After Sonoma Raceway hosted the inaugural Sonoma Speed Festival in May 2019, momentum built for a second event before public health concerns intervened and prevented a 2020 encore. However, planners used the delay to further develop the concept. Organizers re-branded to become the Velocity Invitational and moved to the Monterey peninsula and the historic Laguna Seca Raceway for a November 2021 re-launch. The result made a strong argument to be a bucket list motorsport event.
What made the 2021 Velocity Invitational compelling? The answer is a mix of answers.
Ten race groups provided a sturdy backbone. A curated entry ensured that each car represented its marque and era. Small engines and large, open top and closed cockpit, small production and mass market, skinny tires and impossibly wide rubber, aerodynamic wings and spoilers and pure shapes unburdened by appendages, shapes designed by computer and pencil, famous marques and niche names – a rolling history lesson told the story of automotive development over the last century.
“Ragtime Racers,” an exhibition group featuring cars from 1920 and earlier, had the most fun with the oldest cars, pilots wearing goggles, and period correct paddock decor. The crowd favorite provided a chronological prologue to the ten race groups. Heroic hand cranking efforts to wake prehistoric beasts reminded onlookers how far the automobile has progressed.
Organizers gathered race groups together under white tents. The spectator friendly measure ensured that the feature attractions were not tucked behind ropes or hidden in the shadow of service trailers. The close proximity of drivers and crews fueled the sense of a collective event and made it easier to meet others and swap stories – and even lend a hand, knowledge or tools to help the common cause. A class of historic Formula One cars took up residence in the permanent Laguna Seca garages but had the same feel with the lack of walls between the garage spaces.
Group 7, comprised of IMSA GT and FIA Group 4 race cars that ran between 1966 and 1977, featured a mix of Porsches, Datsuns, a pair of BMW CSLs, and others. The Group featured some of the closest racing of the weekend, including a race at dusk on Saturday. Read more about Group 7 here where The Speed Journal’s resident driver Jeff Francis drove an IMSA Datsun 240Z.
A false grid for staging in the heart of the paddock was a genius event design decision. Low white picket fencing on either side of the grid provided an easy avenue for spectators to enjoy the rolling parade. Green artificial turf, seating on hay bales and shade provided by umbrellas – all friendly touches.
It would be foolish to presume that Mother Nature will always show favor, but four days of ideal November weather certainly helped the cause. Fog that often shrouds the track took the weekend off. Rain in the weeks prior produced soft green hillsides. The November date avoided late summer heat that can bake Laguna Seca. Fortified with wine, whiskey, coffee and pizza, guests enjoyed gathering around outdoor seating areas and strolling throughout the grounds.
All of that would make for quite an event – but highlight exhibition cars boosted the buzz. Some were teased in advance but others were complete surprises. The unofficial motto of Velocity Invitational should have been “Did you see (fill in the blank)?”
The 917 brought Porsche its first overall 24 Hours of LeMans win, starred with Steve McQueen in “LeMans,” and dominated the Can-Am series. With a variety of body styles, the twelve-cylinder racer added hefty chapters to the Porsche motorsport history books. One is special, but half a dozen together is exceedingly rare. A pair of 917K cars in Gulf livery, a trio of 917/10 cars and a mighty Sunoco 917/30 car soaked up the endless attention. Judging by the number of camera phones deployed in their proximity, the Porsche 917 ensemble was a hit.
What could be better than six 917 race cars in the paddock with zero ropes or barriers? Track time on Saturday and Sunday for exhibition laps at speed was the answer. Five took to the track on Saturday and four on Sunday. They were steered by a combination of owners and guest drivers such as filmmaker and Pikes Peak legend Jeff Zwart, Formula One and sportscar veteran Stefan Johansson and racing driver Derek Hill, son of legendary racing driver Phil Hill.
Noted vintage Porsche sales and restoration shop Road Scholars occupied a garage behind the 917 display. The Ingram Family’s passion project has kept many significant Porsches on the road and in the public eye over the years. Their Velocity Invitational display included the Porsche 935/19 that Jeff Zwart drove at the 2020 Pikes Peak Hillclimb as well as Zwart’s personal 914-6 and 906 Carrera 6. A pair of driving simulators let guests take the virtual controls of a Porsche RS Spyder.
Across the paddock, a trio of Gurney Eagle open-wheel racers from the mid-1960s were on hand. Unadvertised, the surprise appearance was a treat. The Gurney Eagles basked in the sun and also shared exhibition track time with the 917 group.
Ford Motor Company brought several of their most powerful road cars along with a carbon fiber development mule from the GT road car project. The engine bay was empty, but the wiring, zip ties, and rough interior remained from emissions testing duty. Velocity Invitational arranged a reunion of six of the eight Ford GTLM race cars built, representing the full spectrum of IMSA and World Endurance Championship competition. It was likely the first time that all were in the same place at the same time. One Ford GT LM race car missing was the 2016 LeMans winning car which lives in retirement at the Ford museum, still covered in race grime.
The 1960’s era GTO is arguably the most well-known Ferrari. With only 39 made, the GTO shape is unmistakable and timeless. Any Ferrari fan can immediately identify the car by silhouette without seeing a prancing horse badge. Escalating valuations make for headlines, but can also be a deterrent for risking a car at speed around a race track.
Event founder Jeff O’Neil borrowed a friend’s GTO (think about those words in that order) to make exhibition laps and give charity rides at the 2019 event. He returned with the GTO again to run in Group 4A with a mix that included another GTO (yes, another GTO), a Ferrari 250SWB and a gaggle of Shelby Cobras. A third GTO (yes, a third GTO), a 1949 Ferrari 166MM and another 250 SWB did display duty in the same tent. Across the way, a 1952 Ferrari 340 Mexico Vignale Berlinetta driven by Phil Hill in the 1953 Carrera Panamericana added to the Ferrari history timeline. One of only three built, the 340 did exhibition laps but did not race competitively.
McLaren provided the official soundtrack for the event with four heritage Formula One cars. High tech, high revving power contrasted sharply with other occupants in the paddock and crowds flocked to look and listen. The Flying Finn, Formula One champion Mika Häkkinen, reunited with his 1998 McLaren MP4/13A for exhibition laps. The screaming Mercedes V-10 engine echoed across the hills, bringing spectators and cameras to the fences. Current Indycar driver Pato O’Ward wedged himself into a McLaren two-seater Formula One with Häkkinen at the wheel before getting his own chance for very spirited laps in the Finn’s championship car the next day.
McLaren racing CEO Zak Brown’s presence was a sign of significance for the event, with Brown electing to be at Laguna Seca instead of trackside watching Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo contest the Brazilian Grand Prix. Brown brought several personal vintage rides and ran exhibition laps in an ex-Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button 2011 McLaren F1 car. Adding vintage feel in the paddock, Brown used a vintage Ford Condor motorcoach as his base of operations that was a McLaren trackside support vehicle in the 1970s.
Velocity Organizers also added a competition twist for the Ford and Mini fans with a dedicated race group as the sun slipped behind the hills at the end of the day. Night racing is rare at Laguna Seca. Running at twilight and into the darkness, headlights lit up the track. About 30 cars contested for honors, comprised mostly of mid 1960s cars. Organizers situated the race group door to door in the paddock, making for a long line of Mini and Mustang noses.
The most smiles per dollar at the event had to be the cyclekart group. Cyclekarts are small, homebuilt, rear-wheel drive karts – think of a soapbox derby car with a lawnmower engine. Most build their own cars made from a steel frame, narrow tires and a body made of plywood, fiberglass or aluminum. Design cues come from pre-World War II era race cars. The cyclekarts ran a course outlined by haybales in the parking area outside of Turns 2 and 3 but they also ran a one-lap race around the big track, kicked off with a LeMans style start on the front-straight. The adrenaline must have been flowing because the field exited the track and immediately tore around the smaller haybale course for several hotlaps.
Those enamored of modern exotic cars had plenty to enjoy. Five McLaren Speedtails held court in the paddock, each with its own paint color. For example, the color for the metallic bronze Speedtail was fittingly called “rootbeer.” Closer to pit lane, the Luxury Collection team set up shop with a display of modern exotics that offered ample window shopping opportunities. Road cars from Lamborghini and McLaren of Walnut Creek showrooms mixed with customer cars. A half-dozen McLaren models basked in the sunshine, including four Sennas lined up shoulder to shoulder. The Senna LM – one of only 20 made – was outfitted in customary McLaren orange and commemorates the 1995 24 Hours of LeMans win. While the Senna LM is road legal, the GTR in Gulf colors nearby was a trackday special.
Nearby, a black carbon fiber Elva, a 720S and a P1 filled out the group. During brief gaps in the action, a pair of 720S McLarens gave smiling guests a quick tour around the track. Organizers reserved time at the beginning of Saturday and Sunday festivities to allow the Luxury Collection and its customers to circulate around Laguna Seca Raceway.
If the McLaren presence wasn’t enough, the team brought several Lamborghinis as well. Among others, a vintage orange Miura contrasted against the cutting edge white and black Essenza. Both bear the famous badge and a V-12 engine, but the similarities end there. The brand new Essenza, a track day special limited to only 40 production units, likely had not been seen in person by most guests. Knowledgeable Lamborghini fans were thrilled to see it making several exhibition laps. Others walked past the $2.6 million carbon fiber longtail Lamborghini, not realizing it was rarer than a Lamborghini Huracán race car.
Los Angeles based Czinger brought their 21C for a glimpse of the future. The design details are extraordinary. The hybrid hypercar is working its way towards a limited production run. Czinger uses artificial intelligence software for design and additive printing technology for construction. The webbed parts in the engine bay testified to the novel design approach.
The Petersen Museum hosted a panel discussing the future of motorsport on Friday evening. A pre-event reception overlooked Turn 4 as the Mustang and Mini race raged. Paul Pfanner, CEO of Racer magazine hosted a distinguished panel comprised of Jim Farley, CEO of Ford, Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing, Jacob Hawksworth, Founder and CEO of Hypercraft, Jay Frye, President of INDYCAR and Richard Varner, CFO of MotoAmerica. The Petersen Museum also brought a collection of custom hotrods that were commissioned by Metallica front-man James Hetfield. The rolling artwork was positioned within eyeshot of the 917 group – quite a contrast between gentle sweeping curves and brutish racing function.
At an event overflowing with historically significant, well prepared, rare, and exotic machinery, one car overshadowed others, stopped traffic and commanded camera attention. Mercedes entered a trio of 300 SLRs in the 1955 Mille Miglia and recorded a 1-2 finish with Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio. Hans Hermann drove the third car but encountered a loose fuel filler cap which showered driver and navigator with fuel. An unplanned meeting with a rock wall resulted and the car retired. Hermann’s car, number 704 in reference to the 7:04 starting time, was subsequently repaired and found its way to the Laguna Seca paddock 66 years later.
The SLR is a two seat sportscar wrapped around a Formula One car. Only nine were built. Books have been written about the 300SLR and the mid-1950s era of Mercedes motorsport. The Silver Arrow shined in the warm late afternoon glow as Derek Hill and Stefan Johansson drove exhibition laps. The Velocity Invitational is an incubator of sorts – a venue where extraordinary experiences such as a 300SLR in motion at a racetrack can emerge.
Velocity Invitational sponsors were subtle. No polished manufacturer displays competed for attention. No vendor row sold t-shirts, models, posters, or reproduction parts. Judging from the chatter, the crowd was knowledgeable. Multi-million dollar cars were everywhere, but valuations were not the headline.
With two events in the books, stay turned for more. Could the Velocity Invitational become an annual fall tradition? Will it remain at Laguna Seca? What cars and drivers will race? What dream special cars or exhibitions could be possible? Those fortunate enough to roam the grounds for part or all of the four days surely will agree that the Velocity Invitational is already worth the trip.