You might have come across the name Jeff O’Neill recently. He’s been popping up in the news as he’s been spearheading Velocity Invitational, one of the largest vintage racing events planned for 2021. Sports Car Digest photojournalist, Dennis Gray, had the pleasure to sit down with Jeff to discuss this exciting event.
For years the three of us, Bill Wagenblatt, Vic Varela, and I, shared accommodations during the Historics in Monterey.
While sipping a good red as we looked out over the Pacific, we would start to reminisce about the past years of the Historics at Laguna Seca.
What had happened to the manufacturers that once sponsored the Historics? Ford celebrating Shelby? Lauda piloting an F1 Ferrari while wearing a red baseball cap? Fangio in a Mercedes and, of course, Sir Stirling Moss in a Jaguar? Cars that we saw only at the Historics.
For the past years, it seemed the Historics were no more than a big club event. There were some nice cars for sure, but cars we had seen at other tracks or another event earlier in the year. The paddock seemed like a CSRG or HMSA event, only more so.
Then early in 2019, I started to hear rumors about the Sonoma Speed Festival and Jeff O’Neill. O’Neill’s event was going to bring the Magic back to historic racing, and his 2019 Sonoma Speed Festival was held to rave reviews.
There were “new event” problems for sure, but we all felt O’Neill was on to something. Now two years later after a Covid 19 delay, O’Neill has moved his circus 152 miles south to Monterey’s WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway for the newly named Velocity Invitational at Laguna Seca on Nov 11-14, 2021.
Sports Car Digest had the pleasure of sitting down with Jeff to discover more about the man and the inspiration behind the event.
Our Conversation with Jeff O’Neill:
Sports Car Digest (SCD): Let’s start with your college days.
Jeff: Well, let’s see. I’ve been drinking and smoking cigars all the way through college since turning 21, of course. I still drink and smoke cigars.
I got into the wine business around 1985, started with some private equity guys, built a small bulk wine business, and then developed it into a successful company that we took public in 1998.
In 2004 we decided to take the company back to being privately held and ultimately sold the business to a large wine company.
That’s when I started O’Neill Vintners and Distillers, which, since 2004, we’ve built a pretty sizable wine company. We are one of the fastest-growing wineries in California, selling about 1.8 million 9 liter cases of wine to consumers. We are also a top supplier for premium wine at scale for several wine companies in California.
We currently have a little over 300 employees and continue to invest in both operational capabilities and the right talent to keep growing our business. So that’s the snapshot story.
What lead you into vintage racing?
As a kid, I always loved race cars. My dad always talked about cars. Although he was into cars, he never really owned any, and I always loved racing. So, I followed the racing and historical cars. At a certain point, I said, “You’ve gotta either fish or cut bait and either get into it or not.” And so I had a target list of 5 cars that I said, “I’ve got to own one of them.”
The first car I bought 14 years ago was a 1957 Maserati 250F Formula One car. Everybody thought I was an idiot for starting with a Formula One car from 1957, but believe it or not, it’s actually an easy car to drive, and I still own it.
It stays in Europe because there are not too many of them left here in the United States. So I still race that occasionally. But that’s how I got in.
What about the other four of the five cars?
Ford GT40, C-Type Jag, D-Type Jag, and DB4 Zagato.
I wish I bought them 20 years ago when they were giving them away.
Why are you establishing your own speed event? It’s got to be more headaches than the wine business.
That is true. Maybe half. No, I think all businesses have headaches. But that’s what business is, solving headaches.
I had been to these historic events, and you know we were seeing over the years the great cars disappear off the grids. And It’s largely because you know guys with collections like bringing their cars out. They like showing them, but they need to be displayed in a safe, curated environment. Not just on grass but also on the track.So that was my goal initially.
I also wanted to make these family events. The guys have heard me say this a million times. You go to these events in the United States, and the paddock area looks like everybody is unpacked with a stick of dynamite. That’s no way to educate a guest or a spectator.
The guys doing it best so far, I mean, there’s Silverstone, and then there’s Goodwood. Those events are curated, and they look fabulous!
If you love cars, it’s very entertaining. You can see the grids; they’re all lined up. We wanted to have docents and have the grids lined with the history of every car.
Every car in our event has to have a racing history. It can’t be a made-up car. It has to be an original chassis, and it has to be authentic. It can’t have been modified to any extent. It has to operate as it would have in the period. And nobody has been doing that with any discipline in North America.
To a certain extent, you did that at Sonoma’s speed festival. What was the response from the owners, drivers?
Well, the initial response was, “There’s no way you’re gonna tell me where my car can go, and I can’t have my trailer with it.” I said, “Well, then I guess you’re not gonna come?”
So we had a very curated initial event. We started it with the goal of “I didn’t care how many cars”, but they had to be all authentic. They had to be real cars and they had to be historic. The more exceptional the vehicle from a historical racing perspective, the better. So that was the genesis.
We had 220 cars at Sonoma, all 100% historical race cars. Plus, we also wanted to demonstrate new technology. So, that’s why we had the Mercedes W07, the 2016 turbo hybrid car.
It’s about entertainment and having a forum that great collectors can showcase these cars.
The distinction here is we’re not running a concourse. We’re showing these cars, as they would have been driven in period on-track. You get the sights, the sounds, the smells, the whole. You get essentially the whole enchilada, which I think is very unique. That’s what we’re trying to showcase with the Velocity Invitational at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca.
From the first Sonoma event for you personally, what were the highlights?
Tom Price loaned me a 250 GTO to actually race.
And you drove the balls off that 250 GTO. Finished third?
Third. Yep, got beat by a couple of other cars. But we ran it pretty hard. Fortunately, I returned it in one piece.
But getting to race one of the 33 GTOs, I mean, that was pretty extraordinary, and that Tom had enough confidence to let me actually drive it was even more exciting.
Obviously, another highlight was getting the Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton’s car, running it, breaking the track record, showing everybody how complicated and how special these Formula One cars are today.
People just don’t get the opportunity to be near or see a Formula One car up close – the technology, I mean, it was truly extraordinary to be able to get close to that car.
The Velocity Invitational is in November. The historic season is over in this country. Why should an owner from the midwest, the east coast, or even Washington State load up their cars and crews and come out for your event?
They have an obligation to showcase these incredible cars and show them to the public in a forum that is safe, exciting, and entertaining.
Our goal is that the race and the event is as attractive for a five-year-old that is just learning about cars to an 85-year old that may still be racing. So, we think the opportunity to showcase these cars is extraordinary.
We picked November because it was the one moment in time where a lot of great cars are available from around the world.
We’ll have the McLaren team there running 4 Formula One cars. We’ll also have Zak Brown and Mika Hakkinen and a number of others. So, part of it is a little late in the year, but hopefully, not everybody’s put their cars away.
From your point of view, what were the major problems with the Sonoma Speed Festival?
I don’t think we had any major problems. But I mean, it wasn’t hard to raise the bar here. Look, people want to be entertained but with curated collections. You need to have great food, wine, entertainment, music.
We want it to be a family event, not an event only for just some gearhead that wants to know what the gap is on the spark plugs. We want these events to be incredibly friendly.
The challenges were it was the first one. Nobody had ever done that. Nobody ever told guys ”sorry, your car is going to be curated. It will be in the paddock under its own tent, with the rest of its racing group. And no, you can’t have your trailer within 10 feet of it”.
That was a little bit challenging for some initially. But I think once everybody saw we’re trying to educate, give opportunities for people to see car collections, whether they’re really fanatical car buffs or not. At least people can learn, and we can show them how these cars would have raced in period.
What does it take for a car to qualify for the Velocity Invitational?
We are very straightforward about that and we’re deadly honest – it has to have original race history, the original chassis, it can’t be a reproduction, and the driver has to be a good person. But beyond that, we don’t have any other requirements. But we won’t take modified cars. We won’t take hot-rodded cars, and we don’t want folks hanging around that aren’t fun. Period.
Who’s going to check the cars for you? Are you bringing somebody in? Are you using somebody local?
We’ve got Tim Pendergast and crew coming from the east coast. Tim’s got a lot of experience helping his dad start HSR in the 90s, running cars there as well as through the Amelia Island Concours, vetting all those cars and putting that on, as well as his work with Porsche Rennsport.
Then, of course, we’ve got Steve Earle still involved helping us curate these grids so that they are truly authentic to the period.
So Steve will do a lot of the work beforehand. Ryan Turri then works with Steve on final approvals.
How are you laying out the paddock? Any rough ideas of what people can expect?
One of the things we want is it to be very entertaining. It will be similar to the way we laid out the Sonoma Speed Festival. But it will have a very large public area with two acres of lawn, picnic benches, and food trucks. Then all of the cars will be curated in the paddock under their own individual tent, by year and race group.
And the 18-wheeler support trucks?
We’ll hide them close by. They will be within range but out of focus.
If you have to take your car over to be repaired, fixed, change the oil or check the air pressure, we will run it exactly as we ran it at Sonoma.
It was very easy. We kept a team of golf carts ready to go if you needed parts moved around. If you needed help getting back and forth from your trailer, we had plenty of support.
Okay. So you’ve got drivers and golf carts to help people get from their paddock spot back to the trailer to get out the screwdriver they’ve forgotten.
Exactly. The trailer will be within a couple of hundred yards. It’s not like they’re driving three miles to get back to their trailer.
How can people find out the history of the cars?
Well, actually, there are four areas that people can learn about cars.
One, the program, we should have the history of every single car.
Second, we always put a placard in front of each car with a race history, where it was from, year, model, and races that it’s participated in.
Third, we always hope that the drivers will be nearby and want them to talk about their cars, why they own them and why its special to them.
Then fourth is we will have docents available to give tours for those who want a little more immersive experience.
What about guest drivers? If you have “name” drivers, Is there a way spectators can interact with them?
The paddock is open for everybody, we want that interaction. We want people to be able to talk to drivers. Of course, from McLaren, we’ll have Mika Hakkinen, and we’ll build that list of drivers as we go along.
We’re anticipating having some special guests that spectators will have access, whether it’s seeing them in the paddock or having panel discussions.
We’ll have big discussions around electric cars, historic cars, supercars. We want to have really a broad range.
We want to have everything from the early 1900s demonstration on, so everybody can see the development of whether it’s superchargers or aluminum or tube frame or carbon fiber, all the way through.
Early evening events at the tracks. It used to be the Historics when the last race was flagged or finished. There were live bands so spectators didn’t have to trek over the hill to their car and start over again to get out of the track. There’s a reason to hang out at the track for a little while longer.
We’re talking about having events between five and seven-thirty or five and eight. We have to be off the track by six, but it will be sundown by then.
We think there are potentially some exciting opportunities to run a late evening, late afternoon, early dusk race, which could be a lot of fun. Plus entertainment and food that potentially will go on into the evening.
I’ve heard a rumor you’re going to run Minis and Mustangs together.
Well, I would say, that I don’t know that we’re absolutely committed, but we are planning on running an evening race. That will be very entertaining, and it should be a lot of fun to watch as the sun goes down and these guys and gals turn their headlights on.
What do you want the spectators to take away from this event?
I think a couple of things. One, and I think most importantly, is they get an opportunity to look at cars that are in private collections that rarely come out.
They will walk away saying, “I got to see or even sit in a 250 GTO or a Porsche 917 or a 962 or a Formula One car from 1998 or 2014, or whatever.
They can see the development of that technology and they walk away saying, “Not only were the cars amazing, but I had a fantastic experience because I could sit down, I could have wine and food and entertainment. I actually learned something not only about historic cars, but I learned something about electric cars, and I learned something about electric race cars.”
So, I think what we want everybody to walk away and say, “Wow, that was a car event, but it wasn’t just an old car racing event. It had this broad range of educational opportunities,” whether it was technology and all the things that come wrapped up in that.
What would you like the drivers and owners to take away from the event?
That they have that obligation to present these cars to all the folks that never get an opportunity to see them live. I mean, you can look at them in a magazine. There is nothing like seeing these. It’s unbelievable, it’s special, whether it’s a Le Mans car or whatever it is. It could be an Indy car or a Formula One car or what have you. But seeing them up close and in person, there is no replacement for that.
I know photographs are fantastic, but you can’t hear them or smell them or touch them. I want the owners and drivers excited about sharing these cars with our spectators.
What we want to get across to people is that these historic cars and contemporary cars, it’s a feast for the eyes.
Whether you’re 7 years old or 87 years old, come enjoy, have a great time, enjoy the cars, learn as much as you want or as little.
If you wish to go and enjoy the wine and the food, that’s fantastic.
Suppose you want to learn about these historic grids or contemporary race cars or supercars. In that case, you’re going to walk away with something you didn’t know when you came.