Thursday, August 13, 2009
FREE WHEELING: to do the spendy week on the cheap, click here.
TEST DRIVE QUIZ: From the Quail to the Concours, match each ride to its event, click here.
There are reasons that Gordon McCall – the same Carmel native who helped refine and redefine Concours Week with the McCall Motorworks Revival and the Quail Motorsports Gathering – believes he can set a land speed world record. On a bike. Going 180mph. At 52.
As a boy, he uncovered a drop tank from an old WWII fighter, lugged it home, equipped its hull with a steering harness and lawnmower wheels and immediately adjourned to the tallest hill in his neighborhood. As a trespassing teen, he and his Carmel High cronies slipped into Laguna Seca carrying jerry cans of gas and burned their tricked-out Datsun 510s around the track until they got bored. Then they did it backwards. (Now he’s an executive boardmember for Seca-overseeing SCRAMP.)
He rose from parking Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance cars on the grass to judging some of the event’s most exclusive classes on the red carpet, from tinkering with transmissions as a north Monterey mechanic to brokering multimillion dollar car deals in Europe, from playing with the Matchbox cars of his heroes to becoming real-life buddies with racing legends Danny Sullivan, Phil Hill and Wayne Rainey.
Put simply, the seat belts of reality restraining the rest of us don’t really hold him back. The life he’s driving finds a higher gear.
Peeking under the hood to see how and why a greasy-handed local boy made good in an über-sophisticated sphere that draws moguls from all over the globe, and how he customized his own model of the mailroom-to-corner-office American dream to do it – all while chasing a world record and throwing better-than-epic parties on the side – makes for something worth sharing.
Only he doesn’t want to talk about it.
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“I’ve got cold feet,” McCall says. “I don’t know about this story…
“When it comes down to doing something you love, it’s neat to see where that goes, and I know I seem to be the guy thrown out front, but nothing is ever a solo effort. It’s not about me.”
For a guy who’s appeared on the Conan O’Brien show and who, as a consultant for Bonham’s Motors, is a key spokesman for arguably the highest-profile, upscale auction house in existence, this is slightly surprising. But not to those close to McCall.
“People that don’t know Gordon would be surprised at what a low profile he keeps,” says John Hagstrom, a longtime friend and ex-airline pilot who teamed with McCall at the Concours and has volunteered for his Jet Center and Quail events for years.
“He couldn’t care less [about an article],” says his mom, Diane Dawson, who still lives in the Carmel house where he and his brother grew up. “His ego is not that big.”
“EVERY GUY SHOULD HAVE A TREE FORT. A PLACE WHERE HE CAN DO HIS THING…FOR ME IT’S CRANK UP THE KPIG, WORK ON CARS.”
McCall does eventually agree to meet – if his hidden HQ is kept hush hush.
“Every guy should have a tree fort,” he says, his eyes tracing the immaculate cars, memorabilia and motorcycle he has stashed in the bigger of the tidy spaces at his central-Peninsula sanctuary. “A place where he can do his thing… for me it’s crank up the KPIG, work on cars.”
To access it, guests must snake along a couple of long industrial driveways, punch in an eight-digit code (which rotates regularly) at a gate, pass a security guard’s motor home and, most importantly – in this instance, anyway – promise not to publish its coordinates.
His hesitant instinct isn’t exorcised when I show up: A subtle nervousness slips into his laugh as he jokes about the fact that his poly-headwear career defies description, if not business cards. “I’ve got eight,” he says. “It’s a crackup.”
But the minute we steer into McCall territory – good friends, good cars and great events – the enthusiasm engine turns over and a white-wall-tire smile starts to flash. Something he told me over the phone registers: “Over at the Jet Center, I have my suit on and I’m meeting with clients,” he said. “Over here I’m the real me.”
The conversation swerves from how central the area is to his identity (“Having this canvas to do my work is amazing – the natural beauty for my bike rides, the Concours, the race track”) to the stigma Car Week can carry (“It gets a bad rap… You’re not going to stop it, so go with it. It’s funny: Given the economy, I didn’t hear people complaining about the [MotoGP] noise this year.”). He goes on to observe landmarks along his 30-year career working on cars, and 18 years of producing the “Jet Set” blockbuster with his wife and event partner Molly, who he has known since he was around 7. (Molly declined to be interviewed for this piece, citing an insane schedule prepping this year’s event.) “I’m the ADD guy who makes some contacts, but I owe all the creative design and infrastructure to her,” he says.
He also hits on what he thinks has driven his success.
“One of things about car business, and specifically dealing with over-the-top collectibles,” he says, “is that it’s really not a car business. It’s clearly a people business. If you get it right, do it the way they need it done, not you, success follows that.”
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Chandeliers drip from the soaring ceiling of the Monterey Jet Center hangar. Below, displays appointed with A. Link diamonds and Breitling-Bentley watches fall in around an Icon A5, a slick personal sport aircraft with retractable wings, an amphibious hull and a cockpit borrowed from the future.
On the tarmac beyond, once they’ve set aside their glasses of Anderson Valley Roederer Estate bubbly or 2003 Carmel Valley Bernardus Marinus, cashmere-cradled VIPs are ushered aboard a phalanx of sleek private jets – Embrauers, Bombardiers and Boeings among them. The aristocratic conversation inside ranges from the luxury of the leather to the fruits of fractional ownership.
The vehicular view stretches 5 acres: a Rolls Royce reclines by an F-14; Bentleys and Spykers sit alongside a historic warplane with a glass gun turret in its nose; unlikely Lambourghinis lounge near a private Falcon 900LX. Amongst the crowd of 3,000 invite-only individuals grazing on locally procured meats and treats from Baja Cantina and Bruno’s Market, jet salesmen and carmaking moguls like Carroll Selby mingle with locals, including county supe Dave Potter. “Affinity” allies of the affair – Global Aerospace and Gleim jewelers, Saks Fifth Avenue and Flexjet, Lexus and Learjet, appoint still more spaces with eye-catching props. More vintage military aircraft occupy the horizon.
The adjectives that tumble from slack jaws run a gamut of superlatives. Humble is not among them. In a week that gives opulence new altitude, Gordon and Molly McCall have relocated luxury to a higher plane.
But roll back the Revival odometer, and humble happens to make sense.
Having sold his successful repair shop on Del Monte Avenue in Monterey, McCall moved into a modest space along the airport’s industrial margin and started a detail outfit.
“I WAS JUST LOOKING TO GET CUSTOMERS TOGETHER, THROW A PARTY. THE THING THAT REALLY SET IT OFF: THEY HAD A GULFSTREAM V SELL ON A HANDSHAKE.”
Concours contacts who knew him since he worked the Pebble fairways as a high-school kid drove their babies to the detail doctor religiously (some as often as every week). “He has an eye, attention to detail,” one client told me. “Everything was first class. And the finest detail around gauges, cracks and crannies, those things were really right. He always presented a car the best it could be done – he did the best job in world. That’s how he knew everybody.”
Come Car Week, his outpost was purring with eyepopping autos, many of them belonging to the late Paramount Pictures power broker and close pal Ned Tanen. So McCall decided to have a pre-week get-together for his clients and friends on Wednesday.
“It was all his guy friends, older men, who came and kicked tires and compared notes about their cars,” McCall’s mom remembers. “Back then, it was so funky: We shared wine and cheese. I cooked chicken on the barbecue. We were very small town.”
Fueled by word of mouth, what they called “Cars and Cigars” began to accelerate in size.
“It started with a hibachi pot, then overflowed into street,” says car crazy Baja Cantina owner Pat Phinny, who has attended every make of the midweek McCall Motorsport model. “Now it’s the same guys, only about 50 million more people.”
The active ingredients that made such a reaction happen were long present: the attention to what people wanted that blessed McCall’s business and Molly’s eye for elegance.
“If you’re gonna detail a car,” says Pat Phinny’s wife and fellow Jet Set lifer, Gina, “You can’t miss a spot. That’s how it is with the party, too.”
Molly’s professional fashion designer instincts and creativity, meanwhile, provided crucial evolution. “They have so many original ideas, and she can take what they come forth with and run with it,” Dawson says. “She gave the event an elegance.”
“The two of them together [make up a] party planner extraordinaire,” Gina Phinny adds. “They work as a team in unison better than any I’ve seen in my life.”
But according to McCall, it was a special $40 million spark in 1997 that triggered the event’s explosion (as opposed to the stogies, which were discouraged when the event migrated from the shop to the hangar across the street when planes were added – and the potential jet-fuel cigar-ash excitement precluded further Cubans).
“I was just looking to get customers together, throw a party,” he says. “The thing that really set it off: They had a Gulfstream V sell on a handshake. Word got out. That’s what blew [the party] apart – changed it in a cool way. And the planes fit.”
It would have to be a hardy humility, though, that survived the lofty scene as the jet-company inquiries increased, and the bourgeois baubles accumulated further. But McCall claims the Naval Postgraduate School Foundation the event benefits (along with the CHP 11-99 Foundation) provided a perfect vehicle to keep the event grounded. For years now Navy aircraft and volunteer servicemen decked out in flight suits sipping microbrews do more than accompany aircraft to trump the Piaggio Aero Avanti II – note the multi-mission Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk helicopter. They provide context.
“There’s a great possibility on the Peninsula for massive egos in August,” McCall says. “The humbling element is the military. I don’t care what you flew in on, how many Gulfstreams you have, you’re never flying that fighter plane – and you’ll never be a 26-year-old pilot standing next to it who just come back from his second tour.”
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When McCall felt ready to exit the Concours d’Elegance highway – “it’s the Grand Dame of Car Week, but there can be more than one top ride at Disneyland,” says one of his event lieutenants – he maneuvered his unlimited-luxury philosophy over to the first Quail Motorsports Gathering. Within a year, its “everyone-is-a-super-VIP” attitude has quickly made it a jerkey-tough ticket to get. Those that do (and cough up good, albeit all-inclusive, coin) are plied with top-shelf margaritas and spa-grade massages, treated to off-road Land Rover tours and wowed with everything from stunt plane aerobatics to edible extravagances that almost obscure one of the more dynamic car selections of the week.
“It’s not about judging,” Hagstrom says, “[but] about enjoying the machines and the people and the day.”
“It’s the crowd you want without the crowding,” Quail Lodge owner Sir Michael Kadoorie is fond of saying.
Enough success has followed McCall to places like Quail that car folks now instinctively follow him.
“Gordon has become such a leader in the automotive world that if he starts something,” says Ti Titus, who co-owns McCall’s detail shop and stewards its reputation for supreme service, “people want to be a part of it.”
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Five-time Olympic speedskate gold medalist Dr. Eric Heiden, Tour de France physician Dr. Max Testa and Race Across America winner Jonathan Boyer tune McCall’s training (100-mile rides around the Peninsula come standard). Peter Verdone of PVD Designs built the singular bike frames he’ll ride. Three-time MotoGP champ Wayne Rainey has played mentor and tapped his motorcycle technology contacts for high-speed brakes and wheels. John Hennessey of Hennessey Performance furnishes the 200-plus mph Dodge Viper that will pull McCall to 70mph – the threshold at which he’ll have the momentum to torque his massive gear on his own – then keep the wind off him, wipe out aerodynamic drag and push his draft envelope toward a buck eighty.
But one of the most valuable contributions in this now-three-year effort came from the current world record holder. Fred Rompelberg’s input also speaks to why McCall didn’t really want to talk with the Weekly.
Before he set the record at 166mph, the Dutch cyclist slipped from the NASCAR-wake of the dragster that was escorting him toward the world record, splattering him against the Bonneville Salt Flats and keeping him from another attempt for two years.
“I asked him what went wrong,” McCall says. “Fred said he hadn’t ever admitted what really happened to anyone.
“It wasn’t the ‘speed wobble’ or ‘vortex’ B.S. He told me he came out of ‘the zone’ – that feeling where he was so focused he felt like he had two seashells on his ears. He [normally] couldn’t smell it, or hear it – he was in his groove – but he started to hear the car, to smell the engine. He checked up in his head.
“That’ll screw you up if you try to do anything in life.” In other words, McCall doesn’t want to stop and think – or talk – about the suprising stunts he’s pulling off.
“I’m not doin’ it for attention,” he says. “I’m doing it just to do it.”
It’s an instinct McCall internalized at age 9, one that connects his appetite for high-powered living by way of fast cars, big sales or rambling road-bike adventures, and one that he only articulates after some time.
“I’m not a closed-in person, but when people start pouring hearts out, sometimes it’s like, ‘I didn’t need to know that.’” he says. “But I lost a dad at a young age, and learned very early that this deal is not forever, how important it is not to take for granted – do it, and do the best you can. When I say living is the ultimate luxury, the backstory is that’s what it’s all about.”
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Two Harley Davidson riders barrel down a mist-slicked Los Laureles Grade, leather jackets loud, engines louder. Suddenly a big road cyclist appears in their mirrors. He doesn’t brake, blowing by them as a streak of 60mph spandex.
Both the burly bikers each raise a hand to transmit an unmistakable cultural signal: thumbs up.
They’re not the only ones rooting for McCall. Three motor-heads sit in his old detail shop, which remains virtually unchanged since he sold it to Titus and Mike Antoncich a few years ago.
They are more versed in cars than bicycles, but each has known McCall for well over a decade, and they think he can break the record.
“If anyone can do it, it’s him,” Titus says.
Antoncich leans against a stack of tires. His eyes flit over John Hagstrom’s ’63 Selby Cobra and a ’66 Ferrari 275 they have polished to a dizzying shine.
“He has the attention to detail,” Antoncich says, “to make it possible.”
“And he really wants to bring the record back to the U.S.,” Hagstrom adds.
For his part, McCall admits he’s been thinking about the record for 20 years, but would rather not summon unnecessary expectations.
“I haven’t done it yet,” he says, “so I don’t have anything to talk about.”