2019 Sonoma Speed Festival: Where did the time go?
What the hell happened?
When did the 90s become “vintage?”
“Retro,” maybe, but “vintage?”
I guess the writing has been on the wall for a few years now, but recent events have woken me from my blissfully ignorant slumber…more on that later…
One such recent event was the inaugural Sonoma Speed Festival at Sonoma Raceway. I was interested to see a new interpretation/incarnation of what I think was formerly the Wine Country Classic and then Wine Country Motorsports Festival, mainstay Northern California vintage events that have been must-sees for us for at least a couple of decades. I’ll admit that I was a little skeptical of this new incarnation of one of my favorite things, and honestly, I was a bit surprised by the cost of entry for the first run of the event. That aside, I went into the weekend with an open mind, and empty memory card in my camera and hopes that this event would deliver on it’s many promises.
What I got, from the word “GO” was all of that (maybe a little more), and also an unanticipated revelation.
The event was about as as tidy as any racing affair I’ve ever attended. In an obvious nod to the Goodwood Festival of speed, the paddock area of Sonoma Raceway was transformed into quite a civilized occasion. There wasn’t a transporter, trailer, RV or easy-up in sight. In their stead were several long open-sided tents featuring cars arranged by racing group with minimal team equipment or infrastructure. Though the cars were fairly close to each other, I never got the sense that I had any less access to walk around the cars and to take pictures and chat with drivers and mechanics that I’ve had in the past. Though I’m sure the teams missed having their kit closer, the situation really presented well.
At the ends of the rows of long tents were various corrals, carpeted with artificial turf, and surrounded with low white picket fences. Some of the corrals featured several priceless Italian cars on static display, one a stunning de Tomaso Sport 5000 racer destined for the upcoming Bonhams auction at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering and others provided chairs and tables and benches on which to soak in the sites, partake in some fine food and local wines or just rest weary feet.
The permanent pit garages were packed with a dazzling array of vintage dragsters, classic Formula 1 cars, a zillion dollars worth of French pre-war hardware (both road and racing cars), and a display featuring Jim Clark’s Indy 500 winning 1965 Lotus 38. These alone would have made for a pretty decent vintage event, but there was more….so much more.
Nestled in the heart of the event was the ever changing corral of Radwood cars. I’m an unabashed fan of Radwood, and I relish every opportunity to sing their praises and preach their message. True to form, they presented a tour-de-force of 80s and 90s cars, fashion, culture, tons of free swag and a photo op area for any and all to enjoy. I take my hat off to this group for representing their unique brand of retro, jank and period style to an event that would not normally pay proper homage to the all but forgotten modern classics of the Rad era. Well done to them and good on the event’s promoters for featuring the cars and culture of the 80s and 90s as those things become the new “classic.” (again, more on that later)
The cherry on top of this event was something that I frankly thought was a BS promise by the event planners. I was beyond skeptical that ANYONE would be able to deliver a modern era F1 car to Sonoma Raceway, let alone have it take to the track in hopes of snatching the track record. Well, they did just that, and quite a bit more. They didn’t just present us with a used up back marker of a car, they got a factory supported 2016 Mercedes-AMG F1 W07/04. This wasn’t some cobbled together test mule…it was the car Lewis Hamilton’s world championship winner, the most successful individual chassis in F1 history. As if that wasn’t a lot to deliver, Mercedes even threw in factory test driver and former F1 hotshoe Esteban Gutiérrez to attempt to snatch the track’s lap record of 1:21.688. (Without wading into the politics bragging rights and records, I will only note that the track’s standing “race record” time was set by Marco Werner in an Audi R8 in 2004 in an actual race) Gutierrez completed his fastest lap (on a clean and empty track and under ideal racing conditions) in an astounding 1:15:430!
Now I’m Ferrari Tifosi through and through, but I was humbled just to see the thing. As much as it pains me to say nice things about the car and the team that belittle my beloved Ferrari every other weekend, I have to give praise where it’s due. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to be up close to a remarkable machine driven by one of the greatest drivers in the history of F1 racing.
Also on hand, in the Mercedes-AMG Petronas garage were two other examples of Mercedes’ participation and dominance in Grand Prix racing. Positioned to the left of the F1 W07/04 was the ex-Rudolf Caracciola 1938 W154 which was the last of Mercedes’ pre-war grand prix cars. The sheer size and overall presence of this car is almost unfathomable. It looks sounds and smells like almost nothing else in the universe. Of the thousands of cars I’ve seen in my lifetime, the only cars that I could begin to compare it with would be the other Silver Arrows, the cars of the Audi Auto Union. That’s some pretty rare and hallowed company.
The car stationed to the right of the modern Mercedes hybrid was an example of one of the most recognizable cars from the dreams of any fan of vintage cars, racing or design for that matter. This particular ex Fangio/Moss 1954 W196 was not the most successful car of its kind, but nobody really cares about that. It’s one of those masterworks of automotive technology and design that you get to see once in your lifetime and you never forget. After taking this car in for the first time on Saturday morning, I quietly uttered the phrase, “this thing on its own was worth coming for.” This is a phrase I would utter several more times over the weekend.
I guess this is a good segue to try to quantify the event without blubbering on about specific things with (more) superfluous language. You probably wouldn’t want to read it all, and frankly there was a lot going on. As much time as I spent walking around the event over two days, my travels on social media sites have shown me that I missed some things….a lot of things. Upon reflection, this event was bigger than I thought it was.
The other things at the event that are noteworthy:
The event featured no less than three Ferrari 250 GTOs (2 races and a road car)!
On that note, there were a lot of other Ferraris 250 variants on display too. (GTOs, SWBS, Testarossas, Oh My!)
A 1997 McLaren F1 GTR Longtail graced the grounds and the track. This was the first F1 GTR to win a race.
A spectacular 1992 Ferrari F40 LM dazzled in the paddock and on the track, driven by Johannes van Overbeek.
Saturday afternoon featured a nostalgic dragster demonstration on the track’s legendary drag strip. (Never seen that at a historic event before!)
When I began composing my thoughts about the Speed Festival, I was ready to say that the event was pretty good, but also that I was a little shocked at the ticket prices. I wasn’t sure that any first time happening could be worth the admission. We’ll unflinchingly pony up for events we know and love. We have the benefit of history on which to judge whether or not we want to drop the coin. Good value is worth the money. This in mind, after deliberation on my experience, reading the accounts of others and looking at all of the comments pictures and write-ups all other the internet, I’ve changed my mind. As I said earlier, I’ve been to a lot of historic events over the last few decades, but really, this one packed more good stuff into its program than most. It was well presented, it was well thought out, and most importantly it delivered much more than I expected and I really couldn’t find a flaw with it. We will absolutely put and keep the event on our calendar in the future. It truly is an event not to be missed. It is worth the spot on your calendar too and absolutely fantastic value for your racing dollar.
And a final thought, because the writing was on the wall….
As I mentioned at the top of this piece, I’ve been woken from ignorance by this event and also from a few others in the last couple of years. What’s really slapped me in the face is that I’ve discovered that vintage racing is evolving into something interesting. It will always be a place to watch the cars of yesteryear…things made of brass and hand hammered metal, things with big blocks and things that make smoke….but now there’s more to it. Vintage racing events are becoming places to see things that are very much modern…things made by and with computers….things made of plastic and things that aren’t necessarily loud and things that might not shake the ground. The Audi R8 is now a vintage race car, as well as the slightly older, McLaren F1. In the paddock, the cars of Radwood, the cars of the 80s and 90s, don’t seem out of place at all. In fact, these cars seem to be drawing on a couple of generations of car lovers who might not otherwise want to go to type of event that would normally feature relative dinosaurs. I’m turning 43 in August and I have to relate that both my 12 year old son and I seem to be gravitating and embracing these relatively new arrivals to the scene, and in some cases were getting more out of them than we are the more “standard fare.” (look out 250 GTOs!)
As we’ve opined numerous times, we see many difficulties in the future for vintage racing. Cars are taken out of commission because they become too valuable (or they get wrecked), many drivers and caretakers of vintage cars are (respectfully) “advanced in years” and, well, nothing lasts forever. These things are true, and they will remain so. The good news…the writing on the wall…is that the (relatively) new kids on the block are making themselves known, and they’re establishing their place in the paddock. For this, we are grateful. Because of this, events like the Sonoma Speed Festival with exist and thrive to provide all of us with what we love.