Mercedes 300SLR on track at 2021 Velocity Invitational
Derik Hill takes the Mercedes 300SLR through Laguna’s turn five late Saturday afternoon. ©2021 Dennis Gray

A Conversation with Jeff O’Neill & Ryan Turri of Velocity Invitational

Interview by Dennis Gray

Jeff O’Neill’s second motorsport event, the Velocity Invitational, took place November 11th through the 14th at Weathertech Raceway, Laguna Seca. O’Neill and his General Manager Ryan Turri put together ten groups of historic vintage race cars along with a Mustang v. Mini endurance race.

Additionally, demonstrations occurred throughout the weekend by McLaren F1 cars, historically significant vintage Ferraris, AAR Eagle F1 and Indy cars, and a Mercedes 300SLR. Wow!

Mercedes 300SLR on track at 2021 Velocity Invitational
Derik Hill takes the Mercedes 300SLR through Laguna’s turn five late Saturday afternoon. ©2021 Dennis Gray

Impressions of the 2021 Velocity Invitational

As I left the track early Monday morning, I heard nothing but praise for the event from spectators, wine and food vendors, as well as competitors who all had positive input. It seems that O’Neill and Turri have a successful formula on their hands.

Having given ample time for the dust to settle, I thought it would be a good time to now sit down with Jeff and Ryan to revisit the event from their own eyes.

Velocity Invitational founder Jeff O’Neill
Jeff O’Neill, Founder, Velocity Invitational. ©2021 Dennis Gray
Velocity Invitational General Manager Ryan Turri
Ryan Turri, General Manager and Rainmaker. ©2021 Dennis Gray

RT: Ryan Turri, General Manager and “Rainmaker”.

DG: Dennis Gray, SportsCarDigest.com


The Interview:

DG: How many cars, how many spectators?

RT: Cars in the race groups? About 235, I think really with the Mustangs and we had 32 Mustangs and Minis. And then, another 30 or so display cars.

JO: Spectators, a little over 12,000 over the three days. Quite a few came for three days. But that includes drivers and that’s everybody—over a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

DG: Better than you did with the Sonoma Speed Festival?

JO: I would say so. We think we had about, what? 10,000 in 9,000 at Sonoma.  I mean it’s a 30% gain. At least a 30% or 40% improvement over the Sonoma Speed Festival two years ago.

DG: It’s just going to snowball?

JO: It sure feels like that. I’ve never actually done an event where I’ve got about fifteen handwritten thank you letters just from guests. Guests that don’t even know me, just from happy spectators.

DG: Feedback from Ford and McLaren?

JO: McLaren and Ford; I would say the feedback was very positive. I can tell you Jim Farley, Chief Executive Officer with Ford had a great time. So good that Henry Ford III  flew out on Sunday. I mean he didn’t decide to come until Saturday, once he realized we had all the Ford GTLM cars and demonstration laps. The Ford activation was pretty special and they were quite pleased. Obviously, McLaren as well. A lot of their F1 VIPs from Silicon Valley were there as well, so great. I think everybody was pretty excited and happy.

JO: It was fun. I mean, look, we tried to deliver a great experience, whether you’re a spectator, a driver or a sponsor; that was the idea. We’re not gonna get sponsors to stick to this unless we deliver a great experience.

DG: How many of the sponsors and manufactures will return for 2022?

RT: Manufacturers? I think they’ll all be, I don’t know, Dennis, but my sense is they’ll all be back and more. I mean, McLaren sold five—I don’t know if this is really relevant to this article—but the McLaren luxury car division sold five or six  cars during the event; that’s a lot of sales for three days.

DG: That’s relevant; those numbers apply to anybody who is looking for a way to expose their product.

RT: And we had another super car manufacturer that sold three 2.5 million dollar cars during the event.

DG: From competitors, what was the feedback?

JO:  I would say one of the big, most important feedbacks is they love the layout of the cars and they really like being on track with competent drivers. What else would you say, Ryan?

RT:  I would say we got positive feedback when guys with really great cars showed up and looked around and said, well, there are really fantastic cars here. We got that a lot.

JO: Yeah, they came realizing we were bringing incredible cars together rather than trying to bring 500 or more cars for another big club event.

DG: Another big club event. Correct. Not pointing any fingers, mind you, but another big club event?

JO: Right, I think the point is to remind everybody there’s a place for all of that, right? There’s a place for club events. Come race, put 40 cars on a track per group. That’s great. Go do that. But we are creating a forum where a lot of these rare irreplaceable machines can race.

DG: Walking through the pits, there was a 166 Ferrari, an ex-Phil Hill Ferrari 340 Mexico and a 300SLR Mercedes.

JO: The 166 Ferrari won Le Mans!

JO: The 300SLR—a lot of people thought it was fake. In hindsight, looking at it, we probably should have had, like, ropes around it. I mean, people practically could go up and practically sit in it.

DG: What were the problems for competitors or spectators or you guys that you’re working on eliminating next year?

RT: I think everyone had a problem with load in and we’re working on that.

DG: What was the problem?

JO: There’s probably a better method than how we did it; Ryan and his guys will figure it out.

RT: The other thing I would say is that, there were a few occasions where guys were given like a five minute or a three-minute sign and it wasn’t down to the three minutes, you know, if they were given a three-minute sign, it should be three minutes exactly, to be moving out on the track.

JO: Yeah. That’s right.

DG: 2022 your new date is in October? That’s a historical month at Laguna with the Can-Am races run in October. Why did you pick October for 2022?

JO: We’re trying to find dates that work with participants coming from around the globe. So, we’re trying to not only time it with US events, we’re trying to time it with Formula 1, and we want to find a time where there’s a break. So these drivers that might be either competing or attending another event can be at our event. So that’s the biggest goal.

DG: Can you get more Mustangs for the Mustang Mini challenge?

RT: I think we can now. I think we proved that it was pretty fun. Most everybody seemed to enjoy it. If we decide to do it again, we will build a good group.

DG: Oh, I hope you do it again. It was great to photograph.

RT: There are some amazing photographs. And that’s practically the only time I’ve ever seen anyone cheering at a historic event in this country; people were all around that track cheering for a Mini or a Mustang.

JO: Whatever it was. They just loved the competition.

DG: The fans absolutely love the Trans-Am guys; the spectators eat that stuff up.

JO: Those guys are good drivers too. Yeah, they’re good drivers. I mean, you see everybody sliding through the corners, so nobody’s like you said, nobody’s tiptoeing in their ballet shoes.

Orange Ford Mustang during Mustang Mini challenge at 2021 Velocity Invitational
Jim Hagues 1970 Boss 302 Trans-Am Mustang leads out of Laguna’s turn two.©2021 Dennis Gray

DG:  With you guys having such a successful Laguna Seca meet for your first time. What’s the feedback been from the track management?

JO: Positive. We had all the County supervisors out, so we had great feedback from them. They of course have never seen an event like the Velocity Invitational at Laguna Seca. Their job is to build revenue for the County. Clearly this brought in a group, probably call it 6,000 to 8,000 people that really, you know, they’re coming to restaurants, renting houses, staying at hotels. And in a time of the year when there is not much going on in Monterey County. So from their perspective, we were a success.

DG: Are, are you considering for the future maybe Can-Am or Formula 5000 or Vintage Indy run groups?

JO: I think, if we can plan it out over the next two to five years. We’d love all of that. I mean, I used to go down there and watch the Can-Am. There’s nothing better or more exciting than the Can-Am; that is fun racing. Ryan’s the one that’s really thinking about racing groups.

RT: I think Can-Am for 2023.  We’ve got some really interesting stuff for 2023 along with McLaren; I think that’ll be a really big deal. For 2022 we’re gonna switch stuff up for sure and run a few different groups.

JO: I’d love to bring late fifties formula one cars here. They’re all mostly in Europe, but I think we can figure out how to get some in the next two years.

JO: From the mid ‘50’s into the 60’s , I mean, they were, hey, pretty spectacular cars.

DG: You can still see the driver!

JO: You can still see the driver and the exhausts look like artwork. Right. They look like sculptures.

DG: I gotta give you guys credit for running the groups at different times over the weekend. Each day was brilliant from a photographer’s point of view, you didn’t get the same cars in that dumb mid-day light. You got some later, some earlier etc. Did the competitors just appreciate that mixed run times?

RT: It’s interesting because some did appreciate it.  Some folks thought they ran at the same time every day, a couple groups run at similar times because there’s only a couple groups you can put early in the morning. You really can’t put high horsepower stuff out when the track is completely cold. So, there are a couple groups that we alternate through in the morning, but for the rest of them, yes, we try to change the schedule up so that they’re not running at the same time.

DG: The photographers that were there, as opposed to guys that just shoot snapshots, we were all excited because the light was so different each day. And that time of year, once you get to two o’clock, the light changes every 10 minutes. The sun is quickly dropping.

JO: Like a rock, astonishing lighting on some of those photos. The photos on Sports Car Digest are just fantastic.

RT: Just fantastic. Some of them did not look like Laguna Seca.

JO: It rained on the previous Monday, so we had slightly green Hills.

DG: Is there a way you can get more cars to run into the night besides the Minis and Mustangs? Can you tell the 911s to bring headlights and run those guys a few laps into the dark?

RT: We’re stuck at 6pm quiet-time right now, we’d have to see if we can get a time extension from the County. We could do a different race every night, right?  But this year we’re gonna be in October, so the clock hasn’t turned back. So it’s gonna be a little tougher to do night racing unless we can get some special permission to go past six o’clock.

JO: Well it’s fun. I mean, where do you get to shoot night shots in America?

RT: But we did run the group 7 race on Saturday as late as we could. So there are some Saturday night shots.

DG: I was there. If you look at my Instagram site, there’s a picture of Alvarado’s Porsche coming out, leading a bunch of other guys with his lights on his 911ST.

JO: I saw that picture. I guess I must have missed the race, I saw the pictures. I’m like, where’s that?

RT:  On Friday, someone in Group 7 had oiled down the track and they didn’t get much of their session at all. So we gave them 10 minutes extra at the end of the Saturday evening race. They were all pretty cool with it, I think most of them appreciated it. Yeah. The photos were astonishing.

DG: Are you picking up more interest from the local wineries and restaurants? You had a nice turnout there, but it was, I think, pretty small compared with what’s available down there.

JO: I think, this is the question, the bandwidth and talking to everybody and making sure everybody knows about us, are excited to come. They have to know about us.

RT: I think it was challenging to explain the vision without folks having ever been to it. Well, it had never been created. So…

DG: They’ve had so many years of BS from the Historics, so to really see the potential that you guys brought to the track must be eye opening for a lot of them.

RT: That was the challenge, we got a lot of responses like “we’ve done that”, “we’ve been there”, “we don’t want to go back there”. That sort of thing. So the ones that came, we appreciate obviously, but I think now that we’ve got all the photos, and videography, we can show people exactly where they’re gonna be, what it looks like. And we definitely got the comment from a lot of vendors that they had no idea this is what it was gonna be like, with the tents, turf and fencing and all the amazing cars. It’s hard to share the vision. Many vendors thought they had been to Laguna before, and didn’t want to go back but now we’ll be able to show them something new.

DG: Are the other Laguna Seca events a tall wall for you guys to overcome?

RT: There is some built-in trepidation for sure. Everyone you talked to is like, no, no, we have been to Laguna, we did that for 12 years in a row. It sucked every year, or whatever—we’re not going back there. So now I think with the pictures and video from this year we will have a little bit easier time, showing how this event is completely different, beautiful, unique and fun.

DG: When will you have the run groups finalized for next year? When will the Run Groups go up on your website?

RT: Hopefully after the first of the year.

DG: Is there anything radically new that you’re doing for next year?

RT: There’s a lot of stuff that we’re looking at. We just wanna make sure that we can get it done. There are some groups from Europe that are interested in coming. There’s some stuff that we think we might be able to put together here, but we’d like to get a little bit of buy-in before we actually publish them.

DG: That was going to be my next question. Are you getting much interest from drivers, manufacturers or clubs in Europe or Australia?

RT: I don’t think anything in Australia, but some in Europe.

DG: I was thinking about the Formula 5000 guys.

RT: That could be interesting in 2023. I know there are Can-Am guys down there too. So if they were going to send a contingency of people for 2023, that could be interesting to run both grids.

DG: What would you like to say to our readers?

JO: What we’re trying to do here is not found in any place in the US. Our spectators can go and see these world class cars and bring your partner, your kids, and your friends. And everybody has a great time and enjoys it. It’s an extraordinary entertainment experience that is unavailable anywhere else in North America.

RT: I think just to add to that, we want people to feel like they can trust us to come back year after year and see something that they’re not going to see anywhere else in this country. That’s the vision to build on every year so that people don’t even have to look on the website, they know that they’re coming, it’s something that’s put on their calendar and they can be guaranteed they will be well taken care of and amazed every single year.

JO: I don’t know where else there have been three Ferrari GTOs, two Testa Rossas and a Mercedes 300 SLR. Not only in the paddock but also on the track at speed.

DG: Where is your Maserati 350?

JO: It’s in England. They’re just finishing up the engine rebuild. We’ve gone through and just validated all the chassis and the original body. Everything’s original on it. It’s pretty amazing. So anyway, we were hoping—knock on wood—to have it here for the 2022 Velocity Invitational.


Final Thoughts on My Interview with Jeff O’Neill & Ryan Turri

Thanks to Jeff O’Neill and Ryan Turri for sharing their time with me and Sports Car Digest. I have attended a lot of vintage historic events in the US over the past years and I can honestly say that the Velocity Invitational is a unique event.

If you’re looking for one vintage historic US event to place on your 2022 bucket list, this is it. Great cars, nice people, good food, wine and beer; just a good time. Plus, you will come away with images you could not capture any place else. See you at the Velocity Invitational at Laguna Seca next October.

Black Porsche with headlights on during 2021 Velocity Invitational
David Alavarado exits turn eleven Saturday night in his Porsche 911ST. ©2021 Dennis Gray
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