Wheels On Fire
Both Colorado Grand and the Vail Automotive Classic bring vintage cars — and funds for local charities — to the valley
By Andy Stonehouse • photography by John Waugh Photographics Images, Inc.
It seems like you can’t turn on your TV these days without seeing endless repeats of those high-value classic car auctions from Scottsdale or Amelia Island — offering intoxicating glimpses of some fantastic examples of automobile craftsmanship.
If you like old Ferraris, Mercedes-Benz race machines or anything fast and loud from cars’ pre-electronic days, there’s a palpable thrill associated with foreign exotics, especially old models.
And for automotive junkies in the Vail Valley who’d like to get up close and personal with that caliber of vehicles — including classics priced in the six or seven figures — you have several chances to smell the exhaust and hear the booming engines of your automotive favorites, just after Labor Day. Even better, rather than the prim and polished collectors’ pieces you see on TV, here you can catch some rare and wonderful machines in action, just off the road with more than a bit of authentic road grime.
Grace and raw horsepower
For nearly three decades, the Colorado Grand event has brought an astounding range of pre-1960 race cars and timeless classics for a 1,000-mile road cruise through the state’s best mountain highways — with Lionshead serving as the finish line, as well as grand promenade for those one-of-a-kind automobiles. After almost a week on the road, the cars noisily and triumphantly cruise into town on Sept. 16.
Now in its sixth year and growing into a very comprehensive array of car-related events is the Vail Automotive Classic, held the weekend before, Sept 9-11. It combines a short, first-day road tour for participants with completely public venues — including Saturday’s Wheels and Wings festival and automotive auction at the Vail Valley Jet Center — and concludes with the Vail Village Car Show that Sunday.
Both the Grand and the Classic are designed to showcase the mixture of grace and raw horsepower from the earlier days of automotive development, though Wheels and Wings also offers a venue for the best of the new-school car world, including a recent visit by a very expensive Bugatti Veyron, one of the fastest production cars ever built, and the exotic Porsche 918 Spyder, a new hybrid supercar.
This year’s juried car show will also have a special focus on Corvettes, always a High Country favorite.
‘The most collectible sports cars’
Eddie O’Brien, a Summit County Realtor and Shelby Cobra enthusiast who serves as the community liaison for the Colorado Grand, has been with the event for its entire 28-year history. As the owner and regular driver of one of those lightweight, high-power legends of racing lore, O’Brien says the Lionshead events are a great way to catch more than just a museum-styled look at other exotic machines as revered and esoteric as models from Allard, Delahaye and Talbot-Lago.
“You’ll always see some amazing things, as we have a fabulous group of cars — frankly the most collectible sports cars around,” O’Brien says. “And they’re just off the road, so you actually get to hear them in action. You normally don’t get a chance to hear those big V-12s or the overhead-cam engines of a Bugatti from the 1920s. The list is pretty formidable.”
As an invitation-only event, the Colorado Grand has made plenty of connections with high-end car collectors across the country and even internationally — folks who also appreciate the opportunity to get their very valuable machines out on the road, as they were designed to be driven.
These are the same prestigious cars seen at events in Pebble Beach, Calif., or at vintage racing tracks in Europe. O’Brien says the Grand gives a select group of owners the chance to open up their machines and travel with a crew of automotive mechanics well-equipped enough to offer roadside service to a ’34 Alfa Romeo or a ’56 Ferrari 410 Superamerica, as can be the case with old-fashioned race machines.
The Grand’s driving route and touring events have always been something of a hush-hush affair, with a train of vintage exotics cruising the same byways that local drivers love so much — complete with an eight-person escort from the Colorado State Patrol to keep things lively but safe.
But the Friday afternoon Lionshead finish and the Saturday morning “Concours d’non Elegance” are public events that offer gearheads a great chance to talk to the owners of these magnificent automobiles. As for their time on the open road, O’Brien and the participants would rather focus on the nearly $5 million raised for Colorado charities over the years, as well as the direct benefits for the Vail Valley and other communities along the route.
“One of the most wonderful pieces of the event is our relationship with the Lionshead Merchants’ Association,” O’Brien says. “We also leave almost $16,000 in scholarships and other benefits at each town we visit.” Much of the money raised has gone to the Colorado State Patrol Family and Flight for Life services in spots like Meeker or Walden.
Charity is also the name of the game at the ever-expanding Vail Automotive Classic, where the popular Wheels and Wings events have been expanded to include kids’ events and an automotive auction — with some of the collective proceeds going to Jack’s Place at the Shaw Regional Cancer Center, as well as Eagle Valley Senior Life.
‘Leadville and beyond’
Doug Landin, one of the founders of the three-day local festival of all things automotive — and airplane-related, as well — says he and some friends had been excited by the attention generated by local cars and coffee events — mostly a venue for schmoozing and showboating of the many fancy and expensive vehicles mostly hiding in Eagle County garages. Looking to make things public, they gathered a handful of cars, some static aircraft displays and a bit of aerobatic flyover at the jet center. Six years later, the event has vastly expanded, with a whole first day devoted to another laid-back mountain drive for participants, more than 200 cars and motorcycles and 40-plus prop and jet aircraft on display.
“Sadly, I’ve got nothing cool in my garage, but I do have a BMW motorcycle and I go out and normally lead the route up to Ski Cooper and back,” Landin says. “Last year, I took 45 cars up the road — some ’40s vintage racers and ’50s Mercedes-Benz and Porsches — and when we pulled off to the side of the road, almost all of them said they wanted to go on to Leadville and beyond.”
Landin says the plan had always been to piggyback the two local car events, though Wheels and Wings and the auto auction have begun to draw their own unique crowd of modern exotics and American classics.
“We’ve tried to do it the weekend that the Colorado Grand guys show up to start their drive, so we can also get some of their cars on display,” he says. “But we get a whole different thing, with people equally captivated by a ’66 Buick Riviera or a World War II army vehicle. People gravitate to what reminds them of what they thought was cool when they were kids — if that’s a ’60s muscle car or a new Lamborghini Aventador.”
Best of the best
Vehicles entered in the Wheels and Wings car show can be judged in some 24 different categories, and the auto auction has drawn the interest of Arizona’s Barrett-Jackson, well-recognized from those TV events. Sunday’s car show in Vail Village also offers upvalley folks the chance to check out some of the best of the Wheels and Wings entries.
Landin says the air portion of this year’s event also will be changed up a bit, with a team of three aerobatic pilots doing stunts, as well as planned flyovers by some classic aircraft.
Drivers participating in Colorado Grand tour the High Country en masse for nearly a week before assembling for their final promenade at Lionshead.
“You’ll always see some amazing things, as we have a fabulous group of cars — frankly the most collectible sports cars around.”
“They’re just off the road, so you actually get to hear them in action. You normally don’t get a chance to hear those big V-12s or the overhead-cam engines of a Bugatti from the 1920s.”
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