History in Motion at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion

Formula One awakens the Monterey hillside with high-revving thrills. Photo by Rolex / Stephan Cooper.Mike Cleary enjoys the Monterey experience. Photo by Rolex / Stephan Cooper.

The Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion is about rarely seen race cars that are authentic and historic, showcased not on a lawn but at speed at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the world-famous 2.238-mile circuit nestled in the hills of Monterey. For two days, 550 cars have been screaming through their practice runs in preparation for the first official day of weekend racing that also will see a surge of fans pass through the gates for the very purpose of seeing – and hearing – their favorite racing machines from bygone eras spring back to life, as if time had never passed.

“When I first began racing at this event in 1977 (three years after it first started), it was just a group of car enthusiasts, and the spectators were friends and family,” said Mike Cleary, who started with a Bugatti, which then led him to own the 1932 Studebaker Indy Car that his son will race this weekend. “It was a two-day event back then, and the evolution to what we have today – enthusiasts from all over, coming here to watch all these magnificent cars – is fantastic. The success of this and other vintage racing events has contributed to the rescue and restoration of crashed or abandoned cars, and it’s wonderful to see.”

Cleary does all his own work on his cars, having provided restoration services for others as well, even to the extent of winning prizes at Pebble Beach. He even built the car he will race tomorrow, what he calls the “Cleary Special,” in 1955. “We built the chassis and installed a Crosley engine, Fiat suspension and then acquired the bodywork from Devon. My son learned how to drive it, and later my son-in-law learned to drive it, so it is really kind of a family car.”

He says one of his fondest memories of his friend, the late World Champion Phil Hill, was made at this event. “I was coming down the Corkscrew in my Lancia years ago, and he passed me in his Bentley on the outside. I’ve never figured out how he did that.”

Jan Voboril is another owner/driver who has a long history with the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. He began racing here in 1979 and has returned this year with his 1925 Bugatti Type 35, which was originally raced in the 1920s by the famous Czechoslovakian racer Madame Eliška Junek.

“I grew up in Czechoslovakia, and I knew Madame Junek, who was a wonderful lady and an amazing driver,” said Voboril. “In 1926, she was leading the Targa Florio in this car and was ahead of the great Tazio Nuvolari and all other great racers of that time. She had water pump problems, so she finished fourth or fifth.”

Over the years, Voboril has raced a 1916 Lancia and a Ford Model T Indy Car. This weekend, he races a Bugatti that his wife acquired, while next year he plans to race his Alta Grand Prix car. “I have made so many friends in the 36 years I’ve raced here and have so many wonderful memories.”

But as much as this event is for long-timers, it also attracts new players every year, and to that point Ron Maydon, founder of the FIA Master’s Historic Formula 1 Championship, has brought 34 Formula 1 cars here. They will race in the final session tomorrow, with Maydon among them as a driver.

“I’ve been to this event as a spectator a few times, but this is my first time ‘racing in anger,’ as they say,” said Maydon. “The circuit here at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is more difficult to learn than I anticipated. In fact all of the drivers from Europe who are here for the first time have said the same. They love the track but find it to be much more complicated than they expected.  It’s not so hard to learn where the track goes, but it is very difficult to learn the correct line; it’s very technical.”

As for Classic Car Week in Monterey, of which the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion is a cornerstone, Maydon says “there’s racing for the motorsports people, there’s stunning cars for the investors, there’s fashion items for those people who enjoy that kind of thing, and if you want to buy a jet you can find that here, too! This week is a wonderful experience for everyone to enjoy.”