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NOVEMBER 8, 2000

A motor racing tour of the Bay Area


There has been talk for some time of a Formula 1 race on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. And it was a serious enough proposal for F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone to visit the city in 1998 for a meeting with Mayor Willie Brown. Later that year Brown went to Monaco to see the Grand Prix and the project (which involves Long Beach Grand Prix promoter Chris Pook) continues to bubble away quietly with the most likely site believed to be on Treasure Island, a man-made island in the middle of San Francisco Bay which was built for the World's Fair in 1939 and was a major air force base until the defence cuts of the late 1990s. Since the closure of the base Treasure Island has been in limbo with plans for development which include a major waterfront project which would include a marina, a shoreline park and a number of hotels. They would give magnificent views of the San Francisco skyline. The base already has a conference center in operation and a number of film studios have used the Treasure Island facilities for movie-making. The facility has direct access to the Interstate 80 highway which would draw spectators from San Francisco and from the East Bay cities of Oakland and Berkeley.

Motor racing is not new in the Bay Area. As long ago as 1908 the city (which was still largely in ruins after the 1906 earthquake) was a staging post for the New York-Paris transcontinental race although no-one would have noticed as the five cars which arrived from New York came at different times and from different directions (including the Zust team from Italy which arrived having had some alarming experiences when they broke down in Death Valley and had to fight off a pack of wolves with rifles!

In 1915 San Francisco hosted the Panama Pacific Exposition to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and the resurrection of the city after the 1906 earthquake. The festivities included one of the more bizarre motor races in history with the cars - which included a number of imported Grand Prix cars from Europe, being raced on a 3.84-mile circuit on the mudflats of San Francisco Bay. In places the mud was not very stable and so it was decided to lay down wooden boards and the cars drove over these, being splattered by mud which was thrown up between the boards. After two hours of racing the winds picked up and it began to rain but three hours later Dario Resta won the American Grand Prize in a 1912 Peugeot Grand Prix car which had been sent out to the US before the outbreak of World War I...

Away to the north of the Bay is the race track at Sears Point, which overlooks the mudflats at the northern end of San Pablo Bay and at the entrance to the Sonoma Valley. The track has never held any major open-wheeler events but is the host to an annual round of the NASCAR Winston Cup series.

Probably the most interesting automobile feature in the Bay Area is out to the east of the city, across the Bay Bridge and through the hills to Walnut Creek. If you turn south on I-680 you will soon arrive in Danville and from there you can follow the signs to Blackhawk Plaza where you will find one of the more remarkable (and surprising) car collections in the world. The Behring Auto Museum. This is located at the entrance to the exclusive Blackhawk development and can be found by walking through a remarkable shopping center, featuring waterfalls, lakes and exclusive boutiques.

Built by multimillionaire land developer and philanthropist Kenneth Behring, who has donated tends of millions to charities and museums, including a record-breaking $20m gift to the Smithsonian, the Museum is reckoned to have swallowed up around $13m of Behring's money. The building is granite and glass and the museum is plush, with carpeting and high quality furniture. There are nearly 100,000 sq ft of exhibition space and more than 100 cars are on display at any given time. Behring's collection is reputed to run to around 800 classic automobiles and these are rotated through the museum. In addition there is a large collection of automotive art and the W. E. Miller Transportation Research Library.

You never really know what you are going to get when you arrive, although the most famous automobiles in the collection tend to be on permanent display. When the author last visited the museum there were two Bugatti Royales on display in addition to a bewildering display of sportscars.

The collection ranges from an 1897 Leon Bollee voiturette to Clark Gable's 1935 Duesenberg convertible. There are a number of unique items such as the beautiful Alfa Romeo Flying Star and a remarkable 1924 Hispano-Suiza "torpedo" decorated all over with mahogany and brass. There is an unusual sports-bodied Rolls Royce from 1925, a 1908 Type 10 Bugatti and the only remaining Argonaut Boat-Tail Speedster. And if you are a Bizzarini fan there is a very rare 1969 Bizzarini Spyder. The collection includes a 1948 Tucker, a pre-production De Lorean and the 1920 Pierce Arrow which used to belong to "Fatty" Arbuckle. There is also the elegant 1926 Isotta Fraschini which was built for Rudolph Valentino and features his Cobra insignia on the hood.

There are also racing cars on display at Blackhawk including one of Johnny Rutherford's Indianapolis 500-winning McLarens. There are usually at least one Bugatti Grand Prix racer from the 1920s.

The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm.

Two hours drive south from San Francisco, close to the beautiful and rugged Monterey Peninsular is the best road course on the West Coast - Laguna Seca which has been holding international events since 1960 when Stirling Moss won the Pacific Grand Prix sportscar race in a Lotus. He won again the following year but in 1962 victory in the event went to the Zerex Special driven by a driver called Roger Penske. In 1966 CanAm arrived and Laguna Seca was one of the big races of the series: the early winners including Phil Hill, Bruce McLaren (twice), Denny Hulme and Peter Revson. The track also hosted a variety of SCCA open-wheeler series in the late 1960s and in the 1970s was an important track in Formula 5000 and in recent years has been a major fixture for the CART teams.

In 1988, in the hope of attracting Formula 1 racing after the demise of the Detroit Grand Prix, the track was lengthened and upgraded from 1.9 to 2.2 miles. In the end F1 never went to Laguna but it still remains a popular track for racers and spectators.

What is not well known about the area is that before Laguna Seca was built there was racing on the roads of Pebble Beach. The spirit of that event lives on every year in the world-renowned concours d'elegance...