Held once a year on the beautiful Monterey Peninsula, “Holy Week,” as referred to by some, gives car enthusiasts the world over a central meeting place to indulge, dream and participate in world-renowned car events. One of my favorite gatherings from this “automotive montage” is the Monterey Pre-Reunion at Weathertech Raceway, Laguna Seca.
Held one week before the big Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion (aka Rolex Reunion), it’s the best-kept secret for vintage race enthusiasts. Forget crowds, traffic, and having to park in some distant field. Instead, embrace two days of excellent vintage racing where it’s easy to walk around, inspect cars in the paddock and choose your favorite viewing spot at the Corkscrew.
This year’s tribute for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion is the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For sports car racers worldwide, the sound of those two words “Le Mans” conjures up myriad thoughts; endurance, glory, heartache, danger, and prestige, to identify a few.
The world’s oldest active endurance racing event still takes place in part on public roads, just as it did back in 1923, and has become part of motorsport’s triple crown, joining the Indy 500 and Monaco Grand Prix.
For the first time, the Rolex Reunion honors this endurance juggernaut by presenting a collection of significant Le Mans racers, many of which were overall winners.
While the Le Mans Legends Heritage Display was not ready yet during the Pre Reunion weekend, it is sure to amaze as it will be the most extensive collection of Le Mans cars ever assembled in America. Overall Le Mans winners to be displayed include:
While not an overall winner, the 1951 Porsche 356/2 will be present too and holds the honors of being Porsche’s first factory class win.
On track during the Pre Reunion, there was no shortage of historic cars to honor the Le Mans 24 centennial. Two distinct run groups were formed to honor the Le Mans celebration; Group 5 for 1956 to 1971 cars and Group 6 for 1972 to 1982 cars. Starting with Group 5, my favorite has to be the 1971 Porsche 908/3 driven by hot-shoe Gunnar Jeannette.
Perfect for the relatively short Laguna Seca course, Gunnar obliterated the field during Saturday’s practice. Other highlights include a 1973 Ferrari 365 GTB4 “Daytona” currently raced by Chip Connor but originally ran in the 1974 Le Mans 24, a 1965 Ford GT40 with Robert Kauffman behind the wheel, and a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT that the factory tested at Le Mans that same year; where does one stop?
Regarding Group 6 for Le Mans Cars from 1972 to 1982, it might be wise first to look at the 1970s and 1980s as a whole; in a word, PORSCHE. From the all-conquering 12-cylinder 917 to the open cockpit 936, followed by the 911 based 935, and finally, the 956/962 turbos, Porsche won the 24 hours of Le Mans 12 times during those two decades. Hence, it’s no surprise that this 1970s run group has a lot of Porsches.
Being a young teen during the 1980s watching IMSA races at Laguna Seca, there was something so alluring about the black Interscope Porsches piloted by Danny Ongais and Ted Field. Hence it’s no surprise I was in heaven watching Patrick Long pilot the ex-Interscope Porsche 934.5 while its owner Tim Pappas drove the ex-Interscope Porsche 935 (placing 3rd in both races on Sunday). Get ready for both drivers to turn up the boost during the big Rolex Reunion.
Several other racing groups returned from last year’s Rolex Reunion. Most recognizable for many fans are the “American Iron” Trans-Am cars, comprised mostly of 1960’s Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros. Throw in a few other outcasts like an AMC Javelin and a Pontiac GTO, and you can’t deny that this is one of the most entertaining groups to watch.
Nelson Calle from West Palm Beach, FL, took home the 1st place honors in both races on Sunday, proving his 1968 Chevy Camaro was the undisputable Top Dog. While the morning’s Race 1 saw John Hildebrand (1964 Pontiac) and Jim Hague (1972 AMC) take second and third, respectively, the afternoon’s Race 2 would see 2nd and 3rd earned by Ken Adams in his 1969 Ford Boss 302 Mustang, and Chip Fudge in his 1970 Camaro. Good stuff all around, and don’t forget to bring your earplugs!
The intricately engineered Formula 1 cars built in Europe and the UK are on the opposite end of the scale. To keep costs manageable and racing close, most of these cars are powered by a Ford Cosworth V8, the mainstay powerplant in F1 racing during the 1970s. Chassis manufacturers varied widely from March, Lotus, Arrows, Williams, and Brabham.
Forget traction control and carbon ceramic brakes; this is F1 racing from the glorious 1970s and early 1980s, where the driver’s skill (and courage) mattered more than ever. Both Race 1 and 2 on Sunday were won by Bud Moeller behind the wheel of his 1982 Williams FW08 and Wade Carter earning second (1982 Arrows A-4). Third place in Race 1 went to Ed Nigro in a 1961 Lotus 20. In Race 2, 3rd went to Steve Romak with his 1985 Tyrrell 12 3.
Regardless of which run group is your favorite, everyone agrees that the sights, sounds, and smells of Cosworth-powered F1 cars are something you must experience to appreciate.
As to the history of the “Pre Reunion,” I went straight to the man who built modern vintage racing in America, Steve Earle. He graciously took the time to explain how the first Pre-Reunion was a “media day” held on the preceding Wednesday to what was then called the Historics (that he founded in 1974).
Local newspapers and television stations from Monterey to San Francisco were invited to film a makeshift group of entrants who would volunteer to lap the then 1.9-mile track. This filming gave the media enough time to edit and produce promotional spots on TV to promote the weekend’s racing.
As the Historics grew, Steve realized many participants came from afar and didn’t have much experience (if any) at Laguna Seca Raceway. Seeing an opportunity for drivers to become comfortable with the course, Steve established the first “Pre Historics” weekend in 1987. The media could still use this private event to capture their promotional material, and drivers now had an entire weekend to sort out their cars and learn the track.
As Steve commented, the anxiety levels were much lower during the Pre Historics, which helped promote camaraderie among the drivers, a top priority for Steve.
Fast forward to 2022, and while TV stations and newspapers are no longer developing film for promotional spots, the Monterey Pre Reunion still fulfills its purpose for both the media, drivers, and fans alike.
As for what happened to event founder Steve Earle, he currently works with The Velocity Invitational, a world-class vintage racing event in October at Weathertech Raceway, and continues to embrace the mantra “Cars belong on the track, not the lawn.” Hope to see you next year at Monterey’s best-kept secret.