McLaren Racing showed up – Zak Brown himself decided to bring some ice-cold bangers, including legit F1 cars, plus the F1 GTR, as well as none other than Mario Andretti, Mika Häkkinen and Tanner Foust to run for a few laps. In addition, Brown himself raced in a period-perfect Cologne Ford Capri RS3100 with an excellent livery. McLaren Racing was given a dedicated garage for their mechanics to prepare cars, and where spectators had the chance to watch from just a few feet away. As expected, everywhere the big names walked in Laguna Seca, crowds followed. And yet the overall atmosphere remained surprisingly casual, given the huge personalities and vehicles that mingled with members of the general public.
Things go sideways
Other featured exhibitions came out DirtFish, Washington State’s Rally Racing Schoollike the visionary American hypercar manufacturer Czinger and even a few Danish Zenvos. Zenvo put a car through some hot laps between the non-stop vintage races, showing off the counter-intuitive adjustable wing that manipulates while cornering or on slopes to provide perfectly optimized downforce-DirtFish sent the Subarus, a Lancia 037 and a small Ford hatchback to drift past the Corkscrew and around the tighter corners of Laguna Seca. Of course things also go sideways once the drifting starts and one of the Subarus ended up in some gravel before a masterful save prevented a crash into the tire wall. Not so for the No. 63 Ford Escort above, which drove right through a crest into the mud before nearly popping off the front bumper. Luckily the driver came out almost unscathed – hopefully the car needs little work to get back into racing shape.
The main attraction
Surrounding all the wine tastings and exhibits of parked cars, the main attraction of Velocity Invitational commands attention all weekend, simply because of the sounds. Probably the highlight races were the “1956-1962 Production GT Cars” with O’Neill in the GTO, a few Lotus Elites, bathtub Porsches, Alfas, Austin-Heales and MGs. The schedule on Friday and Saturday kept racing relatively calm, for shakedown and qualifying rounds, but on Sunday the action picked up noticeably as drivers started pushing themselves and the cars to their limits. Suddenly the reverberating Trans Am V8s sounded another level louder, the gaps between the cars narrowed and the hilarious rivalry between Mustangs and Minis that played out every day became quite fierce.
With the best seats in the house, I sometimes stood an arm’s length from some of my all-time favorite cars as they hurtled past at redline, throttles wide open and thin tires squealing. For the 15,000 in attendance on all three days, these hundreds of cars are suddenly trusted over the course of the festivities. Tickets for the whole weekend start at $145, but for the chance to get so close to cars that normally only show up at park-and-show events around the world — three full days including the risky racing — the price a bargain. I can certainly call this one of the best events I’ve ever attended, although as usual when I’m not on the track myself, old Steve McQueen Le Mans quote often crossed my mind.
“When you’re racing, it’s life. Everything that happens before or after, just wait.”
I left Velocity Invitational thinking that maybe I needed a vintage race car in my life. Next time I’ll at least have to remember my earplugs!
Sources: velocityinvitational.com, co.monterey.ca.us, mclaren.com, dallara.it and dirtfish.com.