Under the welcoming embrace of sunny California skies over wine country, the Sonoma Speed Festival established a new tradition of historic racing at Sonoma Raceway. Held on the first weekend of June, the Festival sought to emphasise quality over quantity with a compelling collection of rare and historically significant race cars and hospitality that made the best of the surrounding locale.
The event was previously known as the Wine Country Classic before new management took over responsibility and kicked off 2019 as the inaugural event with a slightly different focus. The clear message with the new philosophy is a focus on quality. Racing cars should be period correct and historically significant. Static displays should be unique and interesting. The idea is to provide an event that creates a space where truly special cars roam and owners are encouraged to bring out their gems to share with colleagues and guests. With that in mind, a carefully curated entry list included just under 200 entries across ten racing groups.
In total, just over two dozen Porsche variants saw action. The roster ranged from the purpose build low production prototypes to converted road cars, from former works cars to privateer efforts, and from race winners with famous drivers in their past to just honest examples of period correct racers.
For example, two private owners brought their Porsche 917 race cars making for a rare pair of Porsche siblings, each in traditional Gulf racing livery. 917-016 competed in 1970 and 1971, including wins at Brands Hatch, Watkins Glen and Monza. The owner has raced it in many vintage events, but has not restored it to showroom condition. The patina makes it a crowd favourite with evident pitting and scrapes on the paintwork, a true race worn hue. Bruce Canepa’s 917-015 won the 1970 Daytona 24 Hour race. A unique design detail is a narrow additional window at the top of the windshield which helped drivers with visibility to see up the steep banking at Daytona. As 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Porsche 917, it was appropriate to have a pair on hand at the Sonoma Speed Festival to mark the occasion.
Kevin Buckler’s Racers Group operation is located in nearby Petaluma, so the Sonoma Speed Festival was effectively a home race for him. Buckler brought his 2003 Porsche 911 GT3 RS that won the 2003 Daytona 24 Hours both in the GT class and overall. Completing the presentation, Buckler also displayed the Daytona trophies. A 2003 race car might not seem sufficiently ‘vintage’ when cars in other parts of the paddock pre-date computers and cell phones, but 2003 is still more than a decade and a half in the rear-view mirror at this point and the Daytona-winning Porsche deserved the invite.
Using the Goodwood Festival of Speed as inspiration, organisers arranged the paddock by race groups rather than scattering cars randomly among transporters and trailers. The setting allowed spectators to easily compare and contrast cars of the same era. Owners, drivers and crews seamlessly mingled with temporary neighbours, extending the camaraderie beyond the competition on track.
The groupings made it easy to get a good look at the 1967 908/3 Spyder parked next to the 1970 910 – both made by the same company and only separated by three years, but very different in numerous ways. The brutish open-cockpit 908/3 accomplishes its goals with its eight-cylinder engine and enormous rear tyres across a short wheel base and stubby bodywork. Helpful poster boards with race history and specifications for 908/3-007 recorded that the car was an ex-works racer driven by Vic Elford and one of six built to race in 1970 specifically for the Targa Florio and Nürburgring. The 908, 910 and 917 entries shared class space with distinguished competition such as a pair of Ford GT40 models and a pair of Ferrari 312PB models.
Group ten was all about big fender flares, big tyres, big wings and big engines. Almost half of the field was Porsche powered. A Kremer K3 tangled with Porsche 935s and RSRs. While the Porsche badge on the hood may have been the same, the variations were endless. Unique aero designs, wildly varying race histories, striking liveries, and different headlight treatments made for a visual treat. The parade of Porsches diced among a stellar class including notable 1970s racers such as the Ferrari 512 BBLM, a quick Chevrolet Camaro, several BMWs and a pair of Dekon Mazdas.
Organisers worked their magic to weave Porsches of other eras into the mix. A timeless 356 Speedster with decades of privateer racing history in period and in subsequent vintage events showed a windshield full of event stickers from prior outings. Only 20 Abarth-Carrera GTL examples were made originally – a lesser known footnote of Porsche racing history that extended the racing life of the 356. Two runners from 1960 and 1961 were on hand, showing the Italian bodywork and racing with the benefit of more robust four-cylinder engines and weight-saving measures.
Oddities such as the Bobsy Porsche were on hand – a 1964 home-made racer with an open-cockpit chassis mated to a 6-cylinder Porsche engine designed to run in SCCA. Many were made, but apparently, the orange and blue liveried example on the entry was the only complete example in existence. The 1955 Cooper with a Porsche engine, affectionately known as the ‘Pooper,’ helped demonstrate the days of racing when engines, gearboxes, chassis and bodies were swappable like a tinker toy play set. John Cooper mounted the Porsche engine behind the driver at a time that most race cars put the virtual horse before the cart.
The mighty 917 isn’t the only Porsche celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019. Fans of the 914 platform enjoyed a full-fendered black 914-6 GTU racer equipped with sufficient Andial 2.5-litre twin plug power to give its 935 and RSR classmates a serious challenge.
In all, 26 Porsches and Porsche-powered cars were scattered through the extensive entry list, making for the largest presence of any marque. Beyond the Porsche entries, the paddock bristled with other gems. For example, open wheel racing was well represented with an Indy 500 winner. In 1965, Jimmy Clark took a combination of a Lotus chassis and Ford engine to claim the Indy 500 win. Clark was dominant, leading 190 of 200 laps. Ford took the car and used it for publicity before turning it over to the Henry Ford Museum who brought it to the Sonoma Speed Festival. The rear-engine eight-cylinder platform was a significant historical pivot point for the Indianapolis 500, marking the end of four-cylinder front-engine configurations.
A major headline for the inaugural Sonoma Speed Festival was a trio of racing Silver Arrows. One garage housed a 1939 Mercedes Benz W154 grand prix car, a 2016 Mercedes W07 Formula One car and a 1954 Mercedes Benz W196 Streamliner. While the Festival was a ‘historic’ event, the contemporary Formula One car was a huge crowd favourite and a very rare opportunity to see a modern Formula One car at speed. Fifteen members of the Mercedes Formula One team stopped by Sonoma on their way from Monaco en route to Canada to run the ex-Lewis Hamilton race-winning 2016 W07 hybrid in four demonstration sessions. Test driver Esteban Gutierrez found pace at Sonoma quickly and unofficially set a new track record at 1:15.430. The demonstration laps were an extremely rare appearance by any Formula One team in the United States outside of a race meeting. Judging by the spectators lining the fences with camera phones, the visit was a big hit.
Racing fans also were treated to Historic F1 cars that took up residence in the permanent garages at Sonoma Raceway. Sixteen cars on the entry from the late 1970s and early 1982 sported enormous rear tyres, giant airboxes, and aerodynamic wings of all shapes and sizes. Tyrrell, Lotus, Arrows, March and others showed what Formula One racing used to be like. Of course, the pace of progress was also clear as the fastest historic F1 car was still 15 seconds off the unofficial track record mark set by the modern Mercedes F1 car.
Race group three also brought spectators to the fences. Among other interesting entrants, cameras followed several historically significant Ferraris. A pair of 1962 Ferrari GTO models circulated along with a pair of 250 SWB examples and a red and yellow Ferrari 250 GT LWB Tour de France that won its class and finished third overall at Le Mans in 1959. The class filled out with an assortment of Cobras, Porsches, and Shelby Mustangs among others.
The new vision for historic racing at Sonoma was developed with the benefit of deep vintage racing knowledge. Financial backing and vision came from Jeff O’Neill, wine distributor during business hours and vintage racer on the weekends. Steve Earle, Dan Radowicz, and Tim Pendergast brought decades of experience running events like the Monterey Historics, California Mille, Amelia Island Concours and the Porsche Rennsport Reunion between them.
Spirited driving, a stellar entry, a popular circuit and the flavour of nearby wine country gives the Sonoma Speed Festival a good chance at becoming a mandatory stop on the vintage racing calendar.
Written by: Kevin Ehrlich
Images by: Kevin Ehrlich