At Amelia Island, 'Concours' Isn't a Dirty Word
Florida's seminal classic-car show offers few of the unpleasant trappings of the form.
Here was my dinner on Saturday night: I sawed open a dinner roll, dabbed it with butter, and then sat mesmerized as my heroes plopped into chairs all around me.
Indianapolis 500 legend Bobby Rahal was two tables away. Dan Gurney -- you know, built-and-won-with-his-own-American-F1-car-Dan-Gurney! -- sat, smiling, a few feet over. Legendary drag racer Don "The Snake" Prudhomme was off on the other side of the room but still close enough to yell at. And if I had been feeling ornery, I could've thrown a few rolls and hit, well, everyone I ever wanted to be when I was little. Denise McCluggage. Hurley Haywood. David Hobbs, Stirling Moss, Brock Yates. The list was endless. I gawped like a bumpkin.
This was my introduction to the Amelia Island Concours d' Elegance. Like most concours events, Amelia features a raft of insanely expensive, monstrously desirable cars crammed onto a fairway at a beautiful country club, all in the name of public service and trophy distribution. Because it's a glamorous gathering of machinery, a lot of people show up. Because it's in Florida and extremely laid-back, a lot of those people are A) famous and B) wearing shorts. (Witness 62-year-old Le Mans winner Haywood, rocking the blue blazer/shorts/knee-sock combo for the win.) Think of it as Pebble Beach without the pretension.
This year was my first visit to Amelia, though I've been to events of the same caliber -- Pebble, Meadowbrook, et al. -- countless times in the past. Others are fancier, more filled with pomp and circumstance, or simply more expensive to get into. But Amelia trumps them all.
Here's the thing about Amelia: It's chill. The event's founder, a good-natured Floridian named Bill Warner, recently told The New York Times that "cars are supposed to be fun, and the show should reflect that." This year's show, the sixteenth, includes a class for cars named after places in Florida. The gala dinner featured a folksy, rambling interview with Rahal conducted by Tim Considine. You get the feeling that the famous names show up because they like it, not because they're getting paid to.
Not that this is a cut-rate gathering. Most of what shows up at Amelia is high-class equipment -- former Pebble winners and some of the finest cars in the world dot the event's fairways. But the emphasis is on enjoyment, not winning awards, so the show lacks pretension. There's none of the dusty, haughty air found at other A-list car shows. You can walk up to and peer into the machinery as if it were parked in your backyard. The award presentations center on a huge green where the cars are driven -- snorting and chuffing, from recent racing cars to Brass Era relics -- in front of the public and shown off as actual automobiles, not rarefied museum pieces. There's something special here. If you can't enjoy yourself even a little, you're probably not breathing.
Admittedly, concours-type car shows aren't for everyone. A friend of mine calls them "dead-car shows," preferring events where oil leaks and speed dominates. A wealthy enthusiast I know in Northern California -- Weird Old Car Central, U.S.A. -- swears that if he drives onto a golf green in anything other than an E-Z-Go, his head will explode from boredom. I fall on the fence, torn between my love for art and beautiful/mythologized technology but repulsed by any pastime that requires you to polish something with a cloth diaper. I like my cars beautiful, chock full of history -- and dirty from use.
But Amelia is different. It fits me, as does the chance to visit beachy northern Florida in the winter. Amelia in March is about as nice as the Sunshine State gets. It's dry, warm and free of the soupy, bathe-in-your-own-sweat humidity that comes in summer. This is nice, even if you aren't lucky enough to nosh with your heroes. I may not bring a fresh box of diapers, but I'll definitely be back.
Above: Brock Yates, left, and Dan Gurney with Bruce McCaw's 1971 Ferrari 365 GTB Daytona. Yates and Gurney used the car to win the inaugural 1971 edition of Yates' legendary Cannonball Run Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.
I like the idea of a concours show that isn't stuffy, and one that you can get closer to the cars, talk more casually with people, etc.
I can also understand when people wipe their car down with a diaper when it's worth $1M+, or something crazy like that (The old Ferrari GTB featured on Top Gear comes to mind.)
I wish there were more events like this across the country, instead of places at the ends of the country - CA and FL, that aren't accessible to a lot of people. But then again they have the best weather.
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