Coachlines - May 2023

28.05.23 Freeman Chris Mann

A trio of Le Mans legends at Smith Heritage Invitational

Every April, North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts a three-day spring AutoFair swap-meet and autojumble for American muscle-car enthusiasts. For 2023, though, a whole new dimension was added to the show with the introduction of a display and concours event for ‘exceptional historic road and race cars’ billed as the Inaugural Smith Heritage Invitational.

This piqued my interest as I happened to be staying with my friends Simon & Maureen Nathan in nearby Concord, so early on Sunday morning Simon and I arrived at the fabled NASCAR circuit, to be greeted by a vast array of autojumble stands spread over the surrounding fields, as well as in the Speedway infield itself.

Making our way through to the main AutoFair car display, a phalanx of (mainly) Detroit heavy-metal ranging from rat-rods to the latest mid-engined Corvette Stingray LT2 (6.2 litres and 495BHP anyone?) we eventually arrived at the event’s centrepiece, the Smith Heritage Invitational. This new event had been conceived by Marcus Smith, with the help of his friend, NASCAR team owner Ray Evernham. Smith, CEO of the family-owned SMI Inc. which owns the Speedway, and Evernham clearly have impressive black-books, given the truly eye-watering display of iconic machines they had managed to assemble, including a trio of Le Mans winners, parked alongside a glorious 450S Maserati race car of 1957.

The three Le Mans winners comprised a 1934 Alfa Romeo 8C, a 1965 Ferrari 250LM and a 1966 Shelby-Ford GT. The Alfa 8C 2300LM, chassis number2322249, is owned by Charlotte local Rob Kauffman and was one of four privately entered 8Cs taking part in the 1934 race. The first of these, driven by Raymond Sommer, led initially but dropped out early on leaving the Alfa 8Cs of Chinetti and Earl Howe contesting the lead. When the lights on the Howe car failed during the night, the Chinetti/Etancelin car inherited a healthy lead but was suffering with a leaking fuel tank. Remarkably, a jury-rigged repair involving copious quantities of chewing gum lasted the race, the Chinetti/Etancelin Alfa winning with the then record-breaking margin of 110 miles.

The 1966 victory of the Ford GT40MkII, chassis no. P/1046 (now, like the 8C Alfa, in the care of Rob Kauffman) was, of course, immortalised in the 2019 film Ford v Ferrari. This recounted the role played by Carroll Shelby and his British test-driver Ken Miles in developing the GT40 into a race winner, despite the best efforts of Henry Ford II and his fellow Ford bureaucrats. Miles who with his Kiwi co-driver and future F1 World Champion Denny Hulme had led the race from 9am on Sunday morning, was robbed of victory when Ford racing director Leo Beebe had the not-so-bright idea of getting Miles to slow right down so a three-abreast dead-heat finish could be staged with the other two GT40 team cars, then running in second and third place. Despite much resistance, notably from Miles and Hulme, Beebe’s plan was duly executed, only for victory to be handed to the McLaren/Amon car which had previously been running second place, on the basis that the latter car had travelled 20 yards further as it had qualified further down the grid. You couldn’t make it up.

My personal favourite, though, was the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story behind the 1965 race winning Ferrari 250LM, recounted to me by Jason Vansicle, vice-president of the Indianapolis Motor Museum, which had purchased the LM – chassis number 5893 – in the early 1970s for the princely sum of $14,000.

According to Vansicle, the 250LM had originally been purchased from the Ferrari factory by US Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti and entered by his North American Racing Team (NART) in the 1965 Le Mans 24 Hour race, with ‘Kansas City Flash’ Masten Gregory and 23-year-old Austrian hot-shoe Jochen Rindt as drivers. Having qualified 11th, the NART 250LM was languishing mid-field in the early stages of the race, whilst the Shelby Ford GT40s and works Ferraris predictably headed off into the distance but, as the race wore on, assorted reliability issues gradually side-lined the leading cars. The NART 250LM was, though, having troubles of its own, distributor problems leaving it marooned in the pits for over half an hour. During this hiatus a thoroughly fed-up Rindt decided enough was enough and changed into his civvies, keen to head home as soon as possible but after a full and frank discussion with team-boss Chinetti, Rindt reluctantly agreed to continue, on the understanding that he could drive the 250LM flat-out, the Austrian’s assumption no doubt being that it would not last very long under such punishment, allowing him to reinstate his travel plans.

Driving like men possessed, Rindt and Gregory gradually clawed their way through a rapidly depleting field, taking the lead at midday on Sunday when the previous race-leader, another privately entered Ferrari 250LM driven by the Franco-Belgian pair of Pierre Dumay and Gustave Gosselin, suffered a blow-out on the Mulsanne straight. Despite many hours of punishment, the increasingly ailing NART Ferrari somehow made it to the chequered flag and victory, despite a fraught final stint during which Gregory managed to nurse the car’s tortured transmission as far as the finish line, only for it to finally give up the ghost on the slowing down lap.

So far, so Hollywood, but more controversy was to come when it was subsequently rumoured that NART’s reserve drive, the gentleman amateur Ed Hugus, had taken over the car in the middle of the night when the famously short-sighted Gregory was struggling in the foggy conditions and co-driver Rindt was, apparently, nowhere to be found. Silent at the time (had it got out, the car would have been disqualified) many years later the always-reticent Hugus confirmed the truth of the rumour, a claim that must be taken seriously. However, only he, Chinetti, Gregory and Rindt knew the truth of the matter and none are still with us to tell.

Notable road cars at the Invitational included a V12 Lincoln Model K LeBaron once owned by King Hussein of Jordan and brought to the show by Chasing Classic Cars’ star Wayne Carini. The winner of last year’s Pebble Beach Lincoln Award, the Model K was one of only 18 produced between 1937 and 1939. Carini had also brought the 1949 Buick Roadmaster that had starred in the Tom Cruise/Dustin Hoffman film Rain Man in which the latter played autistic savant Raymond Babbit. The Roadmaster is now owned by the film’s director Barry Levinson and Wayne Carini explained how it came into his life. “I have an autistic daughter Kimberley who appeared on Chasing Classic Cars, so we could talk about autism. Mr Levinson saw the show and sent the car to me to have it restored. When I was done, he asked if I would keep it for a couple of months because he didn’t have any place to store it. That was 12 years ago. I made a deal with him that I could use the car to promote autism charities around the country and would store it FoC.”

Another car that caught my eye was Forrest McLain’s 1932 Rolls Royce 20/25. Built to the order of former Bentley Motors’ chairman and serial Le Mans winner Woolf Barnato (three races, three wins) the elegant Gurney Nutting body boasted ‘a low roofline, sunroof and elongated body, with styling hints similar to Barnato’s fabled Blue Train Bentley’. McClain had inherited the car from his father and had it totally restored in 2017. Remarkably, its chassis number (GMU8) was just nine away from my own 20/25 Barker Sedanca de Ville (GMU17).

The delightful Columbia MkXXXV electric taxi (what happened to Marks I – XXXIV I wonder?) is now part of Mary & Ted Stahl’s Michigan-based collection. Built in 1905, the tall and stately Columbia was very much in the early ‘horseless carriage’ tradition and used, said Stahl general manager Terri Coppen, as a taxi in New York City, its considerable height dictated by the extravagant millinery worn by Edwardian society ladies. Two electric motors provide both motive power and braking to the rear wheels, with the batteries set in a demountable sled designed to be slid out, so a new set of fully charged batteries could swiftly be substituted back at base.

Naturally the Smith Invitational included an element of competition and the winner of the Chairman’s choice, Sport category was the previously mentioned Maserati 450S, chassis no. 4508, owned by New York collector Nick Soprano. This had been raced in period by Masten Gregory, Maurice Trintignant and Jim Hall, as well as by Carroll Shelby who had been responsible for its factory upgrade to 5.7 litres. Chairman’s Choice, D’elegance category winner was the 1937 Delage D8-120 of Soprano’s fellow New Yorker Paul Gould. An art deco masterpiece, the elegant three-position DHC body was the work of French carrossier Henri Chapron.

By any standards, what Marcus Smith and his team achieved was nothing short of remarkable. Reflecting on the event, Smith commented: “These cars are time machines, art on four wheels. We’ve got Le Mans winners, Pebble Beach winners, one-off custom cars, electric cars and performance cars. My hope is that we can continue to build on what we started, we’re going to do some special things going forward. With a nod to Pebble Beach and Goodwood I think that Smiths Heritage Invitational can be that special event right here in the Carolinas.”

Relaxed, friendly and informal with, perhaps, the most incredible cross section of historic road and race cars I have ever seen. Perhaps a Coachmakers’ trip to Charlotte is worth considering in 2024?