Following the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2011 of its arch-rival, the Ferrari 250 GTO, the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion this year celebrated half a century of the Shelby Cobra. The unfortunate passing of the legendary Carroll Shelby earlier this year gave the celebrations an altogether different character; they were as much a tribute to its creator as the car itself. As with the GTO and E-Type last year, the highlight of the anniversary was a dedicated race during the Reunion for which no fewer than 41 Cobras were entered. This was one of just 17 different groups that took to the track during the weekend. The entry list was more even more diverse than in recent years with pioneer racers sharing the paddock with much more modern Formula Atlantics and Stock Cars of up to 1990. To make room for these groups, popular classes like 1970s Formula 1 and Can-Am were missing in 2012.
Our photographers were at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for as much as the busy schedule allowed, resulting in a 270-shot gallery
with at least ten shots of each of the 17 groups.
Compared to years past, there were more very early racers present, spread over two groups. Rarely seen at other events, is the great tradition of the riding mechanic, which is regularly practiced by the entrants of these veteran machines. Earliest of all was a 1907 Renault, originally ordered by W. K. Vanderbilt for the Vanderbilt Cup. Despite its age, the car is still 99% original and has been in running order for a vast majority of its life. Of a slightly later vintage were the two Nationals brought by Brody and Brian Blain. One is a familiar sight for regular visitors of the Motorsports Reunion but the other made its debut after a complete restoration. This car was one of the National team cars for the inaugural Indy 500 where it placed seventh. Today, it is one of just of a handful or remaining cars from that race. Both cars were raced with great verve by the Blains and their very brave riding mechanics. Painted in a similar shade of blue was George Wingard's lovely 1921 Italian Grand Prix winning Ballot. The star of this car was the straight eight engine with fully enclosed twin overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder.
Of the 41 Cobras entered, an impressive field of 35 examples eventually took part in the feature race on Saturday afternoon. The roaring field was led on the formation lap by the unique Ford Shelby Mustang GT500 Cobra, which had been unveiled at Laguna Seca a day earlier. Based on the production GT500, it had been jointly developed by the Ford Motor Company and Shelby American as a tribute to the late Carroll Shelby. Jim Click Jr. emerged in the lead with one of his Cobra 289s and managed to win the prestigious race, despite belching big clouds of smoke in the morning session. His closest rival, Robson Walton in the sole Daytona Coupe in the race, was not so fortunate as he had to peel off the track after four laps with a damaged nose. Unfortunately this also prevented him from showing the car the following day at Pebble Beach. In addition to the cars entered in the race, there were many more genuine Cobras on display in the paddock. These were mostly street cars used by the participants to drive around the Monterey Peninsula.
In our article on last year's Monterey Motorsports Reunion, we praised Mazda for racing cars from their own collection. BMW North America had followed suit in 2012, bringing with them a 3.5 CSL, M1 Pro Car and March GTP. Among the drivers was Ludwig Willisch; the recently appointed CEO of BMW's North American division. Unfortunately, not all went to plan as both the M1 and GTP car suffered from mechanical issues. Worst off was the prototype racer, which had a hole in the block. The restorer was hopeful that this was the only damage as the blocks used for the turbocharged engines were identical to the production 2002 blocks and preferably sourced at junkyards to ensure they were well run in. The best performing BMW was Henri Schmitt's 'privately' entered M1, which placed sixth in the IMSA GT race behind a quartet of Porsches and John Watkins' very wild Ford Mustang. Mazda themselves were once again present with three of their spectacular rotary engined machine. All of them raced on Sunday, so to ensure Saturday-only visitors were also treated to the unique engine note, the three machines were started during the lunch-break.
A familiar sight in historic racing circles is Brian Redman. He is usually entrusted to drive some of the finest machine, which this time included BMW's M1 and one of the first Gulf-liveried GT40s. Most special of all his 'rides' was the actual Chevron B16, he debuted victoriously in the 1969 Nurburgring 500 km race. As he explained, the win was far from straightforward with last minute aero-adjustments sorting out the car's vicious handling characteristics. Also having a busy weekend was Robson Walton, who in addition to his unfortunate outing with the Cobra put in very impressive performances with his Ferrari 250 LM and 250 GT SWB. With the former he had to settle for second after being beaten to the first corner in a straight drag race by a more powerful Corvette. Despite his best efforts, he could not take advantage of his car's superior handling on a track that really favoured powerful machinery. He did win with the 250 GT SWB, impressing one Dario Franchitti, who was at the track as a spectator. After one of Walton's beautifully controlled slides through the legendary 'cork screw' corner, he told your author that "it really shows which cars are being driven well."
Despite a field of close to 500 historic racers, quantity and quality go hand in hand at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. This year the diversity added even more interest although some may have missed the Can-Am and F1 cars. They will most likely be rotated back in again next year but hopefully not at the expense of the earliest racers. Speaking of next year; it has already been announced that the another American icon, the Corvette will take centre stage in 2013. Until then, our action-packed 270-shot gallery
should keep you occupied for quite some time.