Roger Hamel of Le Club Austin Healey du Québec called. Would I like to participate in the Candian Grand Prix’s F1 Pilot’s Parade and watch the race? He then emailed a picture of his wife, Lise’s, 100-6—the car I’d be driving. The gears in my brain slipped into overdrive.
I’m a huge F1 fan, so any chance to see a race live is a big deal. I felt like I was asked if I would like free beer for life. Throw in an opportunity, prior to the race, to carry an F1 driver around the track in an Austin Healey and it takes on a dream-come-true ambiance. Before calling Roger back, I raced to my work calendar. “Robert will not be available the weekend of…”
At this juncture, I suppose, it should be confessed I have never actually driven a six cylinder Austin Healey. The first car I ever purchased, as a naïve 18 year old, was a 1954 Healey 100. Still have it—in many pieces. And last year I was lucky enough to have spent a weekend with Grace, the Drive Away Cancer Healey, but never any seat time in a six. Was I concerned about being able to handle the beast? No. Concerned about taking a wrong turn and ending up in Nova Scotia? Maybe a little. The knot in my stomach was generated by a recurring vision of my foot slipping off the clutch, dumping a highly tuned athlete/driver on his head shortly before the start of the Canadian Gran Prix. It’s like leaving that precariously placed glass of red wine where it sits. The fact you noticed it there means it’s going over for certain. Think happy thoughts…
Upon arrival in Montreal, Roger picked me up at the airport and whisked me off to a group dinner with other Healey club folks from the US and Canada. One needn’t fear starving when in French speaking territory. Before long, several of us were begging not to be fed any more, and it wasn’t because there was anything wrong with the food.
Friday morning, we toured Montreal. Like any modern Metropolis, it has an active downtown district. Like many older cities, it has a historic cobblestone district. From Mont Royal, we were treated to panoramic views of the city. And from various parts of the city, the atmosphere-ripping sounds of F1 cars could be heard. Practice was in session. Located on a man-made island in the Saint Lawrence River, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is both scenic, and easily accessible.
Lunch on Friday was a particularly delicious surprise. I am, as they say, a fussy eater. Roger had mumbled something about both Celine Dion and smoked meat sandwiches, although the connection eluded me. In any event, we ate at Schwartz’s Deli. In business since 1928, this little hole in the wall, now owned by the famous singer, serves up a claimed 2,000 lbs. per day of smoked brisket. To me, it looks and tastes like corned beef. And although they nearly kicked me out of the place for continually pointing this out, I have to say, it was the best “smoked meat” I have ever had. Like a Labrador in the pantry, I could have eaten myself to death in that wonderful place.
Friday evening, still near bursting from lunch, and having discovered a bottle of distilled spirits in Roger’s garage, a group of us staged a sit in. We weren’t moving until everyone had a chance to sample the goods. The driving portion of Friday was positively over.
As a race fan, Saturday was all about qualifying and I was not disappointed. A combination of scattered showers and a drying track was just the combination to put the cat among the pigeons. F1 racing teams are a classic example of haves and have naughts, but rain is the great equalizer.
Up to this point the weather had been cool, with frequent light showers. Roger assured us no previous Pilot’s Parade had been rained out, and he wasn’t about to let it happen this year. Although Sunday dawned overcast, true to his word, by mid morning the clouds were parting and tops were coming down.
After breakfast, we drew lots for the drivers. As a guest, I was given first pick from the basket. My driver, Australian Daniel Ricciardo, is a member of Scuderia Toro Rosso. TR is considered the “B” team of defending world champions Red Bull. With the lottery completed, we prepared our cars. The driver’s names were applied to the windshields, and national flags affixed to the front of each car. Roger lined us up in qualifying sequence and we headed out for a short drive to the track.
Vehicular access to the support pits is via a bridge shared with race fans heading to the grandstands. Track marshals “parted the seas” as we rolled through to a staging area behind the grandstands. From this point on, if you don’t like being photographed, brother, you’re in the wrong place.
A pack of classic Austin Healeys would likely draw a crowd in any circumstance, but the international crowd of race fans were, frankly, fanatical. While waiting for the Pilot’s Parade, we found ourselves the center of considerable attention. Of particular interest were trunk lids. Why, because the local club members would get the drivers to sign their windshield banners, then affix them inside the trunk lids after the race. My borrowed car had carried such notables as former world champion Kimi Raikkonen. It was best to simply leave the trunk lid open so fans could shoot photos of the autographed decals.
With a requirement for 22 running cars, Roger always has a backup or two, just in case. Although one car had a little trouble getting started, at the appropriate time, we all made it into position on the starting grid. We rolled up to the start/finish line and parked single file down the middle of the track. If the drivers knew, they would have thanked us for not dripping on the actual grid spots, located to the left and right of center.
Being the intrepid photographer, I grabbed my SLR and started snapping away. Here comes two time champion Fernando Alonso…clickity, click, click. There’s Kimi behind him…click some more. The fact I was supposed to be lined up by the passenger door ready to receive my driver was lost in the moment. Lost that is, until the last second when from the corner of my eye I just caught Mr. Ricciardo approaching.
Open the door, flop the passenger seat forward, “Please sit on the edge of the cockpit so as not to dent the sheet metal.” “Nice car, did you restore it yourself?” “No, I stole it this morning from some woman who was yelling at me in French. Hope I can get it rolling without dumping the clutch.” Off we went. Folks talk about time dilation, but this was the opposite. Once the drivers appeared on track it was a mad and accelerating scramble.
Being just sufficiently flustered by the pace of things, I completely neglected to flub the clutch. We pulled smoothly away, entered hyperspace, and popped out into an alternate universe. Over the course of the next few minutes, each of us drivers was subjected to more photographic scrutiny than we will receive combined for the entirety of all of our lives.
Our tree lined drive around the track was punctuated with something one never sees on the road, grandstands packed with thousands of screaming fans. Some drivers are more talkative than others. Daniel Ricciardo is an Australian in the mold of Mark Webber. He was personable and pleasant. We spoke between grandstand sections, and he jokingly asked me to lay down some rubber in his pit box as we headed out.
Once the parade lap was complete, we delivered our drivers at their pits and had to circulate the track once more to get to the exit. With the pace car being a professionally driven AMG Mercedes, we would likely be able to exercise our cars on the way back around. We did. Compared to the F1 machines, however, it probably looked as if we were crawling around at idle.
As is usually the case, following the race from the stands is a little tough. We did, however, get to watch Alonso fight his way to a hard won second place behind Sebastian Vettel. It was an exciting race, but the day was not yet done. After the race, we loaded up and snuck out along the top of a berm separating the island from a commercial waterway. With Roger’s intimate knowledge of the GP, he had us out of there in no time.
There was one more official duty to perform. Members of the local Healey club were gathering for a barbeque. Despite traffic, we managed to keep several cars together as we trekked our way to the suburbs. Throughout the trip, I was continually amazed at the level of interest among the locals, generated by our Healeys. On more than one occasion, cars literally stopped in the street to watch as we passed. Even in Roger’s neighborhood, where Healeys are routinely seen coming and going from his house, people would run down to the sidewalks to watch us go by. It was an extremely gratifying experience to see such open enthusiasm for our old cars.
By the time we had cleared downtown, I was feeling pretty good in Lise’ car. To say driving a big Healey is different from say an MG TC, or a TR4, is like pointing out there are differences between a sunset and a supernova. There may be similar colors involved, but the experience is massively different. Just about the time I was really settling in—cough, cough, splutter…roll to the side of the road. Okay, so maybe some aspects are the same across all British cars.
I consider myself a passable mechanic, but it’s always far better to break down in the midst of several experts. The gas gauge said a quarter tank, so it couldn’t be fuel (famous last words). We couldn’t hear the fuel pump running, and on this particular car, the only access to the pump was from underneath. Roger put me in his 3000 with Lise, and sent us on to the barbeque. He had the car towed, and turned up a little later. We had a wonderful evening of good food and great people. It was the perfect end to a near perfect weekend.
Car clubs, and the events in which they participate, are all about the people. I cannot say enough good things about the Healey crowd around Montreal. They welcomed a total stranger into their community, and made me feel as though I had been around forever. And Roger Hamel deserves one additional thank you for admitting that while I did in fact run his car out of gas, the gauge in that car is just a touch out of calibration. In the world of big Healeys, apparently, one quarter tank equals empty. Maybe Healeys, Triumphs, and MGs have something in common after all.
By Robert Goldman