The International Motor Racing Research Center in Watkins Glen took the outreach branch of its mission on the road on Saturday, proving that its staff is as informative and enjoyable running a bus trip out of state for motor racing enthusiasts as it is hosting researchers or fans visiting its own archives located in the small, upstate New York village.
Led by administrative staffer Kip Zeiter who organized the trip, historian Bill Green; archival associate Kevin Hughey; and volunteer photographer and social media guru, Josh Ashby; the IMRRC took a bus-load of about 40 sports car racing fans to the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia. Rochester Motorsports went along for the ride.
The Simeone Museum was established in 2008 from the private collection of neurosurgeon Dr. Fred Simeone of Philadelphia, who has been collecting historic sports racing cars since the 1960s.
Saturday was one of the Simeone Museum’s “Demonstration Days,” when a few times a year, Dr. Simeone takes a few of the 65 vehicles on exhibit out from behind ropes and “exercises” them around a large parking area behind the facility for visitors to watch, then examine up close.
Cars included in Saturday’s demonstration, according to Dr. Simeone, were: a 1953 Cunningham C4R; a 1953 Jaguar C-Type; a 1954 Ferrari 375MM (once owned, by the way, by actor William Holden); and a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing.
After pick-ups in Ithaca, Horseheads, and Binghamton, and a coffee break along the route, Zeiter of the IMRRC introduced Green, who talked to participants about the cars they would be seeing on display or in demonstration at the museum that day. Another feature of the trip down and back were videos shown on the bus. These included videos about American sports car constructor, Briggs Cunningham; sports car racing in the 1950s; silent footage just arrived at the Center showing gutsy action in the Bridgehampton road races; and a movie that followed actor James Garner in his racing exploits.
Before driving the cars, Dr. Simeone told an audience of well over 200 a narrative about the 1950s using the four cars made in four different countries as examples. Post WWII, designers and engineers were now taking racing seriously and were attempting to make cars go faster at the famous Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in France. The Americans, he said, responded with the “power” of the Cunningham C4R, while the Brits brought “finesse” with their light and attractive, Jaguar C-Type. Italy used its long “history” in the sport in its Ferrari, making improvements that took Ferrari up to top speeds of 180 mph, according to Simeone, and Germany made “changes,” the collector said, in its engineering in building the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing in its own efforts to compete in the endurance race after the war.
In starting up the cars, Simeone played almost the role of a maestro for the audience, telling them a bit about what they might hear or listen for in the differences in the sound of each car and of the cars in comparison with each other. One of the most beautiful race car sounds in the world, he said, is the Ferrari’s. He said it is often described as the sound of “tearing calico” — that one can hear individual threads ripping, but the sound of all the threads tearing together is still smooth.
Taking the Jaguar for himself, Simeone’s volunteers drove the Cunningham and the Ferrari around the parking lot while the gullwing stood watch. Fans enjoyed hearing and seeing the cars in action; some people from the Glen group remembered with nostalgia seeing these models race in the early days of racing at Watkins Glen.
After the demonstration to all, Dr. Simeone spoke to the Watkins Glen group separately in the museum’s Bugatti meeting room upstairs. He talked about beginning his collection in the 1960s and 70s and how, quite frankly, he could not afford to buy these cars now at their current value. He rarely adds cars to the collection these days but instead puts money into operating the museum so that others may enjoy the cars with him.
Calling Le Mans the “Olympics of motorsports,” Dr. Simeone showed the Glen group some rules boards that hung in the Le Mans garage in the early 50s. The handwritten rules there showed how questionable some of the requirements could be back then – including one that racing teams have a luggage rack installed on their race cars.
He also spoke about the ongoing debate in restoration – when and if one should restore a car, and if so, how much. “What does it have to do with anything?” he asked in terms of judging restoration on a beautiful car on show at a concours. He said that certain cars should not be restored. “Their soul is gone,” he said, when people act to take away the signs of age and wear. In time, he said, people will learn that — just like with furniture and other valuable antiques or works of art — the automobile will be worth less if it has been tampered with. Keeping the car’s natural patina will make it more valuable over time. Dr. Simeone advises that serious collectors document their vehicles’ conditions carefully through photography.
Taking questions, the collector was asked if he has a favorite car in the collection. Without hesitation, he named the 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B that sits in the center of the “Winner’s Circle” display. He said it is his favorite “for all the right reasons” – its history, style, design, and effect on the automobiles that came after it. The Alfa in his collection won the 1938 Mille Miglia. The car was driven by Clemente Biondetti in his first win of the 1000-mile rally race around Italy, a race he would go on to win a total of four times.
Visitors in the Glen group were not all from upstate New York. Some came from out-of-state, like Massachusetts, and stayed in motels the night before, catching up with the bus tour at one of the pick-up spots.
From the sounds of people’s conversations at dinner and on the bus ride back, the enthusiasts enjoyed what was, for many, their first visit to the Simeone. They appreciated the doctor’s efforts to accommodate the group and make it feel welcome by waiting for them all to arrive for the demonstration, meeting with them separately, and even keeping the museum open a bit past its normal closing hours so everyone could make it all the way around the exhibits after the long trip from New York.
For its part, the International Motor Racing Research Center hopes to repeat a bus trip like this next year, either back to the Simeone, or to another location of interest to car and racing enthusiasts.
The International Motor Racing Research Center is an archival library dedicated to the preservation of the history of motorsports, of all series and all venues, through its collections of books, periodicals, films, photographs, fine art and other materials.
For more information about the Center’s work and its programs, visit www.racingarchives.org or call (607) 535-9044.
For more information about the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum, check out its website at www.simeonemuseum.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Connie Ann Kirk (Ph.D.) is the author of several books and is currently working on a new book about racers and racing with an Irish historic racer. Check out her blog about the sport at “Motor Sport Muse.”