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TSJ Exclusive: Historic Racing at Sonoma Returns with Renewed Focus on Quality

By: Kevin Ehrlich | Photos Courtesy of: Kevin Ehrlich

With the welcoming embrace of sunny California skies over wine country, the Sonoma Speed Festival established a new tradition of historic racing at Sonoma Raceway. Held on the first weekend of June, the Festival sought to emphasize quality over quantity with a compelling collection of rare and historically significant race cars and hospitality that made the best of the surrounding locale.

A carefully curated entry list included just under 200 entries across ten racing groups. The Speed Journal is all about finding driving experiences and took the opportunity to visit a festival dedicated to running iconic historic race cars. Static displays in museums are fine but seeing and hearing cars in motion engages the senses and shows what the cars were designed to do.

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Porsche 917 siblings, each in traditional Gulf racing livery. To the left, 917-016 competed in 1970 and 1971, including wins at Brands Hatch, Watkins Glen and Monza. It is always a crowd favorite with evident pitting and scrapes on the paintwork giving it a race worn patina. To the right, Bruce Canepa’s 917-015 won the 1970 Daytona 24 Hour race. The unique window at the top of the windshield helped drivers with visibility to see up the steep banking. As 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Porsche 917, it was appropriate to have a pair on hand at the Sonoma Speed Festival to mark the occasion.

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In 1965, Jimmy Clark took this combination of a Lotus chassis and Ford engine to claim the Indy 500 win. Clark was dominant, leading 190 of 200 laps. By contract, Ford Motor Company got the car if Clark won the race. After the win, the car never raced again. Ford took the car and used the car for publicity before turning it over to the Henry Ford Museum who brought it to the Sonoma Speed Festival. The rear-engine eight-cylinder platform was a significant historical pivot point for the Indianapolis 500, marking the end of four-cylinder front-engine configurations.

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Looking to the Goodwood Festival of Speed for inspiration, organizers arranged the paddock by race groups rather than scattering cars randomly among transporters and trailers. The setting allowed spectators to easily compare and contrast cars of the same era. Owners, drivers and crews seamlessly mingled with temporary neighbors, extending the camaraderie beyond the competition on track. Trailers on the perimeter still supported heavy maintenance, but the entrants largely worked under the same roof.

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Race group three brought spectators to the fences. Cameras followed this trio of historically significant Ferraris. The red and yellow Ferrari 250GT LWB Tour de France won its class and finished third overall at Le Mans in 1959. A 1960 Ferrari 250 SWB trails the black Iso Rivolta GT with a 1962 Ferrari GTO following close behind. The volume of Ferrari GT racing history in this single shot is significant to say the least.

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Despite being one of the most valuable cars in the paddock, this right-hand drive 1962 Ferrari GTO ran in every session. Primarily raced in England and Italy, it was acquired by its current owner in 1967 and may be the most original, unrestored Ferrari GTO in existence of the original 36 manufactured.

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With no ropes to limit access, respectful spectators got a rare chance to look closely at the 1962 Ferrari GTO. The wood steering wheel and iconic gear lever are well-known hallmarks, but the handwritten “GTO” label on the keyring is a reminder that it still is a car.

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The Mullin Museum in Oxnard, California brought several gems from its collection for a static display. This 1946 Delage D6 Grand Prix ran with distinction from 1947 to 1950, including runs at Le Mans and Spa. One of only five built, the 6-cylinder engine made 124 horsepower that powered the car to a top speed of 130mph.

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The McLaren F1 GTR is one of 10 longtails and one of 106 F1 GTR examples made. Chassis 27R won at Silverstone in 1997 in this Parabolica livery. It was later converted to street legal by the well-known British company Lanzante. It was put up for sale in February 2018. The McLaren did several high-speed demonstration sessions at the Sonoma Festival of Speed and attracted more than its share of attention from spectator cameras.

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Fifteen members of the Mercedes Formula One team stopped by Sonoma on their way from Monaco and to Canada to run the 2016 W07 hybrid in four demonstration sessions. The race-winning chassis was raced by Lewis Hamilton in 2016. Team-mate Nico Rosberg won the championship in the sister car. Together, the pair were dominant, winning 18 of 21 races in 2016. Test driver Esteban Gutierrez found pace at Sonoma quickly. After a few adjustments, he unofficially set a new track record at 1:15.430. The demonstration laps were an extremely rare appearance by any Formula One team in the United States outside of a race meeting. Judging by the spectators lining the fences with camera phones, the visit was a big hit.

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Historic F1 cars took up residence in the permanent garages at Sonoma Raceway. Sixteen cars on the entry from the late 1970s and early 1982 sported enormous rear tires, giant airboxes, and aerodynamic wings of all shapes and sizes. Tyrrell, Lotus, Arrows, March and others showed what Formula One racing used to be. Drivers pushed hard and the leaders were among the fastest cars in any race group over the weekend. Of course, the pace of progress was also clear as the fastest historic F1 car was still 15 seconds off of the unofficial track record mark set by the modern Mercedes F1 car.

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As popular as the mighty high horsepower Formula One cars were, the old-timers gained overall honors for charisma and fun. Goggles, leather helmets and a lot of arms and elbows to manage large steering wheels made for a show. Number 16 is a 1912 Packard 30 Runabout and number 3 is a 1913 Case 40 Racer. The “ragtime racers” didn’t run against the clock, but they clustered together on the track in simulated competition.

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This 1955 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing has raced for most of its life. After racing in Europe, it came to the United States in 2005 where it continued racing in California vintage events. It has modest modifications for racing, such as the roll bar and improved brakes. Gullwings are rarely seen without their bumpers, but the cleaner lines sans bumpers fashioned a graceful silhouette as the car glided through the esses surrounding turn 8 at Sonoma Raceway. It is pictured above in the tent along with other runners in Group 1 including a Lancia and Ferrari to driver’s left.

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A 1954 Mercedes Benz W196 “Streamliner” escaped the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum for an outing to Sonoma Raceway. It shared garage space alongside the Mercedes Formula One W07 demonstration car but remained only on static display. The W196 is incredibly rare and the sweeping aerodynamics are a testament to the days of design that pre-dated wind tunnels and computers. The juxtaposition with the modern Formula One front wing was striking. Difficult to call the wing beautiful, but it was exceedingly sculpted and precise. In modern Formula One, aerodynamics decides races with differences counted in tenths and hundredths of seconds.

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The North American Racing Team or “NART” was a major force in Luigi Chinetti’s efforts to support Ferrari’s business in the United States. Chinetti was very involved in selling road-going Ferraris and the racing effort spanned several decades. With close connections to the factory and wealthy customers, Chinetti had access to tools and resources such as the pair of twelve-cylinder Ferrari 512BBLM examples that ran together in Group 10. The NART 512BBLM haunted tracks in the US like Daytona and Sebring as well as making appearances at Le Mans.

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The flat twelve-cylinder Ferrari 312PB is a powerful go-kart. In 1971, regulations on engine size pushed Ferrari to strap a 3-liter engine into a steel frame and aluminum tub. In those days, the difference between Formula One and sportscar racing was minimal and the 312PB is effectively a Formula One car with bodywork. The works 312PB and its stellar driver line-up easily claimed the 1972 world championship with such a margin that the team could afford to skip Le Mans due to reliability concerns over the longer distance. Only a dozen cars were originally made and fewer survive meaning that being able to see two in action together was special.

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This 1989 Ferrari made its first US appearance in many years at the Sonoma Speed Festival. The white, yellow and red F40 started life as a road car, but was modified for racing and enjoyed a long competitive life in Italy and Japan. Professional racing driver Johannes van Overbeek drove the crowd favorite, despite gearing that was more optimal for Silverstone than Sonoma.

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Group ten was all about big fender flares, big tires, big wings and big engines. The Porsche 935 and RSR platforms led the way, making up just shy of half the field. While the Porsche badge on the hood may have been the same, the variations were endless. Unique aero designs, wildly varying race histories, striking liveries, and different headlight treatments made for a spectacle. The pink 1976 Kremer K3 is a common participant in well known events like the Porsche Rennsport Reunion.

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The 1939 Mercedes Benz W154 truly carries the mantle of “Silver Arrow.” From the days of Juan Manuel Fangio and Rudolph Caracciola, the giant V-12 front-engine beast roamed grand prix circuits of Europe. The W154 shared garage space with the Mercedes Formula One team and the 1954 W196 Streamliner, effectively creating a family tree. Any W154 is very rare to see outside of a museum. With nine believed to have been built originally, only a handful remain. Kudos to the owner and organizers, as the W154 was not content with static display but rather ran several demonstrations runs. Merely firing up the car in the garage was an involved procedure and attracted a crowd.

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The new vision for historic racing at Sonoma was developed with the benefit of deep vintage racing knowledge. Financial backing and vision came from Jeff O’Neill, wine distributor during business hours and vintage racer on the weekends. Steve Earle, Dan Radowicz, and Tim Pendergast brought decades of experience running events like the Monterey Historics, California Mille, Amelia Island Concours and the Porsche Rennsport Reunion between them.

Spirited driving, a stellar entry, a popular circuit and the flavor of nearby wine country gives the Sonoma Speed Festival a good chance at becoming a mandatory stop on the vintage racing calendar.

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