Story and photos by Art Evans
Some 25 years ago, there was a vintage event like none other. It was the 1985 Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix. Why was it so different? Would you believe 19 Formula One and Indy veterans on the same grid, all in competitive open-wheel cars? How about Dan Gurney in his Spa-winning Eagle! Or Bobby Unser in the 1975 Indy-winning Eagle! Stirling Moss in a Lotus, the twin of the car in which he won the 1962 Grand Prix of Monaco! You get the idea. Another event that weekend we called the Fabulous Fifties Reunion featured more than 50 drivers who raced during the fifties, most in the same or similar cars. Afterwards, Carroll Shelby said, “I don’t know how this came about, but it’s not likely to happen again.” Road & Track’s article stated that “It may turn out to be the most successful vintage car race ever held on this continent.”
Actually, it was my idea and I ended up as the promoter. Here’s how it developed: For quite a few years, Johnny Von Neumann, Vasek Polak and I had second homes in Palm Springs. All three of us were on the same street within walking distance of one another. So it was natural that we would get together now and then.
During the 1984 Thanksgiving holiday, we were gathered at Vasek’s celebrating with wine and tall stories, some about races we used to have in Palm Springs during the fifties. The first post-WWII sports car road race held in Southern California was at Palm Springs on April 16, 1950. Johnny Von Neumann blew the head gasket on his supercharged MG, so he borrowed a Riley to compete in the production race. He was also a race official along with Chief Steward Ralph De Palma and Starter Peter De Paolo, both Indy winners! (Some believe this was the first in the West. Not so. On November 20, 1949, the MG Car Club held a race at Buchanan Field near Concord in Northern California.) The first few Palm Springs meets were on city streets. It wasn’t until 1953 that the course was laid out on airport runways.
Having imbibed way too much wine, I mumbled, “Why don’t we do it again?” Vasek thought it was a great idea; Johnny just said, “Harrumph.” With more enthusiasm than sense, the next day Vasek and I drove all around looking to see if there was a possible location for a course. In those days, the city wasn’t nearly as built up as it is now. We knew that a course couldn’t go past private homes thus blocking ingress and egress. Eventually, we settled on streets between the then new convention center and Sunrise Way.
Now that we had a possible venue, what next? Obviously we needed permission and cooperation from the city. As it turned out, the mayor was a boyhood friend of mine; both of us had belonged to a hiking club. So on the Monday after the holiday, I went to have a chat with Mayor Frank Bogert. He was Mr. Palm Springs then; he’s gone now, but there’s a large statue of him on his horse in front of city hall. Frank had been around so long that he was on the city council during the fifties and remembered the races. The idea I proposed was to have a vintage event with many of the cars and drivers that were there in the old days.
At that time, Palm Springs was struggling to attract visitors, particularly during off seasons. Frank liked the idea and remembered that in the old days, the Chamber of Commerce along with the California Sports Car Club were the sponsors. So Frank called the Chamber manager, said it was ok to use city streets and told him to make it happen. In those days in Palm Springs, whatever Frank said, went.
Having never been to a vintage race, my idea was for it to be a re-creation; something like a live museum exhibit. Obviously, I needed to get a racing club involved. The Cal Club and the SCCA were not into vintage, but there was (and is) an organization based in Southern California, the Vintage Auto Racing Association (VARA). I was invited to present the idea at the next board meeting. Although I got tentative approval (based on getting insurance), the meeting went on into the early morning. (That made me remember why I had declined to run for another term on the fifties-era SCCA-LA Region board.)
The VARA board appointed their permanent race chairman, Cliff Jones to coordinate. The Chamber board appointed one of its members, my Palm Springs neighbor, Keith McCormick. We decided that the weekend after Thanksgiving in 1985 would be a good date. It was a time when the city needed more visitors.
I had never attended a vintage race, so I went to a VARA event at Riverside. It was nice, but there were no spectators! Oh oh, I thought. Frank’s, the Chamber’s and Palm Springs’ idea was to attract visitors who would rent rooms, eat, drink and shop. In order to avoid getting ridden out of town on a rail, somehow I had to attract spectators. Stars and famous personalities are an attraction for most happenings. “So,” I thought, “I’ve got to get stars. But how?”
Even though they stopped racing some 50 years ago, there are two motorsports names known by almost everyone anywhere: Stirling Moss and Carroll Shelby. The two are unique in this respect. Ask anyone the name of that German guy who won so many World Championships. What’s his name? But every aficionado and many of the unwashed have at least heard of Moss and Shelby. Lucky for me, my family and the Moss family are friends. So one of the first things I did was call Stirling and tell him what I had in mind. Maybe because of the time of the year, Stirling agreed to come so long as I could provide first-class accommodations and airfare for his wife, Susie plus Innes Ireland and his girlfriend, Susan Lamplough. “Great,” I thought, “I get Innes too!”
As it happened, the wife of a friend worked at British Airways. Through her, I got BA to provide four comps so long as it could host a party in the infield for local travel agents. The Chamber agreed, so I had the tickets. Having done some PR for the SCCA Region during the fifties, I knew I had to have media ink to get spectators, So I compiled a mailing list of appropriate news outlets, sent a press release announcing the event and that Stirling and Innes were coming. I got a few hits including AutoWeek and Road & Track.
“But,” I thought, “Just having Stirling and Innes standing around won’t make much of a show. I’ve got to have something for them to do that people will want to watch.” Since both were F1 drivers, how about a feature event called “Vintage Formula One?” But only those two, plus a bunch of no-name vintage drivers wouldn’t do it. I needed more stars as well as appropriate cars for them to drive.
A number of friends lived in Southern California then: Phil Hill, Sam Hanks, Rodger Ward and Dan Gurney. I got them to agree, so long as I could provide expenses and suitable vehicles. I sent out another press release and got more hits. By now, it was getting pretty complex and time consuming. As it happened, I had just sold my business, so I had the time and funds to survive without a day job. Plus I enlisted my neighbors Ginny and John Dixon to help. John had driven with the Cal Club during the fifties.
Gurney was the only one who had an appropriate car—his Gurney Weslake Eagle—that he agreed to bring and drive. The only way to get cars for the others was to borrow. I got the most recent Monterey Historics program, looked at the entry list and started calling. One car collector who was most helpful was Ron Kellogg. He had John Von Neumann’s Ferrari Testa Rossa as well as the Bobby Unser Indy-winning Eagle. As soon as I got Ron aboard, I called Bobby and he agreed to fly his plane over from Albuquerque. Right away, I sent out another press release. AutoWeek ran another story, so I invited Denise McCluggage, a staff writer at the time. By the time November rolled around, I had been getting a steady dribble of publicity. When my buddy, movie-director Bruce Kessler, told me that everyone in Hollywood was talking about it, I knew we had something going.