Monterey Car Week in California has something for everyone

Kevin Hackett travels to Monterey Car Week in California, and ponders if the UAE could stage its own.

Race cars over 2500cc, from 1955-1961, race in the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at the Laguna Seca raceway. The 2013 event attracted 550 historic automobiles across a total of 16 classes. Stephan Cooper / AP Photo/Rolex
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"Southern California is the capital of the world when it comes to luxury cars." I have no idea who just said that within my earshot, but there's no denying the fact. For while the UAE does, indeed, boast significant numbers of stupefyingly expensive automobiles, America has more of them. Many more. And this part of California is positively rammed with them right now.

It's Monterey Car Week, an annual, seven-day-long festival and celebration of the motor car, and it couldn't be hosted in a more perfect environment. Monterey County, situated on the Pacific coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is home to some of America's most stunning scenery, as well as some of its wealthiest citizens. And they really do like their cars, which is what makes this week so special, with around 40 different events that range from concours competitions, to classic and muscle car auctions, tours, rallies and full-bore racing. They're even showing car-related films in the Carmel cinema.

My own itinerary is packed to the gills, with no time to even think about the 11-hour time difference and the horrific jet lag that brings with it. I have visited California a number of times but never been anywhere north of Santa Barbara, so this is virgin territory for me, and I have to say, I adore the place from the moment that I step off the plane. The Monterey Peninsula benefits from an extremely variable climate, with often-cold and misty nights and mornings, which give way to unbroken blue skies by lunchtime and a searing sun that takes no prisoners. Sunblock and a hat are indispensable items, as my somewhat crispy forehead can attest after an afternoon being caught without either.

The week culminates in the world-famous Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, where some of the world's most desirable and historically significant cars will be displayed and judged by a panel of renowned experts from all over the world. It's been on my "to-do list" for years but, until recently, I was ignorant of the other events that lead up to Pebble Beach. There's no time like the present, though, so I roll up my sleeves and immerse myself in Monterey Car Week for all that I'm worth.

A number of low-key events and drives have already taken place before my arrival but, practically the minute that I arrive at my hotel, I'm whisked away again to the McCall Motorworks Revival at the Monterey Jet Center. This event, which in the eyes of many, kick-starts the week proper, has become one of the most prestigious of all. Tickets cost US$500 (Dh1,837) each, for the privilege of admiring a few classic and new cars, and mixing with an A-list crowd of Hollywood celebs and industry leaders within the confines of an aircraft hangar. Perhaps it's the extreme sleep deprivation but I just can't see the appeal. Lots of very old men with lots of much younger women - it's rammed with clichéd car enthusiasts who have no doubt earned their way to the top of whatever industry they're in. But it's somehow contrived, and I'd much prefer to see beautiful cars in their natural environment: the road.

That comes the following day, with a visit to the sleepy town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Famous for formerly having Clint Eastwood as its mayor, it's a place overflowing with character and as much history as anywhere in the US. I've never seen so many art galleries packed into one place, but it's easy to see why they're here, because Carmel has the perfect, blissed-out vibe that fires the imaginations of painters and sculptors. Today, however, the art of the automobile takes centre stage, as the Pebble Beach Tour d'Elegance hits town. Having set off from Pebble Beach at 8.30am, a significant number of cars that will be displayed at Sunday's concours have been driving in a huge convoy of priceless metal along 17-Mile Drive and other scenic roads, stopping in Carmel to cool off, have lunch and enthral onlookers in a fascinating array that doesn't cost $500.

Two lanes of road have been closed along Ocean Avenue and, within minutes of the first cars arriving, the crowds have gathered, four or five deep, surrounding the precious classics while their owners mingle and talk to them. What I like about this is that, having heard so many reports about over-restored cars being the essence of Pebble Beach, these things are being used as their makers intended, not being polished as some part of a static museum display. These cars are moving art and their appeal will never vanish, but the smart fanatics will be waiting along the route, to hear and see these machines on the move. There's nothing like it.

A day later and I'm entering The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering. The self-proclaimed "crown jewel" in the whirlwind of events that is Monterey Car Week, it's a paid-entry show with just 2,500 tickets available to carefully screened punters who don't mind stumping up the required $450 (Dh1,653) to gain access. The rest of the attendees are monied collectors and enthusiasts, along with the occasional very famous personality.

The attraction of The Quail (this is the 11th show so far) is simple to understand: it's like a US version of Italy's Concorso d'Eleganza at Villa d'Este, but without the lakeside view. Instead, it's set on the lush greens of one of California's finest golf courses, and those roaming around are limited in number. It's an eye-watering display of motoring loveliness, with tributes being paid to Aston Martin's centenary, the 50th anniversary of Lamborghini and the Porsche 911, as well as the Corvette. With an emphasis firmly placed on racing heritage, it's perhaps unsurprising that I find myself rubbing shoulders with Sir Jackie Stewart, Sir Stirling Moss, Michael Schumacher, the FIA president Jean Todt and others, who mingle with everyone else, able to let their guards down for a few hours.

A relative newcomer when compared to Pebble Beach, The Quail nevertheless has what it takes to become a world-class event, and is rapidly gaining in popularity, evidenced by the number of manufacturers wanting a piece of the action and unveiling new models there for the first time. Bugatti, Bentley, Lamborghini, McLaren and others are here to show off their wares to what they obviously see as being the "right" crowd. But while this event no doubt turns a tidy profit, it does raise enormous amounts of money for police charities and other worthy causes, so it's not the consumerist vulgarity that I'm expecting to witness in a couple of days' time at Pebble Beach.

Motorsport is high on the agenda, no matter where you go in Monterey Car Week, whether it's the static displays or the auctions where historic race cars go under the hammer for ever-increasing amounts. But for some real action, you need to head for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at the nearby Laguna Seca raceway. Another place that I've heard so much about, and never had the chance to visit, Laguna Seca is a technically demanding and challenging 3.6km-long circuit, set inside a natural bowl of land within an area of country park. What an extraordinary venue and what an extraordinary racket as I enter the paddock to try to find somewhere to watch the action unfold on track.

The complete opposite of what I experienced at The Quail yesterday, this place is positively throbbing with high-octane drama. There's no escaping the physical noise of dozens of historic race cars, so earplugs are sourced and slipped in straight away. Porsche 935s, Ferrari 250 GTOs, Shelby Cobras, BMW M1 Procars and "batmobile" CSLs are here in abundance, and they're here to be driven hard, like they were in their heyday.

I make my way over to the outer edge of the circuit, just in time to see the start of the 1973-1989 FIA, IMSA GT, GTX, AAGT, GTU and GTP Cars race, and the line-up is jaw-dropping, containing some of the most iconic racers of all time. As the pace car drops away into the pit lane, these incredible machines start to do battle, and within seconds there is carnage. A BMW CSL has spun off, hit a concrete wall and looks totally demolished. It's taken another couple of cars with it, and the upshot is a race that's no longer a race. Rather, it's a frustrating few laps behind the safety car while the remnants of that crash are swept up.

Upsetting for all concerned, that historic BMW will no doubt take many months and cost frightening sums of money to be repaired. But you just know that its owner will do what it takes - these cars are way too important to simply write off. And, like a moving, roaring history book, the event continues with more categories, more crashes, more adrenaline. As wonderful as it is to see classic cars on display or going under the auctioneer's hammer, nothing can compare to seeing, hearing and smelling priceless competition cars being driven like they were stolen.

Pebble Beach is tomorrow and, while I'm looking forward to attending for obvious reasons, these past few days have been more than varied enough. And I've only just scratched the surface of Monterey Car Week, for everywhere I go I see another sign for another event, usually one I would love to have attended given the time.

As the fog rolls in off the coast and swirls around as I try to eat my dinner the night before Pebble, I'm convinced this is the most significant week on the motoring calendar. The main event had better not be a let-down after this, but you can read about that next week. For now I'll simply leave you with this thought: in the UAE we have the cars, the venues, the enthusiasm and the infrastructure to be able to put on a series of events such as this. Perhaps all we're lacking is the willpower to have a go.


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