By Neil Eschenfelder | October 10, 2013
Its difficult to describe an event like the Rolex Motorsports Reunion. Where else can you see such a giant collection of restored cars, drivers racing their hearts out, willing to risk their very large investments as well as their lives to see if they can win a race with great prestige but little monetary payoff? They do it because they love their cars, they love their sport and they love to get out on the track and go fast! They also love to share their passion for great, old, cars.
Each year event organizers choose a marquee, or brand, of cars to fete. This year Chevrolet’s Corvette gave everyone plenty to celebrate with 2014′s newly redesigned exterior and re-engineered everything else. Everyone jumped Saturday afternoon when a checkerboard camouflaged 2014 C7.R took 2 quick laps around the track between Rolex Race groups as announcers reinforced Chevrolet’s promise to stay fully engaged in racing with their show car as the vehicle for LeMans. The heavily Corvette leaning crowd broke out in cheers at the news.
It seems drivers and support staffs know one another pretty well. Groups form under paddock tents with boisterous laughter, fun stories and family like atmosphere. Having attended 3 previous SVRA Vintage Grands Prix at upstate New York’s Watkins Glen International Raceway, I became familiar with some cars, a few drivers and mostly with the way things run at the track. It took a while to work into the same frame of mind at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca but find it I did. From drivers encountered at The Glen, I found Chris MacAllister in his Ferrari 312 T2, Tom Malloy in his Lister Jaguar, Tom Minnich with his F1 Arrows FA1 and Peter Giddings driving a car new to him for only the second time, a ’26 Delage 15-S-8. From a celebrity standpoint, comedian Adam Carolla drove Newman Sharp Racing’s car 33, a Nissan 300ZX, though his fellow drivers offered little deference.
Strolling into the paddock site of Dale Barry and Larry Ayers, energetic supporters of Morgan 3 wheel racers, Dale’s #88 Morgan Sports, and Larry’s #151 Super Aero, I easily slipped into stories of races past, car maintenance and vehicle history seemingly present with each and every vintage race car. Sadly, amongst their plentiful race related memorabilia pasted to their cars’ cowlings, showed a sticker commemorating John Kerredge’s passing away. John’s 1926 Frazer Nash graced a Daily Derbi weekend wallpaper in late 2012. A great gentleman, John warmly supplied me with all the information necessary to write my 2nd article on vintage cars and racing.
On the track, vintage racers put on their great performances. From my photo station on Friday, August 16th, I saw drivers handling the Corkscrew, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca’s most famous feature. It’s hard to believe drivers can blast uphill on Rahal Straight, take a hard left and not have clear vision of the road dropping away out of the turn. But they drove through what amounts to close quarters combat. From my vantage point it seemed as though many drivers lifted their starboard front wheel after making the hard left over the drop off, then a right, headed for Rainey curve. I felt I chose a good location shooting from the Corkscrew’s west side pre lunch, east side post lunch, then on Rainey Curve’s runout for the balance of the after noon.
Friday the 16th saw qualification for all groups, 1 A&B through 8 A&B. turns out this was just what I wanted to see. Knowing I had availability for only 2 days’ shooting, I wanted to compare my experience at Watkins Glen with that of Laguna Seca. It worked out great getting to see all race groups in one day. This is the great attraction for vintage race events. Many groups race for short periods so the track offers a different look and feel all day. No 4 hour long races offering essentially the same thing all day.
Late afternoon offered a great payoff as Group 6B FIA and IMSA cars flew around the track. Its great fun to see early vintage machines doing what must have seemed quite new back in the day. It’s quite another thing to see contemporary looking cars demonstrate automotive technology evolution. Since the Motorsports Reunion bears the Mazda name it seemed only fitting Mazda’s family of FISA cars built around the 787 and similar chassis led the charge coming out of Rainey. This group, along with Several Porsche 962′s, made waiting ’til the day’s last races worth every minute. Mazda won the 24 hours of LeMans with their 762B chassis, remaining to this day the only Asian car company taking the checkered flag at that storied event.
Saturday morning brought me to a different place on the track. I chose turn 6 and on up Rahal Straight. Racers needed to slow down a bit to make 6 then head up Rahal Straight, meeting the track’s apex and Corkscrew. Turn 6 offered a wonderful view of cars and drivers close up. Open wheel machines allow involvement up close and personal with drivers and emotions. The closest I saw to a collision were a couple of near doughnuts into gravel on 6′s far side as well as a spinout with some smoking tires just entering Rahal Straight’s climb. Fiercely as vintage drives race, safety remains their top concern.
Looking for another angle at the close of Saturday mornings racing just before lunch, I headed down from turn 6 to 5. I found a great spot complete with seating, few fellow photographers, and a view into 5′s entrance and exit. Congested cars make for great photos and 5 proved no exception. Particularly interesting were Group 1 group members featuring the days most vintage vehicles; several including Brody and Brian Blain operating National 1911 Model 40 and Packard 1912 Model 30 cars requiring 2 operators, a driver and mechanic whose duties included (according to the very knowledgeable Hugh Coltharp of Coltharp’s Garage) maintaining oil pressure to the engine and fuel pressure to the carbs.
The sun anchored behind a cloud band stretching from the open Pacific, over the track then out into the valley to the north and east as Saturday afternoon’s Rolex Racing began with the above mentioned Group 1A. I always like watching turns squeeze the most out of cars and drivers as they slide through a turn’s best line. I spent the balance of my afternoon at the outside exit of turn 5. This turned out a great spot offering not only great images but great views of drivers slugging it out for the turn’s best exit. From this spot I captured the Checkerboard ‘Vette as well as some of my weekend’s best shots.
As the afternoon wore on wind’s chill gave way to sun’s warmth as the sun finally emerged for afternoon’s last racing. I knew turning in my photo credential vest lay at day’s end. I stretched out my walk back to the Media Center, taking in views of the paddock, overhearing driver race tales and watching crews set up for evening celebrations for races won, experience gained and maybe, just a little, drowning sorrows for pride lost.
[photo | Neil Eschenfelder]