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Savoring the Then and Now

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For thousands of historic car racing fans at the Rolex Monterey Motorsport Reunion, Saturday was the day to snag an autograph from Sir Jackie Stewart, and, if particularly lucky, also catch a glimpse of other driving legends mingling with the crowds.  Sir Jackie, the British former Formula 1 driver from Scotland who has won three World Championships, participated in the event as a Rolex Testimonee and special guest, while other motor sports luminaries came with no official agenda, just one of relishing the best moments that today’s activities at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca had to offer.

That’s the way it seems to roll here at one of the most popular events of the Monterey Peninsula’s annual Classic Car Week.  There is much that is planned and precisely timed, including qualifiers and Rolex Races that run 20 minutes each this weekend for 16 period-specific competition groups, and much that is spontaneous, such as owners and drivers sharing facts about their cars as well as their experiences restoring and driving them with show goers who are able to freely roam the paddock area and inspect up-close the cherished metal reminders of the past. Wandering is as much a part of the Reunion experience as watching the races, and today’s “Picnic in the Park” at the Yamaha Marketplace featured the “Flying Scot” swapping war stories with Corvette Racing team’s Tommy Milner while hundreds listened in awe.

Sir Jackie talked about the Rover BRM Turbine car that he and Graham Hill raced at Le Mans in 1965. “It was a strange anomaly of a car.  As a company, BRM was always looking ahead, and that of course is a good message, but in this case it never developed. They used a helicopter engine, which takes a long time to wind up to full revs and get to where you are going in a hurry, and the other problem was that it had no engine braking.  Unfortunately, the car was under-braked, considering that in 1965 the brakes weren’t what they are today (with carbon fiber brakes, ceramic brake discs, and so forth).  We tested the car a bit, and it qualified reasonably well; it was fast enough, but slowing down was a major problem.”

Sir Jackie had the crowd laughing with a tongue-in-cheek story that goes along with the car. “That year, all our friends were driving Ferraris and the other fast cars, and here we were, two Grand Prix drivers with this thing to drive that nobody could understand.  I had never been to Le Mans before, so I had a lot of questions.  I asked Graham about the Mulsanne Straight, saying ‘you know, that Mulsanne Straight is pretty long, and there is heavy braking needed at high speed at the end; with no engine braking, what if we have break failure?  The technicians could not give us an answer.”

Stewart, who was the #2 driver in his first year with BRM, explained that, Hill, as the #1 driver, would have normally started the race, but being the “fair” gentleman that he was, suggested a coin toss, where whoever lost would start the race. “Then he said, ‘in any case, what you want do is at the end of the Straight, you stick it into the sand bank on the first lap (he was joking).  What was funny about the joke is that he actually did just that (after losing the coin toss).  Since there was no engine braking, he made the mistake of braking with the other cars, and the other drivers were braking and downshifting to second gear in order to slow their cars, and sure enough, he visited the sand bank, and the turbine swallowed the sand, which took the edge off the turbine blades, so right from the beginning of the race, we were running 45,000 revs instead of 75,000 revs.  The darn thing lasted the whole race, which was a real disappointment, because we were going so slow that I remember getting passed by a Triumph Spitfire.  Jochen Rindt won the race in an LM Ferrari with his American co-driver Masten Gregory, and he was lapping me every few laps. Each time he passed me, he jokingly gave me a rude gesture.

“Le Mans is a great race; it’s one of the greatest sporting events each year; however I have never thought of long distance racing as my forte. I’m a 100-meter sprint man, which is what Formula 1 is.” (Many of the 3 litre Formula 1s from Stewart’s days of racing between 1965 and 1973 are racing tomorrow in group 3B for F1s dating 1966-1984.)

Sharing the stage with Sir Jackie Stewart was a thrill for Tommy Milner,  the 2012 ALMS GT champion and 2011 Le Mans winner who currently is the only American on the Corvette Racing team.  He also had the audience mesmerized with tales from the track and remembers his last visit to Laguna Seca in 2003.  “I was just a kid (age 17); now it’s twice as big –the whole event is magnified from when I remember. To be asked here to do this, to participate in the Rolex dinner last night (where he shared the stage with GM’s Vice President for Global Design Ed Welburn), and then to be here with Sir Jackie, I keep having to pinch myself to make sure it is real.”

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