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Today was the day everyone was waiting for, or at least the 30 or so thousand people flocking to the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion were waiting for it:  the chance to see 45 competition Shelby Cobras charging around California’s famously challenging 2.238-mile road course known as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.  The Cobras are part of the Reunion’s celebration of the Shelby Cobra’s 50th Anniversary, and besides those signed up for racing, there were hundreds more in the paddock, surrounding corrals, and even in a museum-quality Heritage Display, not to mention those driving the streets in Monterey these past few days as their owners went to and from Classic Car Week’s concours events, tours, car shows and auctions that are now signature around the world as among the finest in the automotive world.

The featured Cobra race was one of nine official Rolex Races held after lunchtime today, and it had to be the most watched, running chills up spines with the rage of roaring engines made more intense at the wave of the green flag by celebrity starter Edsel Ford II.  It was billed as a tribute race to honor the Cobra’s originator Carroll Shelby, who had planned to be here, but, sadly, died in May of this year at the age of 89.  For Jim Click, who drove his 1964 Cobra 289 to win, that poignant fact made his victory a significant moment in time.  Back in the paddock, celebrating with his crew and race fans who had surrounded his car, he said, “I knew Carroll Shelby; he did so much for racing and for Ford, so it is an honor for me to have won this race for Mr. Shelby.  This is the biggest win of my life.”

Click explained that he started third on the grid today, but the second-place car broke down.  “I was chasing car #81 (also a 1964 Cobra 289) for the lead, and I knew I was faster going through the turns; he is a really good driver, but he finally made a bit of a mistake exiting a corner, so I was there to take advantage,” said Click.  Race day drama was heightened when a rare Daytona Coupe suddenly wound up off-track as well with apparent damage to its front end.  The Coupe, one of only six ever built, had held a seemingly comfortable third-place position for the first half of the 20-minute race.  At the Rolex Driver’s Club, which allows a birds-eye view of the “Andretti Hairpin” turn 2 and the short straights leading into and exiting turn 3, the atmosphere could not have been more electric, and after the checkered flag, the reverence of fellow drivers from the 16 other classes here was made clear as the Cobra’s slowed their pace to loud cheers and waving caps in recognition of their collective accomplishment.

For Charles Firmenich (Geneva, Switzerland), racing his 1965 Cobra in the race was less about winning and more about gaining experience. “I’ve had this car for two years, but this is my first year of racing,” said Firmenich, adding that he has 20 years experience doing track days with car clubs.  “I have been itching for a long time to do some actual racing, so when I got this Cobra I felt the time had come.  I raced this car at the Le Mans Classic this year and at first it was horrible, because in the rain in a car like this it is frightening, but after a while I got used to it.  I have never been to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca before, and I find it very challenging because it has so many different shapes and turns.  We have a few tracks in Europe that are also fast and technical, but this one is special.  As a Swiss citizen it is great for me to see a Swiss company, Rolex, promoting motor racing around the world and especially vintage racing because it has become so popular in Europe as much as it has in America.”

Just prior to the race, 169 Cobras thrilled the crowds with yet another screaming salute to Carroll Shelby in “Parade Laps” that converged 50 original Shelby Cobras (2000s and 3000s) with 25 continuations (4000s and 6000s that were built by Shelby American with Carroll Shelby’s blessing 20 years after the originals), 19 replicas of the Cobra Daytona Coupe (the lead car of which the Coupe’s designer Peter Brock had command) and 75 more Cobra replicas.  The Nor Cal Shelby Club was behind growing its typically 75-car Cobra Corral at this event to 315 in this special year when Cobra was made the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion’s special marque.  “We pulled it off despite ourselves,” chuckled Orion Felles (Redwood, Calif.), secretary of the club. “I’m glad we could put on a good show and that it was so appreciated.  And the drivers, when they found out about the parade, some of them came because Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is world-famous, and they said, ‘We want to do this track!’”

As if the race and the parade were not enough, Ford’s Shelby Cobra Heritage Display—a giant tented attraction at the center of the race paddock–featured Cobra serial number CSX2001, the very first production Cobra built, among its 12 historically fascinating Cobras that, with the help of story boards, mapped the heritage of the iconic marque.  It is owned by Bruce Meyer (Los Angeles, CA), who like most car collectors, strives for the most unique and rare machines he can find and will show the Cobra at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance on Sunday.

“We have been fortunate to have cars worthy of the lawn,” said Meyer, “and I feel that I am just a caretaker of these cars, since none of us can take them with us; it’s a real privilege.”

Meyer explained that Cobra #1 was assembled in Pittsburgh and did all the East Coast auto shows.  It then went off to Le Mans at the end of 1963 to race there in 1964.  After Le Mans it went to Ford Racing of Europe and raced throughout Europe.  “It’s a very significant car, since it is the very first one and also the first Cobra taken to Europe to race.  Loyd Lucky Casner was a close friend of Carroll Shelby and bought this car to race at Le Mans with co-driver Jean Louis Vincent.  Vincent bought the car from Casner after Le Mans and raced it in the Tour de France and it became the only Cobra to ever race that event.” 

Meyer’s collection runs the gamut from Duisenbergs to dragsters to hot rods to Bonneville cars, but he has always been interested in performance cars. “I have the first Corvette to race at Le Mans and the last production Porsche (a 935) to win overall there…I think I will bring the 935 Porsche here to the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion next year to race.  I don’t do a lot of wheel-to-wheel racing, but I do a lot of track days because it suits my schedule better.”

Meyer was appreciative of all around him at Classic Car Week, including Rolex’s involvement as a sponsor here as well as at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance; Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance presented by Rolex; and The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering.  “I want to say that I am delighted that Rolex is part of all this, because Rolex and automobiles are just the perfect pairing, like the perfect pairings of fine wine.  So many car collectors appreciate fine time pieces and Rolex is the one most people associate with exquisite automobiles, for me it’s a privilege to participate in these events.”

For more information on the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, visit www.MazdaRaceway.com

Photo By: Rolex / Tom O’Niel




Even though the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion is feverishly busy celebrating Shelby Cobra’s 50th Anniversary, it is simultaneously revealing the rich heritage of historic automobile racing as a whole with 17 different period-specific race groups running the road course at Monterey, California’s Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.  The event, in its second day of well-attended qualifying rounds, will swell with even more spectators come tomorrow, when weekend competition begins and the natural rhythm of Monterey Peninsula’s Classic Car Week swings attention from today’s champagne receptions at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering to the only driving-at-speed event in Car Week’s richly-stocked smorgasbord of offerings for vintage automobile lovers.

While serving in Europe during WWII, many American soldiers learned to appreciate the two-seat roadsters they saw there.  As they returned home, they began importing one of the especially coveted makes, the legendary MG, thus setting alight the sports car craze in America.

It is in the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion Pre-1940 Sports & Touring Car group that Peter Thelander (Orange County, Calif.) will drive his 1934 MG NE Tourist Trophy Magnette.  He and his wife Frances embody the love of MG sport cars having “raised their family” on MG T series cars, MGAs and MGBs.  “This car is one of seven that was specially made for the 1934 Irish Tourist Trophy Race,” said Thelander.  “MG won the race in 1933 with the MGK3, which had a supercharger, but superchargers were banned for 1934, so the company had to quickly come up with a car to compete that year.  This car is one of them.  For 70 years old, it handles very well around this course.” 

The modern era of Formula 1 began in 1950, and great names like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Cooper and Talbot Lago were the marques of the day.  At this year’s Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, several cherished cars from this period occupy the field in the group for 1927-1951 Racing Cars.  One of them is the pristine 1949 Talbot Lago T26 owned by David Duthu (Houston, TX).  It is the very last of the Talbot Lago Grand Prix cars to be built, totally restored and with an extensive racing history. 

“It was a factory team car in 1950 when the company went into receivership, and after the South American Grand Prix, all the cars were sold off,” said Duthu.  “That year, Juan Manuel Fangio and José Froilán González drove this car and another Talbot Lago car, and what is interesting about that is nobody knows which one drove which car.”

Duthu, who also has a 1956 Jomar Mark II entered in the group for 1955-1961 Sports Racing Cars under 2000cc, is typical of the owner and drivers here who not only relish the past, especially relative to their own car collection acquisitions, but also live for the present where it is considered an honor to give an old car new racing life.

“I’ve had this car for four years and it has been wonderful,” said Duthu.  “The car is quite agile, and I think of it as an elegant driving car due to its long wheel base.  It’s not quirky or darty, so you can actually work the car beautifully, put it into a nice drift and hold that drift while keeping up the power and then power out of the turn, which makes it so much fun to drive.”  Duthu added that his Talbot Lago has a lot of torque, is normally aspirated, and even though it is heavy at over 2,000 pounds, it is very well balanced.  The engine has two spark plugs per cylinder and develops 280 horsepower at 5,000 RPMs.  It also has a Wilson pre-selector four speed gearbox and aircraft magnetos.

“Driving here at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is fun, but I can really feel it in my shoulders today after driving this car through all the twists and turns of this circuit,” said Duthu.

In its day, Formula Atlantic was the stepping stone for any driver whose desire was to race Indy cars or Formula 1.  Names like Bobby Rahal, Gilles Villeneuve and Keke Rosberg were the star drivers of the day and just a few of the many who had successes in major league racing after a period of time in Formula Atlantic.  The fastest driver on Thursday and Friday in the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion’s group for Formula Atlantic Cars was Wade Carter III (Seattle, Wash.) with his 1976 March Formula Atlantic.

“We’re fastest in both practice and qualifying sessions; therefore, so far, so good,” said Carter.  “The car has been a dream to drive, so hopefully we will be able to keep it up front for the rest of the weekend.   In its day, the March chassis was a front runner, always one of the fastest cars in the field.  What I can tell you now is the car is a delight to drive, and I have a smile on my face every time I hop out of it.  As for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, this is the event we look forward to all year; this is the best event going.”

Carter’s Crew Chief Pierre Phillips has been involved in race preparation for Formula Atlantics since the series began in the early 1970s.  “It’s really kind of gut wrenching to see all these beautifully turned out Formula Atlantic cars racing today in vintage race events; it brings back so many wonderful memories for me.  The cars all look great, and the top cars are really flying.” 

So while 18 Cobras from the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion today motored on their “Quail Run” to share their classic brilliance with those attending The Quail Lodge events, several hundred more Cobras stayed behind to be enjoyed by Reunion goers in the paddock and corral areas at the raceway.  And even if these, too, had left, there would have been no shortage of other magnificent historic automobiles to admire.