Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion – Perspectives on Passion: From the Driver’s Seat

Zak Brown pushing the ex-Mario Andretti Lola T332 F5000. Photo by TM Hill.Peter Mullin enjoys pre-war machinery. Photo by Larry Crane.Classics descending the Corkscrew.

Owners of vintage and historic cars are passionate about their machines, and for those who wish to race them, the annual Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion holds the highest esteem in the U.S. when it comes to such endeavors. Organizers limit an enormous number of entry requests to 550 period-correct cars for the annual event, which is next scheduled for this August 13-16 and takes place at the 2.238-mile race course that is Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Considered one of the most demanding in the country, the circuit includes 11 testing corners and a 300-foot elevation change, including an all-at-once five story drop at the famous “Corkscrew.”

“Sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula began shortly after World War II when returning GIs were looking for a place to race their recently acquired MGs, Morgans or Jaguars,” said Doug Sallen, (Monterey, Calif.), who has competed at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion for 18 years. “They had seen these cars race when they were stationed abroad, and now they wanted a chance to experience the thrill of racing themselves, so in the early 1950s there was a large movement to organize automobile races on public roads, parks and on disused military airfields.”

Sallen went on to explain that when the Pebble Beach Road Races began in 1950, there were only two classes: under 1.5 liter, which was mostly MG TCs and MG TDs, and over 1.5 liter, which were primarily Jaguar XK120s with occasional Ferraris or Oscas in the field.  Another class was added later, and that class was what was known as Specials – primarily, American hot rods with special bodywork.

“When Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca held its first historic races in 1974, the groups were pretty much all these same cars,” says Sallen, “but now in 2015 there are more classes, and some are quite modern.”

In addition to celebrating the Shelby GT350 Mustang as its special marque, this year’s Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion also will feature Formula 1 cars from 1967 to 1984 and for the first time Formula 5000 cars, fully covering the evolution of historic racing from sports cars in the 1950s to the more exotic cars in the 1960s that led to the sports racers, prototypes and formula cars of today. 

“When you add in the vintage cars of the early days (including the ever-popular Pre-War group), it presents a magnificent display of automobile history through the decades,” said Sallen, who has driven three different Morgans, a Lotus 11, and a Lotus 7 at past Rolex Reunions. And while fans can buy tickets to watch the cars perform as they used to and stand elbow-to-elbow with infatuating, if not famous, owners, drivers and mechanics in the paddock area, Sallen claims the competitors sign on for an altogether different kind of satisfaction. “The race cars are all magnificent, but making this event so special are the friendships resulting from the racing. On track, you’re all charging around, but when the checkered flag drops, you’re all buddies.”

As historic racing has evolved to include very sophisticated machines, the drivers have had to acquire the skills and experience needed to handle them.  Some car owners hire professional drivers, while others are themselves the pros. Zak Brown (Los Angeles, Calif.) was a professional open wheel race car driver in the United States and Europe, and in sports cars he had podium finishes at the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. As founder and CEO of the motorsports marketing agency Just Marketing International, he has mastered the building of brands through motorsports, which has, in turn, enabled him to acquire a collection of some very famous race cars, including those he will share driving with his best mate Richard Dean at both the Pre-Reunion and the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion: the 1980 Williams F1 Alan Jones Championship F1 car; the 1986 IMSA Ford GTO with which Scott Pruett won the IMSA championship; a 1986 Porsche 962 and the 1982 Porsche 935 that won at  Daytona and Sebring; and for the first time, the Lola T 332 Formula 5000 car that Mario Andretti drove to win at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 1975. 

“The Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion is the highlight of the year; I get to bring out some of the coolest cars at one of the best tracks in the world and amongst many of my good friends,” said Brown. “When I race at historic events I feel every bit of the same satisfaction as back in the pro days; however, in pro racing, all you care about is winning, and you aren’t too caring about your cars or competitors – there’s less respect out on the track.  In historic racing, you are in beautiful machines that are sometimes irreplaceable and also dangerous! Your competitors tend to be your friends, so there’s a lot more on-track respect. My life-long dream was definitely to have a career in motorsports, but if I’m completely honest, I wish I had become a world champion in Formula 1. That was my dream.” 

The cars on-track at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion often are referred to as museum pieces, and Peter Mullin (Oxnard, Calif.), owner of the Mullin Automotive Museum, appreciates the irony of speeding around the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca circuit in his own priceless works of art.

“People say cars are art, and I do think they are, but they are movable art,” said Mullin. “The idea of taking one of these magnificent racing cars from the ‘20s and ‘30s and putting it on a race track, to demonstrate what it was made to do when it was originally built, is pretty evocative, and it gives the public a chance to see them on-track and competing with one another.  It’s like going back in time 75 years or more and experiencing what it must have been like back then.”

According to Mullin, racing gives him and his fellow vintage car enthusiasts a chance to make sure all the mechanics of their cars are working fine, and when they are put under stress and driven as they were driven back in the day, it can be a “pretty heady” experience. Nevertheless, there are very few accidents. “These are gentleman drivers who know what their capacities are, and they don’t over drive their capacities,” he said. “I have thought about the possibility of an accident with one of my Bugattis or Delahayes, but my view is for almost anything that could happen in an accident, it is repairable and some parts are available, but if not, there are drawings, so parts can be machined. The provenance of the car will always be intact. These are race cars, and their hearts beat the heart of competition, so you owe it to the viewing public and you owe it to yourself to get it out there and do what the car was built to do.”

Visitors may purchase advance tickets to the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion online by clicking HERE or by calling 831-242-8200. There are many options available, from single-day general admission to full-weekend VIP hospitality packages.