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HALIFAX COUNTY, Va. -- It's a $30 million starting grid.
The least expensive race car is valued around $200,000.
The most expensive: a million, easy.
When the green flag drops, the first six cars speed toward Turn 1 with groans of sheet metal as they race for a turn made for two.
The crowd stands, snapping digital pictures, many witnessing their first $3 million traffic jam.
And there's not a NASCAR hat or T-shirt to be found.
It's the weekend of the Pepsi 400 in Daytona, Fla. -- NASCAR under the lights, 140,000 fans in the stands, $6 million in purse money up for grabs.
But the real money this weekend is just up the road from Milton, N.C., a small town (population: 132) adjacent to Virginia International Raceway.
One of the cars on the track this day (although not in the race) is a Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe, a car that won Le Mans in 1964, the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1964 and 1965, and even conquered Daytona, winning the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1965.
The car is valued at around $12 million -- nearly double the entire Pepsi 400 purse and roughly the equivalent of 25 NASCAR stock cars.
Welcome to vintage car racing, where it's not about racing for money but about having money.
Rich man's sport
Standing under the hot Virginia sun are 40 men in their 40s, 50s and 60s, some with crew cuts, some with ponytails, most wearing $200 designer sunglasses and $300 Simpson racing sneaker things, all changed from their Armani and Brooks Brothers weekday work suits into $1,800 flame-resistant weekend racing suits.
They're listening to a little guy in a blue-striped seersucker sport coat, in Virginia southernly twang, telling them to "make sure your pee is clear by afternoon."
The gentlemanly way to say drink lots of water.
A guy with a little-too-perfect blond hair walks by in a green racing suit, matching scarf tied around his wrist, holding the matching helmet.
He walks down the pit to a $300,000 Shelby GT350 and strikes a pose, teeth perfect. As if on cue, you hear the camera sounds of the digital age.
Rick Kopec, one of the four founding members of the Shelby American Automobile Club (www.SAAC.com) 31 years ago, has seen it all before. "Most people want to be part of the show. There's 4,000 people here this weekend, 40 cars, 40 guys in the race, 40 guys who prove they have big [expletive]. They're in the race and everyone is a spectator, and for a brief period of time you walk around in your driver's suit, and everybody is looking at you, and you're a real somebody."
At dinner that night, April the waitress says I "eat like a woman" when I order a salad -- all the racers, she points out, eat beef. Over the A1 sauce, we hear tales of the track. Scotty Hackenson, one of the drivers, is here with his dad, Clint, who tells of his days racing and how he "used to fold up my wife's panties and put them under my helmet for luck." Scotty refuses to say whether the family tradition continues.
Kim, a Toronto lawyer, says this is his 5-year-old daughter Tiffany's sixth event. "First one was when she was still in the womb." He describes his Cobra as a Bitza: "Bits of pieces of this, bits of pieces of that."
Not your daddy's Ford
Ever been to the supermarket and seen an ad pinned up on the bulletin board advertising some guy's old Ford? If you're interested, you pull off a tag with his phone number on it.
They have those here, too. The Ford for sale here is a "Ford Cobra CSX 4211 with a 540 horsepower engine, one owner, 985 original miles, leather interior. Price $159,000. Call for details."
And half the phone number tags are gone.
"The costs are astronomical," for this hobby, Kopec says. "You've got to have high disposable income. This is not a hobby for a guy making $50,000 a year."
Curt Vogt of Cobra Automotive, one of the premier builders of vintage race cars in the world, gets a little bit more specific: "A weekend of racing these cars probably costs the guy from between $2,000 to $5,000 even up to 10 grand for the weekend."
A set of tires, a grand. The average cost of a new racing engine, $25,000. Blow that engine and it will set you back another $10,000-$15,000 to fix it. A gallon of racing fuel, $7 for most, that's $7 a lap.
During a quiet period Sunday, Vogt puts it in perspective: "The drivers are in the top 1 percent of earners in the country. As far as the average per capita income in order to do this, it's got to be 200-250,000 plus."
Kopec says, "The guys who buy these cars grew up in the '60s, but they couldn't afford them then. All they could do was look through the window and drool."
A guy with a sign on his back walks by. Homemade, it's sort of half a New York City sandwich board. On it, a car for sale: "1966 Hertz #1151. One of just 50 Blue ones made."
All the numbers, except the price.
"How much you want for the car?"
"How much you got?" responds Dik McGlaughlin of New Britain, Pa.
"Toyota money," I say, hoping. Used Toyota money at that.
"Only if they cost around $150,000 or more."
McGlaughlin went on to say that he already has two offers on the car and prefers that the buyers "set the price."
As he walks off, he says, "Oh, it will sell, they always do. I make a lot of money on my back."
All that Jazz
How many cars do you own? I have 3½, the half being my son's 1990-something Buick Century grandma car that works most every other week.
Larry Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz, on the other hand, owns 21.
And they all run.
Bill Murray, not the comedian, sees to that. Since Larry is pretty busy with hoops and other business interests, Bill is the one who does Larry's bidding. Literally.
"I find the cars for Larry, mainly at auctions, but also from private owners around the country," he says.
And those 21 Ford Cobras, Shelbys and GT40s are "probably worth $40 million." Bill says it like it's 40 bucks.
Miller owns the $12 million Cobra Daytona Coupe that spent much of the weekend whizzing around the track. It's one of only six of those cars ever made. Murray drives it today, but back in the day, Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant were behind the wheel.
Miller paid $4.2 million for it, so it has gone up $8 million or so since he bought it. That's why he owns an NBA team and we only can buy replica NBA jerseys.
Then there's the $1.5 million tripod. It's the car I leaned on to shoot the Coupe when no one was looking. "Larry's other car here is the Dragon Snake. It's the only Cobra ever built to drag race," Murray says. "It's called a survivor car because it hasn't been tampered with at all; it still has the original paint."
And Larry, if you read this, that scratch was original, too.
Not knowing what you actually do with 21 cars, I ask. Bill says, "Larry and his sons drive around three of the street-legal Cobras he owns; some of the others he has in storage; and some he gives to us for our museum."
It's the Shelby American Collection Museum in Boulder, Colo., and it's like Carroll Shelby's presidential library. "So Carroll calls us," Bill says, "and he says, 'Well, you have enough damn cars, why don't you start a damn museum?'"
So they did. And Larry lets them borrow some of his cars.
Dog day afternoons
Over one row and down a bit from Miller's cars sit the vintage race cars from 3Dog Garage.
That's what it says on the card Ross Myers hands me. He is the top guy at American Infrastructure, a company Engineering News Record calls one of the top 50 Heavy and Highway Contractors. It once landed the largest contract ever awarded by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, $215 million to build the Route 202/I-76 interchange.
If Miller owns an NBA team, chances are Myers built the road fans take to the arena.
For some reason, Ross seemed to think I was with the IRS, not ESPN. Trying to get details out of him? Good luck.
"So how much do you think the value of all the cars you brought to the track today might be?"
Behind his sunglasses, he laughs. This guy builds roads in Jersey; I have no chance. "As they say on Wall Street the value of that is probably a phone number."
Seven figures. Ross brought over a million bucks worth of cars. Playing my mistaken IRS card, I push, and get an exact amount: "OK, somewhere between 1 and 5 million could be close."
He has a 1966 GT350, Blue No. 21: "That car began life as a Hertz Rent-A-Racer, but got turned into a real race car and in 1967, 1968 and 1969 won the Southeastern B Production Group championships."
Next to it is a sweet 1970 Boss 302 Mustang known as the No. 16 George Follmer Trans-Am, all original: "Ford won the Trans-Am manufacturer's championship with this and the No. 15 car. Both cars combined with enough points to take the championship back from Chevy."
Ross then tells me that back home in the 3Dog Garage he probably has more than 50 vintage Ford race cars and hot rods.
"And how much is all that worth?"
Imagine Ronald McDonald doing 160 miles per hour on the frontstretch.
Think of those big floppy shoes power shifting a 1966 Shelby GT350 into a four-wheel drift through the S turns. That would be John Bice, sans the clown outfit. He's the owner of five McDonald's franchises in New York state's Hudson Valley region.
Takes a whole lot of Big Macs and Happy Meals to be able to plunk down $800K to buy a 1966 Ford GT40. But in yet another example of why he owns the restaurants and we use coupons to eat there, he just sold the No. 43 car for $1.2 million, after having raced it for a while.
Bice began life as a streetlight-to-streetlight racer. "I've always loved cars. My first car was a 1971 Dodge Charger Super Bee," he grins, a 40-something guy remembering 30-year-old speeding tickets.
Today, Bice has a 1966 GT350 built to full R model specs (R model specs means cars built only to race, and Carroll Shelby built only a handful of those -- think $$$$$) and a 1973 Porsche 911 IMSA racer driven by Gary and Bill Auberlen that won the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1985 and came in second in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1987.
Then there's his 1973 Porsche Carrera RS in concours condition -- meaning, don't touch. Not for racin', just for lookin'. All told, he's sitting on about $700,000 in vintage race cars.
But he's only racing the GT350 -- seems the IMSA racer is an IMSA fixer-upper. Leaning over, he pulls out his Treo and shows me a picture of a wrecked Porsche 911 IMSA racer. His.
"T-boned in Watkins Glen just a couple of weeks ago. First weekend on the track since a full body-off restoration, and a guy came around a corner and plowed into me. Frankly, really pissed me off. It can cost you a whole lot of money if you go out and do something stupid."
He laughs when asked about insurance. "What insurance? It's not covered for what happens on the track. I'm the insurance."
Then I ask the really important question: "Have you shown your wife that photo?"
Turning the Treo off and slipping it back into his fire-suit pocket, Bice replies, "Ahhhh no."
And even Ronald McDonald knows that if Bice wants to keep racing 21 weekends a year, Mrs. McD had better not see that picture.
Way down at the end of the paddock are the Pellegrinis of Covington, La. Jay owns the black No. 00 Bolus & Snopes Shelby GT350 and an FIA Cobra with a "monster 351 engine."
But it's the monster hurricane, Katrina, that's on the Pellegrinis' minds. This is the family's first time back on the track since Katrina hit.
Barbecuing in front of their $258,000 Renegade trailer and race car hauler, Jay Pellegrini Jr., president and CEO of First Premium Insurance Group, speaks of the storm, and racing.
"Over 15,000 of our customers had claims, many lost everything," he says. "Racing was the last thing on our minds. We took the rig here and brought it to outside New Orleans and parked it in a Lowe's parking lot to help get our clients food, water and checks. The rig stayed there for three months.
"Racing these cars helps get my mind out of the office. All during the time I'm on the track, no cell phones, no papers to sign, no thoughts of Katrina."
Blair Bozek can understand that mind-set.
A retired Air Force SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance officer, Bozek was also a weapons system officer in the F-4 Phantom stationed in Iceland, where "we used to chase the Russians out of our airspace during the Cold War."
Bozek trained German top gun pilots in California and routinely flew on the Blackbird at Mach 3 (2,200 mph) at 80,000 feet above the earth, where sky meets space. "It's dark up there; you can see the curve of the Earth, gorgeous dark, dark blue to light blue from the zenith down to the horizon."
On Sept. 11, 2001, Bozek was at work in his office at the Pentagon, his brother in an office three floors above. "When the plane hit, my office ceiling and walls collapsed around me. It was like explosive dominoes boom boom boom boom as the aircraft penetrated the various walls of concrete in the building."
The impact point was 500 feet from his office. The path of destruction came to within 90 feet. "Pieces of the aircraft were in my office -- molten aluminum and burning insulation."
Running down the outside of the Pentagon, he pulled three women out of their burning first-floor offices before becoming overcome with smoke. Hours later, he found his brother, also alive.
And now he runs the open track laps. He's not racing, no more full-out. Mach minus 640 mph.
He takes to the track in a 1965 GT350 he bought sight unseen in 1973 for $2,250. It's now worth about $300,000.
Bozek's Shelby is basically stock -- unchanged.
The world beyond the vintage race is not.
Maybe that's the real reason they race after all.
Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com.