Jon Shirley Collection – Page Four
SCD: What about rallies?
JS: My wife and I do rallies. My wife right now is in Tuscany doing a rally that is only ladies with some very famous people including Alma Hill; Phil Hill’s wife. Mary is driving a 1957 Eldorado Biarritz convertible. It’s candy apple red, red and white leather seats. The Italians have fallen in love with the car. She sent me a photograph. I have it on my iPhone of the parking lot and the car is parked next to a brand new Bugatti Veyron—however you say that word—Veyron. And I thought that was pretty cute. And then over on the side is Netty Mason’s GTO, and some pre-war cars, and there’s just a couple of little Alfas and stuff like that. Anyway, that’s what we do. We show them and I vintage race them. I just did the Colorado Grand with my son and they invited GTOs this year and we will do the Mille Miglia, probably with the 8C2300, which is my oldest car; 82 next May.
SCD: Sounds like the Colorado Grand was a good time.
JS: Well, I just think the fact that you’re allowed to go out at various places and really go fast is just a great deal of fun. It’s very different than being on the track and you have to be a lot more aware of what’s going on and there are deer up there, but you’re driving through this this incredible scenery. Then you cool it down and you drive up through mountain passes. It’s a beautiful state to drive in. This was, I think, the seventh time I’ve done the event. I’ve done it in relatively slow cars. The 166 and the 212—which is not here; it’s in restoration—are both top speed limited cars for sure, but I’ve also done it in a 375MM. Both of them, the 290MM which my son and I did which is a very fast car, and the GTO which is actually not as fast at top end as the 290 simply because we have set it up for vintage racing on short tracks. We’d change the rear end gears if we were going to go Road America with the car where I’ve also run it. It’s just being with all those cars. The people are really neat and a lot of them are people that we’ve known for many, many years. In fact, the curator of Contemporary Art at the Seattle Art Museum was a man named Michael Darling who moved to Chicago, but his father, Richard Darling, and he and his other brothers have done the Grand and the Mille Miglia many times. So it’s a small world, running into somebody I knew from racing or from rallying before I knew what his business was. I just knew he was a curator of contemporary art in Los Angeles when I first met them. They were just a couple of guys; father and son driving in a car like I was doing. But I would say doing it in the GTO was very special. Just being able to get that car out and really drive it like that on the street. It’s perfect.
SCD: Is it hard to behave on those long open roads?
JS: The Highway Patrol knows where those stretches are and they have a very simple rule and that is: you cannot pass one of them unless they wave you by. You’ve got to get behind them. We followed one in the 375MM that I sold, my wife and I followed one. It was a southern route and we were way out in the middle of nowhere and he never went below 90 miles an hour for about 20 minutes and we kind of passed cars, but we were right behind him, but there was no wave by. And then he slowed way down and there was this little place where they had coffee and things. Some of the cars were over there and he turned around and he smiled like this and he turned off and we went in there and we just took off…. Then it was my wife. The speed governor in my car is her fingernails going into my thigh. It’s like ‘okay, that’s fast enough.’ There’s no speedometer, just the tack so she didn’t know how fast we were going. We were actually going faster than I really knew. After that day, which was the third day, we had to cool it because the tires were so worn that we weren’t going to get another day out of them if we ran them at those speeds so she said, “can we slow down tomorrow” and I said “okay.” Luckily it was in absolutely beautiful mountain passes and there weren’t really a lot of spaces where you could really open it up anyway. The way they operate it and the way they run it it’s just a wonderful event.
SCD: How about the Mille Miglia?
JS: Oh, over there, depending on what car you’re in, you might have trouble following one of their motorcycle policemen. I’ve driven through Florence behind those guys and they’re just driving like maniacs and they got the sirens on. You go through Florence so fast you don’t see anything. They do have a nice drive through Rome at night, which is really quite beautiful when you come into Rome. They put you into relatively small groups and you follow patrolmen around, but those Italian motorcycle policemen are the most amazing guys I’ve ever seen. I mean, I literally saw one standing. He wanted to see what was at the corners coming up. He stands on the seat on his bike and he’s just balancing and the bike is cruising down the street. It’s like ‘oh my God this guy is insane.’ And then he hops back down on the seat.
SCD: Speaking of your son, Erickson, any on-track rivalry there?
JS: If we are in the same class he’s got a Lister Chevy and I don’t have to cut him any slack. He out-qualifies me by a mile compared to the 300S.
SCD: And his Ferrari?
JS: Oh, his Ferrari is a two-liter. It’s a Mondial. He’s putting a three-liter engine in it and then it’s going to get really interesting. Look, he’s a really good driver. He does a lot of events with Skip Barber. He goes to the Skip Barber events and drives in those lapping events that are really races. I think he’s getting very good very quickly. There’s no way I’m going to keep up with him in similar cars. When he puts a three-liter engine in the Mondial I think that thing will really go well. I drove the two-liter Mondial here before I sold it to him. The last race I drove was here in Seattle and it was the year of the Allard and they had 20 some odd Allards. I was in the same class with the Allards and I beat them all. I beat every single one of them. It was one of the best races I’ve ever had in my life. Actually, I’ve won more races in the Mondial than any other. I took it to Lime Rock and won the under two-liter group at Lime Rock when Steve Earl was running it there.
SCD: Rumor has it your son is quick and consistent.
JS: Oh, thanks. That’s interesting because I don’t really get to watch him. So people have just told me, and I look at his times. I know he’s doing well and people have told me that he looks like he’s really doing well. He’s got one car that’s really hard to come to grips with though. He’s got a 26R Lotus and that’s a really tough car to drive because that car is square. Gil Nickel used to win races in that thing all the time and then Gil sold it to John Delane who painted it blue. Beating John Delane in anything is a real hard thing to do. I watched him out there and he’d always win in that car. That car, in that group, is a car that ought to be right up at the very front of the group, but they’re a very tough car to learn to drive fast.
SCD: What’s on the schedule for 2012?
JS: There’s a Louis Vuitton rally that’s going to be in April. It’s going to go from Monaco to Venice going up through the hills in France and then across. They asked that we enter the Rossellini car. We’ve asked to enter the GTO reunion which is going to be in France in July, which is a terrible month, and my son and I are planning to do the Mille Miglia—and of depending on how things go—probably do the [Colorado] Grand. So it will be a very unusual year for…to do that many events, but I look back at the older days. My wife and I used to do two or three every year.
SCD: Any races?
JS: You know, since the Ferrari historic challenge went away I’ve been doing a lot less than I used to do, which is probably good at my age. I do go to Steve Earl’s [Sonoma Historics] and I certainly will do the reunion events at Laguna Seca both weekends. Beyond that I have to sort of see what’s going on because it’s changed so much that there’s a lot of events that don’t really have any good pre-war grid. So I think I’ll talk to Peter Giddings some and say, “where are there other places that have decent pre-war grids.” I think that series, was it Bobby Rahal?
SCD: Legends of Motorsports.
JS: Yeah. They’re not doing much with pre-war cars and it’s unfortunate because if they did they’d probably get them. It’s a well-organized event; they’re just not doing them.
SCD: Well now he’s been taken over by Vandagriff, that series, and maybe Cris will be interested.
JS: Yeah, that might be and I should talk to Cris about that and see what they’re going to do. I had forgotten that they had done that because Murray Smith was always involved in that too I think and Murray is an old car guy. Yet for some reason…man, I’ve seen Murray driving pre-war cars. He’s really good. He’s in everything. The guy is a really good driver.
SCD: Any chance you’ll be racing the Ferrari F310B F1 car?
JS: I ran that car for ten years. If nothing else, when we ran a track for testing like down in Phoenix. I take it down there. I drove it in Mont Tremblant in a Ferrari event where I had five 20 minute sessions on the track. They came in and they plugged the computer in and showed me what I was doing. You got to hit the brake harder. It’s left leg. I had my knee operated on and it’s not the easiest thing for me to do. We’ve been watching the oil pressure at idle which is 4000 RPM or something, but it’s down at the lowest point that the factory says it should be. In the ten years we had the car, except when I loaned it to Brit Skidmore and he hit the wall, we never really had to do much to it and the engine has never been worked on or the clutch. So it’s amazing.
SCD: Really? Is that last bit because that clutch is the size of a tea saucer?
JS: Exactly. Yeah, it’s tiny. There’s another engine down there and you can see exactly how big the clutch is. Of course, the clutch is only used when you get away so you just never ever want to ‘I’m going to be a Formula One driver and do one of those starts’ because you do a couple of those and you’ve got to replace the clutch. So the car is at the point where it would need to go back to Ferrari and I just decided that I had a lot of fun for ten years. It’s a great car. It was a Schumacher car. It had two firsts and a second and I just let it sit down there. It absolutely could be gone through and run again. We keep it. We take care of it. We’ve done everything you’re supposed to do. The valves are air pressured. We pressure the valves on a regular schedule to make sure the valves don’t fall, but I just decided I didn’t want to spend that money, see it gone for a year and then just not run it very much because they’re not doing those things much anymore.
SCD: Tell us more.
JS: It’s 1997. It’s the last year of the slicks. It was the last year of the big cars. When I got the car it was delivered to me at Willow Springs. The Ferrari engineers that came over, one of them spoke some English and he was telling me…he said, “This is the best Formula One car for an amateur ever made.” He said, “The new cars…Schumacher can’t drive the new cars he’s gone off the track on them.” I remember the first year of those cars in 98, but they were terrible and they were much slower. It took until the 2000 car that they were turning faster times then they had been doing in these. But he said it’s got the big tires. They’re very well setup. They’ve been making the same essential kind of car for a number of years with the same sized engine. They really dialed in. He said you will find you can really drive this car and have a lot of fun in it, and I did. Most impressive thing about a Formula One car—I will digress slightly—is not the acceleration, but the braking. The first time you go down into turn 3A in Seattle and you say oh my God I’m going to go right through that straight down there and you hit the brakes and the car stops before you get to the corner, you realize that this is a very different animal. You don’t start breaking at the one. You start braking at the half. Literally. I mean at Mont Tremblant at the back straight you can go past the one marker before you touch the brakes on that car… going a 180 or something.
SCD: Are the paddle shifters as amazing as we’re told?
JS: Yeah, they are but even in this car…I mean, it still paddle shifts and you can set it up and do them in sort of in advance. The only thing you need to know is what gear do I want to be in when I get down there. It won’t let you go into a gear too high. So you can say I’m going to go down four gears and click four times and as you do the braking it will come down. Yeah. And nowhere near as fast as they are now of course in the shifting, but still faster than…
SCD: A 250 GTO for example…
JS: Faster than anything mechanical. I still love to drive stick shift cars, but I don’t like contemporary paddle shift cars. Ferrari doesn’t even make a stick shift car anymore. I drove Greg Whitten’s 599. I will have to say that they are so much better than they were when they first came out with them on the 355s. They were terrible and clunky. Now they’re actually quite nice. I guess if I want to own a contemporary Ferrari I’d have to have that.
SCD: Any final words for the Sports Car Digest readers?
JS: Well, you don’t have to have 28 cars. You can have a hell of a lot of fun with one or two. Even throughout the period of time when I was working I always owned a sports car. I had Porsches. I had the Jaguar. When I lived in Europe I had a Mercedes, but it was a fairly hot one but we could still pull my son’s motocross bike on the little trailer on the back and I took him to races with it all over Belgium. He was racing motocross in Belgium for two years. I just think that whatever you do you should have fun doing it. You should enjoy it. Pick whatever part of it is interesting to you and try and have fun in that part of it. The people go to the Colorado Grand with relatively inexpensive, but the right period car. Like a Siata, which is what Darling drives, and there are cars that are even less valuable than that get in and have a great time. I’ve loved cars all my life and worked very hard for 30 some odd years and had no chance to really get out and do things with them the way I wanted to and then once I started doing them—especially vintage racing—I really got hooked on that. I never had any idea that I would do that or that it would be as much fun as it is or that I could be reasonably good at it. It all kind of came together.