Fontana, California--Last year, Jaguar put a corporate paint scheme on a pair of E-types and went vintage racing, using this form of motorsport to promote its Select Edition program for certified pre-owned cars. It seemed like a brilliant idea, yet not everyone was pleased.
Almost immediately, some pretty thoughtful people suggested that the world of commerce ought to promote vintage events, not vintage cars. Once sponsorship found its way directly to the cars, they argued, the racing would be unbalanced by a win-at-all-costs mentality. There was no telling what would happen once commerce got its hands around the neck of a sport that has largely been the domain of gentlemen.
It's a sensible argument, made all the more compelling by the disastrous commercial clutter that has poisoned Formula 1 and NASCAR alike. At the same time, there's something about this line of reasoning that recalls the SCCA during the 1950s, when the old guard clung stubbornly to its philosophical preference for "the right crowd, and no crowding."
One year after Jaguar's entry into vintage racing, however, it's hard to figure out what the fuss was all about. From our perspective, Jaguar has been a model citizen.
Jaguar is using vintage racing to promote its Select Edition program for certified pre-owned cars, which apparently is the best in the business, according to IntelliChoice. (No wonder, since Jaguar became the first car manufacturer to sell its own certified used cars clear back in 1988.) This year, it has integrated a VIP test drive program called "Born to Perform," with the race team's appearance at eleven vintage events across the country, inviting about 1000 people each weekend to attend a vintage race, enjoy first-class hospitality, and drive some new Jaguars on a specially prepared autocross course.
To educate these motorsport newbies about vintage racing, Jaguar's people conduct tours of the paddock for them and introduce the Select Edition Race Team. In June, Jaguar even took title sponsorship of the well-known Wine Country Classic at Infineon Raceway, supplementing its own customer event with a large pavilion for the spectators that featured food and wine exhibits. It also organized a motorsports art gallery. Frankly speaking, this Jaguar vintage-racing program sets a standard for corporate hospitality that surpasses what you see even at the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500.
Even better, the Jaguar E-types fielded by Donovan Motorcar Services are pretty spectacular in action. The lead car is a '67 E-type roadster originally built by Joe Huffaker, the well-known preparation specialist from Northern California. It's far from stock (as indeed Huffaker cars always are), with a carefully fabricated chassis, a droopy aerodynamic nose, and a 415-horsepower, 4.2-liter in-line six-cylinder engine. Usually, the Donovan team fields a '62 hardtop E-type roadster to complete the team, but the car was almost destroyed this past spring at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia when it slithered through an oil slick and then tumbled off the track. Instead, a '63 E-type roadster originally built as a show car has been pressed into service.
When we saw these cars race at an event at California Raceway in Fontana in late June, they were great to watch. Even the refettled show car would touch 155 mph into the high banks of the superspeedway, and the braking zone into the infield section of the track produced some excitement as the antiquated disc brakes attempted to burn off the speed while Porsche 911s buzzed past like so many angry bees. The drivers reported that it took some coordination between steering wheel and throttle pedal to get these cars to change direction, although apparently the long-wheelbase Jags practically send a message with semaphore flags before the limits of grip are achieved. Naturally, the in-line six-cylinder engines made a terrific sound.
Neither of these cars was the fastest thing on the track during the race, although the talented Art Hebert pedaled the Huffaker car quickly enough to grab the silver platter for the win after the leading Porsche 944 Turbo ran out of gas. Both E-types commanded the attention of the spectators and made this 30-minute display a real motor race. Along the way, the Jaguar E-types reminded us all that sports-car racing means finding different solutions to the challenge of fast driving, which is what makes this kind of racing so different from the one-dimensional show offered by Formula 1, the IRL, and NASCAR.
It's also fair to say that Jaguar gave this particular racing weekend an element of class it otherwise conspicuously lacked. While the marquee events in vintage racing are truly spectacular displays of motor-racing history, there are too many vintage races and too many vintage-racing sanctioning bodies these days. As a result, some vintage races have become little more than noisy parades by poorly presented used cars. In this context, the Select Edition Racing Team makes everyone (including the participants) feel a little better about the caliber of the racing on the track. It's easy to argue that these E-types are prepared a little too well, but the same case might have been made about the E-type roadster on the very first day it rolled out of Joe Huffaker's shop.
You can tell who is in vintage racing to enhance the sport and who is there to exploit it, and we think it's pretty clear that Jaguar has its heart in the right place. Vintage racing offers the opportunity to see great cars that represent the history of motorsport, and the racing is meant to reflect some elusive code of conduct that we associate with noncommercial values. Jaguar is living up to these standards, and it's also introducing them to a whole new crowd of people. The question of commercial sponsorship in vintage racing is a serious one, but so far, we're all better off because Jaguar is involved.
More information about Jaguar's Select Edition Race Team: