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After turning down multiple invitations over the years, I finally attended the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with my parents last weekend. (This was formerly the Monterey Historic Races, for those who might not have kept current on such things.) My dad has been driving his 1934 MG at this event for the last 20 years or so. Clearly, I've turned down way too many invitations.

The Cliff notes version: Despite some troubles, I had a blast - as did my son. It seems to me that its an event any gear head with a sense of history would enjoy.

There's a lot more going on over this weekend than just the races. The Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance is the same weekend, as are several prestigious automobile auctions. So there are plenty of things to do and see. But my attention was devoted mainly to the races.

Day 1 - Thursday

This was our travel day to Monterey. The plan was to leave our home in Orange County once the morning rush hour was over - perhaps 10 or 11 in the morning. It's about 6 hours drive to Monterey, plus some time for gas and food and other such things. I thought we'd arrive about 7 or 8 in the evening.

Let me detour for a moment with some info about us. My son has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. And due to some brain cancer when she was a child, my wife doesn't get around very well these days, either. So she's got a scooter. But we all enjoy traveling. We have a minivan that's been modified to hold a couple of wheelchairs and has a ramp to get those into the car. It's all really slick. When it works. When it doesn't, though, it's a mess.

And unfortunately, it didn't. Nothing seemed to go right in the morning, and we didn't leave home until about 2 in the afternoon. Got stuck in the afternoon traffic getting across Los Angeles, then blasted down I-5 for a couple hours. We cut across CA 41 and 46 to US 101 to Salinas, then over into Monterey. About the time we hit Salinas, I noticed some bad noises coming from the car. Really bad. Poking around Monterey getting to the hotel, it was clear the transmission was on it's last legs and wasn't going to go much further. Fortunately, it held together (slipping and complaining a lot) long enough to get us to the hotel about 11 pm. Checked in with the parents in the room next door, scrapped the plans to attend the morning practice session the next day, and crashed into bed.

Day 2 - Friday

Instead of watching some racing, I spent the morning calling transmission shops and car rental agencies. Finally settled on a plan consisting of a U-Haul truck and a car transport trailer. The truck has a ramp to get my son's electric wheelchair around. Turning the rig in a tight circle gets the trailer enough to one side to get the ramp out without having to un-hitch the trailer. And the trailer will get the car back home and avoid a return trip to fetch the van after repairs.

The parents do what parents do (which is mainly worry about their children no matter how old those children are) and offer to leave the races and cart us about to pick up the truck and trailer. Unfortunately, that involves a trip back to Salinas - couldn't find a one-way rental any closer to us.

On the drive out, I actually get a chance to look around for the first time. There are interesting cars just about every where you turn. I noticed the 3 wheel Morgan in the hotel parking lot right off the bat. But there are Porsches and Ferraris and Aston Martins and Lamborghinis and other old or exotic cars all over the place. And Cobras. The Cobras seemed to be like flies. And not all organized - just here and there driving around town or parked somewhere along the street. It almost got to the point where you could say, "Hey look at that car over there. No, not the Cobra, it's two cars behind the Cobra."

The truck and trailer were rented and driven uneventfully back to the hotel. Well, uneventfully except for my nerves. It's been a while since I've pulled a trailer. And I have to get through a bunch of narrow streets to get back to the hotel. Streets that seem to be lined with those aforementioned interesting cars. All of a sudden, they became interesting for other reasons. Scraping the side of some late-model Ford would be a pain, but not disastrous. Scraping the side of a 1960-something Porsche 911 in pristine condition would be exceedingly bad. I was quite relieved to get back to the hotel.

With the potential priceless-car-destroying rig parked safely, we got a late lunch and stumbled upon a car display in the middle of a street. These weren't Concours level cars, just nicely restored cars that folks weren't afraid to drive around and enjoy. We found out from one owner that they would have a parade around town later that evening, which would take them right past our hotel. Made a note to get outside and watch, then got chauffeured back to the hotel, as my parents needed to get back to the track and button up the car for the evening.

When the parade came around a couple of hours later, my son and I had a great time watching them pass by. I could attempt to explain it, but it's probably easier to just watch it. So here you go: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zK5Ho0lGCPs . You could probably make some kind of quiz out of identifying all of the cars as they drive by.

Day 3 - Saturday

Race day. Dad runs at 8:30 for a "qualifying" race, then again at about 1:00 for the main event. His group is the oldest cars, from about the mid-1930s and older. These are far from the fastest cars of the day, but they are a whole lot of fun to see running on a track. There were a couple of cars that originally raced with a riding mechanic, so they got to run with a riding mechanic here, too.

A couple of the oldest cars there were a pair of Nationals built in 1911 and 1914. Let's give you some specs (as best I can recall). Between 350 and 400 cubic inches displacement. Four cylinders. (Yes, 4. I believe the pistons double as coffee cans when they're not running!) Something like 60 horsepower. Wooden spoke wheels holding tires that are maybe 3 inches wide. A National very similar to these two won the second Indianapolis 500 in 1912. And according to the owner of these two cars, that National had the largest displacement of any Indy 500 winner ever - at 409 cubic inches. http://chuckstoyland.com/national/racing/index.html

And lest you think that these old cars aren't driving quickly, a quick look at their tires after a track session will tell you otherwise. The rubber on their tires is just as melted as any newer car. They may not have a lot to give, but they're giving all they've got.

As the day progressed, the cars get newer - and louder. And my dad and I get into a bit of a philosophical discussion. This event is for cars with some historic racing significance. For many of the cars there, their racing connection is obvious - they are purpose-built race cars. His car was built to meet revised specs for a race in England in 1934. There are a flock of Coopers pitted directly across from him - all of which were built to race.

But then we get into some of the newer cars, particularly the Mustangs and Camaros of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most of those cars at this event don't have any particular racing pedigree. They weren't converted to racing trim early in their life. Instead, they are often junkyard rescues, saved from a crusher and turned into racers fairly recently. He says they lack any pedigree. I argue that for these cars it isn't the particular chassis that is historic, it's the car in general. Lots of people picked up a 5 to 10 year old 69 Mustang and converted it to racing specs. It was an inexpensive way for many people to get into racing in the 1970s. In a way, they opened up weekend racing to a much wider audience. In the end, we agree to disagree and continue enjoying the event.

For my dad's first run of the morning, I drag my son up the hill and we watch from the bottom of the Corkscrew. I attempt to impress upon him the importance of this corner to racing. I tell him it's probably in the top 10 list of famous racing corners of all time. I doubt if I managed to convey the magnificence of watching a race from this vantage point, but I enjoyed it. He just wanted to get back to the pits and talk to his grandma and meet the other people there. (He really is a people person.)

Speaking of people to meet, we got a quick chance to say Hello to Jay Leno. Apparently, he always attends the race, but seemed to be dragging a camera crew with him this year. He spent a long time with a couple of the owners and drivers of the older cars. I am wondering if he's preparing for some kind of show or special once his days at the Tonight Show are over.

Mid-morning leads to one of the bigger mishaps of the weekend. I wasn't watching, but from the PA system, it sounded like a couple of people forgot how to deal with passing slower cars. The end result was a BMW into a wall and two other cars with lesser, but still significant, damage. Fortunately, there were no significant injuries to the drivers other than some bumps and bruises. That practice session got cut short to clear the track of debris.

For dad's afternoon session, we moved to the grandstands between turns 4 and 5. In addition to being very wheelchair friendly, they offered an excellent view of the cars exiting turn 3, coming under the "tire" overpass, around turn 4, then down the straight in front of the stands and disappearing around turn 5. Later in the day, I got a few minutes to myself and climbed to the top of the stands. From there, you can see the cars coming down the main straight and slowing down for the hairpin at turn 2, then into turn 3. (I don't think there was anything there on Saturday fast enough to have to slow for turn 1 - perhaps on Sunday some of the very fastest cars would.)

And that leads to another observation. You really don't get a feel for the elevation changes when you watch a race on TV or study the track map or even when you see an in-car lap on YouTube. Seeing cars come through the Corkscrew can look like it's just an overhead shot. You don't really appreciate the drop around that corner until you see it in person. And it's hard to appreciate the up-hill run on the main straight leading to the crest of the hill right at turn 1 without seeing it for yourself. And that gave me a much better appreciation for the driving skills needed to quickly navigate this track. Lots of race aficionados praise Laguna Seca as one of the better tracks in the country (or even in the world). And I think what makes it so good and so challenging is not just the layout of corners and straights and chicanes - it's the combination of those with elevation changes. Even with plenty of power available under your right foot, gravity affects how you have to deal with a corner. Downforce from clever aerodynamics can get trumped when your speed drops along with the track. Knowing both the track and your car is vital to getting a quick lap here. And making a mistake about either can send you into the gravel in the blink of an eye.

One other thing to note about the track - more of a personal observation than anything else. I was here once before - probably 30 years or more ago. Attending with the same dad who drove the same car, but at a different event (not the Monterey Historics) and before he restored the car - when it was running so badly it almost didn't make it up the hill from turn 5 to the top of the corkscrew. I didn't remember the track being so nice then. Now the track itself looks really good. The dirt adjacent to the track was well groomed - you could see the rake lines - as were the gravel pits. There wasn't a weed in sight around the track. And the facilities were much nicer. There's now a paved path all the way up from the pit area to the top of the Corkscrew. The grandstands between turns 4 and 5 are newer and very nice. The whole place is just a nicer place to attend a race.

One of the highlights for me was to get a few minutes away from responsibility for my son (thank you mom & dad!!) and just watch a race. I picked the Trans Am cars (those Mustangs and Camaros mentioned earlier). They had over 40 of them on the track at the same time. The sheer thunder of all of those big V-8s running together was impressive. So impressive, its the only group that compelled me to get out the ear plugs! Down at the exit of turn 3 is a spot where you can get as close to the track as anywhere else. And those cars are pretty much at full throttle exiting the corner. I literally could feel my torso rumbling as they went by. It was great fun, and something you just can't experience any other way than being there. Talk about it all you want - but watching in person is completely different.

My main takeaway from the whole weekend. Life is too short. Quit watching races on TV and go attend a few in person. Heck, go get a car and a racing license and do it yourself, if you can.

Day 4 - Sunday

Another day of racing, but one I must unfortunately miss. Work and other duties call, and I have to load up a dead car and a family and trek 400 miles back home in a rented truck.

However, the next Summer of Vintage racing calls, and I think my son and I will tag along to Buttonwillow next year. Preferably with a daily ride that actually works.

--Peter
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