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The Pebble Beach Experience: A First-Timer's Look at the World's Most Extravagant Celebration of Cars

Pebble Beach weekend is one of the best car events in the world, but what's it like for a newbie?

By Jacob Brown | Photos By Jacob Brown | September 17, 2013
It's hard to explain what Pebble Beach Concours weekend is like. It really is. The best I can do in one sentence is that it's Disneyland, a KISS concert, pretending you're James Bond, haute couture, art, a festival, and an auto show all in one. Except it's so much more. And to call it an auto show is like selling Timexes next to Rolexes at a department store because they both tell time. So rather than try to use a bunch of allusions, analogies, and metaphors to give you the impression of what it's really like to go, I'll just tell the story from the perspective of a guy who had only dreamt of going for years until the opportunity came up this year. I'll tell you about it from the perspective of someone who had planned on finding a nice place to lay out a sleeping bag next to my suit because lodging comes at a premium when the crowd you're catering to can whip out a Centurion card for a hotel room. Fortunately, things worked out a little better than I had planned, including gaining access to some Infiniti executives whom I needed to interview, and the automaker was gracious enough to provide me with room and board. I arrived on a Thursday afternoon, still not yet aware of the magnitude of Pebble weekend. The headline event is the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance on Sunday, but there's so much motion and commotion that happens in the meantime. When I got to my hotel, there was a hostess who walked me to my room, giving me a quarter-mile guided tour. And over the ensuing days, I learned that not only do maids at such places make your bed for you in the morning, but they also still offer turndown service, where they'll turn your sheets down for you in the evening. Classy and comically unnecessary as that may be, I feel like a yokel for mentioning it, but the details reveal the differences. After getting to my room, I left it just as quickly; there was a 1930 Alfa Romeo that was actually raced by Enzo Ferrari--yes, that Enzo Ferrari--parked outside the hotel as if it were nothing special. Why would it be? What’s a million-dollar car when other cars will sell for $25 million during the same weekend? What's a $25 million car when you're surrounded by a consortium of people whose wealth makes up more than the GDP of many countries? Pebble weekend is absurdity realized and dreams fulfilled.

Day One: Thank You, Shiro

Infiniti affectionately calls the first night with its guests "Shiro Night," dedicated to Shiro Nakamura, the Creative Director of Nissan Motors, parent company of both Nissan and its luxury offshoot, Infiniti. After a long career with Isuzu and General Motors, Nakamura joined Nissan right as it had fallen into hard times in 1999 with the intention of cleaning up its style and direction. Along with ruthless ambition from new CEO of Nissan Motors, Carlos Ghosn, Nakamura started carving a compelling design direction, helping bring Nissan back.
Since then, he's created dedicated teams at Nissan, Infiniti, and the newly revived Datsun brand to autonomously design the brands' products. To paraphrase "Dangerous Minds," he is the light. He's also one of the big advocates for Infiniti's presence at Pebble, making it an annual pilgrimage to learn from the past and embrace its future. The legend--I think he deserves every bit of that title--just celebrated his 10th anniversary of attending the event, something he'd been looking forward to with Infiniti. Says Shiro of his favorite parts of Pebble week: "It's interesting because it's the big three events all together: Quail, [Monterey Historics at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca], and Pebble Beach. Any other classic car event is just one day. This is nice. You can see the classic car racing at Laguna Seca and you can see cars here. On Friday morning, you can go to Quail. And you can see all kinds of classic auctions here. The range of the cars they are putting up for auction is amazing." We sat down with him, Alfanso Albaisa, the head of Infiniti design, and Infiniti CEO Johan de Nysschen, dozens of guests gathered around a long table as if it were the last supper with flank steaks, scallops, and flowing wine from the nearby Napa Valley. Needless to say, I never felt underfed during the trip. It was certainly a step up from In-N-Out Burger.

Normal People Own Lamborghinis, Too

You can only see so many Ferrari Testarossas before becoming desensitized to them. When you get to the tenth in a row, what are you supposed to say: "Wow, this one is black instead of red" or "I wonder how expensive it is to change the timing belt"? At that point, it becomes a transportation device, albeit one with cheese-grater-quality strakes in its doors and some sort of exotic Italian flair.
At Concorso Italiano, owners of all things Italian walked about in Carmel Valley sporting surprisingly little cologne and few gold chains. Some had Fiats that may or may not have crossed into the U.S. legally in the 1990s. By contrast, one gentleman brought his 1963 Ferrari 250 Short-Wheelbase California Spider, another copy of which sold two years ago at auction for $8.6 million. Still, everyone shared the show field with surprisingly little of the pretentiousness that festers over the much more exclusive concours at Quail Lodge just a few miles away. No, I didn't get into Quail; yes, I want to go next year. At Concorso, I ran into a man polishing his 1990 Lamborghini Diablo. It wasn't perfect; it was a frequent driver, one which he said his daughter enjoys when she gets picked up from soccer practice. "What am I going to do when I tell her that this isn't normal?" he said. "I worked my ass off for this car. Not everyone drives a Lamborghini." I remember fawning over the Diablo when I was a kid. I remember that it, like the Countach before it, were pure eroticism put into motion. This guy was the same way. Concorso didn't strike me as a concours in the purest sense of the modern definition. "Concours d'Elegance" means parade of elegance and was first used when it came time to show off fanciful new luxury cars, which is how the Pebble concours got its start. Back then, Chevys were at Motoramas. Now, the term generally means there's an age cap, and the cars generally have a historical significance. Concorso Italiano is now just a place for Italian car owners to congregate; Abarthisti, Ferraristi, Lamborghini fans, and even obscure makes. A row of Pininfarina-bodied Cadillac Allantes were even allowed in, perhaps the first major show to allow them on a field. If it was Italian--even remotely Italian--it was fair game. And when you see a $600 Snuggy car on the same green as millions of dollars of Ferraris, Maseratis, and even some Alfa Romeos, it very quickly establishes that this ain't the most fanciful place you'll go during the weekend, even if it's one of the more enjoyable with owners as eclectic as their cars.

Racing a $6 Million Car

"Someone out there was racing an Abarth Porsche GTL," I said to a friend whom I met up with during the event. My friend, by the way, operated a concours in Ohio where I got my start in automotive journalism at 19 years old, and is the only person to show a car at the Pebble Beach Concours and Concours d'Lemons--the weekend's Razzies--in back-to-back days this year. "That's a $6 million car," I continued.
"Yeah, and it won't be the most expensive car you see on the track, either," he said. The track, by the way, is Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, one of the trickiest courses in the world. And the event was the Monterey Motorsports Reunion, otherwise known as the Monterey Historics. My favorite event of Pebble weekend, the Historics are almost like that hockey game that no one ever hears about before the NHL Winter Classic. Every year there's talk about all the Ovechkins, Crosbys, and other superstars taking to the ice, but alumni members of the two teams that compete in an outdoor stadium in winter also lace up their skates, and the games sometimes play out as if these oldtimers had never retired. It's humbling and awesome in the traditional definition of the word: Inspiring wonderment. I remember my dad telling me what it was like to go to Grand Prixes and Trans-Am races in the 1960s and '70s. I felt like I finally understood why he still talks about them after getting to see some of the very same cars return home. Everything from turn-of-the-century Stutzes and Mercers to retired LeMans cars could be found on the track, and the Corvette's 60th birthday dominated much of the weekend's festivities. Funny enough, the percolating rasp of Corvette V-8 from the '60s doesn't sound much different than today's racers at wide-open throttle, still diabolic after all these years. It's hard to imagine anyone taking a piece of history and all of its provenance with it up to 100 mph, 130, or even faster, but it's perhaps why the Historics are the most appealing event of the weekend. These cars aren't garage queens, and their owners', um, fortitude have to be made of iron. "How do you do the Corkscrew with no brakes?" I asked him, referring to one of the trickiest parts of the course, a 109-foot blind left-turn drop. "With the transmission. I probably go eight-tenths with it; I don't want to blow out the gears." "I'm a purist," says a racer of a 1910 Mercer. "I know people install roll bars and safety equipment. But that's not how these cars were back then. "What I do is stupid, reckless, dangerous, and possibly deadly, but I couldn't do it any other way."

"That's the Nicest Piece of S*** I've Ever Seen"

Infiniti provided its guests with transportation shuttles to take us pretty much wherever we wanted to go during the weekend. I looked at our itinerary of possible events.
"The only thing I don't see on this list that I want to go to is Concours d'Lemons," I told Jill, our ride coordinator. "What?" "Concours d'Lemons. I mean, who doesn't want to see a show field with a 1984 Renault Alliance rusting away on it?" I, myself, am a fan of iconoclasts, nonconformists, and going to grungy dive bars over high-end clubs, and ever since I had heard of Concours d'Lemons a few years back, I figured I had to go. It's what organizer Alan Galbraith told me is a collection of "the best examples of the worst cars and the worst examples of the best cars." The show is a lighthearted look at the world of auto shows, especially considering that the Saturday's cars are a precursor to the extravagance that makes its way to the Pebble show field. Perhaps the only disappointment I had in going is that I didn't see a Renault Alliance. Still, there was a mint-condition Renault Le Car, one of the worst vehicles ever bestowed upon our shores in the 1980s. It was only there because the owner's other Renault broke down on the way to Monterey. Also in attendance was a like-new 1999 Pontiac Aztek, complete with a working air suspension, pop-up tent option, and an owner who didn't seem to mind my compliment: "Don't take this the wrong way, but that's the nicest piece of s*** I've ever seen." He said thanks, by the way. Perhaps the most impressive showing was the six Chevrolet Cosworth Vegas that showed up together, the owners having never before met outside the internet. Intended to be a performance model at the height of the Malaise Era of high fuel prices and shoddy quality, the Cosworth Vega became infamous for blowing up its engine early in its life, courtesy of its aluminum engine block and shoddily cast iron heads. It was a miracle that only one suffered a mechanical setback on show day, a dead alternator. But they couldn't hold a candle to the worst-of-show 1949 Voisin Biscooter that won, well, Worst of Show honors. Designed to help France get back on wheels after World War II, the Biscooter came from a man who designed some of the world's most beautiful cars before the throughout most of his career. Yet, his prototype, seen at the show and owned by him until his death, could only be described as what happens when a Morris Mini Moke and an electric razor have a one-night stand. As Celeste Pappas-Boses and her husband, Scott Boses, drove to the award stand, they arrived wearing gas masks as plumes of cancer-inciting, ozone-destroying fumes spilled from the micro car. They stopped for a while to collect their award, a hard-fought labor of love as the Boses family spend more than $66,000 to buy this car. And when they were done, Scott pulled the lawnmower-like starter rope as if his Voisin. Nothing. Perhaps it was Galbraith's litany of jokes that would reignite it. Not like he had much difficulty finding material. On my way out, I bought a $20 LeMons t-shirt, the only souvenir I purchased over the weekend. And then I was delayed in heading back to the Monterey Historics because I had to push an old Honda N360 to get it started after its battery died. Somehow that only solidified the legend of Concours d'LeMons for me, making the years of waiting well worth the hype.

Pebble Beach: Michael Schumacher Touched My Elbow

I have no idea what it's really like when a girl goes to a Justin Bieber concert and erupts into a rampant fit of excitement and estrogen-driven lust. But I can at least hazard a guess at what it's like to be that star-struck.
At the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, former Formula 1 world champion Michael Schumacher and the organizer of the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the U.K., Charles Gordon-Lennox, were moseying about together while checking out older Alfa Romeo and Lancia race cars, one of which was the former Enzo Ferrari racer from the 1930s I had seen a few days earlier at my hotel. "Have you ever driven anything like that?" Gordon-Lennox asked Schumi. They carried on; I just looked like a tourist with my notebook in one hand and a camera in another. I didn't want to miss perhaps my only chance I'd ever have to talk to the racing legend. "Big fan," I said, awkwardly. "I'm a big fan." "Thanks," Schumacher replied. I wouldn't blame anyone in the U.S. for not knowing who he is, but Michael Schumacher is one of the winningest drivers of all time. I did a commendable job keeping my composure, I thought. The two started walking away. "Mr. Schumacher!" He looked over. I pointed to my camera. Schumacher, perhaps my height at around 5-foot-8, patted my left elbow and simply said, "Not at the moment. Maybe later." He then walked off. That was hardly the highlight of my trip; of course, Pebble is among the best concours in the world. Porsches, BMWs, Simplexes, Packards, Cords, Duesenbergs, former racing cars, and everything you can think of in between. No one car stood out to me, instead, it was the fact that 250 of the world's best antique cars were gathered on the 18th hole of Pebble Beach golf course to celebrate art and engineering, excellence and beauty. Was Pebble my favorite event of the weekend? Truth be told, probably not. But it was unparalleled in its glamour and without a doubt something that will be a highlight of my 2013, if not much, much longer. As a newbie entering this weekend of festivities, I'm not sure what I was expecting in retrospect, perhaps just nice cars and unmitigated pretentiousness. Instead, I sat outside my hotel room one night and met a woman who worked for Aston Martin from 1952 to 1956, hearing about why she thinks the company has lost its way and if there is a car made today that could quite match up to what the DB models of the 1950s were like. I spoke with team managers who professionally race historic cars. I met the working-class guy who had a poster of a Lamborghini Diablo on his wall and wanted one for himself. And I met up with some friends whom I'd not seen in months, sharing in the celebration of cars and culture, the effervescence of carburetors burning rich, and the sound of a Bugatti or race-worn Porsche trudging up one last time to receive its award, deafening onlookers with sounds that could best be described as suppressed aggression. Only on the track would they be able to stretch their legs. Pebble weekend isn't reality. I don't think it could be in its current form with fields of concept cars, test drives in Rolls-Royces and Bentleys for prospective buyers, and flamboyance abound. It's excess in the best way possible. It's something that every car guy or girl should have on his or her bucket list. It's a celebration that, while it may be a little too polished for some, is still impossible to not be giddy experiencing. And if this is the first and last time I ever get to go--hopefully, that won't be the case--it was something I don't think I could ever forget.
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