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Monaco Historic Grand Prix

by Rita Leydon ©1997

 My sweet husband whispers "Would you fly away to Monaco with me?" "Yes, sure. But why?" Chris explains that his client, Dean Butler, is shipping three cars to participate in the Monaco Historic Grand Prix prior to the regular Grand Prix. Cars that we--Leydon Restorations Ltd--have our grubby little paw prints all over. Chris further explains that he considers this a once-in-a-lifetime scenario-three of his jobs racing in Monaco at the same time! Our only expense will be airfare. We can stay with a Swedish friend who lives right smack in Monte Carlo.

The cars. First, sporting the silks of Lucy O'Reilley Schell's 1940s Indy team, a Maserati 8CTF, freshly brought back to spirited life, molecule by molecule, by Chris and his team of dedicated craftsmen. Glorious in its coat of blue, hood emblazoned with crossed French and American colors. A car meant for great speed on long stretches, not the tight twists and short runs of Monaco. Wrong gearing. Spectacular in any setting.

Second car. Another Maserati-a 26M, vintage 1930-a black machine with a preselect gear box. I know what that is because I have driven a competition MG with a similar gear box. I first met the 26M a few years ago at Bridgehampton when she had another master. Automotive liaisons, I have learned, are about as stable as male/female liaisons in an infatuation prone society. Nothing lasts forever. On that meeting something very important running north/south between the seats was obviously not connecting. The universal yoke had exploded. Heads scratching all around. Sad faces pondering a sad situation. The unfortunate car was shipped off to Lahaska--that's us-for corrective surgery. It has been back several times for other tweakings. I feel no kinship to this black car as I have not placed my rump upon its leather.

Third car. This specific car--a magnificent Type 51 Bugatti--will be present by Royal request, as the Grimaldis are celebrating 700 years of dominion over the principality of Monaco. The car's original number 22 was discovered in our shop by carefully removing old black paint smeared over the honeycomb radiator. The vocal jubilation that accompanied the unveiling of this number resonated all the way to Cincinnati. Dean had to call and find out what the cheering was all about. The "22" is important because that is the number this Bugatti wore in 1931 when she won the Monaco Grand Prix. That's right, this Golden Girl has solid credentials. The Lady and I are on intimate terms, having shared many road miles. She has drizzled thick gear oil all over my favorite cowboy boots and on up the shin bone of my driving jeans. She has painted my face with engine oil spitting out between her hood louvers. This car demanded that I learn to relax-become one with the moving machine, flex and bend in response to the road's irregularities-in order to experience the rush and joy of the ride she offered. I conscientiously keep my fingertips away from the fully exposed spinning rubber which threatens to grab any one of my dangling digits and burn me with a ferocious kiss. No worry. No roll bars. No protection. No insurance. Just two bodies in a laced together thoroughbred going FAST! Close. Tight. Elemental stuff.

So that's our cars. I may be a bit jaded because life with Chris-which spans roughly a quarter century-has spoiled me rotten with exposure to one magnificent racing automobile after another, this one more wonderful than the last. Chris has restored, resurrected and brought rhythmic pulse back to literally dozens of fabulous vintage pedigree racers. Bugattis. Millers. Alfas. Ferrarris. Maseratis. Amilcars. MGs. Allards. All the good stuff.

I know what it is to inhabit these cars at speed over long stretches. The feel of the cramped, uncomfortable interiors unfit for human occupancy. I have seen Chris so frozen and exhausted that he literally couldn't unpeel his fingers from the steering wheel. I have become intoxicated and bewitched by the lingering scent of castor bean oil as it perfumes the wake of these Sweet Ladies--the Shalimar of vintage treads. I have suffered the piercing of a million sharp needles while driving through rain without wind screen or top. Ah, the joys of motoring! I love it. Adore it. Have an insatiable appetite for more.

And now-Monaco. A little icing on the cake. We will be traveling strictly as civilians. On our own. Not part of any crew. No obligations.

First Day

I have just bathed and refreshed my travel weary self. Chris and I flew out of Newark on an 8:30 flight last night. Changed planes in Madrid, bound for Nice-sounds more like "knees" than "nice." Our friend André collected us at the airport and ferried us along winding twists to our mutual friend Kerstin's home in Monaco. Fascinating route. Lovely old buildings rich with architectural detail. Wrought iron railings. Friezes. Scrollwork. Tiles. Painted walls. We observe active re construction everywhere. Tight spaces. Exterior environs lavishly splashed with flowers, sculptures, palm trees and sunshine. Further on, the sparser high country is richly peppered with olive trees. We wonder how we will know when we are in Monaco? "All the buildings will be modern," offers André.

I am sitting by the open doors of a 6th floor balcony overlooking Monaco's harbor. Directly below the balcony is a wonderful roof. Thousands of orange tiles laid at all angles in multi faceted splendor. "L'Hermitage" it says on the building's facade. Elegant and old. The Royal Palace is opposite me. Small white boats fill the harbor, bobbing under blue covers. Standing guard are two stately yachts, each as long as a soccer field! There are buildings everywhere. Construction and cranes cloning more. Structures of all sizes and shapes scramble up the sides of the mountains which in turn slope down into the sea. Palm trees here and there. I hear an engine revving again and again-like an eighteen year old testing testosterone levels while chomping the bit at a traffic light. Another engine revs its anonymous response, communing in the language of revolutions per minute. Only small cars can actually live here. Slender roads. Tight curves. Tiny, tiny.

We haven't yet discovered what the agenda is. I doubt we'll be attending any feature events since passes are virtually nonexistent. No matter--we will, at the very least, hear this Grand Prix! Chris is still sleeping. He's exhausted. Has been working furiously on a Ferrarri GTO engine at home, trying to beat a deadline. Long nights. Yesterday I didn't know if I was flying solo to Monaco--Chris following later-or with Chris. Today we happily arrived as a duo. 

Second Day

Wake up to a beautiful, bright blue eyed day. Kerstin is pulling on a minuscule floral bikini for her daily swim in the Mediterranean. She wonders if we'd like to join her? My groggy self declines. Not awake. Not conscious. Chris still sleeping. Kerstin says she'll bring croissants for breakfast when she returns.

Once assembled, we head out on foot aiming for the far side of the harbor to have a look at the paddock area. Two long avenues of white tents covering a multitude of high brow automotive machinery. We find Dean, his two Maseratis and Bugatti. Old friends. Catch up with his crew.

We are delighted to discover that our friend Keith Duly has brought a car. His spaghetti car--a 1967 Ferrarri 312. Spaghetti, because the exhaust pipes are white and bunched up in the back like spaghetti twirled around a fork. Keith and his lanky son are both too tall to fit into this pasta dish. A driver of smaller proportions accompanies them. "Why would a man want to own a car he can't fit into or drive," I wonder aloud? Keith's partner Susan, being a horse woman, characteristically answers in equestrian terms, "It's the jockey who rides, not the owner." I ponder this response and decide it must be one of life's little mysteries.

There is a palpable intensity in the paddock. Boastful pride oozes out like leaking oil. The cars are static in their stalls. Some are whole and pristine. Most are partially disassembled--wheels, hoods and seats lie scattered nearby. Wrenches and rags abound. There is a frantic calm in the air. Good camaraderie prevails among the mechanics. Some owners are their own mechanics, but not many. Everyone is dying to get down and dirty. Dying to get in. Dying to start an engine. Dying to go for a spin. Take it home in that empty back pocket. Green eyes, tinged with envy, looking all around. One must appear unimpressed. Must be reserved. Must take in a car quickly--a sweeping glance is best. Must remain cool. Must not appear to covet.

After a bit Chris and I climb up toward the Palace in search of lunch. Soup and coffee--$38. The nearby Aquarium beckons with a tapestry exhibit. I am a weaver and love all things fiber. The afternoon is for wandering and discovering. We focus on patisseries. Occasionally succumbing to a particularly beautiful and delectable sugary confection. Patisseries everywhere. Perfume. Perfume shops everywhere. The city is immaculately manicured. Spotless. Flowers everywhere. An irresistible Japanese garden finds us and lures us within its walls. We are enchanted and mesmerized by the visual harmonies and accompanying counterpoints created amongst the various landscape elements. Large swishing gold fish don't pay any mind to our chance visit.

The Grand Prix is a yearly event and represents a big chunk of the annual Monacan budget. It has been happening for so long that by now preparations unfold smoothly like an accordion. Wandering about we witness the incredible logistics of preparation. Fences. Guard rails. Gates. Visual barriers. Vendor booths. Spectator bleachers. Media stations. More fences. More visual barriers. Cables. Safety equipment. Hustling, bustling, strong men precision fitting the whole course together. The city streets and boulevards artfully laced to form the canvas for the Kinetic Show of fast paced sensuous sculpture. All this is meant to be invisible and non intrusive until checkered flag time. We have no trouble passing through and navigating anywhere we please. The locals seem neither excited nor annoyed. They are unconcerned about the fuss. Content to hurry from A to B in their pressed, coordinated, elegant designer garb just like any other normal day. 

Third Day

I sleep well. Monte Carlo is quiet through the night. Kerstin strokes our cheeks sweetly at 7:45. "Do you want to swim today?" No. Car noises in the air. Revving. Choking. Coughing. Sputtering. We allow the music of the machines to seep in slowly and deliberately. The urge to hurry out is strong. Peering through binoculars we can see the paddock and a section of the course adjacent to the base of the harbor. Vvvvrrr. VvvvrrooomVvrrooommm. Access to the beach is denied and Kerstin returns as dry as when she left. It is Grand Prix day and everyone has to pay something.

I dress in my normal style-fringed, beaded suede jacket, mid--calf skirt, cowboy boots, with Navajo silver and turquoise hanging and dangling on my person. I look very American. Hard to miss. A six foot tall apparition parting the crowds in Monaco as heads swivel in my wake.

We find out that entry tickets cost about $50 each and restrict the holder to one location. Our preference is to roam. Look a little here, a little there. Yesterday we roamed in and out of the circuit through open gates at will. Today is not so easy. The preparation efforts have two purposes. First, to make a safe course for the cars and drivers. Second, to keep all peeping little eyeballs off the cars unless they pay for the privilege. This isn't the Mille Miglia. Remember the visual barriers? This is a challenge! Tall fences everywhere. Well thought out. I bet a full time staffer is employed just to plug visual holes so the masses can't snatch a glimpse. Frustrating. Keep walking.

André knows of a restaurant with a balcony. Yes! Perfect. It is above the downgrade section after the Casino, leading into a tight right turn. André explains that we must "rent" our table by ordering something, such as tea, coffee and water. Prices are very steep. A little gouging-that's business. We don't mind today. Our balcony is not crowded, almost private. André tries to impress the owner by telling him that Chris is an important car restorer from America. We are at the mercy of our friend's tongue because French is not our language. I laugh. The sun is shining. There is a lovely garden across from us. I admire the cunning of the fence builders as I observe others trying to gain visual access.

The rush of screaming engines escalates, peaks, and passes, then again escalates, peaks, and passes. Ferrarris, our 8CTF, Bugattis and Alfas. The heady scent of castor bean oil is atomized into the ether. Each car has its own signature sound, its voice. "That's my car," said Chris yesterday when the 8CTF started up in the distance. His ears knew, as surely as a Mother knows the cry of her child. Cars speed by in a blur. Headlight lenses Xed over with black tape. A lean Alfa sports long armed black side mirrors reminding me of an antennaed bug. This bug has a sooty black exhaust stained rump-very nice. I am totally here. Absorbing the experience through my senses. I know intimately what it is to be in the cars. I feel the road vibrations with the drivers. I lean as they lean into the turns. Portly gentlemen living the dream of a life time. Round bellies straining at the zipper of the required fire suits. I am attracted to a yellow Ferrarri among a sea of red, driver in black helmet with yellow stripe. "That man knows how to dress," I think. All cars sport big round number decals. Retained decals are badges of battles previously fought and survived. Today's trials last roughly twenty minutes each. Two minutes per lap. Orange overalls at the turns. Waving orange arms means trouble. A yellow Renault serves as pace car with the checkered flag. Sessions end with tilt-bed trucks sweeping up casualties.

The field of Bugattis is mostly blue except for a few loose cannons-one green, one black, one maroon. The Alfas are red. This gaggle of splendifeous long legged creatures flaunt their color as a point of strength and unity. The language of color signals what country a car represents. Italians are red. The French blue. Britain green. The United States white. Silver for Germany. Simple visual shorthand. A color system mandated by international racing law.

We enjoy our prime location for a couple of hours, then ask for the check. $50 for our liquids. André is furious! He argues. Puts on a good show. Chris takes out some bills which he silently asks me to pay with. I smile at the man. He smiles back. I say to him in English that I do not know the language of the argument, but that I had a lovely visit, and thank you very much. We leave. André is fuming and frothing indignantly. We could care less.

After a brief respite, Chris and I head out again, hand in hand, for the next adventure. Monaco is all stairs and hills. Ups and downs. Long stairs--several stories tall. Walking is a real workout. Lovely female legs are the norm--the men cover theirs. More patisseries to investigate. Coffee is very good here, but their cups are insanely small. Melodious strains from the omnipresent races lure us down toward the circuit at sea level again.

We chance to find a very good fence with a couple of nice visual leaks. We climb up on the two inch wide railing and hook our fingers through chainlinks. There we clutch and sway, straining our necks and eyeballs as the cars negotiate the bends around the Casino. We cling to our post for the twenty minutes it takes Dean's driver, Martin Walford, to negotiate the course in his single seat steed-our Maserati 8CTF. Martin appears cool, calm and unhurried with each pass. Various announcers are babbling in English, then French, Italian or German. "Martin ! ... Maserati !... Magnifique ! ... 8CFT ! ... Fantastique ! ... " I am bouncing on my narrow piece of railing. The crowd is wild about the blue Maserati! We can't tell for sure, but it certainly sounds as if our Maserati came in first in this qualifying race. We yell and whoop, kiss and hug. "Chris, you are brilliant!" We dance down the street and back to Kerstin's-the flowers we bought earlier for our hostess barely survive the excitement.

Back at "Palais de la Scala"--the fancy name of Kerstin's building--we squeeze into the tiny European elevator, and enjoy the ascent. We are floating. We are buoyant. We rejoin our friends and head out with them to a dinner high above the sparkling city and the shimmering sea. A magic place. André shows off the windy high country en route. It is lovely, with low, ground hugging vegetation holding on for dear life. Slender, slithering roads with hairpin turns. 

Fourth Day

The BIG DAY. I start with a hot bath. Chris went out to see about real tickets. He returns empty handed. No French cash. Exchange office not open yet. We make arrangements by phone for a helicopter to fly us to the Nice airport tomorrow morning. A car will pick us up. That under control we can think about today.

Glorious weather. The gutsy, throaty, eardrum blasting cacophony from the paddock is thrilling. Big engine noises. We turn on the local TV station. Blow by blow live coverage of all turns, all cars, all everything. Through the balcony door comes the roar of the race along with sunshine, Mediterranean breezes and that heady perfume of castor bean oil. I waft air toward my nose for a bigger and better whiff. This is better than curbside seats. We take turns with the binoculars. During the breaks between sessions, the TV treats us to history and background info. Apparently an American won the Formula Junior because our national anthem flows in through the balcony door. We stand respectfully on the balcony listening to the anthem. This feels good. The grinning winner receives a garland of broad leaves around his neck. Very festive. Just right.

We think we have it made. But the bubble bursts and coverage stops just before the Bugatti run. Singing engines "ripping their fabric" out of view as we pine on the balcony. Chris is crushed. He tries to transport himself through the binoculars. Not good enough. We pull on our cowboy boots and start walking. Skirt the fences--high over town--to our hillside destination above and beyond the paddock. En route we secure gastronomic provisions. Our exertions pay off and a terrific spot overlooking the western-most turns of the course is ours for the sitting. We are happy campers. We settle in to the hard work of intense spectating.

Three primary sensors--eyes, ears and nose-are on duty to gather impressions. A vibrating mosaic of colors is before us. Grey sky and water. White boats rocking out of tune in the water. Blue boat covers and grandstands. Red accents everywhere. Ocher and terra cotta buildings. Green hills. Bright sunlight holding it all together. Loud advertising placards scream in capital letters at anyone who will listen. MARLBORO. FOSTER'S (beer). The EUROPEAN (newspaper). BRIDGESTONE. Screaming engines permeate all of Monaco--the music of motors, LOUD, soft, CLOSE, far--as the rubber legged pack singlemindedly steers its course around and around again repeatedly. The constant song of an announcer over the loudspeakers, totally unintelligible, like the drone of a country auctioneer. Echo bouncing off buildings and hills. A giant TV screen, four stories high, faces into the harbor showing simultaneous broadcast from various points along the route. People in shirtsleeves are peppered over balconies, hanging out windows, draped on hillsides, sitting in grandstands and all along the route peering through cracks in fences. People, sprinkled like red pepper flakes on a pasta dish--a generous number, but not too many.

We are waiting for the Maserati 8CTF's race. Martin takes her on a warm up lap. Then we don't see her again. She's gone. History. Our combined guts knot in anxious discordance. Rain begins to fall. Wrong tires. The course is slippery. After only a couple of minutes, two cars spin out right in front of our very eyes, just missing each other. Both hit the guard rail. Ouch. Other cars have similar mishaps. Flat bed trucks fan out to collect the felled warriors. It's over. We relocate under a bush and I fall asleep on Chris's shoulder. We are both exhausted. A bit later, we run into Dean. He's amazingly cheery as he reports that all three of our cars are "broken." He's had a great time and is bubbling over with enthusiasm. That's the spirit! He reports that Martin pulled the 8CTF out of the running because of a sudden noise from the rear. We learn that the Maserati 26M spun out after being hit by an Alfa, resulting in both front and rear bruising. Ouch. Ouch. The Type 51 Bugatti lost water but successfully completed its event. Dean drove the 26M and the Type 51 himself. He is positively giddy with excitement and glowing from ear to ear.

The Monaco Historic Grand Prix of 1997 is history. We celebrate by eating Italian in a small curbside restaurant, happy that you can do most anything on a VISA card-except buy Grand Prix tickets.