With the staggering quality of cars scheduled for both auction block and concours field, I assumed my first Amelia Island Concours weekend would be quite serious. This has long been a problem for me. When I first taught high school English five years ago, I told students that looking serious was the next best thing to being talented or capable. This was a lie to keep them from throwing paper, yelling uncontrollably or engaging in the violent acts I imagined had vanquished last year’s English teacher. It was also why I wore pressed khakis and spoke with the confidence of a fighter pilot. In any event, my problem is that seriousness is my first defense when worried about doing something new or important. And so it was I drove on a fine Thursday morning to the 2012 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance wearing freshly ironed slacks.
The event Bill Warner started on Amelia Island, Florida sixteen years ago with honorary chairman Stirling Moss, main sponsor Mercedes-Benz and around 2,000 attendees has grown into one of the nation’s premier automotive events. Nearly every major auto manufacturer now exhibits at the Ritz-Carlton and close to 300 of world’s finest vintage cars are displayed before 23,000 visitors. Gooding and Company holds a Friday auction of important vehicles at the nearby Omni Amelia Island Plantation, and RM Auctions does the same on Saturday at the Ritz-Carlton. All the while automotive glitterati amble among the crowd in such numbers one can worry aloud at the men’s room sink about the coffee on his shirt, then look up to find himself rubbing shoulders with Jim Hall.
Nearing the end of my drive Thursday afternoon the sun falls in that soft way peculiar to the South and an ocean breeze brushes the Spanish moss of Amelia’s great live oaks. I pass below in the Jeep following myriad Gooding and Company signs to the three tents erected in the Omni parking lot. These Gooding auctions are put on with a kind of A-list Hollywood style that makes you think you took a wrong turn and wound up in an issue of Us Weekly. Impeccable tents the size of airplane hangars house great fields of black carpet where security agents in black suits and sunglasses sweat ominously by the dozen. They wear miniscule earpieces and say things like “tell Carl to cover section three” while you say hello.
Despite the security agents’ serious air it becomes apparent that my own feigned detachment might crumble quickly. The first tent I enter contains the complete Drendel Porsche collection including two 962s, a 917-30, the first 935 ever made, two 924 GTPs, a 911 GT1 Evolution, the Le Mans class winning 934, a 911 RSR Turbo, the Sebring class winning 911 GT2, the Parnelli Jones Porsche Indy Car, and a Porsche powered McLaren MP4/3 Formula 1 car. For any non-automotive types still reading this, there is no metaphor, no analogy, and no expression to quantify the sheer absurdity of so much amazing machinery contained in one place. For my part I utter “wow” and crawl under the 917-30 to see if it’s just like Mark Donohue described. It is. The 935 and RSR too, are astounding. Consistently maintained but never restored, they bear the marks of racing skirmishes and impromptu fixes applied in both race shop and pit lane. Their cockpits smell of sweat and fear.
For any fan of Porsche, though, the 917-30 is the big one. Sports Car Digest Publisher Jamie Doyle and I pass the time to its sale Friday afternoon by drinking Gooding’s free lattes and deciding that the 530hp, Le Mans winning Porsche 934 is the best street car ever. We harbor hopes that the world’s 917-30 buyers will be struck mute and leave us to purchase the 1400+ horsepower car with money recently saved on caffeine. They aren’t. The Porsche blasts onto the auction block and buyers quickly bid it to a 4.4 million dollar sales price. I had pulled out my cellphone to record video of the great car’s arrival, but when the flat-12 exploded to life outside the tent some hooligans in the audience yelled so loudly the footage was ruined. Later, when I replay the video, I realize the screaming voices are ours.
And why not scream? I once asked a similar question of a high school sophomore standing on a desk and singing through a full mouth of red velvet cake. This same student had missed a good portion of class the week prior after falling asleep on a sunlit bench. He now attends a dynamite college and will probably be our boss someday but this is beside the point. When I told him in very serious terms that adults don’t mix singing and cake, he said, “Mr. Lenahan, you’ve got to whoop and holler while you can.”
On Saturday morning I stand in front of a race car and realize he’s right. The red, white and blue Corvette-bodied Trans-Am racer is Paul Newman’s last car and wears his age of 83 on its doors. Inside a racing seat sits in a tangle of chassis tubes like a fly in a spider’s web. I think about an August afternoon in 2008 when Lime Rock Park closed its gates and opened the track so Newman could privately drive the last laps of his life. What was it like to leave pit lane? To feel the pull of the downhill turn on the cool down lap? To hear the ratchet straps secure the Corvette in its trailer?
I think too about another August afternoon when I worked my first event for Newman Haas Racing. About Newman bounding into the kitchen trailer and sharing popcorn and racing stories with a very serious seventeen-year-old dishwasher. Time begins to slip. Was that nearly two decades ago or this past weekend?
A ’56 Porsche Carrera rolls by, its Fuhrman 4-cam engine barking sharply through a stinger exhaust. A ’37 Squire with magnificent Corsica bodywork practically illuminates itself under the afternoon clouds. For a brief moment I wonder if Ernst Fuhrman or Adrian Squire are here. It feels like they are. Auction Editor Rick Carey and I stand in place as this line of history winds its way into the RM auction tent, writing up as many cars as we can. Rick wields his impossibly deep knowledge. I struggle to remember where and when I am.
Later, when the RM auction ends Jamie and I sneak out onto the golf course to watch many iconic cars take to the concours field a day early. On a small rise in the fairway rough lies the Ford GT40 MKII in which Ken Miles and Denny Hulme spiritually won the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans and in which I sat as a Shelby-crazed adolescent. But before I can lose myself in P/1015’s history, Peter Gregg’s TransAm Mustang shatters the quiet with its unmuffled V8. It’s joined by a Ferrari 250 GTO. Then a second. Then a third. A Pur Sang Alfa 8C2300 blasts down the road with a lucky devil at the wheel we’ll later discover is Rick Carey. Before we know it, Jamie and I are running across the grass laughing like kids on a playground. We tell ourselves we’re trying to get closer to the GTOs, but really it just seems like the right thing to do.
Today old cars are a serious business. People speak of them in hushed tones, write great diatribes about the merits of originality vs. restoration, and place them in investment portfolios. All well and good, these, but not the reason 23,000 people crowded the Golf Club of Amelia Island fairways this past Sunday. Great vintage cars speak to our emotions in the voices of the men and women who built, raced and cared for them. They’re a reminder that we’ll someday join the ranks of those who’ve penned their last engine or listened to the ratchet straps tighten one last time. And that we’ve got to whoop and holler while we can.
Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance 2012 – Picture Gallery (click image for larger photo and description)