Every year on the second weekend in March, the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance hosts some of the most significant automobiles from around the globe. It is a process that is fine-tuned and changed every year to keep the event fresh and exciting. Not an easy feat for organizers. The concours is known for its racing theme, superb location on the grounds of The Golf Club of Amelia Island and the judging team that represents Who’s Who in the automotive community. Highlights of the 2017 event included the presence of Honoree Al Unser Sr. (who was on hand celebrating the 30th anniversary of his fourth Indy 500 win), several of Jaguar’s D-Types celebrating the 60 years since winning its third consecutive victory at the 24-Hours of Le Mans, Streamliners, The Cars of Marmon, 50th Anniversary of Camaro, and Brumos Racing. Everything was on schedule and working like clockwork. With all the moving parts in place and everything seemingly infallible, an unimaginable and unpreventable situation arises. What do you do?
Turn on a dime: Late Wednesday night, Bill Warner (founder, chairman and genius behind the event) was briefed about a major weather development moving into the area. There was a 90% probability that heavy thunderstorms would wreak havoc on the event and compromise the safety of those attending. Having lived through this nightmare several years ago, organizers took a step back, regrouped and decided to move the concours from Sunday to Saturday. By acting swiftly and decisively, concours organizers announced the move on Thursday morning and set in motion the most impressive series of action I’ve ever experienced. They contacted the media, vendors, sponsors, car owners, judges, volunteers, and did their best to inform spectators planning to attend about the changes. All this to protect and guarantee the safety of thousands of people, hundreds of extremely valuable cars and the well-being of staff and volunteers. The decision and execution was masterful.
Saturday, March 11th, turned out to be a picture-perfect day. As the sun rose, the field quickly began populating with significant cars from every era: There were streamliners, CCCA Classics, sports cars, race cars, antiques and special interest automobiles. By 11am, the field was packed with show cars, participants, vendors and spectators. Within the large showing of Jaguar D-Types were 13 of the 16 factory built cars, including serial number XKD 501, the only intact winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Another significant car on the show field was the 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540 K Streamliner developed by the “Sonderwagenbau” coachbuilding department in Sindelfingen. After close inspection, you quickly realized this car demonstrated the engineering prowess and advanced thinking that helped establish Mercedes-Benz as a world-leading automotive powerhouse.
As a baby boomer, I remember when NASCAR race cars were based on production cars rather than being pure race chassis built to a single specification. The motto for manufactures was win on Sunday, sell on Monday. The lineage between what spectators saw driving on the track and what they drove to the track was real and direct. One example on display, a ’69 Dodge Charger Daytona, shows that heritage: Special road-going Daytona editions of the Dodge Charger had to be built with the aerodynamic nose, flush rear window, and the large rear spoiler in order to homologate the car for the race series. If the bodywork wasn’t available on road cars, the race car wouldn’t have been eligible. The Daytona ushered in a new aerodynamic age in the sport and with a 426cid/650hp Hemi engine under the hood, it was the first NASCAR racer to break the 200mph barrier. This car dominated the 1970 NASCAR Grand National series, which led to it (and its 1970 Plymouth Superbird sister) being banned from competing. One example later broke 28 land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats and was on the show field exactly as it ran in the Grand National series. The stories go on and on. If I could write about every car, I most likely would create an automotive (bestselling) historical novel.
Perhaps the highlight of the weekend was meeting four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Sr., honoree of the 22nd annual Amelia Island Concours. “The 100th running of the Indy 500 has made us even more nostalgic than usual,” says Warner. “When we started to think about an honoree for 2017, Big Al seemed like the perfect choice. We were very flattered when he agreed to join us.”
Unser’s Indianapolis 500 stats alone are as extraordinary as is his remarkable versatility. An accomplished road racer, Unser won the 1985 Rolex 24 at Daytona with A.J. Foyt, Bob Wolleck, and Thierry Boutsen. Naturally he shares the Unser family’s genetic predisposition for winning multiple Pikes Peak Hill climbs (1964 and ‘65). He had to beat brother Bobby for his first Pikes Peak win in 1964, and he set a record in the process. From superspeedways to dirt tracks, road courses to hillclimbs, racing sprinters, prototypes, Indy Cars, sports cars, Formula 5000, Can-Am, and even NASCAR stockers, Unser was fast and very much at home.
Three decades ago, Unser became one of just three racers to win the Indy 500 four times, and he is the only Indy winner to have both a brother and a son who also are Indy 500 winners. “Big Al” has led the most Indy 500 laps in history (644), tying 1915 Indy 500 winner Ralph DePalma’s long-standing record (612 Indy 500 laps led) on the final lap of his fourth victory in 1987. On that same day, he also became the oldest Indy 500 winner (just five days short of his 48th birthday) breaking his older brother Bobby’s record using a year-old March-Cosworth back-up car that had been displayed in the lobby of a hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania, just weeks earlier.
At the close of the ceremonies, honors for Best of Show foreign and domestic was awarded. The Ritz-Carlton Best in Show, Concours de Sport went to Dano Davis’s 1939 Alfa Romeo 8C Lungo Spider. The Ritz-Carlton Best in Show, Concours d’Elegance was awarded to Terence Adderly’s stunning 1935 Duesenberg SJ-582.
The element that makes this event work is having a full day to reminisce history by creating a memorable experience that lasts a life time. Since 1996, the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance Foundation has donated more than $3 million to Community Hospice of Northeast Florida, Spina Bifida of Jacksonville, the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Shop with Cops, and Micah’s Place. For more information, visit AmeliaConcours.org. For a complete list of concours winners, visit Grundy.com.
Published by Jeffrey Broadus Photos by Jeffrey Broadus and Deremer Studios.