Story by Harvey Sherman
Usually centered around either the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) -owned Thunder Hill road race track, located in Willows, California, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, or Sonoma Raceway, originally known as Sears Point, Mini-Nats is a three day celebration of the life, the automobiles, and the racing adventures of Carroll Shelby, Shelby American and the company he founded; which is still ongoing today.
There’s a car show Friday followed by a weekend of road racing, with a little drag racing thrown in for variety. A bar-b-queue at the track Friday night is followed by a banquet on Saturday night, this year at the Embassy Suites in San Rafael, event headquarters for the weekend.
There was a wine country tour on Saturday afternoon for those who want to get away from the track for a while. Roughly 15 cars, an assortment of Mustangs and Cobras, drove through Sonoma and Napa for a few hours with a stop in the resort town of Calistoga for ice cream.
Darn good ice cream with optional chocolate hand-dip.
I was lucky enough to find a ride in Don Wollesen’s cherry red 1967 Shelby GT350, a drive-able show car. I’ve known Don since the early 1990s, when I joined the club and began babbling about putting Webber carburetors on my small block Cobra and somebody pointed me at him for an explanation of what a foolish idea that was.
Since then, Don taught me everything I know about hot rodding small block Ford engines, just not everything he knows about it. I’m still asking questions.
I sold my Webber intake a few months ago for a 50-percent profit above what I paid for it in 1990 and the Holley on my car works just great so it turned out OK.
Mini-Nats weekend usually brings out auto industry celebrities.
Designer, racer, driving instructor, race car team owner, manufacturer and entrepreneur, Peter Brock, flew up from Las Vegas to attend the banquet. Brock’s bio is a book subject so I won’t attempt to do it justice. I’ll simply say he was the youngest engineer/designer GM hired, worked on the Corvette Stingray, was the first Shelby American employee – hired as a driving instructor at the Shelby race car driving school at Riverside road race track, designed the world championship winning Daytona Coupe, and had a hand in most everything else at Shelby American, won an SCCA national championship managing his own team. If interested in more, GOOGLE Peter Brock, or BRE – Brock Racing Enterprises.
Alan Grant, a driver from the Shelby America race team in the 1960s, and employees of the Shelby American from the days of racing Cobras and Mustangs came to the banquet to share memories of what it was to work there and participate in the international championship year racing effort. For anyone who cares about this little nook of automobile racing history, this kind of opportunity is a treasure as so many of these guys have either passed on or have reached an age where one of these meetings will be the last one.
This is the 50th anniversary year of the Shelby GT350 Mustang, the car that won the SCCA B-Production national championship. The event centered around it. So much has been written about this, I’ll say only a few lesser known words about the origin of the car.
In 1965 Lee Iacocca, a Ford executive and father of the Mustang, tried to get the SCCA to accept it for sports car racing. The SCCA turned him down because it had a back seat. The SCCA classified it a sedan, not a sports car. As such it did not meet their criteria for sports car road racing.
Witness to the event, Peter Brock, chief designer at Shelby American at the time, explained at the banquet, Lee Iacocca called Carrol Shelby to ask what he could do about it. Shelby already had a relationship with Ford, reputation as a world class race driver, race team manager and car tuner who had put a Ford V8 into a British sports car, previously a 6-cylinder AC Bristol, named it “Cobra”, and was tap dancing through the SCCA “A Production” class with it.
Shelby called the SCCA. The result of the conversation was an agreement that if the rear seats of the Mustang were removed, the car produced in sufficient numbers in the configuration, and offered for sale as a street car, a race car could be made of it, to be classified “B-Production” and campaigned for the national championship.
Shelby called Iacocca back and offered to “make” and sell a 2-seat street car, sports car version of the Mustang by replacing the rear seats with a shelf, racing it as a Shelby American factory team race car, and offering to build and sell them for customers to race. Iacocca agreed to supply Mustangs. It was on!
Shelby American won the SCCA “B production” championship in 1965 and the “A production” championship with the Cobra.
The deal between Iacocca and Shelby, of FORD and Shelby American, delivered a competition brand lift for Ford and transformed Shelby American from a small AC Bristol/Shelby 289 Cobra tuner into a much larger company with a market of thousands instead of hundreds of customers. The company grew and moved to larger production facilities, hired a great deal more employees, and hit the ramp.
All to say, this was the subject of the banquet after which a handful of Shelby American employees who participated, took the stage to talk about the experience. A slide show was projected for over 100 hundred in attendance. For anybody who cares about this bit of racing history, it was a memorable event, which given the age of the panelists will, in the not too distant future, not be repeated.
I enjoy car shows, drag racing, tours and road racing, have participated in lots of them, but to honest, they were secondary to consideration. I drove my Jeep from Seattle to Sonoma after hours from my full time real job for the banquet, and for me, it was worth it.
Northern California Mini-Nat varies from year to year in theme and terms of who and what shows up. I went every year when I lived in Northern California between 1992 and 2005, when I retired from a high technology career and returned to Seattle. Last year, 2014 was the first time I attended since.
I have often thought the club could charge admittance to this event. It is that good. But no, club members and non-member participation fees cover costs and earn enough of a profit to fund most of many club activities though the year.
The club wants to keep this free for the public. I don’t know any other place you could attend and see such things presented for free. It’s a static and a rolling, racing museum, a mixture of history and of old and new.
Last year, I noticed the road race grids and the paddock were not filled with Ford products. There were a number of Ferrari, Corvette, MG, McLaren, Porsche, even a Jensen Healey race car. Sad I thought , when in previous years you had to apply early. In 2014, the club accepted anything safe on a race track to fill the grids and make sure the event didn’t lose money.
This year was different. A higher percentage of the grids were filled with Ford products; Mustang, Shelby, GT40, Cobras of every age and version, with an odd Ferrari, Corvette, Porsche or BMW mixed in.
Many were late model Shelby or Ford Mustangs, not what you might see at a “vintage” event, but very interesting given the performance of the late model version of these cars, available right off the showroom floor. Little modification is needed to make them safe and reliable to drive hard on a road race track. For fun, no modification is needed.
These are exhibitions, not races, but nobody goes out there to drive slow, and nobody does. There are breakdowns and incidents, occasionally a crash, though event management does a good job of eliminating car-on-car accidents.
There are off-road agricultural excursions, bent fenders, as the guardrail and K-wall is harder, and worse. Somebody lost control of a Cobra, hit a wall and busted up the bodywork. A fender and trunk, a tire and a wheel were sacrificed along with a lot of scraped fiberglass. Nobody was hurt except for pride, maybe.
I greeted Joe Silva, owner of “Custom Alignment” in Mountain View, CA; hadn’t seen Joe since the last time he aligned my car in 2004. Joe is a world traveler now, working crew for a BMW race team trackside in addition to managing Custom Alignment. Joe Silva, Mustang track car owner, long time Shelby Club member, a bastion of Ford competition changing tires on a BMW. The HORROR!
Joe told me business was tough for a few years, all about keeping his head above water, that it’s coming back now. It correlates with the change in the grids and the paddock at Mini-Nats; this year filled up with Ford products.
It’s Monday afternoon, now. I’m reporting from the Marin County townhouse of friends nice enough to put up with me for a few days for a bottle of exquisite Washington State Cabernet. Tomorrow morning, Tuesday, I’ll be driving to Monterey to check in and pick up my crew credentials for the Monterey Rolex Historics at Laguna Seca Race Track in Salinas, which begins with a staged photo-op of the race cars on the front straight on Wednesday. I’ll meet Don in Carmel for the Carmel Concours and tour and that will begin the next six days of vintage car culture emersion.
Stay tuned for more from Harvey as he tours with automotive legends at Laguna Seca and Pebble Beach!