Valley business leaders tap their inner Steve McQueen through vintage auto racing, the thinking manÕs NASCAR
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published by: AZ Society, October 2007; also appeared in the Arizona Republic, October 15, 2007
Bob Hardison experienced his first Ricky Bobby moment Ñ that wild, single minded urge to go fast Ñ while tooling around the White Mountains with friends from the Arizona Region Porsche Club of America, which he joined shortly after buying his Porsche 911 Speedster in 1999.
"We ended up going through a mountain pass way faster than was sensible," says Hardison, president and co-founder of Hardison/Downey Construction. "We got back to the restaurant, and the other guys were saying, 'Wow! You got around us so fast!' They told me this ridiculous speed they had clocked me going, and I went, 'Man! That is really...
Hardison recalls that he then looked at his wife, Paula, director of the Wellness Community of Central Arizona, and quickly reeled in his bravado upon noticing her disapproving glare.
. I mean, to be driving so fast on a road where grandpa could suddenly switch lanes in his pickup?' I said, 'If I'm gonna drive fast, I gotta get off the road.'"
BUILT FOR SPEED
Fortunately, one of Hardison's Porsche pals told him about vintage auto racing, a scene where owners of rare and classic Alfa Romeos, Jaguars, Ferraris, Aston Martins, Bugattis and other highvalue marques get to make like Steve McQueen in Le Mans for a few weeks a year at amateur races held in posh West Coast destinations such as California's Monterey, Sonoma and Coronado.
"After 10 minutes of watching my first race, I knew this was something I had to do," Hardison says.
Entry into the club isn't easy. While populated by billionaire industry captains Ñ former Microsoft President Jon Shirley and Wal-Mart Chairman S. Robson Walton are among its top contenders Ñ vintage racing is not a sport any bored executive can simply buy his way into.
Membership in key organizations such as the Historic Motor Sports Association requires completing a course in high-performance driving from a recognized driving school such as Chandler's Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Racing, a biannual physical and issuance of a competition license from a sanctioning motor sports organization.
Even with all that red tape guarding the entry gate, a number of Valley business leaders have become active players in the vintage racing scene Ñ and each insists the sport has sharpened their faculties in both business and life.
Steve Hilton, CEO of Scottsdale based Meritage Homes, says racing is the perfect way to escape the headaches of running a $3 billion a year business.
"When I get out on the track, there's no way to think about anything other than driving this car. You have to completely concentrate on racing, and it's a great opportunity to refocus your mind," he says while holding up a framed photo of his 1968 Lola Mark III Spider, one of three vintage racers he has accumulated since entering the scene a couple of years ago.
Jonathan Ornstein, president of Mesa Air Group, the aviation holding company famous for its rapid "deal-a-year" growth, feared he wouldn't have the patience for the downtime, as the prime events, such as the Monterey Historic Automobile Races, tend to stretch out over four day weekends and are accompanied by auctions, shopping and judged auto shows.
"I thought I'd have to sit out there waiting for my race and be bored to tears," Ornstein says. "But I discovered I loved the camaraderie almost as much as the racing. At the track, we're all sitting out on lawn chairs cooking up hot dogs. And you're away from having to be the CEO and being at fancy dinners."
Not that anyone's slumming it at a vintage auto race. Far from the lowbrow trappings associated with stock car events, the road courses used for vintage races are festooned with luxurious shopping and pampering opportunities, especially for women. At the Monterey Historic in August, Scottsdale's Jewelry by Gauthier had one of the largest displays.
"These are people who, instead of catching the bug at a NASCAR race," Hardison says, "went to Germany for a Formula One race or, after purchasing their Mercedes, drove it on the autobahn before shipping it home."
'GENTLE' MEN'S CLUB
Even so, vintage racing is a grittier scene than the average social gala.
"This isn't something these people do for status, because it's not glamorous," says Edie Arrowsmith, one of the sport's few women racers and owner of ArrowLane, a racing, restoration and fabrication shop in Scottsdale that services and transports vintage cars of many of the Valley's racers.
"You get hot, sweaty, knocked around Ñ and it's not like you can show up at black tie dinners in your racing jumpsuit to show everybody how cool you are. This is a serious sport. It's for real."
Well, as real as you can get racing multimillion-dollar collector cars.
Chris Hines is a career driver with close to 20 NASCAR races under his belt. He co-manages ArrowLane and has trained Hardison, Hilton and Ornstein. Hines says there's a peculiar rule in vintage that can make it harder than racing stock cars. "You get in trouble if you run into somebody," he says, with a laugh. "They call it a '1313.' If you have contact with another car, you get a year off from racing. And it's because you're racing with cars that are extremely expensive and sometimes irreplaceable."
Even so, Hines has seen drivers of cars worth between $6 million and $10 million bump fenders on the track and end up hugging each other after the race.
"It's gentlemen's racing," he says. "But it's still racing."