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A Pressing Day at Laguna Seca or How I was Clubbed and Vetted

  It's a dangerous life. The Historic Motorsports Association ( HMSA ) was having a
club outing at Laguna Seca the third weekend of January. More importantly, it
wasn't a noise restricted gig so the exhaust notes would ring true and clear. As
this was already the second week of the month, I didn’t have much time to secure
something to drive. Nothing I own is even remotely ever ready to run. California
had been drenched in water for weeks with reports of more on the way but the
forecast for the Monterey peninsula for the club weekend looked promising. I
called Steve Sailors and made the pitch that we take the infamous “ found in a
container” Lotus 26R and split the driving sessions. He seemed
unenthusiastically agreeable. This was a good opportunity to get some towing
time in a new vehicle for a road test write up. ( stop laughing Terry & Liz )

  Ford provided a new F-350 short bed extended cab for the tow, however, Steve
bailed on going but offered the 26R. Ah man, I don't want to go then. A solo tow on
a Friday night and a solo tow back Sunday night. I am not 25 anymore and those
past hauls I can still feel in my back. The L.A. Photo Show was going on that same
weekend and Terry Burkhart was planning on driving down for it. I suggested she
fly instead, we could go to the photo show and I would drive her back to Pacific
Grove. I hadn't decided on taking the Lotus yet. I still have the flashback of driving
Roy Walzer's 26R at the Monterey Historics in 2003 and having the drivetrain let go
in a big way. Lotus 26R's are rocket rollerskates but unless you have a Jim Groom
or Pat Thomas nearby when things go bump on the track, it can be a lonely
feeling. I didn’t want to have to explain to Steve that his Lotus was in a new
position, so I picked up Terry in the F-350 at LAX sans trailer and 26R. Terry ended
up driving most of the way so she will be doing the story on the truck. Besides, she
has a lot more experience driving these things than I do.

High Plains Drifter
  There was actually a good reason to go to Laguna Seca even if I wasn't running a
car that weekend. A hastily called last minute press conference had been set for
12:30 on Saturday to be held in one of the pit suites. The topic ? An announcement
from Steve Earle with regards to the 32nd Rolex Monterey Historic Automobile
Races presented by Chrysler. ( whatever happened to the simple names ? )  The
notification of this was sent out to the media only two days before it was to take
place. I wondered aloud how many would show up. So what was it all about, Alfie

  Every year, the Monterey Historics features a select marque to honor. For event
supremo Steve Earle this has been anything but easy. I mean how many great
manufacturers are still out there and those few that are usually employ people that
are clueless about their own company’s heritage. Earle can’t do Porsche or
Ferrari every year and honoring an individual is even more challenging. The year
that Juan Manuel Fangio was honored at Monterey was without a doubt, a high
point in the running of America's premier historic race. Earle has surprised us
before, was he about to once again ? Maybe it was the promise of a free lunch but
track PG guru Ed Nicholls was able to get a sizeable group of hacks to cover the

And this year’s special will be…
  One area that Earle had not singled out for event coverage was the enormous
influence of the American specials such as the Troutman-Barnes Special, Ol'
Yaller and the hundreds of race cars that came out of garages, workshops and
fertile imaginations back in the 50's and 60's. Some worked, most didn't but they
existed and were prevalent in every region of the country where a track was
available. That neglect, if it could be called that, was about to change. Ed Nicholls
introduced Mr. Earle to us and we had a featured marque for Monterey 2005, the
American Special. Well, not quite that but damn close. American built specials
were going to be highlighted but leading that tribute was going to be Jim Hall and
his Chaparrals. A distinct under the breath muttering could be heard throughout
the room. Chaparral ?

  Any questions ? Yeah, Steve… will they run, who is coming along with Jim Hall,
will the sucker car take to the track ? To answer, yes, some big names and the
Chaparral sucker car will run again at Laguna Seca.

  How brilliant is this ? I asked Steve Earle if that was his plan all along. Do Ferrari
one year and follow it up with a tribute to the cars that challenged Maranello on
U.S. soil. Not Corvette, think Scarab. "Sure" was his sarcastic reply. It doesn’t
matter, it will be one hell of party whether it was ordained or not. Now when the
Chaparral sucker car gets going down the hill with Vic Elford in it… how many
thousands will be pressed against the fence or on the hill to see THAT once more

  The press conference ended, we all got fed and I wandered around the paddock.
Looking at the various cars that had showed up for the HMSA weekend made me
wonder how the August crowd will react to seeing cars named the Aardvark,
BuMerc, BoCar and the various Kurtis variants after having witnessed a gaggle of
Ferraris the year before. If they are true fans, they will come and be thrilled. If it is
the dollar amount of what a racecar is worth, well, then that crowd has several
auctions to choose from on the peninsula.

Viva Tostados
  Terry Burkhart was over in the pit lane taking pictures of Ol' Yaller MKIII.  The
kitchen yellow special had been brought up from L.A. for the press conference
courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum. Not only did this dog have it’s day
notching up some big wins, it was the car that had been used in Viva Las Vegas.
One thing you can say about Elvis, not much of an actor but one hell of a race
driver ! So here it was, the genuine legend.

  Instead of Ol' Yaller being static art, the museum trolls made sure it was a
runner. Steve Earle took the opportunity to make a few exhibition laps for the
benefit of the cameras and a lucky passenger or two but mostly for the benefit of
himself. Ed Nicholls got a taste of what the track he works for felt like aboard a car
that raced there in the late 1950's. The demonstration ended and the run groups
started back up again for an afternoon of vintage wailing.

Corvette Slumber
  What had started as a friendly joke turned in to an invitation. Since the Lotus
didn’t make it I asked Steve Earle if I could drive his Corvette in one of the
sessions. To my surprise he agreed and thought it was about time I learned "just
what it was all about". Uh oh, I didn’t like the sound of this at all. His 'vette is a well
known west coast legend, bought new in 1959 and immediately a fixture at the
usual California venues. A certain Mr. Bob Bondurant put in some serious time
behind the wheel of ol' blue number 614. Then there is the originality factor. As
those who have run at Monterey are aware of, Steve Earle is big on old racecars
being of their time. Disc brakes on cars that used drum, motors with 200 hp more
than what the chassis called for are frowned upon. Earle's 'vette was pretty damn
close to how Bondurant drove it with the exception of the tires. The Hoosiers were
too big and rubbed in the rear. Then there was the grip issue. Tires from the 50's
had none and the Hoosiers do. Earle solved that problem by airing them up to 32
psi. Now it would slide through turns two to eleven.

Atonal apples, amplified heat
  Terry and I met up with Steve and his son Doug at a crowded bistro in Pacific
Grove for dinner and the badgering of my upcoming drive in the 'vette on Sunday
continued. Growing up in a drag race culture as a kid I was only too aware of what
a 'vette could do in a straight line. It was that other stuff like brakes and steering
that worried me. One year while at the Monterey Historics I had a neighbor from
Irvine come up and introduce himself. I was getting ready to hit the track in my
Abarth Record Monza and he was telling me that he used to race a Corvette. I
rudely made a comment that at this track we have to turn left and right ! Now I was
about to find that out first hand. Upon arriving at the track the next morning, we
were greeted by the site of a sports racer being pulled out of the turn four tire wall.
There were now considerably fewer parts on the rear of the car than had been
there moments before in turn three. I was already filled with enough apprehension
of not doing anything really stupid in the ‘vette. This just reinforced those feelings.

  Time to suit up and get in the ‘vette. I ran in to Jim Groom and he asked if I had
been out yet. Nope I replied and said I was nervous. In typical Groom fashion he
quipped, “You should be” and walked away. The run group I was in had a
decidedly mixed batch. Lotus 26R’s, 911’s, a few GT-350 Mustangs, the usual
British offerings and to make things interesting, some Corvettes that look modified
way beyond what ran in 1960. I planned on starting from last on the grid so I had
something to aim at and not worry for a few laps about spinning out in front of a
faster car.

THX 1959
  Me and the ‘vette. Steve Earle helps me get strapped in the car. Note that the
interior is basically stock circa 1959, there is just not as much of it anymore. The
seats are stock which may be nice to look at or fashionably cool when cruising
Blackstone Ave. and heading for the Dairy Queen. However, the powder blue
ribbed tuck vinyl is a slip n’ slide on the track. The driver’s door was considered
the seat bolster during that era. The factory fuel injection was always
temperamental at best and a stall after the motor was hot could mean a push
start. All of these thoughts were going on as the run group exited pit lane and on to
the track for our pace lap. So far so good, now where is the brake pedal ? Green
flag… and the usual traffic jam at turn two. I am more than content to stay at the
back of the pack and watch for a lap or two. All right, this doesn’t seem too bad,
time to hit the loud pedal. Out of turn eleven and the V-8 comes alive, as does a
fair amount of wheel spin. Grab 4th gear right under start/finish and stay on it…
first mistake, I lifted and started to brake at the same point I did in the Porsche
911ST I drove here last August. This isn’t a Porsche but heavy pressure on the
pedal slowed my momentum as I wrestled the blue bomber through turn two. The
steering was incredibly heavy made all the more awkward by the stock size
steering wheel. But hey, this is how Bob did it and damn it, I am going to deal with

Sunday came and trashed me out again…
  I was having a great time on those few stretches of Laguna that are in a
moderately straight line. It didn’t take long to catch up to a group of cars that were
having their own private battles and work my way through them. Hey, this isn’t too
bad. I knew that the fast guys would be along soon enough and put a lap on me, I
just wanted to keep what I passed behind me. That was starting to prove difficult
as the brake pedal became longer and felt more like the clutch pedal. Those little
dots in my rear view mirror that I could see on the pit straight were all over me by
the time turn eleven came in to view. Then I would use the sheer grunt of the ‘vette
to pull out a safe margin of a dozen car lengths and hold them off for another lap.
An incredibly quick Saab Sonnet passed me on the outside of ten and I made
short work of him under acceleration out of eleven. Short lived though, he went
outside and then inside of me in two and I let him go. By this time I couldn’t make
the ’vette stop but I could get it to sort of slow down. The checkered flag dropped
and it was all over. It wasn’t until I got out of the car that I realized how tired I was.
What a wuss… I better get out the ice hockey skates and get back in shape. The
most important lesson I learned from getting a chance to drive the ’vette was that
Steve Earle is right. Modern tires simply don’t belong on an older car. If you watch
those old black and white newsreels of footage of past races, all you see are cars
sliding and drivers using talent for car control. The suspensions of the past are
not designed for the grip available today and a constant compromise is the order
of the day. I found the ‘vette a lot easier to drive when it slid and a handful when it
hooked up and bit. The other point is that no matter how much money you throw at
an old Corvette, it isn’t going to beat a Lotus 26R driven with equal talent. And that
sure isn’t me.

Sea monkeys in the garden
  This column has been on my laptop since late January and a lot has happened
in the motorsport world of GT racing. As current pieces by Brooksie, Cotton,
Oursler and Soares will attest to, this is going to turn out to be quite an interesting
year after all. I can’t wait for the groove that is known as Sebring to happen but I
plan on commenting on the historic race world as well. There is a great deal of
action taking place in those circles this year… want proof ? The organizers of the
Historic Monte Carlo Rallye had some 300 cars that wanted a shot at it. And how
many WRC cars were entered for the current go around ?

                                                                                       Kerry Morse
                                                                    February 2005

Earle answers it all
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Features and pieces by Kerry Morse
done for the day
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built by Max
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HMSA at Laguna Seca
hey, where's the radio ?
fast at rest
digital girl
Viva Ol Yaller
towed hall
Terry and the non-tow
little Swede @#*!#
squat and grunt