Have you ever driven around and found that crazy-good hidden gem of a restaurant, or heard a new song and artist on Spotify that you know you’ll add to your playlists? That was me when I first went to a Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) event.
And I keep going back.
You might have inferred from my other columns that I don’t race. I go to car meets quite often—in fact, too often (there, I admitted it), and I have a couple of cars (a couple too many—there, I admitted that, too), but I don’t race. Nevertheless, despite not being a racer myself, I’m a fan of these SVRA events.
The most recent race I attended was in mid-April at Laguna Seca. Okay, it helps that the event is at one of my favorite tracks, and for my automotive ADD, it helps my extended automotive passion that SVRA includes twelve groups with cars ranging from small-bore ’60s-era Minis and Triumphs to Formula cars, all the way to actual historic NASCAR and IMSA cars.
Among all those, the group that really captures my attention is Group 8, which includes B-Sedans like the BMW 2002 and 1800, along with the Datsun 510, Alfa Romeo GTV, and more. So as a BMW fan, this is sort of like getting free fries with your burger: You not only get to enjoy BMWs along with other cars, but also the history of these cars .
This SVRA event, their SpeedFest at Laguna Seca, is part of a twenty-stop national SpeedTour. These events seem to bring you into racing; there’s so much activity going on at these events that it’s definitely more than just watching a race.
I knew that I wasn’t the only one thinking this: Sam Smith, former Roundel columnist and now an editor with Hagerty, is a 2002 fan and a race-car driver who summarizes these SVRA-at-Laguna Seca feelings perfectly. “There is just something about the place, right?” he asks. “There’s just something about the place even more when old cars are running there—and even more than that. When old cars are running close and fast together, which means when you show up with a field of like 30-40 B-sedans, it’s deeply appealing. We camp over in the hills there by Turn Six, watching the sun rise through the hills and watching the fog burn off. It’s one of the best places on earth.”
Smith is obviously hooked, too. “You keep going back and expecting it to be different each year, or maybe even a little less than before, but it doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s the same—it’s always the same, and it may not be that way forever, so you feel compelled to just keep going and getting it while you can. It’s a neat event, and I love it. I don’t get to go every year, but the years that I do get to go are always special. It’s hard to make it anything but—you know.”
I do know—and someone else who knows is 22-year-old Sara Nelson, who drove down from college in Washington State for the SVRA weekend. “I could have flown into Monterey for this event, but I chose to drive for two reasons: I love being in the car, and my Toyota 4Runner has a rooftop tent ideal for track camping,” she says. “I left Olympia, Washington, around 1:00 a.m. on Thursday in the truck to head to the track. Between a nearly thirteen-hour non-stop drive, torrential rain that met me at the track, 850 miles on 22-year-old failed shocks, and a weekend of camping, this trip was absolutely worth the back pain.”
Nelson added, “As with any race weekend, I love to show up because of the people. Since I moved to Washington last fall, I have had limited time to be around my ‘car fam,’ so I always make time to come out to race weekends. This weekend was no different: I was able to see my whole race team and friends’ race teams. I really just love being around my people.”
Nelson’s people also include her brother, Owen, and her father, Carl, who were also in attendance. Carl Nelson, owner of La Jolla Independent, is also the head mechanic for the Mark Francis Racing Team (yep, that’s MF Racing right there), which brings a few cars to what has become the MF Racing/Palomar Racing/Any Friends Who Come By paddock compound. I counted at least six cars there, including a BMW M10-powered Elva and Ginetta, some 2002s, and an E36 sedan. Smiling back across the aisle were nine BMW 2002s and a 240Z, most of them under the watchful eye and wrench of Ken Blasko and his support team.
If you’re thinking, “Of course Sara likes the track—she grew up around racing,” well, that may be true—but every event, even this SVRA visit, creates new experiences. “A highlight of the weekend was definitely the parade laps around Laguna Seca,” Nelson confirms. “This was only my second time actually going out on that track at Laguna Seca, despite coming here for years. The first time I drove that track was back in 2016; it was the BMW 100th-anniversary parade lap during Car Week. I was in my automatic ’88 325eS. This time around, I was a passenger in a ’72 2002 Touring with my friend Haleigh at the wheel. This was her first time driving on a track, so I gave her some tips that I have learned over the years. The car seemed so happy out there, and so were we. Nothing beats the stomach-drop coming down the Corkscrew; it’s a jolt of excitement no matter how many times you do it.”
The mid-day parade lap followed a Saturday-morning Hagerty car show that was a fun addition to the weekend for many. Among cars of all types, BMWs were well-represented, pulling in enthusiasts from Northern California, Southern California, and even Canada. More than sixteen of those cars drove over 1,500 miles with Mano Agulian and his eponymous Manofied Rally.”
“Car shows are great, but we’re not car-show people,” Agulian explains. “We’re people who build cars for customers who love to drive their cars. The drive might have been 350 miles each way, but by taking back roads and enjoying the cars, we more than doubled that. The drive was great, and the amazing experience carried right into Saturday, when we rolled onto the infield at Laguna Seca—which was ironically hosting, well, a car show! But it was clear when we got to the actual event that it was about race cars. Even the car show was literally surrounded by actual races.”
Like race-car builders and owners, Agulian knows how to get the most out of his cars. Owner of Manofied Cars in San Bernardino, California, he has been building cars in some capacity since 1984, when he got his first 2002 and immediately modified it. “I started to modify everything I got my hands on,” Mano says. “So my friends joked that I Manofied everything. We build these cars to be driven, and driven well.”
“We really liked that the overall event was an actual race,” Mano continues, echoing other rally participants’ feedback. “We got to walk in the paddock, meet like-minded people, take pictures of these amazing cars, and talk with the drivers and builders. But among the highlights was the parade laps: Everyone from the car show went on the track. They knew what their cars could do.
“The racing was really fun to watch. This is the real deal. This is what it would have been the early ’70s—incredible. The kindness of everybody there, especially the people who owned the race cars, was great. They weren’t just there for the fun, they were there to push as hard as they could—but they were kind and answered questions. This event was incredible: to come and be part of a car show while you can go talk to the racers and then get on the track. No matter what kind of car guy you are, it was there for you.”
One of those drivers is Rial Barnett, who brought his trailer and hosted a lunch for many of the folks from the car shows with B-Sedans. Last year he attended this SVRA with his popular “Hot Wheels/Eibach 2002,” which he recently sold to focus on the Hyde Park 2002 he acquired from another vintage racing fan, Steve Walker, and raced this year. “With these cars, B-Sedans specifically, there is nowhere to hide, and no technology to save you,” Barnett explains. “You’re going through the gears, pushing the clutch, braking as deep as you can into a corner. The feel, the analog, the smell: all of my senses are on heightened alert when I’m in a 2002. It’s visceral, no windows, and you’re basically riding on top of the exhaust, and every part of your being is connected to the car. You know when you’ve done something right, and you know when you’ve done something wrong— then multiply that by the clusters of cars throughout the race, as we are all out there side by side, going through the same thing.”
He adds, “These vintage race events are great, like a picnic where a race breaks out. We might be on the track two to three times a day for 30 to 45 minutes, and the rest of the whole weekend we’re all in the paddock, either working on the car or working on our friendships. The bond that happens in the paddock is like no other.”
Barnett not only acquired Walker’s Hyde Park car, but he’s bringing it all the way back to its original condition. “I’ve actually been talking to even Datsun 510 guys about the restoration,” he says. “Many of them are more familiar either with the car itself or the attention to the rule book and the historical provenance that the car will need to follow. There aren’t more than a handful of historically significant 2002s. It was a dream to become the new caretaker, beyond anything I could have imagined.
“It’s been great to see B-Sedan interest growing. With the Hyde Park car, this year I raced in SVRA’s historic B-Sedan class. Being out there with those other cars was special. Getting to talk to these guys before and after the races is how life-long friendships are developed. Like Rob Fuller with the 510: He and I knew each other through social media, but since meeting at the track, it’s like we could be long-lost brothers.”
Now, it’s not that I didn’t believe Barnett, but I did get to talk to Rob Fuller about his B-Sedan experience. Fuller is as much a staple at vintage races as is the smell of race fuel, and he might bring and create more energy than the fuel, too. Owner of San Jose’s Z Car Garage, this Datsun enthusiast has been working on Datsuns since the ’90s.
“Here’s a call-out from a Datsun guy! It would be really cool to have as many BMWs and 02s in these races as 510s,” Fuller challenges. “Even though 510s are my favorite sedans, I want to see everyone out there. Some of those 2002 liveries are just as bitchin’ as the Datsun ones. I’d love to discover more fun stories!”
“B-Sedans have a lot of similarities,” he continues. “The 02, the Alfas, Escorts even—all of them are great. I don’t own an 02 only because of how obsessed I am with Datsuns, but when we see how amazing cars like Walker’s—now Rial’s—car is, seeing these helps make a guy like me with brand tunnel vision learn more. At SpeedFest, variety is the spice of life, and that definitely applies to B-Sedan racing. It warms my heart when it’s not just Datsuns. And the new people we get to meet—this was actually the first time Rial and I got a chance to spend time together and learn about each other and our passions. I might not have had that exposure if it weren’t for B-Sedans racing together. We are celebrating the history of cars that came before us, carrying on the stories of guys who were a lot cooler than us 40 years ago.”
If Fuller appreciates seeing all types of B-Sedans, Matt Rose, West Coast director for SVRA, certainly likes seeing all types of vintage race cars, but as an owner of a 2002, he does have a soft spot for B-Sedans. “B-Sedan is certainly growing within SVRA,” Rose says. “It is becoming one of the most popular, largest run groups. It certainly has some of the best racing. That adage many of us have heard really holds true here: It’s a lot more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. A lot of the other cars in other classes are so valuable, they often aren’t really being driven to the limit.”
“The sedans are still at an affordable entry point, for the most part. One of the cars we had here was a $2,500,000 car. That car takes a crew of seven people to operate, while some B-Sedan racers arrive at the track in their pick-up truck and a trailer and a car, maybe with a friend to help out or hang out. We’re also seeing B-Sedan drivers tend to be little younger, maybe because of the easier entry and support needs.”
Rose wasn’t kidding when he said that the group is growing. “This year was a great event overall, and we’re definitely looking forward to it again next year,” Rose adds. “We had 219 total vintage entries and of those, 41 were B-Sedans.”
As Rose and Barnett said, the category is growing. This year in October at the annual Velocity Invitational, for the first time B-Sedans will be included in the race groups, creating the largest gathering of B-Sedans with racing history since 1972. If your B-Sedan and vintage-car passion are looking for more places to explore, also check out CSRG in Northern California and VARA Racing on the West Coast, among many others.—Kyle van Hoften