Interview and photos by Dennis Gray (unless noted)
On Tuesday between the Pre-Reunion and the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, Cris Vandagriff, Historic Motor Sports Association (HMSA) President, agreed to sit down for an interview with Sports Car Digest. I knew a little about Cris, mainly that he had grown up around his father’s import car dealership, Hollywood Sports Cars. He knew and was friends with Pedro Rodriguez, Peter Revson, Jerry Titus, Phil Hill, Richie Ginther, Dan Gurney and numerous other heroes of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s U.S. and European sports car racing scene. Cris ran Hollywood Sports Cars and Ferrari of Beverly Hills in the ’80s and ’90s.
In 2010, his group HMSA inherited the mantle of the top historic race sanctioning body in the U.S. when they took over organization of the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and the previous weekend’s Pre-Reunion events. Cris’ history with these cars when they ran in period, and his understanding of how dangerous they are, gives his views of the events, cars and drivers on the historic race grids of today a unique perspective.
Sports Car Digest: Can we begin with a short history of Cris Vandagriff?
Cris Vandagriff: I am Southern California born and raised. Went to USC. I have been involved with cars my entire life. Years before I was ever born my family was involved in motorsports. My great grandfather was a riding mechanic at Indianapolis. My father was very involved in the formation of the Can-Am and Trans-Am series. One of my father’s running mates in life was Jim Kaser, who is actually the father of the Can-Am. My father helped Jim put that series together. We participated in the Can-Am series from 1966 to 1972. I started traveling with the team in 1968, the year Jerry Titus drove for us in a McLaren M6B. In ’69 Ferrari loaned us the 612 Ferrari. Chris Amon was a Ferrari factory Formula One driver and drove the car for us. We bought the car back and ran it in ’70, ’71 and ’72 with Jim Adams driving.
Pedro Rodriguez and my dad were basically like brothers, and when Pedro was killed, my dad wouldn’t go to any more races. I still had the burning desire to drive racecars. When we were on the Can-Am circuit, Peter Revson and my dad were friends, and he would come out to the track and come up to me and put $20 in my pocket and say, ”Here, the old man said to be sure you have some money.” When Peter was killed in ’74 was when I walked away. These guys dying didn’t make sense; it’s too difficult losing friends. They were my heroes at that time, and I was young and they are all getting killed. Dad and I basically walked away from motorsports; we were heavily involved in it all through the ’60s and ’70s.
My driving career started in 1973 with a driving school. I would go off racing friends’ cars and my parents didn’t know at the time. When they did find out about my racing, stuff hit the fan pretty badly. I was going to be excommunicated out of the business if I did not stop, which I did. I basically stayed away from it until about 1981. A friend bought a Corvette racecar and wanted to go vintage racing. He asked me to accompany him to Willow Springs, and that started my vintage racing. I got heavily involved in it, leading to huge fights with my dad about my driving. I finally got him to come to a race to watch me and the other competitors drive, once he saw us all on track he was OK with it.
Somewhere around 1988, I was a member of VARA, a vintage racing organization, and vintage racing with VARA. They asked me to become their driving instructor. From driving instructor I went to their Board of Directors. I was on the VARA board for quite a few years.
While all this was going on in the background, my family owned Hollywood Sport Cars. We were the oldest Ferrari dealer in the United States and the second largest in the world. I started running the dealership in ’81 and ran it until 1993. In 1993 I took a position with Ferrari North America and established Ferrari Beverly Hills for the Ferrari factory.
By 1995 I was running three race teams and the Ferrari dealership. Running a quasi-factory BMW race team for BMW, running the Ferrari Challenge Series with seven cars, and running a Ferrari 333SP with Didier Theys driving for us in the IMSA series. My life was absolutely wacky. By the end of 1995 I was totally burned out. I thought it was time to take a break. I had never taken a vacation in my professional career, and wanted to take some time off. Instead I ended up running VARA. I ran VARA five or six years until I wanted to leave VARA to start my own vintage organization.
I had known Steve Earle my whole life, I called Steve and he immediately said, “Don’t go do your own thing, come work with me and I’ll sell you HMSA and you run the HMSA stuff and the General Racing stuff. Coincidently, my dad started General Racing and Steve Earle was the backer behind General Racing. Last year, mid-year Steve and I had a parting of the ways. HMSA was growing quite a bit at that point, and hopefully it will continue to grow, Steve was having some issues with different events and General Racing was getting smaller. We just went in different directions.
When General Racing and Laguna Seca had a parting of the ways, Laguna Seca asked for a proposal from me to run what was the Monterey Historics and now is the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, and that brings us to today and how I got to the position I’m in.
SCD: Where do you see the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion going?
CV: I saw this event, the August historic races at Laguna Seca, as a diamond in the rough. We had given some proposals to Steve and ideas to the track years ago about turning this into a Monterey speed week in August, where we start with the Pre-Historics now the Pre-Reunion and we go all the way through to Saturday of the Reunion, go back to the way we had been in the past, quiet on Sunday, so we don’t compete head to head with Pebble Beach. It’s a two-week car fest. I still think this event is a diamond in the rough. It’s growing a bunch. The future is bright for this event. Obviously, this is car heaven on the Peninsula this time of year. It’s interesting, when I had the dealership in Southern California, Beverly Hills was shut down because there were no cool cars on the street they were all up here. Our service department was just swamped in the end of July and the first of August for guys getting their cars ready to bring up here. It’s a mass exodus, I’m sure the San Francisco Bay Area is the same way.
SCD: Do you work with any of the shows such as Pebble Beach or Quail?
CV: As far as me working with Pebble Beach or the shows, I don’t have any contact with them at all. I can’t speak for the racetrack and what their involvement has been. I know that there has been some dialogue, but I am dealing primarily with race operations and on-track activities. I don’t need to go put my finger into anything else.
SCD: How does someone get started in HMSA racing?
CV: It’s interesting; I think that because I’m from Los Angeles, Long Beach Grand Prix is an easy example. A couple sits in the grandstands and watch the Long Beach Grand Prix, the husband and wife will sit there and the wife would never say to her husband: “Honey, you could do that.” Or, for that matter, the husband says to his wife: “Honey, you could do that.” They come here to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and easily the wife and husband could sit there and say to each other: “Honey, we can do this.” The spectators are walking through the paddock with their sons and daughters or grandchildren, pointing out the cars we all grew up with, and I think it’s easy for that spectator to see somebody their own age, competing and jumping in and saying, “How do I do this?”
I always encourage people to come out to the races, not only the spectator races, but club events, choose a car that they like. Do not choose it because you think it’s going to go up in value, I don’t care if it’s a bug-eye Sprite or a Can-Am car or a Ferrari. Buy the car that you like first, go to driving school. The driving schools often scare me because they teach you how to race, and we don’t encourage racing the way the SCCA or IMSA encourages you to race. This is more of an exhibition of sharing your car with others. That’s not to say that drivers aren’t out there racing as hard as they can, but we have to be respectful of the cars, our cars. Our era of cars is the era when guys got hurt, killed. They aren’t the safest cars, and the demographic of our customer is pretty high end. So, they’ve got some big responsibilities. “I always say the water’s warm, come on in, jump in”.