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Racing Back in Time

It's wheel to wheel in a competition that tests the mettle of vintage autos

The screech of unmuffled engines at full throttle reverberates off the golden hillsides of Monterey on a hot, dusty afternoon.

The scene is a roaring, blurred rainbow of color. Only when the exhausted autos finally come to rest can spectators fully appreciate their rounded curves, shiny paint schemes, and engines gleaming with chrome.

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The Monterey Historic Automobile Races hosted 383 classic and historic cars for its 15th running last month. The entry list reads like a who's who of automotive history: Lotus, Shelby, Morgan, Aston Martin, Brabham, along with the ubiquitous Ferrari.

The race, held at Laguna Seca Raceway here every August, is one of 120 competitive events for vintage race cars around the country. But this is the granddaddy of the series, largely because California, with its warm climate and salt-free roads, is home to the most exotic entries.

Larry Haile has been coming to the races here for 15 years with his 1929 Beavis Riley Special, a car, he explains that is the British equivalent of the American hot rod. "When American kids were fixing up Fords, British kids were working on Rileys."

The Riley competes in the Open class, which means the rules will accommodate "pretty much whatever we want to do" to the car.

This class also pits them against indomitable race cars of the early 1930s, the BMW 328s, as well as heavily modified Model T Fords, Morgan three-wheelers and others.

While many classes are quite competitive, winning isn't all that vintage racing is about. "We don't worry about times too much," says Haile's friend and race mechanic Bill Hoskins. "This car, you time with an hourglass."

Haile always wanted a Riley "because this is what race cars looked like when we were kids," he says. "The cars we drew on the backs of our notebooks looked like this." The two men see each other "pretty much every weekend," either racing or just working on the Riley.

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After a 15-minute practice the day before the race, Haile and Hoskins are tidying up the car, adjusting the carburetor, installing a tonneau cover over the passenger's seat and polishing the chrome. Their more immediate goal soon becomes apparent as they invite a couple of spectators to attend the "pre-war" party, a social activity for owners of pre-war race cars. "We're meeting around the corner by the Lagonda. You can't miss it," Hoskins says. Indeed, in a paddock filled with row upon row of gleaming race cars, the Lagonda still stands out.

Subdividing the paddock are huge motor homes, semi-trucks, and tents that function as service bays. Haile and Hoskin's weekend home is a vintage motor home from the 1960s. "Sometimes [people] come by and are more interested in this old motor home than in the race car," Haile says, thumbing toward the olive-colored relic that delineates their space.

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