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The Inaugural American Speed Festival Gets Off to a Smart Start

What if organizers put on a top-shelf car event, exhibiting some of the most significant race cars ever, had two days of sparse crowds and the final day getting effectively rained out, and came away with a feeling of great success? Well, that’s exactly what happened at the inaugural American Speed Festival at the M1 Concourse facility in Pontiac, Michigan just north of Detroit, just held Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, 2021. The ASF is an attempt by M1 Concourse, a garage condo and performance track “country club for car enthusiasts”, to craft an American flavored take on England’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. The festival is scheduled to be an annual event, and for the first iteration of the show organizers brought in scores of some of the most historically significant race cars in American racing history to do demonstration runs on the track at speed, if not in anger.

How significant? As I walked into the facility I saw a gleaming white and silver Porsche 917/30, one of just six 1,500 horsepower monsters that were so effective at dominating the original Can-Am series that they pretty much destroyed it. Nearby was a Maserati Tipo 61, affectionately known as the “Birdcage Maserati” because of its space frame made up of hundreds of pieces of narrow section tubing. Not far from both of those was an ex Parnelli Jones Lola T70 roadster, arguably the most beautiful race car ever, that competed in Can-Am before the 917/30. Over in the main paddock, there were a couple of Gurney Eagles that came out of Dan Gurney’s All American Racers shop in California, one of Herb Thomas’s Fabulous Hudson Hornet NASCAR racers, and two STP Turbine Indy cars (yes, they do sound a bit like a vacuum cleaner). Almost all of the cars were original and authentic, though the 1901 “Sweepstakes” car that Henry Ford used to establish his reputation as an automaker was a replica from the collection of the Henry Ford Museum, where you can see the original.

Cliches like “off the charts” or “legendary” fail so I’ll simply say that the collection of significant race cars was truly superlative, and that’s even before mentioning the stars of the show. Jim Hall, whose Chaparrals had their own period of domination in sports car racing and who is one of the most innovative pioneers of racing, was to be honored as a Master of Motorsport at the ASF’s Saturday evening banquet.

Unfortunately due to concerns about the Covid pandemic, Hall, who is 86 years old, had to accept his award virtually, instead of in person, but he sent his son, grandson, a team of support personnel, and four of his Chaparral racers to the event. Car owners and spectators alike flocked to the Chaparral corral, where sat the original fiberglass tubbed Chaparral 2, the 2E with the groundbreaking high, active wing that applied downforce directly to the rear suspension, the 2F coupe which took that idea to international endurance racing, and the “Yellow Submarine”, Johnny Rutherford’s Indy 500 winning ground effects Chaparral 2K in it’s Pennzoil livery.

As someone who had a slot car set with a Lola T70 and a Chaparral 2, this was better than being a kid in a candy store, and I wasn’t the only person who felt that way. Everyone that I spoke with was simply blown away by what cars were at the event, and unlike at a concours, car show, or museum, most of the racing machines and other significant vehicles at the ASF could be seen running on the track.

The paddock was a bit like a real racing paddock, albeit with less pressure and less competition. Race cars require a lot of maintenance and repairs so there was some wrenching being done as well as adjustments to perform better on the track. Unlike at a real racing paddock, there wasn’t much competition and in fact, one of the car owners, who brought an ex-Can-Am 1970 Mustang sport coupe, told me that in my coverage of the event I had to mention the high level of camaraderie among participants. After its first stint on the track midday on Friday, the Chaparral 2F needed a master brake cylinder, which they were able to source from another car owner.

The car owners were uniformly exuberant about how much they enjoyed the event.

That is why the organizers considered the inaugural American Speed Festival a success despite the lack of spectators. When I asked one of the facility’s PR guys about the fact that I hadn’t seen or heard very much publicity here in the Detroit area about the festival, he told me that they’d done some local radio ads but for the most part the publicity targeted affluent car enthusiasts outside of the Detroit area. Then he said that getting spectators this first year was secondary to getting the cars. M1 Concourse CEO Tim McGrane emphasized that to me, that the organizers’ focus was on getting great cars, the idea being that if the car owners were happy, they’d tell others. The truth is that the high-end car collecting and vintage racing hobbies are relatively small communities and word gets around.

If you ask me, I think that they are wise to use this “if we build it, they will come” approach. The festival at Goodwood didn’t become a bucket list event because folks want to see Lord March’s estate. It’s the cars that draw people and getting to see the kind of cars that the American Speed Festival got this year are exactly the kinds of cars that will, in the long run, allow the event to grow. Taking this organic approach, instead of hyping big attendance figures seems like the logical way to go.

As mentioned, the ASF is planned to be an annual event and is already scheduled to take place in 2022 and 2023 on the first weekend in October. To be honest, that’s about my only criticism of the event. Scheduling an outdoor event in Michigan, with its notoriously changeable weather, is always risky, and the facility was soaked by rain on Sunday. In truth, though, the weather was beautiful on Friday and Saturday, when the cars were on the track, as Sunday was planned to be a static car show, with additional vehicles. If I could offer a recommendation it would be to move the event back to sometime in the summer and have both track and static displays all through the event.

In any case, if you have any interest in racing and performance cars (there was a class for exotic road cars) I’d recommend making plans to attend next year when the American Speed Festival honors the 60th anniversary of the founding of Shelby American. Hmmm. There are just six 917/30 Porsches. Based on the organizers’ track record, no pun intended, if I were a betting man I’d wager that at least one of the six real Shelby Daytona Coupes will be on their track in Pontiac next October.

[Images and videos © 2021 TTAC/Ronnie Schreiber]

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