Season of the car
Motorheads rejoice, your car calendar is packed
Bruce Cohn drapes an affectionate arm over the roof of his custom Willys roadster.
Bruce Cohn makes olive oil and wine, manages musicians and is a certified motorhead with a history of drag racing and a penchant for pre-war Willys hot rods.
One of Cohn's Willys, a 1933 roadster he found in Australia and restored in painstaking detail over 20 years, has won several auto show awards and is now featured on a bottle of blended wine called Roadster Red. That car, Cohn says, has been valued at $800,000.
Cohn has been tinkering with cars since high school and was a professional drag racer for three years before a parachute latch chord broke and the fuel dragster he was driving disintegrated at 195 miles per hour.
Now Cohn likes to show his cars instead of race them, and he will host the first annual Charity Car Classic at his Glen Ellen Winery on the Fourth of July, with 75 cars, local bands and lots of wine.
Brian Ferrin is a gentleman racer with a barn full of NASCAR. His two vintage NASCAR racers see periodic track time, and besides occupying space in his Sonoma barn, they inhabit a strategy that lets Ferrin reduce the risk to a 1971 Ford Mustang he bought in 2003 that has gradually appreciated toward seven-figure value.
Even knowledgeable motorheads will scratch their chins and ask how a lowly Mustang can be worth anything close to even a half million dollars.
They'd be right to wonder until they understand that Ferrin's Mustang is one of the legendary Boss 302 Trans Am race cars once owned by Bud Moore Engineering and raced by George Follmer, one of the great American drivers of the past 40 years who won races and championships in more forms of auto racing than anyone else.
Follmer raced Ferrin's car in 1970 and '71, and his spiritual fingerprints endow it with a high degree of collectibility. The enhanced value also reduces Ferrin's enthusiasm for thrashing the car too hard in vintage races, which is what led him to a 1996 Monte Carlo NASCAR stock car, along with a similarly prepared 1992 Ford Thunderbird. Both can be driven hard and possibly bent without six-figure consequences.
Bruce Cohn and Brian Ferrin may sound like car fanatics, but their enthusiasm is merely a reflection of the Sonoma Valley's motoring mania that purrs to life with spring weather in what is arguably one of the most perfect places on earth to enjoy automobiles.
Blend two-lane blacktop winding through vineyard-covered valleys and over mountain crests, with world-class weather and immediate proximity to Infineon-possibly the best racetrack on the West Coast; throw in the Jim Russell Racing School along with a community of performance professionals who can build, repair, fabricate, customize, upgrade, pump up and pimp out anything on wheels; then add enough local wealth to lubricate the process of exotic car ownership, and you end up with something akin to auto utopia.
While enthusiasts take to the road year round, the Season of the Car really begins in the spring when the rains end and the roads dry and the racing schedule at Infineon comes to life.
The track is in use literally 52 weeks a year, but the key events encompass a quartet of acronyms-AMA, NASCAR, NHRA and IRL-that spin out from May to September.
The first national event, the AMA (for American Motorcycle Association) Superbike Showdown, has already passed, as has the annual Wine Country Classic weekend of historic car races where Ferrin frequently guides his ex-Follmer Mustang with increasing caution.
NASCAR descends on Infineon each year in late June, bringing the track's largest throng of spectators typically estimated at 100,000 or more, and in late July the National Hot Rod Association sponsors the FRAM Autolite NHRA Nationals, one of the premier events on the drag-racing circuit, where top fuel dragsters churn out upward of 7,000 horsepower, propelling the freakish machines through a quarter mile in less than 4.5 seconds at speeds over 300 miles per hour.
This year the standard 1,320-foot drag strip has been reduced in length to an even 1,000 feet following the 2008 death of Scott Kalitta, a veteran racer whose engine blew on an aging New Jersey track at close to 300 miles per hour, shredding the parachutes that could have stopped the car from running off the end of the course. The NHRA, drag racing's sanctioning body, shortened the official track distance while it continues to study the implications of Kalitta's death.
Local drag racers converge on Infineon each Wednesday night from March through November for down-home racing and a monthly "Top the Cops" event that invites high school students to race against police cars and the officers who elsewhere might arrest them for excessive speed.
The final national event of the season is the Indy Racing League's Grand Prix of Sonoma, which brings an international cast of drivers in the fastest, most fragile and sophisticated cars raced in America. Famous drivers appearing for the race include Danica Patrick and Helio Castroneves, two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and maybe even more famously known as champion of the 2007 Dancing with the Stars competition.
But even outside the hallowed confines of Infineon, the Sonoma Valley is a moving feast of automotive art, awash in hot rods, race cars, collectible classics, car shows and an immeasurable inventory of interesting machinery stashed in barns and garages around every corner.
In truth, in this Valley, the Season of the Car never ends.
From the Summer 2009 issue of SONOMA