With the Concours season starting in California, my memory was jogged to my first and only Pebble Beach Road Races.
In 1956, as a freshman engineering student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (SLO) several friends and I heard of a sports car race in Carmel, just up the coast from Poly. The race was Saturday and Sunday, April 21st & 22nd. I knew a little about sports cars, having kept track of the Mercedes 196 that Fangio drove winning the Grand Prix championships in 1954/55 but little else. We decided to head up to Carmel and check out the action. Early Saturday morning before the sun was up the five of us packed into a friend’s 1954 Olds two-door with a 3 speed “ex-CHP Car” (painted all black), and up north we went on the 2-lane 101 to Salinas and then west on Highway 68 to Carmel.
As I was the only one of us from Northern California I had to keep reminding the driver, from San Diego, that just up ahead were three notorious “speed Traps” Gonzales, Soledad, and King City. As we arrived in King City, the first of the speed trap cities, the sight of a police car writing tickets on two speeders, probably going 26 – 27 mph gave our driver a shot of reality. Keeping that V8 powered Olds down below 25 mph was a challenge. Time seemed to stop as we crawled through each of the three towns.
We arrived in Salinas and turned west onto Hiway 68 to Monterey/Carmel. We got to Carmel Saturday mid-morning. The local papers estimated 50,000 fans would attend the Race/Concours weekend, were just starting to arrive. Note #1. We followed the signs pointing us to 17-mile drive, then to Ondulado Rd. Where we parked the Olds. Ahead the crowds heading away from the Pebble Beach race course where practices were to start at 12:30, and toward the Del Monte Lodge and a golf course called “Pebble Beach”. As we got closer we saw a sign saying Pebble Beach Concours D Elegance. I had never heard of a Concours so we followed the crowd. No one was at the entry so in we went.
The sun was burning away the fog, and the first car I saw was a Bugatti – a low, light blue open car with cycled fenders, cable operated brakes, and two seats covered in a light buttery tan leather. I was so awed by the Bugatti I can still see its image after 61 years. We wandered up and down the aisles of beautiful cars of every color, size, and names I had never seen. – Cunningham, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar, Mercedes 300SL with gull wing doors, Lancia’s and many more. I saw a Cord convertible with stainless steel exhaust pipes coming out of the hood and going down under the body. The Cord reminded me of the Cord Sedan I passed each day going to and from High School in Alameda – loved that car, but only a dream. My dream of owning a Cord was replaced years later with a Lotus 23 vintage sports racer in 1978, fulfilled when the Lotus and I started vintage racing in 1981. We walked the rows and rows of cars and were in awe. Then we could hear the sounds of race cars warming up for the Saturday’s mid-day practice sessions so we started over to the track. The crowds were large and enthusiastic.
The went down Alva Lane to the Pebble Beach Race Course laid out on the narrow roads of Del Monte Forest with hay bales lining the track and stacked around the multitude of trees. Security was lax so we wandered around the track and watched practice sessions. The under-1500-cc production cars were first out. We watched the familiar MGs and Porsche 356s coming by. This was my first taste of watching a sports car race first hand, and was I excited. Next up was the over 1500 cc production cars. Jaguars – too many to count, with two Corvettes a part of the mix. Austin-Healeys, Mercedes 300 SL then Triumphs, Morgan’s, Arnold Bristols. The sounds were louder and the cars faster. I was awed by their multitude of sounds.
As the afternoon progressed we walked around the circuit and bought burgers and cokes from the food stands. By mid-afternoon the engine sounds grew louder, and the cars were coming down Portola Rd, faster and faster as the modified classes started their practice, arriving at turn 1 and turning onto Sombria Lane for the short run to turn two. Now I was seeing Silver Porsche 550s, a green Porsche Cooper, several Oscas, and a herd of Crosleys.
The last practice session brought out red Ferraris with their screaming exhaust sound, green Jaguars, a black cycle fenderd HWM Special with Chevy power and the exhaust pouring out with a deep throated roar, a large Hemi powered Hagemann Special with its guttural roar sliding (over steering) as the driver applied power going around the curves, the Ford flat head V8 powered Baldwin special and many more models of different designs came by. As the practice sessions ended we headed to our Olds in the parking area, talking non-stop about the days experience.
We headed over to Carmel, as did a multitude of other fans, and parked the Olds on a cross street off Ocean Ave. close to the beach. As we walked up Ocean Ave. the day light gave way to the lights of the shops and restaurants lining the street coming alive. Ocean was packed with Sports cars, some with their race numbers from Saturday’s practice. I saw 300 SL with its Gull wing doors open wearing race numbers from Saturday’s over 1500cc practice. Many cars arrived with open exhausts with much throttle blipping as they drove down Ocean past the restaurants, hotels, shops and bars for several blocks and came back up the other side of Ocean for another trip back toward the commercial area and the crowds. The fans on the sidewalks cheered on the racers as they idled up and down Ocean bumper to bumper with open exhausts and the drivers and passengers waved to the cheering crowds.
We stopped along the way for ice cream, cokes and anything that was cheap. I was always aware that the money I spent here would lower my reserves for the rest of the quarter at Poly. As the night grew late we went back to the car for our sleeping bags, and headed down to the park at the end of Ocean. I rolled out my sleeping bag, and out I went. During the night, I heard a strange sound – some drunk was urinating in the sand hear me. Much yelling and cursing and away went the drunk pulling up his fly.
We all were awake at dawn. We went over to the car, deposited our sleeping bags and drove over to the parking area. It was too early for security so we walked into the pits. The fog laid over the cars. Every color and type of car imaginable was parked with no seeming organization. As I passed by a red Ferrari that was being pushed I asked if I could help – sure said one of the crew. Push here I was told and off we went. No one minded if we looked at the cars or asked questions. As the morning went on we consumed more food.
The Sunday races started at 10:00 so we walked down to turn 1 and settled in for first race, Production under 1500cc. Turn one was a right-hand turn coming down Portola Road from the start/finish line. The racing at Pebble was from a standing start as was most races in both Europe and the U.S. The under 1500cc Production cars, Porsches, MGAs, MG TD/TFs were first off. Then over 1500cc production class – 14 Jaguars, two Corvettes, many Austin Healy’s, three Mercedes 300 SLs, and multiple Triumphs, and a brace of Arnold Bristols. During the over 1500cc race a 300 SL came roaring up the escape road on fire. The driver, Rudy Cleye, jumped out, and not waiting for the course marshal to react he grabbed the course marshal’s fire extinguisher and put out the fire.
During the lunch break as we walked around the course, I saw an Arnolt Bristol from the Over 1500cc race laying on it’d side in a ditch awaiting to be pulled out and brought back to the pits – I realized racing could be dangerous.
The large bore production race was won by Tony Settember in # 136 300 SL. Note #2. The V8 powered Corvette was still new to sports car racing and remembered for its under-powered straight 6, came in second, leading until it’s brakes faded. In 1956 with addition of the now legendary Chevy V8 the Corvette was becoming a winner.
As the day progressed we moved over to turn two where the racers came down Sombria from turn and turned right onto the back straight Drake Road. The afternoon races started with the under 1500cc modified event which was comprised of ten mostly silver Porsche 550 Spyders, a green Porsche Cooper, three Oscas and two rear engined 1100 cc Cooper Climax engined cars, and five Crosley Specials.
When the under 1500 cc modified class took to the grid the time from the start with the accompanying roar of accerating cars arriving at Turn 1 became shorter and shorter and the engine noise louder and higher as the 1500cc modified cars came racing into Turn 1. The Under 1500cc race started with the four 550 Porsches and the green Cooper Porsche fighting for the lead. After several laps, the green Cooper Porsche was missing. The fight for the lead was now among the Silver 550 Porsches. Then back was the Lovely Cooper Porsche with Lovely reaching behind with his left hand to work the throttle. The 550s finished 1 through 3 with Lovely’s #125 Cooper Porsche coming back from the throttle problem finishing 4th. Note # 3. Richie Ginther, Porsche 550 # 211 – DNF. Note # 4. Chick Leson, OSCA # 117 – DNF. Note # 5.
The last race was the over 1500cc event. This was the race we were all awaiting. Big engined cars with a lot of power. The grid contained seven Ferraris (I knew very little of the Ferrari name) but loved the high-pitched roar of the exhaust, and three D Type Jaguars, I had read about winning at Le Mans. This group of high powered foreign cars was joined by the HMW Chevy powered Special, the hemi powered Black Hagemann Special and a Buick powered Kurtis. Plus, also included were many Austin Healy 100Ss, and a mixed bag of other mostly English cars. We had moved over to Drake Road to watch the cars round turn 2 and head down the straight.
A driver named Carroll Shelby (we would hear more from him in the sixties) won in a 3.0 Ferrari with Phil Hill, the soon to be Formula One World Champion for Ferrari, finished 2nd. The Chevy powered HWM finished 6th, The Hemi powered, Hagemann Special sounded mean, but seemed to be a handful to drive and came in 12th. The Kurtis Buick was a DNF. Note # 6
Last race detail! The news of Ernie McAfee’s death in a 4.4 Ferrari was slow to get to the crowd and many of us left the track not knowing of the accident. Reports from drivers, reporters and officials said McAfee, a hard charger of a driver, was going over 100 mph going down Stevenson Drive into the turn 6 hairpin. Under braking McAfee seemed to miss a shift and was left with only his brakes to slow for the turn. McAfee found the gear, down shifted causing the large Ferrari to fish tail. His Ferrari hit one of the hay bales lining the track in front of the announcer’s stand, putting the 4.4 Ferrari on its nose. McAfee skidded into a tree on the right side of the course killing McAfee instantly.
After the race officials and the press deemed the Pebble Beach course unsafe with trees a few feet from the racing surface lining the course. Additionally, the Course used the roads of the Del Monte Properties which were narrow for racing, crowned to allow the rain to run-off, and in many areas weather and usage had created a washboard surface. Also, two days of racing had left the course slick from burnt rubber and oil in spots.
In summary, the 1956 Pebble Beach race was the last. The cars were too fast, the trees too close, and the course too dangerous for the speeds the new generation of cars were attaining. The Pebble Beach residents were also complaining of the crowds, noise. and for the safety of the spectators allowed so close the racing surface.
The Pebble Beach Concours continued and grew into one of the most prestigious Concours in the US if not the world.
In 1957 Laguna Seca opened with Pete Lovely winning the first Laguna Seca event in a two litre Ferrari Testa Rosa followed by a John von Neumann in a 2.5 litre Ferrari Testa Rosa.
Trip home – We ran to the parking area, and joined the crowd leaving the race. Traffic was heavy all the way down 101. We all crawled through Gonzales Soledad, and King City, with the other race fans heading South. As we traveled South 101 was packed, but having just seen the Ferraris, Porsches, Jaguars, and Healeys, the Olds was pushed to stay ahead and not let anyone pass. We drove straight to Poly as Monday classes came early.
As I became focused on vintage racing my 1962 Lotus 23, in 1981, going to Pebble Concours never crossed my mind. As my race class at The Histroics always ran on Sunday afternoon leaving no time for a visit to “Pebble”.
My first and ONLY Pebble Beach Experience.
Note # 1 – The huge crows overwhelmed all the “Rest Room facilities. A great number of residents opened their homes to the race fans. A great show support for the Pebble Beach weekend.
Note # 2 – Strange things happen in life – At a dinner in April 2016 in Pomona at honoring the drivers and crews who raced in the USRRC Sports car series in 1962 – 1968, the preclude to the Can Am series we meet Tony Settember’s wife and chatted about Tony’s 1956 Pebble race and watching Tony’s win over Dick Thomson’s Corvette, and my attending the event.
Note # 3 – Early in my vintage racing career in the mid-80ies I met Pete Lovely driving a Lotus 11, in a vintage event at Sears Point and mentioned the 1956 race. Pete enjoyed talking about the race, and said working the throttle with his left hand he had to momentarily let go of the steering wheel, grab the gear shift. Great to remember the Green Cooper Porsche at speed going through the forest of green trees with Lovely reaching behind to shift and finishing 4th.
Note # 4 – I was gridded next to Richie Ginther, who went to Europe with Phil Hill and drove for Ferrari in F1/Sports cars and Honda in F1. Richie was in Vasha Polick’s Elva MK 7S Porsche. I was driving my Lotus 23 in my first race after a three-year ground up restoration effort in my garage.
Note # 5 – # 4 OSCA MT 4 # 117 driven by Chick Leson DNF. The Lotus and I had our last Concours together at the Niello Concours in October 2015. As I lived close to the Concours site, I drove the Lotus over Saturday afternoon and was placed on the grass. Mardi and I arrived early Sunday morning and found a Red OSCA MT 4 placed next to the Lotus. The owners John and Jan Grosseto and I talked about our racing history, and we discovered his OSCA had raced in the 1956 Pebble event driven by Chick Leson. The OSCA was awarded a well-deserved 1st place. The Lotus gained 2nd.
Note # 6- In the early eighties there were few places to run my Lotus 23 in Northern California, but Riverside Raceway in Southern California had a HMSA Club event (Steve Earle) in April of 1982. A long tow from the Bay Area, but a historic track to race. The Lotus 23 was in Group #5, made up of Sports racers that included the Kurtis SX-3 Buick driven by Bill Murphy, a car I had watched race at Pebble. At the Riverside race the Kurtis now driven by Robert Seifried was gridded at the front of the grid and I at the rear. At the drop of the flag the front runners Tom Skouras in a Lotus 19, the older brother to my 23, James Luckman in 1959 Cooper Monaco and Don Orosco in a 1960 Porsche RS 60 and Richard Seifried in the Kurtis Buick left the field and had a race of their own. After several laps, I was given the blue passing flag as the leaders were coming up to lap me as we went into the “esses”. First came Skouras in the Lotus 19, then James Luckman in Cooper Monaco, Followed by Orosco in the Porsche RS 60. Both went by quickly, and as I approached turn 6, an up-hill 90 right degree the Kurtis roared by – applied too much power and under-steered into the boiler-plate wall protecting the stands on the out-side on turn 6. The Kurtis ricocheted off the wall, passed in front of me, broke through the double gate in the chain link fence that protected the fans, and crashed into the cars parked there. The Kurtis was all but destroyed (see picture). Seifried, the driver came away with a broken arm. My ONLY thought – please don’t Red-Flag the race which the officials immediately did.